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Monday, June 22, 2015

Pushing Back on “God” in Charleston


By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the midst of the prayers, vigils and misguided national calls for forgiveness, theodicy’s question of the ages resounds—if God(s) exists why does he/she/it permit unspeakable evil like the white terrorist massacre at Emanuel AME church?  Atheists point to Epicurus’ paradox about the impotence of “God” in the face of evil, arguing that last week’s murders tragically affirm his centuries-old caveat to the faithful. 
While black folk are the most religiously devout group in the nation, “God”, it seems, has never had to answer, nor be called to account nor be indicted for black suffering.
So as a black humanist atheist I often get asked by white atheists playing ethnographer, “why are black people so religious? Don’t they know Christianity was used to justify slavery?” It’s been reported that the murderer deliberately targeted Emanuel because of its rich history of resistance to white supremacy.  As a terrorist assault on an activist black institution in the heart of the Confederacy, the massacre was not just an individual act but a manifestation of state violence. Founded in 1816 by black parishioners who broke from the racist white Methodist Episcopal Church, Emanuel was a platform for the revolutionary leadership of founder Denmark Vesey, who was executed in 1822 for plotting a massive slave uprising.  It was a church that was prohibited, reviled and burned to the ground because black people were not supposed to have spaces to congregate and organize in.

Radical black humanists, most notably Frederick Douglass and A. Philip Randolph, have challenged black religiosity under slavery while acknowledging the crucial role activist churches played in black self-determination.  Randolph’s critique of organized religion and the god concept was always coupled with a critique of capital and the imperialist occupation of black bodies and African countries.  Churches dominated black communities because of the nexus of racial apartheid and capitalism. Yet, ignorant of the socioeconomic and secular roots of slavery, and how they inform the privileges whites enjoy today, some white atheists marinate in smugness about the glories of Western rationalist traditions.  Black folk, it’s implied, should consider themselves lucky to have benefited from the vaunted secular freedoms offered by the U.S., the world’s most prolific jailer of black people. 
Nearly two centuries after the foiled Vesey revolt, African Americans remain at the bottom of a capitalist plutocracy built on our slave labor.  Due to economic apartheid, wealth inequality and residential segregation, activist black churches are still pivotal in many communities.  Yet, as an atheist I can value their role while believing that it was not—as Christians rationalize—the Charleston victims’ “time”, nor a perverse example of “God’s will” that they were slaughtered.  I can value the profound fellowship that the Emanuel family displayed in welcoming the murderer into their bible study yet believe that a just god would not have allowed this parasite in their church home to begin with. 
No loving god would allow a twenty six year-old in the prime of his life to be mowed down in cold blood, nor abide by a five year-old having to play dead to avoid being murdered.  No moral god would demand forgiveness for a crime for which there has never—since the first African was stolen, chained, exploited and “imported”—been any reparations.
Where, then, was “god” in that church? In the human agency, deeds and consciences of the victims, standing on the human shoulders of all the ancestor slave revolutionaries, known and unknown, who defied the lyncher regime of the U.S. government, a secular Constitution that branded Africans as 3/5s of a person and a “just” God who remains at large; un-indicted.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On White Negroes, Jim Jones and “Sista” Rachel

By Sikivu Hutchinson

He was a charismatic white preacher-activist who could riff on the racism of the Bible one moment and the virtues of radical black liberation struggle the next.  Elderly black women were his most cherished audience, and he counted Huey Newton, Angela Davis, activist publisher Carlton Goodlett and prominent black politicians Willie Brown and Mervyn Dymally among his supporters. It’s been said that when the Reverend Jim Jones took his parishioners’ hands and looked deep into their eyes it was like they were the only ones in the universe. 

Although many commentators have drawn parallels between former Spokane NAACP head Rachel Dolezal’s passing-in-reverse minstrelsy and white pop culture icons, the historical example of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple church is more germane. In the packed annals of “White Negro-hood” Jones’ appropriation and manipulation of blackness represents an especially insidious brand of political minstrelsy.  For both Jones and Dolezal, racial stagecraft earned them real dividends in terms of income, credibility and access to policy makers, politicos and the activist black community. 

Years before he relocated the Peoples Temple congregation from San Francisco to the eponymously named Jonestown settlement in Guyana Jim Jones was an undisputed rock star—a black-identified white man and respected public official who was also a closeted bisexual.  Peoples Temple championed the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, affirmative action, anti-police brutality initiatives, affordable housing and LGBT equality (most notably vis-à-vis the infamous 1978 Briggs initiative, an unsuccessful law that would have prohibited gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools).  Back then there wasn’t a radical-progressive issue the church didn’t espouse or go to the barricades for, regularly pushing back against the city’s segregationist power elite in rallies, editorials and political campaigns.

In his very public private life, Jones’ performance as revolutionary Elmer Gantry in blackface was unequaled.  He adopted a black son in 1959 and named him Jim Jr., paraded around his “rainbow” family of orphaned children and held court in the city’s multiracial Fillmore District as a white “black” man who proudly referred to himself as a “nigger”.  Throughout the Peoples Temple movement, Jones, like Dolezal, claimed to have received death threats and been the victim of racial harassment.

Indeed, racial persecution was one of the ostensible reasons for the church’s relocation to Guyana, dubbed the “Promised Land”.   Jones incited fear of an impending race war in the U.S. (in which black people would be sent to concentration camps) to justify emigration and keep members from leaving the jungle settlement.  Rallying Temple members on the notorious Jonestown “death tape” of November 18, 1978, he beseeched “Are we black proud and socialist?” The question was couched in an overripe narrative of white betrayal in which Jones blamed white conspirators for bringing down Jonestown.

So while Jones didn’t technically “pass” as black like Dolezal, his fierce identification with the lives and struggles of his parishioners was definitive.  In their view, Jones’ version of blackness was no facile lifestyle choice, fetish or “missionary” calling but a full-bodied identity that spoke to their legacy of resistance.  It was this belief that ultimately blinded some to the church’s moral corruption, setting the stage for their complicity with Jones’ authoritarian control.

When Jones and his Temple faithful ordered members to drink the toxic mix of flavor aid and cyanide that would kill over 900 people in the settlement, he was in full flaming White Negro-hood. Death, it was believed, would be the community’s final “revolutionary” resistance to the evils of racial apartheid.  Jonestown and Peoples Temple’s tragic end are a cautionary tale of the price the African American community has paid for political minstrelsy and reverse passing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Police Criminals and the Brutalization of Black Girls

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In Alice Walker’s short story “The Flowers” a little girl happens upon the decomposing body of a lynching victim while she is out picking flowers.  Walker contrasts the light tranquility of the girl’s walk with the savagery of her discovery; suggesting that to be a black child is to never be shielded from the “adult” horrors of racist dehumanization. As the girl lays down her wreath of flowers Walker’s narrator declares that “the summer was over”.   Summer’s metaphoric end signifies the brutality of a segregated nation in which black children are already othered, racialized, and criminalized in the pools, parks and recreational spaces that define white childhood innocence. 

The videotaped assault and sexual harassment of 15 year-old Dajerria Becton by a rampaging white police officer after a pool party in McKinney, Texas makes it clear that it continues to be open season on black women and girls.  In the video officer Eric Casebolt grabs, straddles and violently restrains the young woman while she is lying face down on the ground in a bikini.  Ignoring her cries of pain and anxiety, he sadistically sits on her back while handcuffing her.  Casebolt then pulls a gun on a few young people who attempt to intervene.  Some of the good white citizens of McKinney have reportedly praised Casebolt’s thuggery.

The assault of Becton is an enraging reminder of the particular brand of sexual terrorism black women routinely experienced in the Jim Crow South at the hands of white law enforcement and ordinary white citizens.  In her important book, At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle McGuire chronicles how institutionalized sexual violence informed black women’s civil and human rights resistance.  Even as they were eclipsed in the mainstream civil rights movement by charismatic black male leaders, black women activists like Ida B. Wells, Recy Taylor, Claudette Colvin and Endesha Mae Holland drew on their experiences with sexual terrorism to galvanize black women organizers around the nexus of gender, race and class apartheid. 

The McKinney incident underscores how even within the context of “recreation”, “normative” gender boundaries that automatically “feminize” young white women do not exist for young black women.  Little black girls can never occupy the space of carefree, feminine innocence that little white girls expect as their birthright.  They can never rely on the damsel in distress image to “rescue” them from American-as-apple pie state violence.  According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are suspended six times more than white girls and routinely vilified as aggressive menaces in school classrooms. It goes without saying that a black male police officer captured on video brutalizing and sitting on a bikini-clad teenage white girl would have been lynched before he returned to his precinct. It is tacitly understood that the scantily clad bodies of teenage white girls are sacrosanct cultural commodities; publicly off limits to law enforcement, privately available for the consumption of white heterosexist patriarchy.  Within the public domain these are the bodies that must be protected at all costs—from potential violation by predator white men and from the imagined, ever present “threat” of violent encroachment by men of color.

Socialized to see black women as chattel, thuggish police officers play on misogynist white supremacist stereotypes to justify their criminality under the color of law.  After months of community agitation, last summer’s heinous videotaped beating of Marlene Pinnock, a middle age African American homeless woman, by a white California Highway Patrol officer led to his firing.  Nonetheless L.A.’s black female district attorney has not seen fit to file criminal charges against him.  And the recent conviction of white female LAPD officer Mary O’Callaghan for assault—rather than involuntary manslaughter—in the death of 35 year-old Alesia Thomas is an anemic substitute for justice. 

The McKinney police thug has been suspended from duty but there should be a national push for prosecution.  As with police beatings and murders of men of color, there is no special dispensation for black women victims of state violence, no “weaker sex” clause that mitigates the brutalization of black women’s bodies as hypersexualized policed space.  For black girls in the hallowed idyllic spaces that enshrine the privileges of white youth, summer is always over.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Women 'Equal' in STEM Hiring? Not So Fast

Bridging the STEM Divide conference, USC 2014

By Sikivu Hutchinson, from
To all the white scientists reading this, raise your hand high if you’ve ever been mistaken for “the help” in your university or government-funded lab. A study conducted last year at the UC Hastings College of Law, “Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science,” indicates that many black and Latina women scientists have.
It was in this climate that I co-organized last year’s “Bridging the STEM Divide” conference at the University of Southern California with the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) and other campus departments. The LPFI coordinates STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) summer immersion programs for high school students of color at prestigious competitive universities like UC Berkeley, USC, and UCLA. The conference was designed to counter institutional racial/gender barriers to STEM achievement by promoting culturally responsive approaches to college preparation and mentoring.
A key feature of the conference involved connecting South Los Angeles youth with STEM professionals and academics of color. Yet the dearth of tenured African American and Latino STEM faculty at USC posed challenges to our efforts to find faculty mentors. Disparities such as these have a negative impact on the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of students of color in STEM.According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “The gap between the percentage of black women in STEM faculty posts and the percentage of black women in the general working-age population is wider than for any other racial or ethnic group. In contrast, white men hold 58 percent of the faculty posts in STEM fields, but (are) only 35 percent of the working-age population.”
Nationwide, STEM departments at major colleges and universities are still stubbornly segregated by race and gender. While this is no major revelation to people of color in STEM, a new report from the Cornell Institute for Women in Science makes the stunning claim that gender bias in STEM hiring has all but vanished (the report does not evaluate hiring bias in reference to both race and gender). It concludes that “bias has now flipped: female candidates are now twice as likely to be chosen as equally qualified men.” The survey centered on self-reported rankings of exemplary applicants from 873 faculty members at 371 schools. Female candidates—presumably white female candidates—were consistently ranked higher for an assistant professorship in biology, engineering, economics and psychology.
Yet the findings of this single study don’t comport with the abysmal numbers of full-time female academics in STEM disciplines, especially in heavily male-dominated fields like computer science, physics, and engineering. Nor do they provide an adequate portrait of what happens after these highly-ranked women candidates are actually interviewed for tenured positions. If the academic picture were so rosy for women in the STEM hiring pipeline then the huge gender disparities evident in most STEM departments wouldn’t exist. A 2012 Yale University study found that when chemistry, physics and biology professors at six research institutions were given CVs from both a male and a female candidate with identical qualifications they were more likely to choose the male candidate. If the female candidate was chosen, she was paid $4,000 less on average.
In addition, the recent Cornell study makes an egregious “correlation equals causality” leap in its assessment of the role of student “choice” vis-à-vis college preparation courses. Indeed, it “attributes the lack of female scientists to early educational choices—like opting not to take Advanced Placement calculus and physics in high school or choosing not to declare a math-intensive major in college—rather than discrimination later on.” The myth that underrepresented students actively choose not to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes is not borne out by the data when it comes to young women of color. African-American and Latino students are often excluded from the gatekeeper AP and college prep classes that are virtually required for admission to top colleges and universities. African-American students are less likely than students of other ethnicities to be enrolled in AP classes, especially “elite” math and science courses like calculus and physics. At 14 percent of the U.S. student population, black students comprise only 3 percent of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams.According to the College Board, “The vast majority of black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.” Nationwide, Native-American, African-American and Latino students had the least access to AP classes (at 47 percent, 57 percent, and 67 percent, respectively). While only 30 percent of black students who were strong in math went on to take AP classes, 60 percent of Asian students did. In Silicon Valley, one of the richest communities in California,fewer than 25 percent of black and Latino students successfully complete Algebra. Moreover, only 20 percent of Latinos and 22 percent of African Americans “graduate with passing grades in the courses that are required” for admission to University of California and Cal State university campuses.
Thus, the Cornell researchers’ reliance upon the subjective driver of “choice,” in both this study and previous ones, is problematic because choice is heavily determined by social and contextual factors. In the 2014 “Double Jeopardy”study, Professor Joan Williams took aim at the Cornell researchers’ earlier claim that women “haven’t progressed” in STEM careers due to conflicts with childrearing. Williams and her colleagues identified multiple factors in women’s professional stagnation; not least of which is sociocultural messaging.
When white women and women of color continue to receive a barrage of social messages and cues that they are not fit to be scientists, tech specialists, and engineers, their tendency to “choose” non-STEM disciplines and careers becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, despite institutional gender bias in aviation, Amelia Earhart chose to be an aviator (rather than a homemaker or a nurse), partly due to her drive and self-discipline but also because she had strong adult mentors—including a determined mother—who guided her “choices.” These factors, coupled with white race and class privilege, were central to facilitating her “choice” in a Jim Crow era. By contrast, the African-American female aviatorBessie Coleman, a contemporary of Earhart’s, had to go overseas to receive most of her flight training because no one in the United States would train a black woman to be a pilot.
Pronouncing equality in STEM hiring as a result of one study is a dangerous pipe dream that can undermine the fight to dismantle the very real barriers that exist in STEM representation for women. Until then, those women who do make it through the STEM academic pipeline will be viewed as the rare exception—talented trespassers in White Man Land, or worse, in the case of women of color, “the help.”
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her novel White Nights, Black Paradise on the Jonestown massacre and Peoples Temple is due in Fall 2015. Twitter @sikivuhutch

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thugs R' Us

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“Thugs”—that was virtually the first word the world heard out of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s pedigreed mouth during her press conference on the uprising against state violence and the death of 25 year-old Freddie Gray in police custody.  Facing intense backlash, Rawlings-Blake tempered her comments at a black church where, fittingly, disgraced and/or contrite members of the black political elite often go for redemption.   The epithet “Thugs”, as it’s been pointed out numerous times, is a word that has an egregiously racial/black association.  While there are corporate thugs, police thugs, suburban thugs, crown thug oligarchs and imperialist thugs (historian Michael Parenti aptly dubbed George W. Bush the “biggest thug to occupy the White House”) the term is mainly trotted out in the mainstream when black youth are involved; conjuring up titillating neo Birth of a Nation scenes of ghetto chaos, criminality and macho swagger.   “Thugs” was law enforcement’s slur du jour in the aftermath of the Los Angeles uprising following the Rodney King Beating verdict in 1992.  The Baltimore uprising coincided with the twenty third anniversary of civil unrest in L.A.  There has been little improvement in the socioeconomic climate of South Los Angeles where much of the rebellion was focused.  The current jobs’ climate in South L.A. is bleaker than in ‘92 when the region was reeling from the decline of the aerospace industry and the region leads in the number of incarcerated youth.  Similarly, the decline of the shipping and manufacturing industries in Baltimore has gutted black incomes.  Despite being in the majority, African Americans in Baltimore make approximately half the income of whites and the unemployment rates of black males are over three times that of white males. Poor black youth in the city have high rates of exposure to violence, homicide and sexual assault and suffer from all of the mental and emotional health traumas associated with these disparities.

But there was no reference to these institutional factors in the mayor’s comments.  There was no indictment of the thuggery inherent to the apparatus of state violence and racialized wealth inequality that Baltimore’s black political elite have cosigned.  While condemning her constituents lawlessness, there was no recognition of her complicity in or accountability for the abysmal state of socioeconomic and educational underdevelopment that’s festered on her watch.  As one Baltimore resident “sitting on the steps of a boarded-up brick row house” stated acidly, “We ain’t talking about color.” Masters of expediency, bourgie disconnected system-identified black liberals are always comfortable trafficking in the slurs and platitudes of up-by-your-bootstraps reactionaries.  Desperately grasping at the reins of power, Negro politicians have always been adept at regurgitating the ruling class’ language in order to deflect from their own record of neglect, disservice or outright dereliction.

The dire poverty and segregation of Baltimore may be in the national spotlight now but the real question is what will conditions in the city be like for disenfranchised black residents in a decade when the cameras have gone away, the furor has died down, Rawlings-Blake has moved up the political food chain and her “liberal” colleagues, Negro or otherwise, have become more savvy with their demonizing terms of choice.    

Twitter @sikivuhutch

Monday, April 20, 2015

Marco Rubio's Flat Earth Minstrelsy

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Ever since misbegotten Republican retread Alan Keyes burst onto the scene as the anti-Obama in 2008 it seems as if every  presidential race demands at least one hyper-assimilationist alpha male of color who embraces the Christian fascist God, Guns n’ Gays shtick more zealously than his overseers.  In a recent interview with CBS, newly announced GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio “judiciously” conceded that being gay is not a choice but drew the line at supporting legal and constitutional protection for gay couples, claiming that “supporting the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is not anti-gay; it is pro-traditional marriage.”  In the same interview he reiterated his willful ignorance of the science behind climate change.  Both viewpoints represent a repugnant backwards conservatism more in lockstep with the Party’s demographically challenged white fathers than the “fresh” “new” constituency Rubio says he’s trying to appeal to.  Rubio’s nose-thumbing climate change denialism is especially dangerous for the younger generations that he claims to represent.  Failed by segregated high stakes test-happy public schools, Millennials who already struggle to grasp basic science and math don’t need a Gen X flat earther who gets his discredited theories about climate change from the Bible.  And while Rubio demonizes cap and trade policies as “dangerous” to the economy hedge fund billionaires, construction conglomerates and the Koch brothers are among his top ten donors.

Cynically looking to play the ethnicity card, Rubio and his handlers haven’t even bothered to do any market research on his supposedly built-in ethnic constituency.   According to the National Resources Defense Council, nine in ten Latinos believe climate change is destructive and should be substantively addressed by the federal government (indeed, 92% of Latinas believe government intervention should be a priority). Climate change ranks second only to immigration reform as the most important political issue for Latino voters. According to the Latino Decisions group, “86 percent are convinced that we have a moral duty to give our children a clean planet and that our ancestors worked and cared for the Earth, so we must continue their heritage and legacy by fighting climate change and protecting the environment.”

Banking on his bright-eyed bushy tailed persona and Latino heritage, Rubio’s brownface antics are offensive to millions of undocumented, working class people of color who see nothing but nativist anti-immigrant hysteria and capitalist greed oozing from the GOP’s platform.  They are offensive to the scores of queer and trans youth of color who are overrepresented among the  incarcerated, homeless and foster care populations (unlike fellow candidate Rand Paul, Rubio has yet to say a peep about mass incarceration’s impact on Latinos.  The private prison operator GEO Group is one of his top ten donors).  Contrary to Eurocentric images of same-sex marriage, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be in same-sex families and partnerships than are whites.  Same sex families of color are also more likely to live at or below the poverty line; a stat that underscores the perniciousness of Rubio’s opposition to same sex marriage, climate change, reproductive rights and the Affordable Care Act.  While corporate Dem Hillary Clinton is hardly a panacea for communities of color, a GOP presidency in brownface would plunge gay, lesbian, trans and undocumented families of color even further into poverty.

By 2044 the U.S. will become a “majority minority” nation with whites declining to 45% of the population.  This means that the long term health, ecological and social impact of climate change will wreak the most destruction on poor and working class communities of color—communities already overburdened by policies that allow mega-billionaire businesses like the Koch brothers’ to profiteer and pollute with impunity.  Rubio’s fealty to big business, anti-undocumented immigrant nativism and the homophobic Religious Right solidly aligns him with the very forces that would ensure the 1% remain status quo—only with a new generation of brown (and black)face flat earth minstrels doing their bidding.
Twitter @sikivuhutch