Against American Atheists' Slavery Billboard

In a superb new post, Sikivu Hutchinson, at Black Skeptics (on Freethought Blogs), explains in illuminating detail so much of what is wrong with the incredibly irresponsible and offensive ad the American Atheists put up in Pennsylvania using the picture of a bound slave and a Bible verse supporting slavery (Colossians 3:22), which was aimed to challenge passersby’s conception of what is contained in the Bible and protest Pennsylvania’s official “Year of the Bible” through so sardonically participating in it:

Much to the “astonishment” of AA reps, the billboard was reviled, defaced, and labeled a hate crime by some in the African American community.  Apparently offended black folk just weren’t intelligent enough to grasp the sage lesson that American Atheists, prominent champion of anti-racist social justice, was trying to teach them. Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.

Sikivu goes on:

Vandals tore part of the billboard down and it was removed shortly after it was mounted.  But AA’s ahistorical paternalistic approach to “secular” public service messaging is one of the main reasons why New Atheism is still racially segregated and lily white.  Clearly AA doesn’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the U.S. vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context.

Read the whole piece for a wealth of social and historical context and causes for moral indignation with which to fully understand the billboard’s significance. Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars

Here is my own attempt to address bewildered commenters who still don’t see what is wrong with the billboard even after reading Sikivu.

Your Thoughts?

  • Dalillama

    Cross posted there as well:
    I do understand what AA was trying to accomplish, but they definitely chose the wrong subject matter. The moral deficiencies of the bible are legion, and there are a vast number of equally damning quotations they could have used that would not have rebounded on them so badly. In turn, the reaction of the African American community was entirely predictable, and entirely justified, so far as I can see. It’s hard for us who are white to really keep in mind the level of oppression that POCs face in this country, and probably even harder for those who haven’t studied race relations and/or American history very thoroughly. We don’t have to live with it, after all, but that’s not any reason why we should be ignoring it as much as we do. I’m not as much of an activist for race issues as a could (and perhaps should) be, but compared to most of the white people I’ve tried to discuss the matter with I’m like a white version of Malcolm X. I realize that Sikivu probably knows this much better than I do, but talking about race issues with American whites is like pulling teeth.

  • John Morales

    I’ve read Sikivu’s post, and I still don’t see the problem — best as I can gather, the image itself is offensive, and linking slavery in America to black people is also offensive.

    <shrug>

  • Gordon

    I still think this is a (very successful) diversionary tactic.

    The issue of slavery was a good example to chose for the board because it is something that all modern people accept as unambiguously immoral, and yet something the bible supports.

    What better example is there that the bible’s morality is lacking?

    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      I can see the point of the slavery message, but the appropriation is still a major problem. Trying to use someone else’s oppression to score points for your cause is generally thought to be rather presumptuous. Plus, it’s an awful design.

    • julian

      Trying to use someone else’s oppression to score points for your cause is generally thought to be rather presumptuous.

      It doesn’t speak particularly well of someone (although the righteousness of their cause should always be something evaluated on its own merits) and it’s insulting to everyone affected by and trying to do something about that issue.

      I’m willing to believe this wasn’t done with any malicious intent or desire but, honestly, wtf?

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    Oy…

    People got angry about this not because it is offensive to black people. They got offended because it’s unflattering to their faith, which people hold dear, regardless of their race.

    If there had been a billboard up showing a woman being beaten, accompanied by a Bible quote saying that woman should submit to their husbands, you might see some Christian women trying to say it’s misogynistic, but they would be wrong.

    If you fall for the notion that this patently unoffensive billboard is racist… well, I don’t know what to say except, “Your white guilt is showing.” Or, if you’re black, “Your racism is showing.” [And it is racism... it will never be "reverse racism," because there is no proper direction when it comes to racism.]

    The article makes some interesting points, but what the author fails to mention is that religion is holding back black people. Instead of wasting their time praying, they should be educating themselves. There’s nothing they can do about being ghettoized, but only black people have to power to pull themselves out of it. That isn’t white paternalism talking (it’s exactly the opposite; it’s self-empowerment), that’s what I hear prominent black figures saying repeatedly. I trust black leaders to know what is best for black people, because they are the ones who have the roadmap on how to get out of that situation; I don’t have it.

    And the reason for such an ad is because atheism is predominantly white. It’s pathetic that people would get offended by atheists trying to reach out to black people, and it’s just bitter racism on the part of those who see it as anything but an innocent attempt to actually market the message of atheism to black people. What would they like us to do, ignore black people? Try to be Super Whitey and swoop in to save them from themselves?

    I don’t think that is what black people want, and we shouldn’t let efforts by atheists to reach out to black people be dampened by this nonsense.

    • Happiestsadist

      Nice strawman. Most of us atheists who are disgusted by it are because it’s (as is entirely too common) an appropriation of the struggle of black people by a movement that isn’t entirely too welcoming to them. It’s tacky point-scoring from a movement that, with a few exceptions, frequently shows itself to only give a shit about issues of oppression when it can be used against others.

      Put down your White Atheist’s Burden, maybe listen to the atheists of colour who are also organizing, instead of talking over them, and “reaching out” to the poor, ig’nant Other.

    • http://ms-daisy-cutter.dreamwidth.org/ Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

      They got offended because it’s unflattering to their faith, which people hold dear, regardless of their race.

      Did you even read the fucking OP, you waste of protoplasm? It links to this post by Sikivu Hutchinson. Who is an African-American ATHEIST. You do realize that black atheists exist, right? Or did you think that all African-Americans needed the benevolent white asses (in both senses of the word) of American Atheists to teach them how to think?

      Instead of wasting their time praying, they should be educating themselves.

      Google “school-to-prison pipeline.”

      Jesus H. Christ, you and your fellow privileged dumbfucks are why the atheist movement can’t have nice things.

    • http://ms-daisy-cutter.dreamwidth.org/ Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

      Another data point about “educating themselves,” cupcake.

    • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

      an appropriation of the struggle of black people by a movement that isn’t entirely too welcoming to them

      In what way have atheists not welcomed black people? Or, are you just basing this off of the demographics of atheism, which are predominantly white?

      Put down your White Atheist’s Burden, maybe listen to the atheists of colour who are also organizing, instead of talking over them, and “reaching out” to the poor, ig’nant Other.

      How you got that from what I said… it boggles my mind.

      Did you even read the fucking OP, you waste of protoplasm? It links to this post by Sikivu Hutchinson. Who is an African-American ATHEIST. You do realize that black atheists exist, right? Or did you think that all African-Americans needed the benevolent white asses (in both senses of the word) of American Atheists to teach them how to think?

      So he speaks for all black atheists? And I would thank you keep a civil tone with me. Being a cunt does not suit you.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, let’s not call people wastes of protoplasm or cunts.

    • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

      Sorry Dr. Fincke…

      *hangs head*

    • julian

      In what way have atheists not welcomed black people?

      Average atheist response to discussions of race

      “ZOMFG Why are you people talking about race you’re why we can’t get past this/wasting everyone’s time/asking for special attention/just trying to be devisive.”

      “Like, I’m totally not racist but you can’t argue with the fact that heavily black city’s are also crime capitols.”

      “It’s racist to ask for special programs to help black kids do better in school.”

      “I don’t think I’m being racist. There’s no way for you to possibly know what’s going on in my mind so you can’t call me racist.”

      “Racism is clearly no longer an issue. Even the KKK is rapidly losing members.”

      “Blacks clearly have it easier than whites do getting into college. Look at all the scholarships they have!”

      Being a cunt does not suit you.

      Aren’t you adorable.

    • julian

      So he speaks for all black atheists?

      Also,

      she

      If you’re going to dismiss someone as irrelevant and their arguments as baseless gibberish at least know the person and their argument.

  • Josh

    Couldn’t this be thought of as a ‘let’s not make the same mistake again” attitude about the danger of not being critical of where we get our ethical ideas from?

    I understand that such images are uncomfortable for many, but I also see some value in reminding people where much of the justification for slavery was coming from.

    • julian

      I also see some value in reminding people where much of the justification for slavery was coming from.

      Of course there is. Eroding religions influence on society by reminding ourselves and others of its sordid past, the bigotry displayed in its text and the failures of existing leaders is probably on every atheists to do list.

      Which is why I find supporting this sign so ridiculous. It does none of that. We ‘get it’ because we’re both familiar with the passage, the arguments and have the advantage of having been able to read over the sign more than once. Some one speeding past it isn’t going to have any of that. They’re going to see a black slave, a biblical quote justifying slavery and (maybe) AA.

      That’s not nearly enough to communicate a message, at least not the message we want to send.

      Side note/Anecdote:

      One message I got from the blacks I did show this to was anger and disgust. (One Mexican gentleman found it hilarious but he finds any racial stuff funny.) Not one drew the ‘correct’ association. Oddly, contradicting what I had thought, they didn’t even draw enough from it to be offended by the the implication their faith was wrong.

      They were just pissed someone had hung a picture of a slave up saying “obey your masters.”

  • Eric Grivel

    Looks to me as a textbook example of failed communication.

    Communication happens when the recipient of a message understands what the sender is trying to convey. Sounds to me that the message that AA tried to convey wasn’t what the viewers of the billboard understood, so the communication failed. John Morales’ comment above just emphasizes this: he is understanding the message the way it was intended, and doesn’t see what the problem is. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be representative of the target audience…

    I don’t believe that American Atheist on purpose created a billboard that would be misunderstood, although they probably should have tried it out on a representative sample of the audience. But from the reactions, I think they should consider apologizing, rather than trying all kinds of evasive actions. Regardless of what anybody’s intentions were, the billboard clearly failed in a spectacular manner…

  • GregFromCos

    I read the article, but I just don’t get it.

    Yes there are racists who are saying they want “to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.”

    But how is bringing up what the Bible says about it bad?

    Wouldn’t someone who’d been raped feel just as bad if they saw a similar billboard that said they should have married their attacker?

    Are they really upset with AA, or upset with what the Bible says about slavery?

    I really would like to understand how the grievance is with AA, other than they brought it up.

    • julian

      My personal gripe with it (and I’m not an African American. I’m a black Dominican kid) is how it seems to be coopting slavery to deal a blow to religion. I’m all for hurting religion but please don’t take what I struggle with, what I’ve dealt with and what I’ve had to endure (and again, I readily admit not being an American Black man, I don’t have first hand experience with this either) in order to score points. Especially if it’s going to cause me some sort of pain.

      To you this may not matter. I may be behaving like a big baby for feeling insulted and belittled but, remember, this is outreach we’re discussing. This isn’t an exchange online (when similar would be much more acceptable). It’s a billboard meant to communicate to a large group of people a message. I won’t call it outreach as I doubt AA particularly cares, but it’s very public.

    • gregfromcos

      Julian, but isn’t it true we are coopting something evil every time we quote a biblical passage that is abhorrent?

      For example. Rapers marry your attackers. The genocide verses, in light of recent genocides. The verses about homosexuality. People still are killed for being homosexual in the world. How about the verses about witches? Children are being killed in Western Africa now for being accused of witchcraft? The verses about women remaining silent, given how many women have come out of the quiverfull movement and the suppression that is talked about there.

      Wouldn’t all those be “scoring points” at the expense of someone else by simply bringing up what the Bible says? Should they all not be talked about?

      I really am just trying to understand, and thanks for responding.

    • julian

      For example. Rapers marry your attackers.

      And if you hung that outside a battered woman’s shelter you’d deserve every drop of scorn thrown at you and I’d be the first to dime you out. It would be downright cruel to hang such a thing over the homes of people trying to cope with that level of emotional abuse and trauma. It is unconscionable to actually consider forcing that kind of internal turmoil and conflict in the mind of someone recovering from severe abuse only to gain another atheist.

      I’m not saying such tactics or quotes can’t be effective. When discussing morality, bring them up. When discussing the negative impact religion can have definitely bring them up. But when trying to snipe at religion through a billboard or an ad be mindful of the people you are targeting. The field is infinitely broader and less likely to contain buffers to prevent some from being needlessly being triggered.

    • gregfromcos

      I’d agree with you about it hanging right outside a battered women’s shelter. But is that really an apt metaphor? Is the connection really as real to descendants who have never met an ancestor who was a slave?

      So then I assume, a similar billboard that quoted the verse about “Rapers marry their victims” and “kill the homosexuals” should never be put up?

    • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

      Shouldn’t there be enough quotations in the Bible that should work like the calls to the people of Israel to exterminate this or that people for instance?

      Though I know that some Christians claim that the OT was “updated” by the NT. Maybe someone more familiar with the NT could tell?

      Otherwise, many people have said in reaction to a concrete incident, it might be justifiable, if some religionist had said the Bible made people less racist or something like that.

      Even then though one needs to consult and work together with the affected group.

    • gregfromcos

      Shouldn’t there be enough quotations in the Bible that should work like the calls to the people of Israel to exterminate this or that people for instance?

      Every evil part of the bible would personally affect some people, just not likely as large of a number as this one did. And that’s one of the issues I have with this critique of the billboard. No matter how I attempt to generalize this critique it becomes our responsibility to never use an abhorrent part of the Bible because on some level it would always exploit the plight of others to make a point…

      PZ’s critique that it did a really bad job of communicating sarcasm makes much more sense to me. And I can agree with that critique.

    • julian

      our responsibility to never use an abhorrent part of the Bible because on some level it would always exploit the plight of others to make a point

      I have not seen anyone here argue that we can never use the the atrocities justified by the Bible (or other religious texts) to make our case. Personally I use them frequently when arguing in person or online and trying to prove the Bible is an iffy source of morality at best.

      But there is a difference between an argument on stage or in a book or on a blog and a piece of advertisement hung up that will likely trigger several people, fail to convey the message it’s meant to and specifically signals out one groups suffering in order to score points against an enemy.

  • julian

    Direct experience with slavery obviously isn’t what’s triggering to the multitude of people. No doubt, as many of the bill boards fans and defenders have pointed out much outrage is likely motivated by religious loyalty. But slavery and black history go hand in hand here in the US and that seems to imprint itself on the psyche of blacks throughout the country. Suppose the Bible contained explicit endorsement of lynchings and the caricatures were blacks being lynched. Would you be shocked that illicited a powerful reaction?

    As for appropriateness, the way I’ve rationalized it so far is content and relevance to a broader discussion. I can see situations where the above might be more permissible as commentary directly relevant to some argument or controversy in the community. But, I’d personally stick to the side of caution. There is no need for it and it is an ineffective tactic from what I can see and even in the situations where I can see it as ‘ok’ to use it there are better and more to the point ways of getting the message across.

    • julian

      crap, that was in reply to gregfromcos

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke