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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.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On White Negroes, Jim Jones and “Sista” Rachel

By Sikivu Hutchinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Police Criminals and the Brutalization of Black Girls

By Sikivu Hutchinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Women 'Equal' in STEM Hiring? Not So Fast

Bridging the STEM Divide conference, USC 2014

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