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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

Monday, March 23, 2015

Backdraft: Affirmative Action for White Men in the LAFD

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When conservatives condemn affirmative action they typically focus on mythical assumptions of merit, level playing fields and unlimited opportunity.  Affirmative action, as the cliché goes, is a road littered with white male victims cheated of their rightful place atop the hiring food chain by unqualified minorities.  Public sector employment, with its entitled multicultural workforce, greedy unions and overly generous benefits is supposed to be a prime example of the wrongheadedness of affirmative action.  Yet one of the most insidious ways that white male affirmative action is institutionalized is through hiring advantages in elite fields that have historically been hostile to people of color and white women.  White males in management groom, mentor and promote other white males, boosting their access to higher salaries, greater job stability, home ownership, retirement benefits and quality educations for their children.  

A prime example of this is the Los Angeles Fire Department, an elite enclave that remains a bastion of unchecked white male mobility.  For the past two years, the LAFD, poster child for public sector affirmative action for white men, has been embroiled in a cheating scandal around illegal access to hiring and promotional exams.  White male firefighters routinely circulated exam questions and answers to friends and relatives.  Company emails alerting relatives to strict submission guidelines were widely distributed while coaching sessions for relatives were even held at a city fire station.  As a result, the relatives of employees were more likely to score higher on the exams and be hired for these prestigious, highly paid positions.  The number of sons of long time employees in the department exceeded that of women firefighters overall by five times.  Twenty percent of new LAFD recruits have a relative in the department.   Criticizing the LAFD’s 2014 recruiting process political analyst Susan Estrich noted, “The Los Angeles Fire Department began training its first class of recruits in five years — 70 in all, 69 men and one woman. Sixty percent of the recruit class is white, compared to 29 percent of the city. Overall, the department has been 3 percent female since 1995.”  Citing personal reasons, the lone woman in the class ultimately dropped out.  In many departments women firefighters contend with a boy’s club culture of harassment, intimidation, belittlement, isolation and virtually non-existent paths to promotion.

In mainstream lore, firefighting jobs are typically portrayed as being the province of a small elite who demonstrate physical strength, courage, sound judgment and (that ever elusive and subjective quality) “character”.  From the all-American fireman snagging a child’s cat from a tree to the valiant he-men first responders glorified in the aftermath of 9/11, whiteness and heterosexual manliness have always been the implicit criteria for being firefighters.  Ensuring public safety is supposedly the prerogative and right of these stalwart examples of masculinity.  Yet the overwhelming majority of fire department service calls are for medical care—not rescue from burning buildings.

While law enforcement has made slow progress toward diversification, fire departments nationwide also remain stubbornly white and male, with women representing less than 4% of the workforce.  Six percent of women firefighters are African American (Teresa DeLoach-Reed of Oakland is the first black woman ever to lead a fire department.  The first documented black woman to serve as a firefighter was a slave named Molly Williams in New York City).  Similar to the LAFD, the “guild-like structure” in the firefighting profession overall has preserved the intergenerational succession of white male relatives. In addition, “Recruitment, training and leadership have helped to honor and preserve lineages that favor bigger, stronger firefighters.” 

Daryl Osby, the African American head of the L.A. County Fire Department, recently announced an anti-nepotism program to crack down on the number of relatives who get hired in the department, as well as reform favoritism in promotions and performance evaluations.

Despite these clear assaults on “meritocracy” there has been no backlash from the right wing.  Fox News and other staunch affirmative action opponents in the GOP have not descended on the LAFD decrying preferential treatment or the end of meritocracy as we know it.  True to Ronald Reagan’s old “faux pas” that “facts are stupid things”, empirical data have never fazed the GOP in its relentless demonization of affirmative action for people of color.  Documentation of the targeting of African Americans and Latinos by subprime and predatory mortgage lenders or the recent Department of Justice report on systemic discrimination against African Americans by the Ferguson police department never register in the GOP’s calculus because they contradict the white supremacist myth of the American dream.  The right wing’s destructive propaganda about bootstraps enterprise and rugged individualism is one of the greatest cancers on American public policy.  At every step of the way whites benefit from unearned advantages and privileges that people of color will never have access to.  Two major ways white working and middle class folk accumulate wealth is by capitalizing on the connections of family members in elite high-paying fields as well as by drawing on family/household wealth (i.e., property, small businesses, stocks/bonds, savings, retirement plans, 401Ks) through inheritance.  The decades’ long institutionalization of white supremacy in fire departments underscores how the racial wealth gap gets played out in the rhetoric of Americana public safety.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.  Twitter @sikivuhutch


Monday, February 9, 2015

Policing Our Girls

WLP Conference
By Sikivu Hutchinson
“Let them haul the little monster out of school and into jail”.  These were the words of a commenter on’s site responding to an article on the handcuffing of a six year-old black girl named Salecia Johnson at a Georgia elementary school in 2012.  Disproportionately targeted by zero tolerance discipline policies, black preschool and elementary school children have the highest rates of suspension and expulsion in the U.S.  While demonizing black children has always been a treasured American tradition, little black girls have never been included in white heterosexual gender norms of sugar and spice and everything nice.  From Topsy to Sambo to Buckwheat, the specter of the wild borderline criminal black pickaninny, destined to come to a violent end, helped frame narratives of white childhood innocence and American national identity from the 19th century to the present.  The hapless motherless Topsy, a black girl caricature featured in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the first and most enduring minstrel images of black children under slavery.  In the book, Topsy is contrasted with the virginal angelic character of Little Eva, the white daughter of a “benevolent” slaveowner.  The fount of moral goodness, Eva forgives Topsy her thievery and “heathen” ways, making her promise that she will become a good Christian.  

Images of chaotic uncontrollable black femininity continue to influence the policing of black girls in public space.  The unique academic, social and emotional toll that criminalization takes on black girls is the subject of the African American Policy Forum’s (AAPF) new report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected”.  Under the direction of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the AAPF has been at the forefront of challenging President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to include girls of color.  Nationwide, black girls are suspended six times more than white girls.  In big city school districts like New York and Boston, black girls are a whopping 90% and 63% of girls who are suspended.  Rates of expulsion were even more strikingly disproportionate between black and white students, especially among girls.”  By contrast, black boys are suspended three times more than white boys.  Yet, much of the national discourse around school-to-prison pipelining either focuses exclusively on boys of color or shoehorns girls in as an afterthought.  The traditional racist/sexist marginalization of black girls’ lived experiences means they often fall through the cracks of culturally responsive intervention and prevention strategies that address state violence.  According to the report, “Black girls sometimes get less attention than their male counterparts early in their school careers (because they) are perceived to be more socially mature and self-reliant.”  As Crenshaw notes, the myth of black girls’ resiliency often precludes focus on the gendered and culturally specific ways black girls are targeted by disproportionate discipline policies.  Hence, “It’s important that (black girls’) resiliency not be used to cover real life burdens and obstacles.”
The myth of the strong, self-sufficient “everyone’s rock” black woman is legion within mainstream American culture, helping popularize and sustain a thousand neo-mammy images.  From a very young age black girls are taught to be mega-caregivers; self-sacrificing and devout, placing everyone else ahead of themselves, branded as unwomanly if they don’t toe the line of respectability politics.  When she was in her senior year “Victoria”—a former foster care youth and first generation college student—would routinely come to school three or four days a week.  Entrusted with taking care of her younger siblings, Victoria often fell behind on her schoolwork.  She was also a sexual abuse survivor living in a building where a female resident had been raped in the garage.  Now in her second year of college, Victoria’s experiences were common among the girls that I’ve worked with in my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) gender justice program.  
While male students are generally not expected to shoulder the burdens of childcare and caregiving, these are routine expectations for girls of color.  In her 2002 teen girls’ of color anthology My Sister’s Voices, Iris Jacob (who was eighteen at the time) writes poignantly about the toll the unequal burden of caregiving takes on girls of color:
Girls of color have forever been caretakers.  That is what we are taught, from babysitting our siblings to cooking for our families.  Part of being a caretaker means defending men of color—our fathers, uncles, brothers…We have been trained to stand by them…We as females of color have been told that sexism does not exist for us or is not important.
WLP students report that caregiving, domestic responsibilities and supporting younger siblings are a tremendous source of stress, reducing time for self-care, schoolwork and college preparation.  Adding to this dynamic, black girls disproportionately experience sexual violence, intimate partner violence and trauma.  Many of the young women in WLP are abuse survivors.  As the report notes, because they live in an environment that normalizes anti-black anti-female violence girls may “act out” due to “untreated trauma”.  
Yet, even as they grapple with trauma and victimization, black girls across academic lines are saddled with the stereotype of being loud, unruly, “ghetto” and too outspoken.  While being inquisitive and assertive in the classroom is often encouraged in and expected of boys, these same qualities are tacitly discouraged and viewed as disruptive when exhibited by black girls.  As AAPF researcher Monique Morris notes: “There is an important point of departure between the conditions affecting Black females and males with respect to the role of discipline and educational attainment in the ‘pipeline’ between schools and carceral institutions…the behaviors for which Black females routinely experience disciplinary response are related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity, for example, by their dress, their profanity, or having tantrums in the classroom.”  Bucking white hetero-norms, black girls are often targeted and penalized for not being sufficiently “ladylike” or deferential to authority, a dynamic that is especially insidious when they’re hypersexualized by male peers.  The report notes that black girls are particularly vulnerable to being disciplined for defending themselves against sexual harassment, physical abuse or bullying on school campuses.  My former student “Victoria”, who is straight, was suspended for one day after she attempted to defend herself against a boy who hit her and called her a bitch.  “Jada” and “Megan”, 10th and 11th grade WLP students, were pushed by their school principal after getting into an argument with him about going to class. Getting suspended for fighting back against sexual harassment, physical abuse or bullying is also common for queer and trans girls of color who are may be viewed by school administrators as having provoked attacks by straight or cis students.  In 2002 Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles (a former WLP site) was the subject of a lawsuit partly as a result of over-disciplining LGBTQ students.  
Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, black girls who are pushed out of school are more likely to become incarcerated and pregnant at an early age.  Yet, there is no mainstream fascination with, nor celebration of, the untapped brilliance/dynamism of incarcerated “outlaw” black girls.  Ever infatuated with the “primitive” hyper-masculine ingenuity of black “thug” life and gangsta culture, mainstream America has no cultural space for black girls who’ve been incarcerated.  Indeed, the tabloid fetishization of young white female convicts—from Amy Fisher to Susan Smith to Jody Arias to Amanda Knox and Casey Anthony—humanizes them as privileged objects of sympathy, pity and cultural identification (while demonizing or marginalizing women like Marissa Alexander).  At opposite ends of the state violence spectrum, criminal white girls get framed as victims while slain black men get framed as either public enemies or martyred icons. 
Thus, when feminists of color argue that the criminalization of black girls demands a national policy focus we’re still confronted with the “all of the women are white and all of the blacks are men” regime.  As a publisher who recently rejected a book chapter I wrote on the policing of black girls in K-12 schools indicated, black boys “crises” should be our primary focus.  Pushing back against this rhetoric, the AAPF report emphasizes the need for disaggregated educational data that reflects race/gender disparities (for example, the U.S. Department of Education and most school districts do not provide discipline data that has been disaggregated by both race and gender).  It also stresses the importance of youth programming and curricula that address pushout intersectionally, taking into account the impact sexual violence, trauma, caregiving/parenting responsibilities, pregnancy and the educational opportunity gap have on black girls’ lives.  These are radical notions in a nation that preaches exceptionalism and profits from the violent policing of six year-old black girls.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and 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.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dissing DuVernay and the Lessons of Selma

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Every child in the U.S. should be required to see Selma for at least two reasons.  First, Ava DuVernay’s powerhouse film captures the political complexities and tactical ambiguities that informed civil rights movement organizing; from the behind-the-scenes factionalism among movement organizers to the FBI’s war on activists to the media’s influence on bringing black resistance to Southern terrorism straight into white Middle America’s living rooms.  Highlighting the contributions of black women activists and other lesser known unheralded organizers, the film reminds young people that historical change does not spring from the exceptional actions of visionary individuals but from collective action.  In this regard, Selma is an important antidote to mainstream portrayals that fixate on Martin Luther King as the sole impetus for the movement. 

Second, the lessons of Selma itself are relevant to DuVernay’s “omission” from the Academy Awards nomination for Best Director.  True to Frederick Douglass’ assertion that “power concedes nothing without demand” the snub of DuVernay is criminal but of course not unprecedented.  Just as sustained organized action brought down Southern apartheid so must sustained organized action be directed at Hollywood’s billion dollar White Boy’s club.  Each year, people of color flock to inane comedies and big budget action flicks in record numbers (Latinos have the highest film going rates and the lowest rates of representation in mainstream film).  In the few theater chains that deign to operate in the "ghetto", we watch white people play out themes of heroism, romance, swashbuckling, leadership and political intrigue underwritten by multinational corporations which rarely endorse people of color portrayals that don’t hinge on minstrelsy.  Given this, why would the Academy, helmed by a cabal of older white men like the Tea Party, give a brilliant fierce black woman like DuVernay its imprimatur for disrupting one of white supremacy’s most sacred preserves?  Shaming white Hollywood into “validating” a few token nominees of color every five years does nothing to address its apartheid structure; refusing to support its lily white fantasies at the local multiplex does.

In Selma, DuVernay alludes to the limits of dismantling de jure segregation vis-à-vis de facto segregation.  Toward the end of his life, King confronted economic injustice and the intractability of capitalist exploitation.  Moving from “reform to revolution”, his final push for the Poor People’s Campaign underscored the divide between ending Jim Crow voting rights restrictions versus redressing deeply embedded structural race and class inequities.  In some respects, DuVernay’s exclusion from the film industry’s white male director canon exemplifies the elusiveness of the latter.  While white Hollywood post-Charlie Hebdo recently patted itself on the back at the Golden Globes for supporting free speech and the increase in diverse portrayals of (white) women, conditions for women of color are still in neo-Aunt Jemima territory.  Critiquing this civil liberties’ love fest, black feminist writer Britney Cooper slammed white Hollywood’s empty activist rhetoric as it ignored the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Ripe for parody, liberal and progressive whites are obsessively fond of trotting out their savior on the cross allyship with downtrodden people of color.  To wit not one prominent white actor, actress, director or producer has spoken out about white supremacy in Hollywood greenlighting, financing, casting and decision-making.  But as Selma foreshadowed, the wages of whiteness are a far more insidious regime than segregated lunch counters.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Framing Black Queer Resistance: An Interview with Black Lives Matter L.A. Activist Povi-Tamu Bryant

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Last week, activists from the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (BLMLA) coalition spearheaded the Occupy LAPD encampment, demanding a meeting with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck as well as the firing and prosecution of the officers who murdered Ezell Ford. The issue of black self-determination—queer, trans, disabled, undocumented—is at the forefront of this thriving mass movement, which not only challenges white supremacy but challenges the orthodoxies of mainstream patriarchal hetero-normative civil rights organizing.  On Tuesday I spoke to BLMLA activist Povi-Tamu Bryant, who was waiting to address the LAPD Commission after the dismantling of Occupy LAPD’s encampment and the arrest of fellow BLMLA organizers Sha Dixon and Dr. Melina Abdullah.  Dixon, Abdullah and Bryant, along with fierce black women BLM founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, have brought an intersectional lens to the movement in an era where black youth of all genders and sexual orientations don’t see the complexity of their communities represented in hyper-segregated classrooms with apartheid curricula. Bryant’s comments on Ethnic Studies and the need for culturally responsive education were especially relevant in light of the recent implementation of a new California law banning suspensions for willful defiance in grades K-3. Willful defiance has long been used to target and criminalize “unruly” black children as early as preschool.  For children of color, criminalization at the preschool level is often the first phase in a path that leads to pushout in later grades and incarceration in adulthood.  It is also one of the most devastating tools in the destruction of culturally responsive education.  This partial victory is important in context of the growing leadership of community organizers who have waged daily resistance to police and state violence which has resulted in the stolen lives of black youth like Ford, Aiyanna Jones, Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd

SH: Historically when we look at civil resistance to state violence there has been a lot of focus on black male leadership and black male victims, often to the exclusion of black women who’ve been murdered, as well as of black women activists who have been on the frontlines of movement organizing.  What motivated you to become involved with Black Lives Matter L.A.?

Bryant: I was motivated to become involved last year after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  I realized in that moment again just how little black lives are valued, and it made me feel like it was important to be around black folks, to share my rage and grief with black folks and to be showing up for myself, my community and my family.  BLMLA has a particular frame around the value of all black lives mattering; showing that black trans lives matter, black women’s lives matter, black disabled lives matter and black immigrant lives matter.  Having that frame allowed me to show up as myself—as a black queer gender-bending woman—and it has allowed me to really be involved with lifting up the disparities that black communities face. 

SH: You mention the impact that state violence and dehumanization have on queer black women in particular and we know black trans women have high rates of physical abuse and criminalization.  How has that critical consciousness been factored into the emerging movement in terms of bringing forward activists that are doing intersectional work?

Bryant: With BLM we went from a hashtag to a movement.  We’ve tried to be super-intentional about creating space that lifts up the voices of folks that aren’t often lifted up when we think about black liberation and black struggle.  We come out of a very visible civil rights history in that a lot of the leaders that held up are often black men.  We see a lot of that happening today.  We’re trying to disrupt that narrative and flip the frame around what it means to do movement work to allow things like emotional labor be understood as movement work, to allow things like healing justice to be recognized as movement work.  We work with amazing orgs like the Trans Women of Color collective, who’ve been informing our thought process and dialogue and building our infrastructure around how do we make our space inclusive of trans women.  How do we make sure that the violence that’s experienced at super high rates by trans women is part of our narrative.

SH: There has been an increase in very frontal criminalization of black girls (both nationally and here in L.A.) which flies under the radar, especially with regards to national policy emphasis on young boys of color such as  President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.  How can we incorporate the intersectional work BLM is doing into high schools and middle schools when it comes to classroom engagement with young people?

Bryant: We’re thinking about all black lives, including black youth who have been at the forefront of our conversations.  I think there’s a way for empowerment.  I think that’s important to inform policymaking decisions and decisions about the use of funding.  We recently got Ethnic Studies passed – what are those curricula going to look like and how are they going to lift up the lives and leadership of black queer folk, black women, black youth and all of these folk who are at these marginalized intersections? How do they actually get folded into the conversation so that the students see themselves reflected in that curriculum?  Educators should be engaged in this dialogue around what it means to have an intersectional approach in the classroom.  I think there are tons of institutional barriers already, but to not even be able to see yourself in the classroom--that’s adding layers of trauma to what we’re already experiencing in the classroom.  There’s a part of me that thinks that’s the very least of what we can do.  I think that we have some people around the table in BLMLA and in BLM nationally who are thinking about these things.