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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Black Woman’s Case for Atheism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Kim Davis.  Ben Carson.  Donald Trump.  The GOP clown car.  The Planned Parenthood attacks.  The Pope’s misogynistic anti-abortion “forgiveness” gesture.  After a brief holding pattern, the resurgence of aggressive Christian fascist dogma and moral policing of women’s bodies is back on the rise.  The GOP’s full-throated embrace of its reactionary standard bearers—God, gays, guns and gynecology—are the heart and soul of a nativist revival that’s in overdrive.  Historically, when white Middle America felt most under siege “God” always comes out swinging.  It was true in the 18th century with the first Great Awakening and it was true in 2011 when Harold Camping pimped out the Rapture.  And it’s true now as white population growth declines and a so-called minority-majority society looms.

Thus, reports of secular America’s meteoric rise are greatly exaggerated.  Although the Pew Research Center trumpets a significant increase in non-religious Americans (many of whom simply identify as “spiritual”) the impact of this shift on public policy—aside from same sex marriage laws—is debatable.  When it comes to women’s bodies, science education and climate change, Christian Americana’s God is still in the big house, still a flat earther and still a raging sexist.

Which brings me to atheism.  Yes, the historic Black Church played an important role in civil rights organizing and social justice, much of it powered by black women. 

However, despite being among the most religious/churched groups in the nation, there are compelling reasons for black women to be attracted to atheism.  The stigma of public morality, fueled by white supremacy and patriarchy, has always come down more heavily on black women. Religious right policies gutting reproductive health care disproportionately affect poor and working class black women.  Christian fundamentalist propaganda demonizing abortion as “black genocide” vilifies black women’s choices and right to self-determination.  The HIV-AIDS epidemic in African American communities has been enabled by hyper-religious stigmas on black women’s bodies and homophobic, heterosexist views of gay sexuality.  In some of the poorest communities in the U.S., robber baron multimillion dollar mega churches all but use black women as ATMs.   And generations after 19th century religious orator and abolitionist Maria Stewart became the first black woman to preach on social justice and women’s liberation Black Church leadership is still overwhelmingly male dominated.

Yet, the most visible version of public atheism is that of superstar heretic Richard Dawkins and his acolytes—white dudebros who rage that Islam is the fount of all evil.  Every now and then they cheep in outrage about the anti-abortion American Taliban but conveniently turn a blind eye to their complicity in the way white Christians and atheists co-sign racist, nativist and white supremacist policies.  Comfortably segregated in their white enclaves they dismiss atheists of color who advocate for social justice, atheism and humanism.  Despite the organizing and writing of progressive atheists of color, these rugged individualists continue to be the atheist “tribe’s” official representatives.  They speak for the tribe in mainstream media; scoring big publishing contracts and tenured university jobs while reaping the benefits of white privilege in an ivory tower universe where tenured black professors remain a small minority.

The association of atheism with whiteness and white cultural traditions is one of the reasons black feminist atheism is an anomaly.  There is virtually no space for it in black culture, much less academia.  In her 1928 novel Quicksand Nella Larsen depicted one of the few black female non-believers in African American literature.  Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Raisin in the Sun also portrays a black female freethinker in the character Beneatha Younger.  Not surprisingly, given the gender conventions of the era, both women are rebuked and punished for their views.  

Aside from my books and that of writer Candace Gorham, there has been little published on black women and non-belief.  Atheist/humanist scholarship is still dominated by white males who naturally have far more institutional acceptance than the few people of color in the field.  As an educator who incorporates humanist critique of religion and gender inequity into my work with high school students I’ve been slammed and excluded by narrow-minded religionists.  Recently, a colleague informed me that the real reason a gender justice pilot I’d developed for black girls was shut down last year by a fellow black woman administrator was because I was an atheist.  Evidently this person would rather have black girls go without culturally responsive programs than see them administered by an amoral devil worshiper.

Atheism doesn’t require constant jockeying to justify the inaction of a particular god or gods on questions of morality and ethics.  Believers’ endless gyrations in defense of the righteousness and omnipotence of their preferred supernatural representative(s) are sidestepped.  Human beings have the ultimate agency and responsibility for defining morality, ethics and social justice. In a nation in which black women have historically had little institutional control over their personhood, atheism—eschewing gods/goddesses/spirits and other human inventions—is liberating.  As the white atheist feminist and women’s rights activist Ernestine Rose once said, “Do you tell me that the Bible is against our rights? Then I say our claims do not rest upon a book…Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights are nothing but dead letters.”  Centuries later, in a “secular” country where the white nationalist backlash is in the ascendant, the Bible’s dead letters are still Middle America’s fascist literary weapon of choice.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Anchor Babies" and The GOP’s Plantation Politics

By Sikivu Hutchinson

For the thousands of white folk who packed the stadium in Mobile, Alabama to hear Donald Trump this past Friday it must have seemed like old times. No PC dogwhistle limpness or vacillation, no pandering to “the minorities”; just straight talk, the kind of unvarnished alpha male nativism, Christian evangelicalism and white supremacy that rocketed the Tea Party into the mainstream in 2009.  Trump’s tirades on anchor babies and repealing the 14th amendment’s birthright citizenship clause have the GOP presidential campaign clown car in overdrive. As the rest of the field scrambles to double down on its racist appeal to red meat Middle America all people of color are targeted by this rhetoric of criminalization.

It’s fitting that anti-undocumented immigrant hysteria has become the GOP’s clarion call when the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice, police accountability and an end to policies that criminalize communities of color is on the rise.  Similar to the specter of black lawlessness, anxiety about encroaching “illegals” stealing jobs, sucking up public services and committing mayhem is one of white Middle America’s most primal fears.

Yet, many analysts argue that the GOP needs at least 40% of the Latino vote in order to win the 2016 presidential election.  So Republicans who still want to party like its 2009 would seem to have a death wish.  Back then, former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act into the House.  The statute would have denied citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented women, stripping away a civil right that ostensibly distinguishes the U.S. from fascist governments.  Deal’s amendment failed, and though the Republicans went on to big Tea Party fueled victories in the 2010 midterm elections Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama in 2012 was partly due to his poor showing with Latinos.  As a result, the GOP did a so-called autopsy on its failures and vowed to do better with “the minorities”.
But now they’re back, guns ablaze, with birthright citizenship as the new-old whipping boy.
Ratified in 1868, the 14th amendment was originally designed to confer citizenship onto freed African slaves.  As Kevin Alexander Gray writes in Counterpunch, in the Reconstruction period, as now, racism and white supremacy loomed large in public debate. Back then, opponents of the amendment talked about ‘public morality’ being threatened by people ‘unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship.’’ Trump’s call for a wall to protect U.S. borders from marauding Mexican criminals not only demonizes Latinos but evokes toxic themes of Manifest Destiny that were used to justify American expansionism into Mexico.  Themes that allowed white folk, the U.S.' original "anchor babies", to be legitimized as citizens.

During the 19th century the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States was one of “God-ordained” expansionism.  African slaves, indigenous peoples, Mexican nationals and other non-Europeans were deemed aliens and enemy combatants, anathema to the democratizing force of America.  In the 1840s, Manifest Destiny played a key role in the U.S.’ brutal occupation of Mexican territory.  Cultural propaganda dehumanizing indigenous Mexican populations provided American imperialism with the aura of moral righteousness.  Indeed, commenting on the U.S.-Mexico War, it was no less than poet Walt Whitman who stated: “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!”

Back in the good old days of docile slaves and vanquished savages, there were no ambiguities about who deserved to be accorded rights.  God ordained the universality of European American experience, civilization and moral worth.  Non-white peoples either submitted to the Enlightenment principles and values of the culturally superior West or were extinguished.  States rights were white citizens’ last vestige of protection from the trespasses of big government ramming civil rights down the throats of a “victimized” white electorate.  So it is no mystery then why these 19th century ideologies have gained fresh currency amongst a “reloading” white nationalist insurgency.  The GOP has come full circle, drunk on a cocktail of xenophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria and jingoism that should deep six its bid for the White House.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Straight Outta Rape Culture

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When N.W.A.’s mega-hyped biopic Straight Outta Compton opens next Friday, the brutalized bodies of black women will be lost in the predictable stampede of media accolades.  While early reviews have lauded the “prescience” of the group’s fierce critique of anti-black state violence and criminalization—epitomized by its de facto theme song “F-- Tha Police”—they fail to highlight how the group’s multi-million dollar empire was built on black women’s backs.

Yet, as national outrage over state violence grows, the release of the film should prompt fresh reconsideration of how institutionalized sexual and intimate partner violence against black women continues to be all but invisible in mainstream discourse about black self-determination.  As gangsta rap pioneers and beneficiaries of the corporatization of rap/hip hop in the 1990s, N.W.A. played a key role in yoking rape culture and rap misogyny. Throughout their career they’ve been hailed as street poets and raw truth tellers mining the psychic space of young urban black masculinity. In song after song, gang rape, statutory rape, the coercion of women into prostitution and the terroristic murder of prostitutes are chronicled, glorified and paid homage to as just part of the spoils of “ghetto” life.  The 1988 song “Straight Outta Compton” trivializes the murder of a neighborhood girl (“So what about the bitch that got shot, fuck her, you think I give a damn about a bitch, I’m not a sucker”) while its outlaw male protagonists go on an AK-47 and testosterone fueled killing spree. “Straight Outta Compton” was an early salvo for such popular fare as “To Kill a Hooker,” “Findum, Fuckum & Flee” and the rape epic “One Less Bitch” in which N.W.A. co-founder Dr. Dre lets his boys gang rape a prostitute then notes, “the bitch tried to ‘gank’ me so I had to kill her”.

In a recent L.A. Times profile on the group, writer Lorraine Ali extols Dr. Dre’s role as a businessman and entrepreneur while conspicuously omitting his history of vicious misogyny and violence against black women. Sidestepping the importance of misogynoir to the group’s body of work, Ali argues that “it’s the film’s depiction of police brutality, and the tense dynamic between law enforcement and the urban neighborhoods they patrol, that makes it so topical”. Ali’s near reverent profile of the group is yet another example of white America’s double standards when it comes to the brutalization of white women versus that of black women. 

In 1991 Dre brutally beat and trashed Dee Barnes, the young African American host of the forerunning rap show Pump It Up, at a record release party in Hollywood. Allegedly spurred by negative comments made about the group on the show, the beating was co-signed by N.W.A. members Eazy E and MC Ren. Pump It Up was one of the first grassroots showcases to capture the hip hop juggernaut in its infancy. Barnes’ assault by Dre all but ended her rap career,  underscoring black women’s perilous status in the rap/hip hop world as well as the obscene rates of intimate partner violence in the African American community overall (it is worth noting that Barnes was not the only black woman to suffer a brutal attack at Dre’s hands. Dre’s ex-girlfriend, rapper Michel’le, also alleged that she needed plastic surgery after she was beaten by him).

Every year thousands of black women are shot, stabbed, stalked, brutalized and sexually assaulted in crimes that never make it on the national radar.  Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate of 35% higher than do white women  According to the Department of Justice nearly 40% of young black women have experienced sexual assault by the age of 18.  Further, in Los Angeles County black girls have the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization and are more likely to be locked up for prostitution than non-black women.

And although intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for black women, they are seldom viewed as proper victims and are rarely cast as innocents. Far too often, intimate partner violence (such as that committed by former NFL player Ray Rice against wife Janae Rice) and/or sexual assault against black women are only propelled to national attention by a perfect storm of graphic videotape and feminist of color outrage. Yet black female survivors suffer on the margins in a culture that still essentially deems them “unrapeable”. 

As an educator and mentor I work daily with young black girls who silently cope with the trauma and PTSD of sexual and physical violence in the very same South Los Angeles communities “immortalized” in N.W.A.’s hyper-masculinist terroristically sexist oeuvre.  Inundated with multi-platinum misogynist hip hop and rap, these girls have grown up with the pervasive message that violence against black women and girls is normal, natural, and justifiable. Coming full circle, the “Straight Outta Compton” narrative sacrifices their bodies on the altar of black masculine triumph and American dream-style redemption, signifying that the only occupying violence black America should really be concerned about is that perpetrated by the police.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Driving While Black, Female and Fearless

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As a black woman motorist alone, Sandra Bland’s apprehension and subsequent death underscores the race and gender regime of mobility in the U.S.  For many white people, having the freedom to get behind the wheel of a car is a birthright as critical to American national identity as the delusion that the U.S. is the greatest country on the planet.  Historically, cars have been associated with masculine freedom, rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny, especially vis-à-vis highway development and the destruction of poor urban communities. 

Unlimited access to the open road was a white privilege symbolized by the U.S.’ massive investment in suburbia and interstate highways in the 1950s.  During the Jim Crow era, African Americans were supposed to yield to white drivers on the road.  Failure to do so could mean a traffic ticket, a beating or death.  As Stetson Kennedy stresses in the book Jim Crow Guide to the USA, for Southern black drivers, “When on wheels you were to do as on foot”.  Black drivers are routinely stopped and searched  at greater rates than are whites.  From the colonists to Kerouac, free, unlimited, boundary-free travel has always been a hallmark of white Americana.

Getting behind the wheel, Bland had three strikes against her.  She was black, female and fearless, a combination that is antithetical to white-centered narratives of driving and freedom in the U.S. She was perceived as criminal and unruly, a loud black “bitch” not worthy of the feminine privileges and niceties conferred to respectable white women.  Rightly challenging the actions of the officer who stopped her, she was an uppity harridan who clearly did not know her place.  Texas D.A. Elton Mathis’ comments that Bland was not a “model” person highlight the dominant perception of black women.  It is a perception that is always laced with sexual disruption and moral failing.  Black women’s bodies are always constructed as bodies out of place; uneasily positioned between the binary of masculine and feminine.

This is especially pronounced in public discourse on policing and criminalization in which black women’s experiences are still devalued by the mainstream.  In its new report, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women”, the African American Policy Forum notes that: “Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them. For example, although racial profiling data are rarely, if ever, disaggregated by gender and race, when race and gender are considered together, researchers find that ‘for both men and women there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ ethnicity.’”  Why do researchers and policy makers overlook this egregious dynamic and solely focus on African American males in public discourse?  The marginalization of black women in U.S. civil and human rights policy is a phenomenon that extends back to slavery.  As field laborers, mothers, breeders and domestics, black women fulfilled multiple roles that simultaneously reinforced and defied “normative” gender boundaries.  Black women were never centered as the primary victims of racist terrorism.  As feminist theorist and writer bell hooks argues, antebellum narratives of black brutalization often privileged black men, black patriarchy and black men’s stolen right to assume the normal role of patriarch under white supremacy.  One of the principal recommendations of the notorious 1965 Moynihan Report was that black men should be given the social capital to become responsible patriarchs.  Restoring hetero-normative nuclear black families would redeem, stabilize and correct “matriarchal” black families and chaotic black communities.
In many regards, failure to acknowledge, much less centralize, black women’s experiences with state violence is part of Moynihan’s racist/sexist/heterosexist legacy.  As the AAPF report notes, “both the incidents and consequences of state violence against Black women are often informed by their roles as primary caretakers of people of all ages in their communities. As a result, violence against them has ripple effects throughout families and neighborhoods. Black women are positioned at the center of the domestic sphere and of community life.”  In New York City, where African Americans are 27% of the population, black women were stopped 53.4% of the time and black men 55.7% of the time, a tiny difference in representation.   True to their long history of being victimized by state sanctioned sexual violence, black women are more likely to suffer sexualized violence during police encounters or in police custody.  Further, trans, lesbian and gender non-conforming black women are often subject to homophobic and transphobic language which officers use to call their gender identities and sexuality into question (e.g., “threats to ‘rape them straight’”).  Entrenched homophobia and transphobia among police mean that trans, lesbian and gender non-conforming black women are less likely to be viewed as “proper” victims and/or targets of violent crime.

This racist sexist theme of culpability—i.e., “the black bitch deserved it”—is a recurring one in mainstream perceptions of black women’s inability to be victims.  After the dashcam footage of Bland’s arrest was released thousands of online commenters rushed in to vilify her as a “thugette” who provoked the officer’s response and, presumably, her own death.  In a culture in which black female bodies are racialized and sexualized as out of place, black women are never granted the space of the open road, the freedom to be mobile, self-determined or fearless without permission.  Sandra Bland didn’t ask for it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why Prison Warden Scott Walker Must Be Stopped

By Sikivu Hutchinson
Twitter @Sikivuhutch

Here’s one more reason to rally against the candidacy of rabid Christian fundamentalist, college dropout and newly declared GOP presidential hopeful Governor Scott Walker—Wisconsin boasts the highest rates of suspension and incarceration for African Americans in the country.  As a union-busting darling, Walker has emerged as one of the key architects of the radical right’s “take back the nation” agenda of dismantling civil rights, workers’ rights, gay rights, women’s rights and abortion rights. But while Walker’s destructive right-to-work policies are widely known, Wisconsin’s status as a cynosure for black mass incarceration and racial achievement gaps is not.  Under Walker’s watch, Wisconsin, in which African Americans represent a mere 6.5% of the population, has over-disciplined and locked up more blacks than Southern states with two-three times the number of African Americans.  The state is at the epicenter of the national suspension epidemic in which black children are criminalized as early as pre-school.  Prison pipelining in K-12 is a precursor to school pushout, adult incarceration, homelessness and chronic unemployment.  Yet Walker’s policies have decimated what little remains of the social welfare safety net; denying formerly incarcerated African Americans the prisoner reentry resources they need to get jobs, vocational training and access to college.

Wisconsin’s draconian sentencing and zero tolerance discipline policies drive these gross disparities.  According to Gene Demby, “Wisconsin beats the state with the next-highest rate of imprisoned black men by nearly 3 percentage points—a gap bigger than the total distance between the second and tenth-place states.”  The majority of the state’s incarcerated African Americans are non-violent drug offenders who come from Milwaukee. The city has a 40% black population and is one of the most segregated in the nation.  While half of all 30-40 year old black Milwaukee men have been incarcerated nearly half of all black Milwaukee students have been suspended.  By contrast only 16% of white Milwaukee students were suspended.
As foes of “big government”, Walker and his states’ rights acolytes conjure up the usual scapegoats of broken black families, violent neighborhoods, criminal behavior and disrespect for authority.  But the criminal behavior and practices Walker won’t chest thump about are his administration’s responsibility for the state’s staggering racial achievement gap. Walker’s private school voucher program (which primarily goes to religious schools) has gutted Wisconsin’s public schools.  His newly signed budget would expand the voucher program, cut $250 million in funding to the state’s university system and slash school districts’ funding.  Currently the state is second only to D.C. in egregious disparities between black and white students in reading and math. High rates of suspension make black students more vulnerable to being pushed out of school permanently. And it’s no revelation that disproportionate suspension, expulsion and push-out correlate with low college preparation and college access rates among black youth.
Yet this is especially ironic given college dropout Walker’s bright future as one of the GOP’s leading “visionaries”. Walker’s white affirmative action ascent is a bird flip to people of color who don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting elected to higher public office without a college degree.  Indeed, black college graduates have higher rates of unemployment than white high school graduates.  Unlike Donald Trump, Walker is a clear and present danger to the future of social justice in America, a twenty-first century menace who would, without compromise, destroy every last vestige of the public sector and turn the U.S. into an even bigger prison than it is now.

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.