Prison House of Textbook History

This guest post is excerpted from Sikivu Hutchinson’s Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels:

In all my years of post-Jim Crow public education no one ever handed me a book written by a black woman and said that what she wrote is universal truth. I was never told that so-called civilizations rose and fell on the power of her words, or that entire belief systems sprung from her ideas. I was never taught that the world’s greatest intellectuals worked plantations, were herded onto reservations, or traveled every day from barrios and “ghettoes” to keep white people’s children. Intellectuals and philosophers—serious thinkers—were white men, with no need for a living wage job. They did not ride public buses or clean houses or go to schools where stop-and-frisk was a routine practice. They did not have to worry, like my students do, about being assigned to special education classes because they were chronic discipline “problems” or didn’t speak “proper” English. They were never told that they would be more likely to get pregnant and drop-out of school than go on to a four-year college. These vaunted intellectuals and philosophers were certainly not seventeen year-old East L.A. girls like Paula Crisostomo, a Mexican-American Filipina activist who helped spearhead the Chicano student walkouts of 1968. The East L.A. walkouts were the largest high school student protests in this nation’s history. Thousands of students boycotted their classes in protest over lack of college access, tracking policies, discrimination against speaking Spanish in the classroom, and racist curricula.

In 2012, Crisostomo came and spoke to a group of my students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. She drew parallels between the racism she’d encountered during the Vietnam War era and the de facto segregation of the Obama age. Girls like Ms. Crisostomo were not supposed to go to college. Homemaking, caregiving, becoming a maid in a white household on the Westside—these were the common life expectations for young Latinas. Forty-five years later, young women like my former student Ronmely Andrade are not among the Talented Tenth who are expected to go on to college. Ronmely was headed to the military after graduation, swayed by the Marines’ relentless on-campus recruitment campaign. A gifted speaker and presenter, at the end of her senior year she expressed misgivings about going to boot camp and training for a career as a mechanic. After we discussed her options for withdrawing from boot camp she enrolled in her first year at community college.

For Paula Crisotomo’s generation, the military was pervasive. Youth of color died in disproportionate numbers fighting and killing other dark-skinned peoples in Vietnam because college was not an option in the “ghetto.” Despite an increase in the number of students of color in college, aggressive military recruitment continues to be a reality for black, Latino, and Native American students. For many, college preparation and equitable college access are still a distant dream. For some, simply graduating from high school at campuses where less than 50% of the entering freshman class makes it to graduation is an accomplishment. This has become the standard in an era in which the Education Trust estimates that only “one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university” in the next decade.5 While predominantly black and Latino schools in South and East L.A. are besieged by military recruiters, the more affluent white schools get the college recruiters, college prep classes, and highly qualified teachers. The Americana fever pitch of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines is unheard of on predominantly white campuses in Los Angeles. It is a given that these students will be going to college, not dying on the frontlines.

But faced with a school-to-prison pipeline that offers no way out, more and more girls like Ronmely are eyeing the military as a viable path to college and careers. As one of the many fierce youth in my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) program, Ronmely and her peers define what culturally relevant humanism looks like in an age of educational apartheid. In 2002 I founded the WLP, a feminist civic engagement and mentoring program, after being frustrated by the absence of explicitly anti-racist, feminist programs for girls in the community. The program was piloted in two South L.A. middle schools during a period in which the black and Latino communities were becoming increasingly intertwined. Sensationalist language about “endangered” black males and feral super-predator young men of color was the order of the day.

In a 2004 article entitled “Feminist Pedagogy and Youth Advocacy,” I

In a cultural climate where the crisis of black boys and young black males has been used as a metaphor for urban dysfunction, scant attention is paid to the special social circumstances of girls of color…many girls of color have little consciousness of how gender inequality shapes their lives. While race solidarity runs deep, they often fail to see the connection between the use of misogynistic language and violent imagery in their favorite videos and the way they are treated in everyday life, at school and in their relationships. Many girls assume a “blame the victim” stance about the rampant sexual assault and verbal abuse of young women that is a staple of American popular culture.

The core curriculum of WLP is humanist, focusing in part on the nexus between organized religion and gender hierarchy. We train students to understand how heterosexist gender roles shape racist/sexist cultural expectations for women of color. Becoming critical observers of the media, public policy, and their local communities, they develop a critical consciousness about how misogynist violence is normalized in their everyday lives. Students spearhead school-community advocacy projects of their own choosing, sharpening their critical thinking, writing, collaboration, public speaking, and leadership skills. WLP’s fouryear college-going rate for graduating seniors is significantly above that of the schools where our programs are based. The majority of our girls are first generation college students like Ronmely.

Ronmely is an agnostic from a Catholic family. She is a natural born leader who exudes a steely poise and control in front of students that are often hostile to hearing about sexual violence from assertive young women of color. When I was her age, no one ever came to our classrooms to talk to us about sexual violence or sexual harassment. Even though many of us were being sexually harassed or assaulted daily by peers, predatory teachers, and relatives there was no engagement with the role this played in our sense of self-image and life expectations. There was no feminist youth movement to address misogyny and internalized sexism in communities of color. Demonized as “ho” super-sluts women of color weren’t true victims of sexual violence. It was accepted that we should remain silent about our victimization, lest we be smeared as uppity castrating bitches detracting from the “real” issue of the brutalization of men of color.

Women of color who refuse to remain silent about misogynist violence are traitors in this culture. Girls of color learn very early on that allegiance to boys and men of color supersedes their allegiance to their own sense of selfhood. But black girls are still profiled by police, followed around in stores like potential criminals, demeaned by teachers as low-achieving, and over-suspended in public schools. For centuries, racism, sexism, white supremacy, and capitalism have “defined” our (sub)humanity in public discourse. In her landmark book Their Eyes Were Watching God, freethinker and author Zora Neale Hurston describes black women as “de mules of de world.” It is a cautionary truth voiced by the grandmother of Janie, the novel’s lead character. Janie’s grandmother is a deeply religious woman and former slave who is the moral pillar of her life. Janie’s struggle to self-determine in a culture in which black women’s bodies and destinies were not theirs to fully control has become a classic metaphor for women of color in white supremacist America.

As a religious skeptic, Hurston nonetheless understood the seductions of god for a people whose humanity was still violently contested centuries after the first Africans came to the United States. Culturally relevant humanism is informed by this seeming contradiction. Embracing godlessness requires critical consciousness of how the tyranny of the unsettled past is a living breathing legacy in the present. For my students, coming of age in a country that has blighted their history, the lie of American exceptionalism is as deadly a national opiate as blind faith in fantastical gods.

Dr. Hutchinson is a writer and senior intergroup specialist for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles. She received a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University and has taught women’s studies, cultural studies, urban studies and education at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts and Western Washington University. She is also the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious RebelsImagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. She has published fiction, essays and critical theory in Social Text, California English, Black Agenda Report, Free Inquiry, and the Humanist. She is the editor of, an editor and a blogger at Black Skeptics on the Freethought Blogs network, and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Bob Wheeler

    Once you get rid of God, what is left? A world full of bigotry, violence and oppression. How can you achieve justice? By hating your enemies? How can you find peace, when the world will not let you have peace? How can you overcome the emotional turmoil in your own heart? By venting, or by striking back? Where will it all end?

    • John Kruger

      Most atheists I know turn away from religion in an effort to disassociate with bigotry and violence, uphold justice, and find peace.

      Watch the first half of the video in the previous post.

    • cripdyke

      We’re in the exact same position and world that exists without a god as we would be with a god that doesn’t intervene predictably and at our whim. Even an interventionist god, if that god isn’t under our control, cannot be used by us to fix the world.

      Given that no booming voice from the sky has simultaneously notified the entire world’s populace of the date and method of its bringing of peace, it is up to us to bring peace if we want it – god or no god.

      By insisting that humans cannot bring justice and peace to the world, people guarantee that there will come no time when justice and peace are brought to this world…unless, through no fault of our own, at some future date which may be long after the deaths of everyone we care about, all of our children, and all of our children’s children’s children’s last survivor dies.

      So demonstrate the you control a god – that through some method, prayer, spell, whathaveyou, you can cause a god to act to produce the effect you wish – or get to doing the same work that others are doing: fixing the world.

    • Bob Wheeler

      I obviously cannot control God — He is eternal and sovereign. My role in life is to serve Him — He is not my servant.
      But He does promise to answer prayer, and He has promised to bring justice into the world in His own time. None of that excuses me from working for peace and justice now, but it does give me the confidence that my efforts are not in vain gives me hope for the future. This is what keeps me from falling into despair and resentment.
      The challenge facing a philosopher like Dr. Fincke is answering the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    • cripdyke

      Which the torah answers: F no. Or don’t you remember that story?

      But again, the point is that world peace has been prayed for over and over, yet it is not here. No one has given any evidence of being able to control the action of any god through prayer or any other method.

      If you can make peace happen by praying, please, bring about this peace.

      If you can’t, then we are in exactly the same position god or no god.

      How can **you** control the turmoil in your own heart? By saying, “Heck, it’s not my responsibility anyway and whenever justice arrives is when it arrives, that’s good enough for me?”

      Nope. You assert that you have responsibility now, with no moral escape clause for inaction merely because of your belief in your god.

      And so the world is no different with no god or with god. Thus your first comment is entirely non-sensical and disingenuous. If you wish to say that the worlds are different with and without god, you have to demonstrate that human

      a) responsibility to create justice
      b) power to create justice

      is different in a world with a god. You do neither. So your whinging about the despair of a world without gods is petty and ill conceived.

      Disagree with this analysis? Then actually provide a substantive critique. Saying that Fincke’s challenge is answering the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper [nice misogyny, btw, you might at least put a nice face on your religion by subbing "sibling's" for "brother's"]?” is ridiculous. Fincke has no trouble in answering. His answer is yes.

      What do you find so difficult about saying yes to that? Why do you believe that you would stand by and watch rape and genocide – or, more to the point of the Cain/Abel story, simple murder of a family member – without some explicit admonishment from a god? You really believe that you are that horrible a person deep down? Is the prospect of eternal punishment really the only thing that gets you to care about other people at all?

      Because if so, that’s repellent: you’re not actually caring about other people at all, merely about whether you end up feeling horrible for a really long time.

      I don’t find it difficult at all to answer the question, Am I my sibling’s keeper? I answer yes, and proudly. I would not murder or stand by during a murder. No one has to threaten me to get me to refrain from murdering or to get me to help those being assaulted. Not with eternal punishment, not with any punishment.

      I don’t need anyone wiser than me saying, “I have determined some really good rules and one of them is do not murder.” I kinda figured that one out for myself.

      I don’t need there to be anything holy about giving a quarter to someone trying to use a pay phone or a fiver to someone just looking for some food. I just need to have enough money that I can give the fiver away without going hungry myself…and an opportunity to give it.

      This is all easy to me. What the heck is so wrong with you that you think this is a difficult question?

    • Bob Wheeler

      Why do I think this is a difficult question? Because I have read Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. I have also observed the actions of countless of my fellow human beings who also seem to be having a hard time getting the point. So what does an atheist say to them?
      Most people would not go so far as to commit murder. But they do lie, cheat and steal on a pretty regular basis. Whole governments can be corrupt and tyrannical. So if we are going to establish peace and justice in the world, the first thing we have to do is to establish an objective basis for morality. If morality is nothing more than personal opinion (” a woman’s right to choose”) then peace and justice will never come.

    • cripdyke

      Wow. Total goalpost shifting.

      You’ve gone from saying that, Am I my [sibling's] keeper? is a difficult question to “I am my [sibling's] keeper is a difficult sentiment to enforce on others.”

      The question is not difficult for me and for millions of people like me – billions of people like me. At least millions of those people are non-religious. What you are now arguing is **either** that b/c others lie, cheat & steal, you can’t be bothered to look after their welfare – which would actually be the only relevant way to interpret your statements if you weren’t shifting the goalposts – OR that others’ misdeeds prove that a significant number of people can’t be bothered to look after **your** welfare.

      It seems to me that what you’re arguing is not that this is a difficult question for atheists or for Fincke – which was the substance of your original statement, however much or little you actually subscribe to that opinion – but that saying that looking out for the welfare of others is one thing, getting people to comply with your vision of what that means is much easier when you have a “God Says” stick with which to beat people.

      If that’s your argument, own it. But

      a) Atlas Shrugged was, I hate to break it to you, fiction,

      b) unless you can cause a god to speak on cue and with clarity, having the god stick in your sheath helps you only within a culture that prioritizes the desires of your god over other gods. It’s a very fragile weapon indeed.

      c) This is all not to mention the fact that if you’re using coercion to gain the consensus necessary to achieve justice,

      …1) it ain’t consensus, it’s coercion
      …2) it ain’t justice if you’re hitting people with a god-stick to achieve it.
      …3) what the heck are you on about with “objective basis for morality”? What the heck is objective about deciding whether to follow Hindu morality vs. Christian morality, or Islamic morality vs Taoist morality. Are you arguing that we should scientifically measure the justice promoting potential of different religions and then objectively select the best religious morality?

      I hear you saying
      a) We need an objective morality,
      b) we need a religion’s morality

      **at the same time**

      and that means I just **know** you’re lying or entirely incompetent at divining “objectivity”.

    • Bob Wheeler

      What I’m saying is that Cain’s question goes right to the heart of the modern debate of morality and ethics. What he was saying, in effect, is that he was NOT responsible for the welfare of his fellow human beings. (The Jewish Publication Society, incidentally, translates the word “achi” as “my brother”).

      Ayn Rand’s answer to the question would have been an emphatic “no”! She actually wrote a book entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness,” which, unfortunately, was not fiction. (Was Cain perchance the first Republican?)

      Most atheist would insist that it is possible to be “good without God,” but what they usually mean by this is that it is possible for a person to be an atheist and be a perfectly kind, decent human being. I do not doubt this in the least. But what is much more difficult for an atheist is to establish a basis for a universally binding, objective code of conduct. It is one thing to say that it is difficult to say exactly what such a code is, that the world’s major religions do not agree with each other on this point. But it is entirely different thing to say that such a thing (objective morality) doesn’t exist at all — that it is impossible from the very nature of the case for such a thing to exist.
      Not every atheist is prepared to go so far — If I understand Dr. Fincke correctly, he thinks he can establish an objective basis for morality. But I would be interested to explore the issue with him.
      Is the answer to human evil to get rid of the Lawgiver and Judge?

    • cripdyke

      what is much more difficult for an atheist is to establish a basis for a universally binding, objective code of conduct.


      Since the religious have never, ever accomplished this, not once during the thousands of years of human history in which they have been dominant, how can you possibly say that it’s “easier” for the religious to accomplish this?

      “You’ve never done it, with 2% of the population and 100 years of available written thought, therefore it’s obviously much easier for my group to do it, though we’ve never done it with 98% of the population and 5000 years of available written thought.”

      Evidence: You’re doing it wrong.

      Heck even your, “we agree about the basis, just differ on the details,” is so disingenuous I fear you are deliberately lying. The basis of morality in Buddhism is not divine command as it is in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The basis is an hypothesized spiritual connection that makes reducing and ultimately ending suffering a moral mandate. The rules one follows are in many, many cases overtly framed as empirical observations about what promotes and what prevents or reduces suffering. Taoist morality is also very different in its ethical source from monolatrous divine command morality.

      Atheists don’t necessarily say that objective morality doesn’t exist. This blog you read? This place where you comment? It’s the communicative home of a guy who is well known for promoting an objective, atheistic morality. You acknowledge this reality but don’t let it confuse your a priori conclusions about the moral implications of a universe without god. That’s a very sad way to engage intellectually…since it really is no engagement at all with the actual material in question.

      Finally, “Is the answer to human evil to get rid of the Lawgiver and Judge?”

      Name one case, ONE CASE for which we have ***any evidence at all,*** where any god interrogated the behavior of a human being and pronounced that behavior to legally meet the definition of a crime or to fail to legally meet such a definition.

      Go ahead. Name one. If gods never do the judging, then getting rid of gods can’t get rid of the judge.

      But more importantly, the question is whether or not the universe has a god. If this god is in any remote way to resemble any one of the most popular gods around the world, this god must have existed since at least before human history and typically throughout the history of the universe…and be unkillable. Thus if there is no god, no one “got rid of the Lawgiver and Judge”. If there is no god, the Lawgiver & Judge was never there in the first place.

      In an atheist system of justice, we will have to – given the lack of a divine judge – agree as [people within] societies on a procedure for creating and determining what in fact is good law that is binding on those within a society’s jurisdiction, then we will have to use that procedure to create some laws, then we will have to have humans investigate possible breaches, more humans organize and run trials, and yet more humans decide on the guilt or innocence of suspects.

      My goodness, such a radical departure from the world in which we live. How will our social structures ever be able to transition?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Bob, if you are looking for my views on how to ground objective morality, there is a tab at the top of the page called “Morality’s Validity”. It is filled with links for you to read. Feel free to comment on those articles where I detail at great length my views on moral foundations.

    • Bob Wheeler

      I did in fact read your article on “Morality’s Validity” and wrote a response which can be seen at
      Feel free to comment!

  • Shira Coffee

    Dr. Hutchinson embodies the best potentials of atheism. She teaches those with the least power and the least support to stand up straight and speak truth. She recognizes that we humans created the problems we are trying to deal with, and we can and must create the solutions to those problems. I picked up the second book you cited, since it is available in Kindle format. Thanks so much for posting this!