What atheists still don’t get about racism and Islam

What atheists still don’t get about racism and Islam March 17, 2015

There’s a fantastic post at Vox discussing the racial fall-out of recent controversies surrounding Ferguson and the SAE chant. It touches on a point I think many of us often miss, particularly in the atheist community. Jenée Desmond-Harris writes:

Many people believe racism has to be spelled out or said out loud to be taken seriously or punished

Racist songs about lynching are shameful, and it’s disheartening that people alive in 2015 think they’re fun and appear to be thrilled with their underlying sentiments.

But it’s important to remember that things like this don’t represent the kinds of racism that make life hard for African-Americans on a daily basis. The much more common issues faced by colleges students and people of color all throughout America have to do with structural inequality — which is maintained through deeply held prejudices against black people. Hateful tunes sung on buses by probably drunken frat boys reflect this prejudice, but they certainly don’t cause it. And although the SAE members deserved the discipline they got, individual punishments certainly don’t fix America’s racism problem.

The recent PBS film American Denial made the case that everything from the racialized, police-involved violence that has captured the country’s attention in recent months to educational inequalities, economic disparities, and the incarceration crisis all have a common root: unconscious racism, also known as implicit bias. The film’s creators pinned the blame on a belief — so deeply entrenched that many of us aren’t even aware we hold it — that white people are better and more valuable than black people.

But footage of sociologists explaining their research on the roots of ongoing racial inequality doesn’t tend to go viral in the same way videos of college kids screaming “nigger” do. That’s unfortunate, because the former reveals a lot more about what’s wrong with America.

In a great demonstration of this dynamic, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes used a segment of his Tuesday program to connect the reaction to the SAE video to the way the two Ferguson, Missouri, police officers who sent racist emails were fired in the wake of a Justice Department report about egregious racial bias in their ranks, while others who engaged in “systemic violations of civil rights” weren’t.

The problem, Hayes explained, is that a hyperfocus on things like emailed jokes and chants distracts from the type of racism that isn’t spelled out in bold letters or screamed aloud while someone records it with an iPhone. “There’s something going on when we have these moments of universal condemnation and point and shame and name and say, ‘That’s racist, that N-word, that thing happening on the bus,'” he said. “Let’s get rid of that, because it lets everybody off the hook about what’s happening off the bus.”

We see this exact same thing when discussing Islam.

People seem to believe that, so long as they don’t outright say “Arabs are bad people and I don’t like them because they are Arab” then nothing they might say about Muslims or Islam could possibly be racist. “Islam is not a race” they say—and “so what?” I say—because it doesn’t actually matter. Yet people like Richard Dawkins and Ali Rizvi parrot this asinine statement as if it’s meaningful. Rizvi writes:

[I]f you think criticizing Islam is racist, you’re saying that all of Islam is one particular race. There’s a word for that.

Not only is the inferential leap not at all valid (am I saying “drug users” are all one particular race by saying the U.S. drug policy is racist?), the whole “maybe YOU’RE the racist for talking about racism!” distraction is tiring.

It’s as if we imagine that racism isn’t racism so long as you’re careful about your words. Just say “thugs” and “urban” instead of using racial slurs or directly referencing men of color, and you’re in the clear. You are officially Not Racist. It doesn’t matter that you could get the exact same person with the exact same racial sentiments 30 years apart, talking about the problems with “black culture” then and “urban culture” now. He didn’t specifically reference black people. He didn’t use a racial slur. So I guess he’s totally not racist anymore.

And now that you’re speaking in code, anyone who calls you out is the real racist:

If you think criticizing “thugs” is racist, you’re saying that all thugs are one particular race. There’s a word for that…

See how easy that is? How asinine that is? How completely that misses the point?

There actually is a serious problem in how we perceive and treat Muslims, who are overwhelmingly part of racial minorities, specifically because of our broader culture’s views about Islam. I’ve written about this issue before. How do we expect it to influence Muslims when someone like Sam Harris says that he’s not talking about “1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously” when he talks about muslims interested in violent jihad and killing apostates.

This sort of sentiment—that sincere, devout Muslims taking Islam seriously support violence against apostates and terror against the West—is not only just plainly and obviously wrong, but it really does make the lives of Muslims more difficult and dangerous. That doesn’t change because you’re talking about Islam. That Islam is a religion and not a race doesn’t really matter here.

That few atheists seem to pick up on this shouldn’t be that surprising, given how quick we are to come to someone like Bill Maher’s defense whenever he’s accused of racism, even though he’s been the most plainly bigoted of the bunch. In a 2011 show with guest Tavis Smiley, Maher said the following:

Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good.

But he’s just the liberal in this debate. He’s just saying facts.

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