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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.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Future of Feminism in Apartheid L.A.




By Sikivu Hutchinson

Bursting at the seams metro trains were the first sign my students and I had that the optics of public space in L.A. had shifted for a few rarefied hours. As we navigated South Central to the Women’s march downtown, masses of white women on the Blue, Red and Purple lines jammed in with folk of color who typically pack L.A.’s stratified public transportation system.  

After all the controversy surrounding the white origins of the Women’s March, L.A.’s event was a snapshot of the deep segregation and Euro privilege that shapes the city’s cultural geography.  Women of color demonstrators and a predominantly white female crowd of all generations and political backgrounds descended upon downtown in righteous fury against Trumpism. Home to the largest homeless population in the country, downtown L.A. is heavily contested space, having undergone a massive gentrification wave that has displaced and further ghettoized working class people of color. The well-heeled middle to upper middle class white demonstrators reflected this incursion. Thirty years ago, a predominantly white female crowd of this magnitude would have been inconceivable.  Back then, downtown east of Grand Avenue was considered an uninhabitable “wasteland” where white yuppies feared to tread.  Now, it’s a developer’s playground of multi-million dollar lofts replete with ground floor restaurants and hipster bars. 

Unlike other protests and demonstrations I’ve participated in, the police presence at the downtown march was vaporous.  With so much of white L.A. “in the house” it was a given that the LAPD would keep making white lives matter by maintaining a respectful distance in the background.

So, in many regards, Saturday’s massive white presence in the “rebranded” downtown business district was a perfect metaphor for the historic fissures of the white-dominated women’s movement.  The white nationalist rebuke of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s sexist/misogynist vitriol have galvanized millions of white women but black women activists have consistently questioned where these women were on issues of state violence, mass incarceration, economic justice, employment discrimination, undocumented immigrant rights and the apartheid education structure that undermines communities of color.  Some have pushed back against white feminists’ reductive focus on fighting the GOP and Religious Right’s assault on birth control and abortion as though they were unconnected to economic justice, anti-racism and critiques of capitalism.  The majority of white women who participated in the L.A. march benefit from the city’s historically rigid lines of de facto segregation, living in neighborhoods that are protected by access to high performing schools, park spaces, quality health care facilities and high wage job industries.

Yet, the students who attended the march with me from South L.A.’s Women’s Leadership Project(WLP) felt uplifted by the weekend display of solidarity and anti-Trump resistance.  It was the first public protest march for most of them, and, while they were turned off by its whiteness, they were also hopeful about possibilities for intersectional feminism.  Dreamer activist and Gardena High School alum Lizeth Soria has worked to provide educational resources and college access for AB540 undocumented students. WLP alum and first generation college student Imani Moses has been an outspoken voice for reproductive justice, abortion rights and sexual violence prevention for high school girls of color.  King-Drew Magnet High School tenth grader Cheyenne McClaren has challenged misogynoir and sexist violence against black women in the media as a peer facilitator for WLP’s youth forums.  All three young women expressed a desire to see Saturday’s energy develop into meaningful coalition building (the D.C. March organizers quickly posted a series of next steps online called the “next 100 days”) and policy change, especially when it comes to the systemic disenfranchisement of black girls and girls of color.  

Indeed, a stone’s throw from downtown’s march, the predominantly black homeless youth population—which includes large numbers of queer, trans, cis female and foster youth who are sexual assault and sex trafficking survivors—continues to struggle for visibility and services in a political landscape that marginalizes the needs of black sexual assault survivors.  Redressing this gap is part of the students’ long term agenda building, and a focus of their upcoming youth facilitated “Future of Feminism” conference in May.  These intersectional issues remain MIA in the mainstream women’s and civil rights movements, particularly in a city with some of the greatest extremes of wealth, income and residential mobility. While acknowledging racism and white supremacy within mainstream white feminism, Imani, Cheyenne and Liz are not waiting for white women to magically stop being racist to reclaim feminism, womanism and the legacy of revolutionary struggle indigenous women and black women forged long before nineteenth century first wave feminism.

Twitter @sikivuhutch



Monday, December 26, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Secular Studies

Clockwise from top: Anthony Pinn, Frank Anderson, Secular Sistahs, S. Hutchinson, Soraya Chemaly, Monica Miller, Maggie Ardiente, Donald Wright, Heina Dadabhoy, Daniel Myatt, Alix Jules, Sincere Kirabo, Debbie Goddard, Juhem Navarro-Rivera





By Sikivu Hutchinson
I recently submitted a course proposal entitled “Going Godless: Challenging Faith and Religion in Communities of Color” to a School of Religion at a prominent university in California. After many gyrations, it was shot down due to “lack of funding”. The course focuses on the intersectional politics of secularism, atheism and humanism, as well as the work of secularists of color like Anthony Pinn, Mandisa Thomas, Heina Dadabhoy, Juhem Navarro Rivera, Sincere Kirabo, Candace Gorham and the D.C. group Secular Sistahs. The uptick in Americans identifying as secular Nones has led to the creation of more secular courses, many of which are housed in Religious Studies departments. Despite the much ballyhooed “Rise of the Nones” there is currently only one bonafide Secular Studies department (based at Pitzer College and helmed by secular scholar Phil Zuckerman) in the U.S.




For the most part, Secularism in the American academy is a cobbled together affair, featuring one-off courses dominated by white academics with the book contracts, privilege and ivory tower “cred” to do secular work without worrying about censure or professional ostracism. Although social media bustle with black folks tweeting, blogging and sounding off about embracing atheism; the same handful of white faces preside in the academic industrial complex as “authentic” scholars of the secular, atheist, humanist experience. As a result, scholarship, classes and curricula that capture the lived experiences, politics and world views of secularists of color, especially those of women of color, are still scant to nonexistent. To date, the Humanist Institute is the only organization in the country to feature an online course I developed entitled “Women of Color Beyond Faith”.
Left to Right: Liz Ross, Ayana Williford, Laurie James,
Diane Burkholder, Bria Crutchfield, Deanna Adams,
Jimmie Luthuli, Charone Nix, Debbie Goddard,
Mandisa Thomas

Why is it important that secular people of color teach, write and publish book length scholarship, analyses, narratives and fiction on our social history? The hijacking of rock music from the African American composers and musicians who originated the genre is a case in point. African American scholar/historians like Maureen Mahon and Jeffrey Othello are among the few in the white male dominated field of rock and roll musicology and music history. This dearth, combined with the whitewashing of rock by white male critics, musicians and the music industry, has ironically marked the genre as “in-authentically” black. Recent critical works by white writers like Jack Hamilton and Gayle Wald document the travails of African American rock artists in a field black folk pioneered but are now viewed as oxymoronic in (one need look no further than the lily white bands in this year’s crop of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees to see how white supremacy informs the corporate rock establishment). The lockstep association of “black music” with rap, hip hop and R&B continues to marginalize black rock musicians. That said, if it’s black and obscure, white folk will find it, document it, and anthropologically “redeem” it for the masses as valid art and noble artifact. It’s no revelation that white validation is often the primary criterion for legitimizing black cultural production, critical theory or art in the mainstream and in academia. As August Wilson once noted, “Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as custodians of the black experience.”

When it comes to secularism, even when secular people of color appear in academic spaces, the range of lived experience that they are allowed to represent is limited and reductive. The standard caricature that bubbles up into mainstream consciousness is one of smug atheist blacks and Latinos condemning God and Tyler Perry-esque evangelicalism among folk of color. Rejecting religion becomes an end in and of itself, and not merely symbolic of a more politicized belief system based on social justice, ethics, black liberation, black feminism and serving black communities within the context of heightened anti-black state violence, segregation and misogynoir. Because black bodies have always signified an irrational supernaturalism positioned as the antithesis of the Western universal subject, black humanist atheist praxis can upend traditional constructions of racial authenticity and identity.

Similarly, black lived experience, faith and secularism are largely MIA in the literary arts; be it narrative film, theatre or fiction. While questioning faith is a familiar theme in these genres (e.g. in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain), politicized rejection of supernaturalism and religion, as a sustained critical theme in fictional works by black authors, is still rare. Indeed, only the works of Richard Wright (Black Boy and The Outsider) and Nella Larsen (Quicksand) occupy this space of aesthetic and ideological possibility. Often in black cultural production, there is the presumption of faith-based, religious or spiritual world views and experiences that preclude more complex portrayals of black life. The straightjacket of faith, spiritualism and religiosity is particularly problematic when it comes to black women characters who are allowed none of the nuances of belief and individual license afforded “maverick” male characters. Fictional black women who espouse atheism outright are either punished as traitors (Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun) or domesticated and suppressed (Helga Crane in Quicksand).

This brand of gender policing is even more pronounced in mainstream TV and film. Browse the array of popular—often straight-to-video—black films in the few video stores that remain and the majority feature stereotypically melodramatic tropes of sex, faith, relationships and family woes that are presumably designed to appeal to all black women. In his article “Black Atheists in Film and TV”, Black Skeptics Los Angeles writer and attorney D. Frederick Sparks identifies a handful of portrayals, noting the dearth of black women and the latitude allowed black men (a situation reflected in a recent episode of the sitcom Black-ish, which tamely explored the lead characters’ eldest daughter questioning God’s existence).

This erasure will become even more insidious as evangelical Trumpist white America reloads and reboots. The rising tide of reactionary Religious Right legislation against racial justice, LGBTQI rights, women’s rights, reproductive justice, public education and climate change demands concerted response and resistance from secular radicals and progressives. Countering the literary and academic whiteness of secular space and secular studies is another form of critical resistance in this neo-fascist era.

Twitter @sikivuhutch

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Segregation Now and Forever: Robber Baron DeVos and the Looting of Public Education



By Sikivu Hutchinson*

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” This was white supremacist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s epic battle cry in his infamous 1963 Inaugural speech demonizing the civil rights movement.

Billionaire Christian conservative Betsy DeVos and her foundation’s robber baron school voucher crusade are inheritors of Wallace’s legacy.  For over a decade, DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, has been “at the helm” of a largely unsuccessful nationwide push to gut public education through voucher programs. According to the L.A. Times, "California and 36 other states have constitutional provisions—called Blaine amendments—that ban the expenditure of public money on religiously affiliated schools. Close to 80% of private school students attend religious schools, which would be ineligible for vouchers in Blaine amendment states." 
As many left-progressive and secular critics have pointed out, a linchpin of the DeVos agenda is an assault on secular education.  The DeVos foundation has bankrolled the ultraconservative, homophobic Family Research Council and sponsored scores of insidious “school choice” bills from Michigan to Wisconsin. It is part of an extensive network of right wing foundations, institutes and think tanks that subscribe to the “dominionist” belief that “Christians must take control over societal and government institutions.” 

DeVos’ influence as an architect of checkbook theocracy in education is unparalleled. But it’s important for progressive humanists to understand that DeVos’ reactionary activism is not simply limited to the usual church/state separation issues vis-à-vis science literacy and white Christian fundamentalist efforts to shove creationism down students’ throats.  Certainly, DeVos’ blatant disregard for church/state separation would further undermine science literacy in a nation that routinely ranks at the bottom of global rankings of STEM achievement. Yet, a cornerstone of the Christian right’s privatization agenda is the destruction of racial justice in education and a Dixiecrat return to separate and unequal schools. 

The voucher agenda is a byproduct of Southern states’ efforts to circumvent Brown vs. Board of Education’s desegregation mandate.  It was and is a key strategy in the white nationalist/supremacist political arsenal that powered Trump to victory. 

Thus, as Secretary of Education, DeVos would most likely steamroll educational justice activists’ efforts to redress the federal government’s neoliberal focus on charter schools, union busting, drill and kill high stakes tests, and the militarization of school campuses.  Under Obama’s former education secretary Arne Duncan, the administration cozied up to charters and implemented wrongheaded policies like Race to the Top, which dubiously tied teacher salaries to students’ performance on standardized tests.   It made noises about shoring up STEM education and academic opportunities for young men of color (while marginalizing girls of color) but allocated a pittance to the enrichment and wraparound programming that could have changed educational outcomes.  And when it came to higher education, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) floundered, scrambling for funding, support and visibility in an administration that gave lip service to improving college access for students of color.  Despite Obama’s “yes we can” multicultural rhetoric, the so-called achievement gap between black and white students has remained static. 
Yet, for all of the Obama administration’s education policy failures, the De Vos appointment has the potential to be catastrophic.  It represents a clear and present danger to the wellbeing of scores of students of color who have been most heavily impacted by privatization and the gutting of multicultural education.   Nationwide, African American, Latino and Native American students continue to have the lowest graduation and college-going rates.  They are less likely to be taught by well-qualified teachers and more likely to be in schools where college counselors are either absent or saddled with too many students. Indeed, some urban schools of color have more school police than college counselors.  And because many students of color don’t have equitable access to college preparation curricula in the humanities and STEM disciplines they have higher attrition rates when they go to college.

Low college admission and completion rates correlate with the skyrocketing numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students who are suspended, expelled, pushed out of school and imprisoned in juvenile and adult facilities. There’s no reason to believe that DeVos wouldn’t cosign Trump’s law and order platform and increase federal funding for more police, military hardware and surveillance equipment on school campuses. 

The DeVos privatization agenda also bodes ill for undocumented students already facing a precarious future due to Trump’s threat to rescind Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  The threat of deportation, homelessness and family upheaval would traumatize already fragile immigrant communities that rely on a patchwork of social services to survive. 
Under a Secretary DeVos, multicultural education, reproductive health education and the development of safe and inclusive school climates for LGBTQI students would also come under fire.  The new regime could utilize its bully pulpit to further vilify equitable bathroom policies for transgender students, and the promotion of “abstinence-only” education would most likely be back on the federal table.  Although states would have leeway in pushing back on these policies, a DeVos education department, buttressed by a GOP controlled Congress, could jeopardize federal funding for states and school districts that buck the right wing agenda.    

As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently noted in its opposition to DeVos’ appointment, “[she] provided funding for the Center for Individual Rights during its legal battle with the University of Michigan over affirmative action.  After the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 to uphold the university’s affirmative action policy…she acknowledged that the motives underlying the policy were proper [but] stated that the policy was still unfair.”

For human rights, social justice and secular education, a DeVos regime in the Education Department would be the proverbial case of the fox guarding the henhouse.


*From the Humanist Magazine, 12-21 issue

Twitter: @sikivuhutch

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Belly of the Beast


By Sikivu Hutchinson

The text that my spouse got when the election returns first started rolling in was an early harbinger of the brutal rout to come.  His friend “Ted”, a white former union leader who’d been downsized a decade ago in his small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, proclaimed that he was voting Trump. “Build the f---ing wall,” he railed, invoking his veteran status and visceral disgust with “sanctuary cities”.

On election night, Ted and his ilk flipped the bird to the nation, making good on the white nationalist rhetoric of 2009 when the Tea Party barnstormed across Middle America exhorting the Obama administration to take its “government hands off of [our] Medicare”.  Trump’s epic reversal victory is a vindication of that backlash and a stunning rebuke to the infamous “autopsy” the GOP did after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Obama.  The autopsy suggested that the GOP would need to ramp down its dog whistle racism and snag more votes from people of color.  Trump’s shock troops are using the autopsy for toilet paper.  Now that the Republicans have locked down Congress, their post-2016 mantra will be we-don’t-need-to pander to-ya’ll-token-minorities-to- get-over-anymore.  And while you’re at it, get back on the plantation.

The formidable Latino, Asian and African American voting bloc that many had prophesied never materialized for this election. Hillary Clinton’s towering negatives, coupled with the fait accompli aura her candidacy assumed in the media, kept some people of color at home feeling angry, disgruntled and taken for granted.  According to early exit polls, “only 65% of Latinos supported her, while 29% cast their votes for Trump”. In 2012, Obama won 71% of the Latino vote compared to Romney’s 27%.  More frightening still, Trump succeeded in winning 8% of the African American vote, improving on the 1% he was pulling in early estimates.  Blinded by the “inevitability” of demographics, many liberal and progressive pundits simply assumed that the white nativist backlash was a fringe resistance movement, the last desperate gasp of a Tea Party that fundamentally defied modernity and common sense.

A recent L.A. Times article on bullish Trump support among white steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, scene of a popular Bruce Springsteen ode to the declining steel industry, highlighted how deep and divisive white angst is in the so-called Heartland. Trump victories in formerly blue states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin all reflected these racialized class resentments.  According to a CNN survey, a majority of white working class folk believe that their children will be worse off in the future.  They contend that trade agreements have eroded U.S. jobs and that the government is shafting them.  Ironically enough, the poll also indicated that this same bloc believes government should provide more assistance to the (white) working class.  Most of these “hard working whites” (the ones Hillary Clinton tried so hard to court with bigoted appeals in 2008) believe the government is already doing too much for “minorities” at their expense.

If the coronation of Trump and Trumpism illustrate nothing else, it’s that the left wing dream of interracial working class solidarity will continue to be a delusion in the face of the “wages of whiteness”.  In this regard, the ghost of the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia (site of a near upset by Trump) resonates in Trumpist propaganda about making America great again.  Bacon’s Rebellion laid the groundwork for white solidarity across class lines.  This multiracial uprising of poor whites and black indentured servants prompted the Virginia landed gentry to confer poor whites with greater civil rights in order to suppress a potential long term working class alliance against the white elite. As historian Ira Berlin notes, the Virginia Assembly “enact(ed) laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary slaves.  And they increasingly give power to white independent farmers and land holders.  We see slavery and freedom being invented at the same moment.”  For the majority of whites of all classes, white supremacy will always be the most invaluable wage.

Trump’s shock troops, the GOP, and corporate Dems are heirs to Bacon’s Rebellion.  Far too often, liberal-progressive whites seeking to forge coalitions based on workers’ rights disingenuously disregard this legacy and their own complicity in white supremacy.  As people of color organize against the coming Trump regime’s mandate for increasing criminalization, mass deportations and depletion of black and Latino wealth, the reinvigorated white working class will continue to regard equity and justice as a zero sum game.