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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On the Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, Black Women Matter

California Historical Society

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

They didn’t “drink the Kool Aid”.  They came from all over the United States—black teachers from Los Angeles, white Pentecostals from Indianapolis, black Southern transplants at the tail end of the Great Migration, Vietnam vets and ex-hippies from San Francisco. Mostly though, they were African Americans of all backgrounds, ages, sexual orientations and political persuasions, bound by family, spouses and soulmates, seduced by the collective vision of racial utopia and adventure embodied by an activist church called Peoples Temple. 

On November 18, 1978, nine hundred and nine Peoples Temple members (including over three hundred children) lay dead in the Jonestown, Guyana jungle settlement named after the church’s white founder, the Reverend Jim Jones. After a night of terror, spurred by an investigative tour led by U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, members died from a lethal cocktail of cyanide and Flavor Aid; some by choice, some by force. Nearly fifty percent of Jonestown’s dead were black women.

As the largest murder-suicide in American history, the Jonestown massacre has become an indelible part of cultural myth, shorthand for blind faith and a cautionary tale about religious obsession.  The graphic sprawl of the Jonestown victims’ bodies, notoriously memorialized in photos that sent shockwaves across the world, is marked as grotesquely “other”, parodied in crude pop culture jokes and lore.  But hidden beneath the psycho cult clichés is the power of black women in the Peoples Temple movement.  As the largest demographic in Peoples Temple black women have seldom been portrayed as lead protagonists in popular representations of Jonestown.  Despite the horror of Jonestown’s demise its representation cannot be separated from dehumanizing cultural representations of black people in general and black women in particular.  While Jonestown as cultural “artifact” is perversely sexy—the object of near necrophilic projection and fantasy—Peoples Temple is a historical stepchild; its legacy an unwelcome reflection of the race, gender and class divide in “New Jim Crow” America. The inequitable conditions that compelled black women to commit their lives to the church and its mission are still relevant today.   

Founded by Jones in Indianapolis in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was initially a Pentecostal congregation.  Early on, Jones actively recruited African American parishioners, arousing the ire of the white Indianapolis religious establishment. African Americans played a key role in the church’s growth as a social welfare provider for the poor, elderly and indigent. Jones’ social gospel message dovetailed with that of the civil rights movement, attracting elderly black women members like sisters Zipporah and Hyacinth Thrash (the only survivor left at Jonestown the morning after the massacre). Through their wages, Social Security benefits and property, black women provided the economic base of Peoples Temple, as well as Jonestown.

When Jones prophesied nuclear holocaust in the sixties he relocated the congregation to California, establishing a churches in Ukiah, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Settling in San Francisco’s predominantly African American Fillmore District, the church took on gentrifying developers and challenged the city’s attempts to push out poor people of color through eminent domain.  Ditching old school Pentecostalism for a secular “apostolic” socialism, Jones actively courted the Bay Area liberal political establishment, and Temple members’ votes reputedly helped George Moscone’s 1975 mayoral victory.

Yet, although there have been numerous portrayals of PT’s shrewd politicking, the racial politics of gender in the movement have gotten relatively short shrift.  In my book White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is not only symbolic of progressive black social gospel traditions but of a racially divided secular women’s movement.  It is no secret that white women called the shots in Peoples Temple and that their leadership was resented by some of the black rank and file.  The movement’s veneer of interracial “sisterhood” was compromised by the reality of white female paternalism.  Survivor Leslie Wagner-Wilson alludes to these tensions in her book, Slavery of Faith.  And in White Nights, Black Paradise black women’s suspicion of white women’s dominance is symptomatic of the racial fault lines in second wave feminism.  As with the power struggles of the women’s suffrage era, the largely white middle class leadership of the women’s movement (represented by groups like the National Organization for Women) was willfully ignorant of if not downright hostile to the intersectional experiences of women of color.  At the core of second wave white feminist ideology was Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, a text which universalized the experiences of white middle class women pushing back against the narrow confines of domesticity, marriage and motherhood. 

While revelatory for many white women, the Feminine Mystique didn’t address the realities of women of color who not only had to work but often served as maids and domestics in white women’s homes.  Unspoken in white women’s critiques of gender and power in the home and workplace was the fact that postwar wealth massively advantaged white families.  New Deal institutions like the Federal Housing Administration, the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration agency allowed working class and “ethnic” whites to move from inner cities or working class suburbs into more affluent suburban subdivisions protected from the dark other.  Further, while suburban white women took advantage of job opportunities opened up by the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, black women were shut out.  This fact was compounded by redlining policies which excluded blacks from buying homes in suburban communities with greater access to white collar jobs.  As a result, when it came to equitable access to homeownership and professional jobs, black women were only nominally more “liberated” in the Promised Land than they were under Jim Crow.

In both Los Angeles and San Francisco African Americans of all classes were tightly confined to working class black neighborhoods in South L.A., the Western Addition/Fillmore and Bay Point.  White privilege conferred the white women in Peoples Temple with mobility, prestige and decision-making power over their black female counterparts.

But if Peoples Temple was a political force, it was partly due to black women’s investment in it as an alternative to the staid conservatism of the Black Church.

According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation.  Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade. Yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched up has not diminished for most African American women, despite the patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.

Peoples Temple reflected this duality. When former Los Angeles member Juanell Smart joined in the early seventies, she “had given up on religion and ministers”.  Disillusioned with the moral hypocrisy of some churches, Jones’ criticism of abusive relationships resonated with her.  For Smart, Thrash, Wagner-Wilson and others who followed family members into the church, Peoples Temple provided a bridge between the radical politics of the Black Power movement and the waning civil rights focus of the Black Church.  The Temple forged strategic, if wary, relationships with the Nation of Islam (most notably at a 1976 Los Angeles event attended by then Mayor Tom Bradley and Angela Davis), the Black Panthers and progressive black churches.  African American members felt validated by its high profile organizing around affirmative action, affordable housing, police brutality, South African apartheid and the odious 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have denied gays and lesbians the right to teach in California public schools.

However, the Temple’s pro-black activism disguised a power structure largely comprised of white women fatally loyal to Jones, who loved to proclaim his “blackness” while playing the white savior. As the church grew more regimented and authoritarian, they became his henchwomen, sexual partners and enforcers.  Hit by multiple allegations of abuse and fraud in the late seventies, Peoples Temple uprooted for Jonestown.

The Jonestown settlement in the Afro-Indian nation of Guyana was intended to be an antidote to these “persecutions”, a self-sufficient commune and “Promised Land” free of racism. For black Temple members who’d sought refuge from Southern Jim Crow in California—only to experience racially restrictive covenants, job discrimination and state violence—Jonestown evoked African Americans’ diasporic quest for home and identity.

Once there, the church self-destructed, mired in a culture of tyrannical control created by the increasingly paranoid, drug-addled Jones. Tragically, Temple members were themselves complicit in the humiliation and torture of fellow parishioners. When Jones exhorted them to commit mass suicide on that fateful night, some truly believed they would be wiped out by the terrorists he claimed were igniting race wars back in the U.S.  On the so-called “death tape” documenting the community’s last hours, a courageous black woman named Christine Miller can be heard resisting these lies and is shouted down by the crowd; prelude to the brutal end of a fractured dream of self-determination.

Juanell Smart lost her four children, her mother and an uncle in Jonestown.  Her writings on her experience capture her ambivalence toward Jones while she was as a counselor and member of the Temple planning commission. Now an atheist, she remarked in an interview with me last year, “I grew up believing that there was a sky god and he was going to take care of me.  Then Jim came along and said that there wasn’t a god other than him.  Jim aped what the black ministers did but he added a caveat and I’ll just throw in this and be their savior.  Him calling himself God was a means to an end.  What picture have people seen of Jesus Christ?” She notes that, “I have always been a skeptic so it was hard for me to be a true believer for any length of time.”  Smart’s skepticism and questioning of authority led her to break from Peoples Temple before the mass emigration to Jonestown.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of White Nights, Black Paradise, the first novel to be written by an African American woman on Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

*Portions of this piece are excerpted from the Jonestown Institute Review

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Recy Taylor and the Terrorist Legacy of the All-White Jury

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1944, a young African American woman named Recy Taylor was brutally gang raped by seven white men in Abbeville, Alabama.  The investigation into Taylor’s assault was spearheaded by Rosa Parks and the NAACP; anchoring Parks’ lifelong commitment to civil and human rights activism.  Parks created the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, garnering support from black women activists like Mary Church Terrell, and mobilizing African American communities around the nation. Taylor’s rapists were eventually tried before an all-white jury.  During the “trial”, the jury heard the local police sheriff testify that Taylor was a prostitute who’d willingly participated in her own assault.  As with most cases involving the rape of a black woman in an era in which it was considered an oxymoron, Taylor’s assailants went scot free.  Her case became a major catalyst for black women’s civil rights resistance and the intersectional connection between sexual violence and state violence.

Over seventy years later, the outrage of this non-conviction reverberates in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer accused of sexually assaulting and stalking multiple black women victims of all ages.  The selection of an all-white jury to hear Holtzclaw’s case has elicited national protest among black women activists and writers. As Kirsten West Savali noted in The Root, “an all-white jury—eight men and four women—was selected Tuesday to ensure that Holtzclaw receives a fair trial from his ‘peers.’ That Holtzclaw’s mother is reportedly of Japanese descent does not matter; once he put on that uniform, he became a beneficiary of a racist system that devalues and destroys black people as a matter of course and with impunity.  And there may be four white women on that jury, but if precedence has taught us anything, it is that white women, even so-called allies, have too often been complicit in justifying and/or inflicting violence against black women and girls. See McKinney, Texas.” 

Savali alludes to the role the criminal justice system, the police, and ordinary white citizens have played in preserving the purity of white womanhood by both promoting the image of the insatiable black rapist and the out of control, hypersexual black “bitch”.  When activist Ida B. Wells  began her campaign against lynching in the late 19th century there wasn’t consensus among African Americans that lynching was worthy of a national social justice movement, nor was there agreement about the terroristic sexual politics that motivated white lynch mobs. Wells was perhaps the first journalist to speak out on the racist and sexist implications of lynching. In her editorials she consistently blasted the hypocrisy of white savagery against black men accused of raping white women and exposed the long history of black female sexual exploitation by white men. Historically, while black men were lynched and “tried” by a racist criminal justice system, black women were lynched, raped, tried and character assassinated by a racist, sexist criminal justice system.  Indeed, as legal scholar and historian Dorothy Roberts argues, “For much of American history the crime of rape of a Black woman did not exist”. After Emancipation, black women rape victims still “had no rights a white man was bound to respect” under the law.  Police violence against black women was and is merely an extension of the brutal policing of black women’s bodies under slavery.  The “disreputable”, primarily working class black women Holtzclaw is accused of stalking and sexually assaulting are part of a violent legacy which stretches back from civil rights activist Claudette Colvin, to Recy Taylor to generations of unnamed black women victims whose sexual “degeneracy” validated white women’s bodies as protected space. 

The jury selection in the Holtzclaw case is an atrocity that would not have been countenanced if the situation were reversed. Over the past few decades, racial bias in jury selection has been vigorously challenged by civil rights advocates.  Last week, the Supreme Court heard a racial-bias-in-jury-selection case involving an African American Death Row inmate convicted of killing an elderly white woman in Georgia.  In the defendant’s 1987 murder trial, black jurors were dismissed from consideration by the case’s prosecutor.  According to the SCOTUS blog the prosecutor had identified black jurors in green highlighter and circled the word “BLACK” on the questionnaires of three prospective jurors.  A 2010 study by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative examining jury selection in eight Southern states “found significant racially discriminatory practices in jury selection”.  In Kentucky, Jefferson County Circuit Court judge Olu Stevens, who is African American, recently dismissed an entire jury that he deemed to be racially unrepresentative.
In 2011, decades after suffering a brutal sexual assault and violent attack on her morals and character, Recy Taylor received an apology from the Alabama House of Representatives. What she has yet to see is her attackers brought to justice. And generations later the Holtzclaw case is another sexually terroristic symbol of the Jim Crow legacy of the all-white jury. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Black Girls and the Police State Menace

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Whenever there’s a black girl on a school campus wielding a dangerous weapon like a cell phone, white macho can always be counted on to come to civilization’s rescue with the full force of fascist violence. These days, unarmed black children rank higher than mass murderers with semi-automatic weapons as public enemy number one on American school campuses.  Shortly after the videotaped assault of a cell phone wielding sixteen year-old Spring Valley High School student in Richland, South Carolina by a white male school resource officer went viral, a New York Times letter writer naively asked—“Why are children not treated like children when they do silly things?” 

Why? Because black children have never been children in the eyes of the police state and its proxy, American public education.  Nor do they qualify as victims within the lens of a corporate media regime hell bent on exploiting black pain, à la  news outlets like CNN.  Zealously milking the moment for maximum reality TV effect, CNN correspondents played and replayed the brutal image; first, as the silent backdrop to an interview with a Richland school board representative, then as a frame-by-frame analysis to evaluate the girl’s “responsibility”.  In their "analysis", the upraised arm of the girl being dragged from her desk was transformed into a strike against the officer.  Her flailing legs were parsed as a potential “assault” on his person.  Claiming “she had no respect for the school or her teacher”, CNN commentator Harry Houck deemed the assault to be justified, conjuring racist-sexist stereotypes of black girls as violent, lawless Jezebels.  As Color of Change activists have argued, this shameless victim blaming is itself a form of emotional and psychological trauma that would never be inflicted on a white girl.

The criminalization and policing of black girls on school campuses has been well-documented by the U.S. Department of Education and the African American Policy Forum, headed by esteemed activist law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. Black girls are suspended more than any other group besides black boys.  They have higher suspension rates vis-à-vis white girls than do black boys in comparison to white boys. One of the most insidious aspects of race/gender disproportionality in school discipline is the double standard of conduct—when black girls “act out”, talk back, wear “inappropriate” clothing or use restricted personal items like cell phones in classrooms they’re disciplined more harshly than whites who commit serious offenses such as assault.  The Indiana Education Policy Center’s 2000 “Color of Discipline” report concluded that black students were more likely to be referred out of class for lower level infractions such as excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and “threat.” Hearkening back to its Jim Crow legacy of anti-black terrorism, black children in the South are more likely to receive corporal punishment than are students in other regions. 
So while white children are given the social and cultural space to “just be kids”—acting out, talking back, playing with gadgets and clothing styles—black children must always toe the line of respectability or risk detention, assault and/or death.  And while white children of all class backgrounds have greater access to college preparation curricula and college resources, many black students have greater “access” to school police than a college counselor. 

From high-achieving older students to the tiniest students just starting out, black girls are criminalized at every step of their school careers. In a widely publicized 2013 case, sixteen year-old chemistry student Kiera Wilmot was arrested, led away in handcuffs, and expelled from Bartow High School in Florida for a science experiment gone awry.  In 2012, the handcuffing of black female preschoolers and kindergartners in Georgia elicited a groundswell of activism around the egregious numbers of very young black children who are suspended and expelled. Despite being only 18% of the preschool population, black preschool students receive 48% of school suspensions. By contrast, white students comprise 43% of all preschoolers and 26% of those suspended.  Responding to these horrendous demographics, school-community activists of color have pushed for restorative justice programs, fewer police, and less paramilitary weaponry on campuses.

In Richland, black students are 59% of the student population and 77% of those suspended.  The Richland Two Black Parents Association has been working with the national Dignity in Schools campaign to get the district to implement a culturally responsive discipline code “that clearly spells out that peaceful students will not be dealt with by law enforcement, but by school officials.” Addressing the epidemic of school push-out and prison pipelining that targets students of color, Dignity in Schools has advocated for a human rights-based discipline model which would replace school resource officers with community intervention workers trained to do mentoring, conflict resolution and peace-building in heavily criminalized schools.  Changing the paramilitary climate of schools of color would remove the real menace to the mental health, wellbeing and academic success of African American youth who are bearing the brunt of the U.S.’ mass incarceration cancer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hillary Clinton and the Problem of White Feminism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton rode a wave of feminist zeal.  Touted by Gloria Steinem and other marquee white feminists as the antidote to “the patriarchy”, Clinton strode onto the national stage with her women’ s rights bona fides largely unquestioned.    Flash forward and the adulation has waned.  As evidenced by last night’s debate, Bernie Sanders’ left flank challenge has exposed Clinton’s corporate/centrist/imperialist underbelly and made her scramble for the populist street cred she lacks.  Cautiously rebranding herself as a “practical” progressive, Clinton touted family friendly policies, an end to mass incarceration (motivated by the challenge she’s gotten from Black Lives Matters activists), subsidized college tuition, universal pre-K and defense of women’s health as bread and butter issues she’d fight for.  In a nod to her traditional base, she attacked the GOP theocracy’s cowardly assault on Planned Parenthood. 

Yet, as the economic climate worsens for communities of color, generalized white feminist shibboleths on women’s rights won’t cut it for women of color.  For example, the Democrats’ narrow focus on income inequality and equal pay for equal work (a half step that would exclude women who work in low-paid historically female jobs) ignores the massive race/gender wealth gap which separates white women and women of color.  While Clinton and Sanders blasted the big banks and the disaster of deregulation, there was no mention of the devastating impact of predatory and subprime lending on communities of color—policies that disproportionately affected black women and have decimated black wealth.

Over the past decade, the wealth gap between black women and virtually everyone else in the U.S. has widened to epic levels.  According to the NAACP, in 2012, “Wealth for black women under age 65 was $100, amounting to a penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by single black men and a fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single white women or men.” Because African American women bear a greater child care burden, this disparity is not mitigated by the larger numbers of women of color in higher education relative to men (a factor which conservatives and others cite as an example of how sexist discrimination is nonexistent).  As Nia Hamm writes about a recent Congressional Black Caucus economic report, “When African-American mothers — more than half of whom are raising their children on their own — can’t financially support their families, the consequences often have long-lasting and devastating implications for their communities.” Further, women of color are less likely to work in jobs that have wealth-generating fringe benefits such as defined benefit retirement plans or paid sick leave.  

The nexus between poverty, wealth and opportunity is also reflected in the criminalization of black girls and women.  Nationwide, African American girls are 14% of the youth population but constitute 34% of the juvenile incarcerated population.  When white girls attend America’s schools they don’t have to fear being pounced on by school police or local law enforcement for not conforming to gender norms.  As the African American Policy Institute has noted, black girls are subject to pernicious double standards about their race/gender identities.  And they are systematically funneled through what the Human Rights for Girls organization identifies as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”.  While prison pipelining ensnares youth of color of all genders, girls of color who are sexually abused are more likely to wind up in juvenile jails and experience a cycle of re-victimization that may result in commercial sexual exploitation.   Nationwide, black girls have some of the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization. 

But when it comes to the status of black women in the U.S., the intersection of sexual violence, economic inequality and mass incarceration is seldom addressed in national policy forums.  From the wealth gap to sex abuse prison pipelining, white women and girls actively benefit from black female criminalization. When white girls are perceived as brainy and/or non-threatening in schools with zero tolerance policies they automatically benefit from the wages of whiteness.   When campaigns against sex trafficking minimize or don’t focus on the epidemic of sexualized violence against black girls and women, white girls and women are the default victims of choice.

Both Clinton and her right wing evil twin Carly Fiorina illustrate the perils of white role model feminism and the optics of empowerment.  Rounding out her self-portrait in last night’s closing statements, Clinton extolled her “blessed” status as one who came from a humble background yet was able to seize the rugged individualist promise of American capitalist opportunity.  Missing was a nod to the civil rights and social justice legacies—most notably affirmative action, which white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of—that facilitated her success and helped consolidate white middle class postwar wealth.  But of course, Clinton’s narratives of progressive sisterhood only extend so far.  

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.