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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Working Women? From Plantation to Public Sector




By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1705 pro-slavery tract History and Present State of Virginia, planter Robert Beverley wrote that “Sufficient distinction is also made between servants and slaves: for a white woman is rarely put in the ground…and to discourage all planters from using women so.  Their law imposes the heaviest taxes upon female-servants working in the ground…whereas it is a common thing to work a woman slave out of doors; nor does the law make any distinction in her taxes whether her work be abroad or at home.” Beverley argued that the basic condition of black women was one of enslavement.  White women indentured servants had temporary servant status (and never slave status) while black women’s bodies produced new slaves, provided the lifeblood for the capitalist plantation economy, and the moral justification for white supremacist sexual exploitation.  As Beverley so brutally and vividly framed it, “Slaves are the Negroes and their posterity, following the condition of the Mother, according to the maxim, partus sequitur ventrem [status follows the womb]. They are call’d slaves, in respect of the time of their servitude, because it is for life.

Centuries later, the insidious shadow of white supremacy’s slave breeder/Mammy/ Jezebel trifecta continues to inform representations of black women’s work.  From the shiftless lazy welfare queen to the amoral prostitute and the faceless caregiver who cleans up after hapless white folk, caricatures of black women’s work play a key role in propping up income and wealth inequality while reinforcing the myth of American free enterprise. As workers mobilize for May Day and beyond, Trumpist assaults on health care, reproductive justice, environmental protections, voting rights, public education, living wage jobs, unionization and collective bargaining have made the stakes for black women workers even higher. 

May Day LA., 2017

Contrary to popular stereotypes, black women have the highest workforce participation among all women in the U.S.; at 59.2%, compared to 57% of women overall.  Despite this reality, black women have the least wealth of any group in the nation. Fulltime black female wage earners make only 60 cents to the dollar of white men and “80% of white women’s weekly earnings”.  Wealth—which represents total assets, such as savings, property and investments—is ultimately a far more important measure of economic wellness than income.  And the persistent wealth gap between white and black women remains despite the fact that black women have the “highest growth rate of college enrollment” in the nation. 

The intersection of racism, sexism, heterosexism and global capitalism drives black women’s “overrepresentation” in the workforce.  Post-emancipation, Jim Crow and de facto segregationist suppression of black wages and institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing and education meant that the majority of black women could never stay home out of the paid workforce like many white women.  Indeed, the epic resistance of black women civil rights freedom fighters was always connected to achieving self-determination and human rights in the very homes, buses, factories, train stations, schools, churches and plants where black women endured wage and sexual exploitation.  Under these conditions, black households depended on two, three and sometimes four or more incomes to stay afloat.  With the post Cold War decline of unionized manufacturing jobs, black women’s wages plummeted even further.  In the post-industrial age, disappearing public sector jobs with union protection have undermined black economic mobility as black women are more likely to be employed in the public sector than white women. (African American women have greater representation in public sector employment than both African American men and white women.)  As the New York Times noteda combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls.” These factors, coupled with “attempts to curb collective bargaining”, have kneecapped unions.

 The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR) estimates that the gender wage gap for black women widened from 2004 to 2014: ‘Black women’s real median annual earnings for full-time, year-round work declined by 5.0 percent—more than three times as much as women’s earnings overall.’”

The through line between eighteenth century injunctions against “putting white women in the ground” and contemporary race/gender schisms in wealth and wages could not be clearer.  As black communities and black women workers hang in the balance, a socialist redistribution of wealth should be at the center of anti-Trumpist racial and gender justice agendas. 


Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Wars Inside: Black Women and Deadly Intimate Partner Violence




By Sikivu Hutchinson

Gentleman.  Man of God.  Deeply religious.  These are some of the descriptions given to the estranged husband, stalker, batterer and murderer of San Bernardino special needs teacher Karen Smith.  Smith’s recent slaying by husband Cedric Anderson was yet another tragic and unacceptable reminder of how black women’s experiences with intimate partner violence have deadly consequences that go unaddressed.  Smith and 8 year-old student Jonathan Martinez were slain by her estranged husband in her classroom (9 year-old Nolan Brandy was wounded in the attack).  She was widely viewed as a dedicated teacher who had a talent for connecting with autistic youth. Like many unsung black women teachers working in obscurity, Smith was on the frontlines of providing equitable opportunities for students of color.

As a former stalking and intimate partner violence victim my heart went out to Smith and her young student. Once again, the ostensibly “safe” space of the classroom had been turned into a killing field and trauma site.  Smith had taken the courageous step of leaving her husband—a move that many women are unable to make. A self-proclaimed pastor, Anderson had a long history of threatening and abusing other women partners.  Descriptions of him as a “pastor and a man of god” are disconcertingly similar to shopworn portrayals of seemingly gentle, morally upstanding mass murderers and serial killers. For male predators, so-called religious authority has historically provided cover for institutionalized abuse and misogynist violence toward women and girls. The imprimatur of being faith-based often gives black men carte blanche to abuse and exploit with impunity because of the respect that these roles command in African American communities.  Virtually without fail, the abusive behavior of “faith-based” black men is attributed to the individual having “strayed” from faith or the bible; a text that condones brutal violence against women.

Each year thousands of black women are shot, stabbed, stalked, brutalized and murdered in crimes that never make it on the national radar.  Black women experience intimate partner and domestic violence at a rate of 35% higher than do white women.  They are also more likely than whites to be teen dating violence victims.  And while intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for black women, they are seldom viewed as proper victims and are rarely cast as total innocents.  When black women defend themselves, they are more likely to be criminalized, as per the example of Marissa Alexander, who was infamously slapped with a mandatory minimum twenty year prison sentence after firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-spouse (a serial abuser who, like Anderson, had a history of violence against his former partners). Commenting on the Alexander case in the Daily Beast, Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence said, “When a woman or minority is claiming they are defending themselves, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt…Most battered women who kill in self-defense end up in prison. There is a well-documented bias against women [in these cases].” And the reality is that black women are three times more likely than white women to be tried, convicted and incarcerated for felony offenses. 

The pervasive media demonization of black women violence victims is a key factor in this nexus of intimate partner violence and criminalization. Several years ago, a group of white high school students in New York thought it would be cool to don blackface and reenact the 2009 beating of pop star Rihanna by Chris Brown at a pep rally.  Like the gleefully bloodthirsty white audiences that gathered to view 20th century lynchings, there has always been a robust market for white consumption of black female pain.  Similarly, the 2013 James Brown biopic Get On Up, in which Brown was depicted brutally beating his female partner, gave the impression that charismatic black men slapping black women around was a norm that couldn’t be challenged.  The erasure of rapper and TV personality Dee Barnes’ violent abuse at the hands of Dr. Dre became a central focus of black feminist criticism of the blockbuster film Straight Outta Compton. Recent violent incidents involving black women victims and black male athletes have increased the visibility of intimate partner violence against African American women. 

Unsurprisingly, the most prominent representation of domestic violence as a national cause célèbre was the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.  After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering Brown Simpson white America wanted his scalp. Nicole was the perfect victim, the beautiful tragic heroine who died too young at the hands of a savage.  The trial of the century hinged on redeeming a white woman’s honor and bringing her Negro killer to justice.  Brown Simpson was grieved globally, transformed into a symbol of the deadliness of intimate partner violence and a martyr of a legal system run amok.  This year, the legacy of the murder was further canonized by two TV productions that won boatloads of awards. 

The everyday stories of black women domestic and intimate partner violence victims have yet to receive this kind of treatment. And the intersectional issues that black women face vis-à-vis, intimate partner violence and mental health provision are often marginalized.  For example, women are the fastest growing population among the homeless and a majority of them have been victims of sexual and/or domestic violence.  One third of the homeless population in L.A. County is female. Fifty percent of the homeless are African American.  Domestic violence shelters burst at the seams and re-victimization is common. As the poorest, most underpaid women in the workforce, women of color suffer disproportionately from the dismantling of mental health care, affordable housing and violence prevention and intervention.
 
To be sure, there is a deep connection between the current backlash against women’s human rights and mainstream society’s messages about “acceptable” violence.  The Christian fascist propaganda of the Trump and the white Religious Right promotes a legislative agenda based on the belief that women’s bodies are vessels, hosts for fetuses who have civil rights, “pussies to be grabbed” and T&A to be sold to the highest bidder. But the complicity of communities of color that look the other way when black women are being terrorized is a lethal enabler.

For information on ways to help Smith’s family and the North Park Elementary Community:


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Future of Feminism Girls of Color Conference





Sexual violence is an important issue for communities of color because women of color are seen as lesser in value than white women and women of color aren’t getting the justice they deserve.  - Cheyenne Mclaren, 10th grade, King-Drew Magnet High School

What does feminism mean for girls of color in South Los Angeles? How do black feminism, Latinx feminism and women of color feminism disrupt narratives of white female privilege and the marginalization of women of color in feminist movement organizing? How can girls of color challenge the silence around issues of sexual violence, homophobia and misgynoir in communities of color? 

On May 25, 2017 girls of color activists and leaders from South L.A. high schools will present ongoing school-community work on anti-racism, anti-sexism, criminalization, homophobia/transphobia, sexual violence and undocumented immigrant rights with youth serving organizations across the L.A. County. 

Info: issacharcurbeon@gmail.com or shutch2396@aol.com
www.womensleadershipla.org

Two Years after Sandra Bland, Justice for Wakiesha Wilson


Family of Wakiesha Wilson, March '17

By Sikivu Hutchinson


In July 2015, African American activist Sandra Bland died in police custody after challenging a white officer who stopped her for an alleged lane change violation.  Bland’s death generated national exposure for the high rate of suspicious police custody deaths among African Americans (Bland was one of five black female policy custody deaths that July).  Like Bland, the majority of black women who die in police custody have been detained for minor, non-violent offenses.  Nationwide, one in nineteen black women will be incarcerated during their lifetimes for nonviolent offenses—four times the rate of white women—placing them at even greater risk of being re-victimized in prison.

One year after the death of 36 year-old Wakiesha Wilson in a LAPD jail cell, her grieving family is still pushing for answers and accountability.  According to the LAPD, Wilson was the second person to die in police custody in 2016.  LAPD officials claim that Wilson committed suicide, a claim that has been vehemently disputed by her family and local activists.  At a recent commemorative march and rally organized by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, family members expressed their outrage over the blatant disregard they’ve been shown by the LAPD.  Reminiscing about Wilson’s buoyant spirit, cousin Quanesha Francis said, “She brought laughter to the family.  Her life was precious and my mom considered her as a daughter.  That was Wakiesha. The police have not reached out to the family.” After contacting the NAACP, the family was only notified about Wilson’s death when she failed to show up at a scheduled court appearance.  In 2015, twelve people died in LAPD custody, “a sharp jump from 2014”.

Last year, the Los Angeles Police Commission concluded that LAPD officers were not “involved” in Wilson’s hanging death.  However, on a police report form taken at her admission, Wilson said she did not harbor suicidal thoughts or intentions to hurt herself.  Although Wilson suffered from bipolar depression, family members who spoke with her shortly after her arrest said there were absolutely no indications that Wilson was contemplating taking her own life.  According to the family, Wilson was looking forward to coming home and reuniting with her 13 year-old son.

In September 2016, Lisa Hines, Wilson’s mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.  But justice for black folks who have died under suspicious circumstances in police custody is sorely lacking.  Often, black female victims have histories of mental illness or medical conditions that require culturally responsive care.  In the same month as Bland’s death, 37 year-old Ralkina Jones of Ohio and 47 year-old Raynette Turner of New York died in police custody despite alerting law enforcement about medical conditions requiring special medication.

Although the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) “Death in Custody” Program collects data on custody-related deaths—the majority are determined to be caused by illness or suicide, and police misconduct is seldom identified as a factor.  The data are also not disaggregated by race.  Thus, according to Mother Jones, “While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race... a rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.”

Wilson’s family maintains that twenty minutes of footage is missing from the official LAPD video of her cell.  The LAPD has yet to explain why the footage is missing.  The absence of un-redacted records and full footage has been a recurring theme in cases of black women who’ve died in police custody. In early 2016, Bland’s family pushed for a federal judge to order the FBI to review heavily redacted reports on her death to facilitate their access to complete records.

In response to the egregious lag in family notification, Representative Karen Bass recently proposed a bill, dubbed “Wakiesha’s Law”, that would require law enforcement to notify families immediately when an inmate dies in police custody.  As Quanesha Francis notes, “The initial phone call we received from the police conflicts with everything they told us…they told us there was an altercation and that Wakiesha refused to stay in her cell.  They also claimed she had no possessions.” The family contends these claims are false and the final report on Wilson’s death does not indicate that there was an altercation with another inmate. Like scores of African American families facing the nightmare of loved ones victimized by state violence, Wakiesha Wilson’s family will continue to press the LAPD to account for what happened to their precious sister, daughter, cousin and mother.




Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Black Feminist Atheist ‘Day Without a Woman’

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Adapted from The Humanist


Over the past several years, secular feminists of color have pushed back on the reductive single variable politics of a mainstream secular movement that has all but anointed swaggering white patriarchs like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris as the global face of secularism.  Black women have stepped up to assume leadership roles in the movement by creating their own groups and organizations. They have done so in response to a predominantly white context that is still hostile to the intersectional realities of people of color in a white supremacist society. As activists, educators and writers, they’ve connected their humanism and atheism to addressing segregated education, state violence, reproductive justice, rape culture, heterosexism, homophobia and misogyny in the Black Church and economic inequality.  In a Huffington Post piece I wrote during Women’s History month last year, I profiled activists like Mandisa Thomas, Bria Crutchfield, Diane Burkholder and the Secular Sistahs who fearlessly go beyond belief by putting a black feminist progressive face on atheism in their communities. 

 As women around the world observe a “Day Without a Woman”, a strike of non-theist women would have the same grave socioeconomic implications for atheists and agnostics (estimated at around 7% of the U.S. population) as it would for religionists.  Who, for example, would do the leading, planning, troubleshooting, organizing and caregiving that powers families of all shapes and sizes from sunup to sundown? In households across the country, women of all classes and ethnicities continue to do a disproportionate amount of domestic and family caregiving tasks.  While white women earn 85 cents to the dollar of white men, African American women (who earn 65 cents to the dollar of white men) and Latinas (who earn 58 cents to the dollar of white men) are still the lowest paid workers in an increasingly segregated, neoliberal service-driven economy that depends on their cheap labor.  In communities of color, these disparities reinforce higher involvement in churches and other faith-based institutions that may provide the kind of cultural and social welfare resources wealthier white “secularized” communities take for granted.  It’s also important to note that queer black and Latino families are more “churched” than their white counterparts.  This seeming paradox speaks to why there continues to be a gargantuan divide between people of color and whites of all religious orientations.  For secular white folk, white wealth and privilege is embodied in the jobs women of color do—from low paid domestic work to farm work—to their status as fodder for and laborers in the nation’s mass incarceration regime.  Specifically, a day without the poor and working class undocumented women of color who have been targeted by Trumpist terrorism means less profit for the police state apparatus.  For progressive secular folk, the Day Without a Woman demands heightened awareness of the role racialized and gendered “others” play in validating state violence and imperialism.  It also demands that the conservative Religious Right assault on reproductive health and women’s right to abortion and contraception should continue to be exposed as a human rights crisis that has been especially catastrophic for poor communities of color.

On the Day Without a Woman, students from my South Los Angeles-based Women’s Leadership Project will be in school writing, publishing and demanding their voices be heard on the impact sexual violence has on the lives and wellbeing of black and Latina girls and communities of color.  Last week, students co-facilitated a sexual violence forum in conjunction with a presentation by black feminist lesbian activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons, whose trailblazing work addresses global resistance to rape culture and misogynoir.  Many of the young women who participated stated that the forum was the only time sexual violence had been addressed in their school-community. Resisting the marginalization of sexual violence survivors and victims of color (of all genders and sexual orientations) is one of the many reasons the work of women of color atheists and humanists has been critical to pushing change in a polarized secular movement.     

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project feminist humanist mentoring program for girls of color in South Los Angeles and Black Skeptics Los Angeles.  Her most recent book is White Nights, Black Paradise, a novel on Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Moonlight, Black Boy and Teachable Moments


By Sikivu Hutchinson

The boys walk through the school quad playing the dozens, verbally slamming another boy in absentia for being a weak “f—g” who can’t be trusted.  It’s part of the “accepted” ritual of masculine schoolyard talk, a violent dance of bonding and ostracism that every queer and cisgender boy must navigate; one that is powerfully dissected in Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.  For conscious educators who mentor and teach black boys, Moonlight’s searing evocation of the tender, ambivalent arc of black male attraction from elementary to adulthood was a welcome antidote to caricatures of hip hop hypermasculinity.  As educators attempt to safeguard students from the latest criminalizing wave of Trumpist homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism, Moonlight offers teachable moments for a humanist, culturally responsive education that centers black queer lives.

At a recent teacher training I conducted on creating safe spaces for LGBTQI high school students, a teacher asked why it was necessary to “call attention” to issues of sexuality and difference when LGBTQI students were already marginalized?  Shouldn’t educators just treat everyone with the same dignity and respect “regardless” of sexual orientation? Educational justice activists have long argued that the colorblind ethos of classroom instruction disingenuously ignores how the values and mores of the dominant culture indoctrinate us into binary norms.  In her book Other People’s Children, educational justice writer Lisa Delpit  argues that mainstream classrooms are structured around an implicit “culture of power” which disenfranchises students of color.  Consequently, a “treat everyone with dignity and respect” approach that isn’t based on a critical consciousness about how the dominant culture works undermines intersectional identities.  In the classroom, everyday assumptions about interpersonal and romantic relationships “invisibilize” queer students.   Classroom discussions about traditional straight families headed by heterosexual parents and caregivers perpetuate the idea that good, normal family units are straight family units.  Assumptions that everyone has been brought up in a conventional family structure based on a universal nuclear family norm that is uncritically faith-based, brand queer, foster, homeless and secular youth as other.    

Moonlight breaks down these assumptions in often conflicting ways.  Though the film’s protagonist Chiron lives with his drug-addicted mother he’s mentored and “fathered” by an older black man, played by Mahershala Ali, who accepts him as gay.  His loving surrogate family supports him in ways that his brittle, largely absent mother cannot.  Ali’s delicately shaded character becomes Chiron’s first crush and compass, while the women in his life are reduced to caregivers or scolds.  Although its depictions of black women play into stereotypical binaries of black womanhood, Moonlight succeeds in foregrounding how black queer youth are often criminalized when they attempt to express themselves and/or defend against bullying and harassment.  The film’s evocative rendering of black male relationships encourages discussions about the ways in which black boys are socialized to fit into the so-called “Man Box”.  These limitations require them to act hard, emotion-less and aggressive in order to avoid being singled out as different.  


During a recent Women's Leadership Project student workshop on rape culture and sexual violence featuring black feminist lesbian activist and filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, young men of color at King-Drew Magnet High School in South L.A. talked about how they’re forced to conform to these roles or risk ostracism, ridicule or violence.  In Moonlight, Chiron is goaded into fighting his campus tormentor because of a menacing environment in which he’s constantly taunted and harassed about being gay/effeminate.  This is a familiar scenario in K-12 schools where a climate of fear and intimidation among boys (across race/ethnicity and class) is virtually institutionalized, embodied in sports culture and the often perilous ecosystem of the campus quad.  Yet, traditional anti-bullying training which fixates on “dignity and respect” ignores the way strict messaging about gender non-conformity shapes the behavior and identities of youth.  Writing about a scene in Richard Wright’s Black Boy, in which Wright kills a kitten in order to best his emotionally unavailable father, students from my South Los Angeles-based Young Male Scholars’ program commented that the dominant culture’s failure to show loving representations of black fatherhood plays a strong role in the sometimes aggressive relationships they have with each other.  In Black Boy, Wright learns violent masculinity navigating Jim Crow society, black patriarchy and his family’s “spare the rod, spoil the child” religiosity.  His relationships with other boys are largely adversarial, based on boasts, one-upping and his peers’ intimidation by his intellectual curiosity.  Early on, Wright’s father becomes the negative


role model he inadvertently ends up emulating in his struggle for daily survival. Though Wright was straight, his childhood trajectory as a poor, skeptical outcast forced to fend for himself and “become a man” within the context of unrelenting violence, is similar to the young Chiron’s.  Faced with constant slights and attacks, Wright closes himself off emotionally from the world. Similarly, Chiron withdraws from all but a few of his peers, and his muteness becomes a metaphor for society’s failure to see or hear him.  

Yet, Moonlight’s concluding scene between Chiron and his nemesis/soulmate gestures toward healing and reconciliation.  Overall, the film’s timely exploration of trauma, tenderness and caring between men is an antidote to the heterosexist swagger of the Trump administration.  Re-visioning relationships between boys and men and countering the violence of homophobic, transphobic and heterosexist trauma is central to fighting sexism and misogyny.  K-12 educators have a signal role to play in shaping classroom practice, school culture and curricula that takes up this charge, and supports the intersectional lives our youth live.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

How the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline Criminalizes Black Girls

 
Human Rights 4 Girls


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Over the past several years, the movement to end sexual violence has been mainstreamed through social media, K-12 prevention programming and awareness campaigns. Terms like “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming” have entered the public lexicon, and the prosecution of accused sexual predators such as Brock Turner and Bill Cosby have become cause celébrès. Yet, when the media puts a spotlight on sexual violence victims they are often young, white and middle class. And while it is estimated that one in five women will experience sexual assault or rape, young black women face a different kind of risk, informed by histories of institutional racism, violence and economic inequality. According to a survey conducted by the Black Women’s Blueprint, nearly 60% of young black women have experienced sexual assault by the age of 18. In Los Angeles County, black girls also have the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization and are more likely to be arrested and jailed for prostitution than non-black women and girls. In 2010, African American girls accounted for 92% of youth arrested for prostitution in L.A. County.

These statistics reflect a long history in which African American youth are disproportionately criminalized for sex trafficking. Unlike their white counterparts, they are not viewed as innocent child victims of sexual violence. This perception extends as far back as the 1910 Mann Act, which identified sex trafficking as a form of “white slavery”, and emphasized protecting the morality of white women and white families. As legal scholar Cheryl Butler notes, “Policymakers have ignored the connection between race and other root factors that push minority and poor youth into America’s commercial sex trade.”

Senate Bill 1322, which decriminalizes child prostitution, is partly designed to address this disparity. Authored by State Senator Holly Mitchell, the bill takes effect this month (coinciding with Human Trafficking Awareness month) and prohibits the prosecution of minors for prostitution. The new policy is part of a larger nationwide push to reduce juvenile incarceration for prostitution by properly identifying trafficking survivors as victims of rape and sexual assault. Last year, L.A. County joined the victim advocacy organization Human Rights for Girls in its “No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute” campaign. The initiative was designed to decriminalize and de-stigmatize child sex trafficking victims by providing them with legal, educational and social welfare services. While these efforts are an important start, more work is needed to address the underlying cultural, racial and socioeconomic factors that lead to the disproportionate victimization of black girls.

Sexual violence against girls and women of color is rarely the focus of national civil rights organizing. Shame, moral stigma, racial disparities in policing, and sexist stereotypes about black femininity often preclude attention to disproportionate sexual violence in African American communities. Slave era notions of black women as “Jezebel” breeders influence pornographic depictions of black women as expendable sex objects in TV, film, rap music and videos. Popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat provide young people with a constant stream of sexualized images and messages, making them natural vehicles for sexual predators who exploit the insecurities of girls of color in a culture that prizes white beauty ideals.

It is estimated that the majority of child sex trafficking victims in L.A. County come from foster care. At approximately 9% of the County’s population, African American children represent a staggering 29% of foster care youth.

The nexus of sexual abuse and incarceration that ensnares child sex trafficking survivors has been characterized by Human Rights for Girls as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”. Here, exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” African American girls in particular are more likely than their non-black peers to be re-victimized by sexual abuse in and trafficking through the foster care system.

In addition to having high rates of foster care placement, black girls are especially vulnerable to this form of pipelining because they have high rates of K-12 suspension, expulsion and incarceration. Although they are only 14% of the U.S. population, African American girls comprise 33% of the female juvenile population. At the K-12 level, racial disparities in discipline—rather than higher offense rates—make black girls more likely to be suspended and expelled than non-black girls. According to Monique Morris, president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, “the behaviors for which black females routinely experience disciplinary response are [often] related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity.”

The failure to identify and tailor strategies that are culturally specific to black girls has exacerbated the problem. For example, in February 2016, the Los Angeles Unified School Board passed a resolution directing the LAUSD to create a district-wide pilot program to address the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in its school-communities.Although well-intentioned, the resolution did not identify culturally responsive prevention initiatives that specifically addressed disproportionate rates of victimization of black girls or LGBTQ youth of color, who represent a growing, yet “invisible” segment of CSEC victims. Nor did it mandate funding for the proposed pilots. As a South Los Angeles educator, I work daily with young black girls who silently cope with the trauma of sexual and physical violence in their school communities. Inundated with cultural messages that demean and marginalize them, many of my students have grown up with the idea that violence against black women and girls is normal and justifiable.

Targeted culturally responsive training, outreach and youth leadership development that addresses not just the victims and survivors of CSEC—but the educational, health and socioeconomic factors that allow sex trafficking to thrive—are essential. School-communities must make a long term investment in mentoring programs, health education and restorative and social justice leadership initiatives that provide real alternatives for foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth in heavily impacted communities such as South Los Angeles. It is only when we build a society that values and invests in the social capital of youth of color, rather than more incarceration, jails and policing, that the sexual abuse to prison pipeline can be dismantled.