Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Trauma, Anti-Blackness and Going Insane with Rage

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“I can’t breathe”. These words, now reverberating across the world in gruesome playback, were among the last uttered by George Floyd, a devoted son, friend, and father, as he lay dying under the knee of a killer cop this week in Minneapolis.

According to his friends, Floyd was a “quiet personality and (a) beautiful spirit” who had moved to Minneapolis in search of a “new life”.

I began writing this piece prior to his death. It began as a reflection on the fragile state of Black girls’ mental health in the pandemic. I kept thinking about the irony of May being Mental Health Awareness month in an era when many of us might feel we are drowning, slowly going insane with rage.

For at least the third time in a month, Black people have heard and seen another Black person repeatedly executed on camera. We have grieved collectively with the families of the victims, written, protested in the streets, called for the prosecution and jailing of killer cops, and wondered if it will take armed resistance to change this seemingly endless death regime. These atrocities are unique to Breathing while Black in America, where the 24/7 corporate news cycle and state violence intersect in a toxic anti-blackness that inflicts deep psychic and emotional wounds.

Covid-fueled increases in surveillance, suppression, and lynching have become indelible signs of the rise of a twenty first century Confederacy. Over the past few weeks alone, Black folks have been treated to the spectacle of whites storming state capitols demanding re-openings; whites  refusing to wear masks; whites refusing to socially distance, and whites saying a collective ‘fuck you’ to public health, screaming about having their rights violated by the government as police stand idly by. These “don’t tread on me” outbursts stand in stark contrast to the escalation in targeting of African Americans in public by the NYPD and LAPD, as well as with the recent terrorist murders of Breeona Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and George Floyd.  Taylor was killed while asleep in her bed. Arbery was gunned down in broad daylight on a jog. Floyd was slain face down on the ground while telling the officer who killed him that he was going to die. The family of Eric Garner, who was murdered in 2014 under similar circumstances by killer cops in Staten Island, New York, have had to relive painful memories of his death.

These violent assaults on Black bodies and Black communities have heightened the mental health trauma that many African Americans, especially youth, are experiencing in Covid times. The constant replay of videotaped arrests, beatings, and killings of Black folks elicit fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness in Black youth who may feel that the burden of everyday living has become too much to bear. Couple this with the closure of schools, and the elimination of the vital support services they provide, and there is virtually no quarter for youth who are suffering from the PTSD elicited by unrelenting anti-blackness.

The mental health toll of COVID suppression has also exacerbated the academic, emotional, and caregiving burdens that Black girls and girls of color have always had to shoulder. Sexism and misogynoir are intimately related in the politics of the pandemic, as Black women essential workers are simultaneously put on the line to die for their jobs and take care of their children. The U.S. is one of the few post-industrial nations without universal childcare, and its absence has had a devastating impact on the everyday lives of Black women and girls. As COVID-modified school schedules and continued “distance learning” become the norm, the childcare deficit will be even more pronounced.

Disparities in caregiving, and experiences with sexual and domestic violence, have long been unifying factors among Black and Latinx girls in South L.A. schools. Many of my students take care of younger siblings and older relatives while grappling with unaddressed trauma. During a Black feminism workshop I taught at Diego Rivera Learning Center before the COVID shutdowns, a majority of the one hundred girls who attended raised their hands when I asked whether they were expected to do caregiving duties that their male relatives were not tasked with. They rattled off babysitting and household chores as the most exhausting, time-consuming tasks they had to do.  As a result, they feel stressed out from being at home, juggling schoolwork, domestic chores, babysitting, and adult care.  In the midst of the pandemic, many of them have experienced the daily trauma of seeing their loved ones succumb to the virus and hearing 24/7 coverage of pandemic-related deaths. Many of them are also anxiety-ridden about predictions that their lives may never go back to what they knew before. And many of them must grapple with parents or caregivers who are incarcerated in a jail where they’re more likely to contract the virus, on the frontlines as essential workers, or out of work, facing food insecurity and the constant threat of becoming unhoused.

These stressors are set against the backdrop of looming state and local budget cuts to education and social services. Over the past two months since the LAUSD shut down, the activist group Students Deserve has fought to protect the rights of criminalized students of color disenfranchised by the district’s transition to distant learning.  In the City of L.A., Mayor Garcetti is angling to increase the LAPD’s budget by 7.1% for the new fiscal year. This move has been slammed by Black Lives Matter, Ground Game L.A. and K-town, who argue that Garcetti’s budget plan, which also proposes furloughing city workers and slash social services, will further devastate communities of color hardest hit by COVID. Kowtowing to a contract agreement that the City Council negotiated last year with the L.A. Police Protective League, Garcetti wants to dramatically increase LAPD overtime pay, as well as provide bonuses for officers with college degrees. Garcetti’s office has defended the increases as necessary for allowing police to transition into social welfare-oriented duties such as “homeless outreach, COVID testing and working assignments at emergency shelters”. However, any increase in police presence in L.A.’s communities automatically translates into more suppression, surveillance, and targeting of black and brown folks. Garcetti’s police state boondoggle is especially unconscionable given the multiple social welfare crises that the city’s poorest neighborhoods are facing in a city where housing is only affordable for an elite few. BLM and other community groups have spearheaded an alternative “People’s Budget” process that encourages L.A. city residents to challenge the City’s budget in an online survey and through public comment to councilmembers.

The U.S. police state is one of the most dangerous public health threats to Black wellness and mental health. Being able to breathe, to be mentally whole and healthy, in a violence and suppression free environment, has historically been a white supremacist luxury. Our children should not have to live in a nightmare America where breathing while black carries a death sentence

Future of Feminism Youth Conference: Focus on Mental Health, the Creative Arts and Organizing in Covid Times

How do we develop a Woman of Color and Girls of Color centered wellness

and creativity that acknowledges the trauma and grief we experience in 
dealing with racism/sexism and abuse in our everyday lives?

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

In the Time that it Takes to Read This Poem: Black Women, Sexual Violence, and COVID

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her 1993 poem “Won’t You Come Celebrate With Me”, Black feminist poet Lucille Clifton wrote:

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; 
come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

This month is National Poetry Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time of reckoning for and celebration of survivors, living and ancestral, crossing this bridge between starshine and clay, in COVID-19’s shadow.

Years ago, during casual conversation, Wren*, a now deceased older relative of mine, and contemporary of Clifton’s, disclosed that she had been sexually abused. Born during the early years of the Great Depression in the Deep South, she was from a generation of women accustomed to being told that the violence they experienced in their homes and families was the natural cost of being Black, female, and poor. She was that strong prototypical Black woman; heavily armored, guarding a tender heart, stealthy smile, monster work ethic, and a take no prisoners wit that dazzled and infuriated. Having no model, she couldn’t understand why “younger folks” made such a “fuss” about rape and sexual assault.  Shaping her life, she couldn’t understand why women of a more “liberated” generation didn’t just buck up and move on because “I was raped practically every day of my life”. Part of the African American exodus of Great Migration pioneers, she was fiercely proud that she’d moved to California on her own, worked any odd job she could find to support her family alone, and never had to depend on a man for support. Her stiff upper lip trauma has painful resonance as COVID-19 lays bare the disparities that survivors face in Black communities at the epicenter of the U.S.’ health care gulag.

Nationwide, African American women continue to have some of the highest rates of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse in the U.S. By the time they turn eighteen, it is estimated that forty to sixty percent of African American girls have experienced sexual abuse. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. Black women are also more likely to die at the hands of a current or former intimate partner than any other group in the country.

In the time that it takes to read this piece, a Black girl will have been sexually assaulted and a Black woman murdered by a husband, lover, or ex-partner.

In the time that it takes to read this piece, a Black child will be left motherless as the result of homicide by her one and only true love.

In the time that it takes to read Clifton’s poem, a Black child will be molested by a “trusted” family member who has groomed them with promises, treats, and whispers to 'stay silent'.

In the time that it takes to cross the bridge between starshine and clay, a Black child will be trafficked over and over again because the rape of a minor is a more valuable capitalist street commodity than drugs.

These brutal hidden-in-plain-sight realities have been ripped open as a result of decades of anti-violence activism. Yet, as a survivor and mentor to Black girls, I am reminded every damn day that the scope and atrocity of sexual violence has not changed significantly over the course of my lifetime. As survivors many of us are reminded that even though we fight to end child sexual abuse, and even though we “celebrate everyday something that has tried to kill us and failed”, we continue to grieve our childhoods.

Reflecting on early sessions of the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP) in the eighties, founder Byllye Avery recalled that “The number one issue for most of our sisters is violence—battering, sexual abuse. Whether they are twelve or four.” In their 2003 book, Gender Talk, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Johnetta Cole describe NBWHP’s powerful and near heretical platform for Black women’s self-determination. “During the early years of the project, Black women broke the conspiracy of silence and dared to speak about the race secrets they’d been programmed to keep.” Then and now, these race secrets entailed unquestioned allegiance to Black patriarchy, the Black church, and Black heteronormativity. Then and now, to paraphrase Sheftall, Black folks are often more galvanized by police violence against Black men than the hidden-in-plain-sight violence that occurs every minute of every hour against Black women, girls, and children in our own homes, churches, and families.  

COVID-19 has amplified this regime of violent silence and complicity. Noting the intersection of sexual violence and COVID-related disparities, Black feminist activist, filmmaker, and author Aishah Shahidah Simmons has called institutionalized sexual abuse and sexual violence a “pandemic within a pandemic”. Rape culture as a constant, unrelenting fact is one of the many “silent” ways normalized violence and misogynoir shape the lives of Black women and Black people on a day-to-day basis regardless of viral outbreaks. Yet, the coronavirus’ devastating economic and social toll on communities of color has been insidiously reflected in skyrocketing sexual, intimate partner, and domestic violence rates.  With the escalation of the outbreak and global shutdowns, domestic violence hotlines have reported an uptick in victim calls, while providers work around the clock to provide mental health resources, shelter, and other forms of victim assistance to survivors. Shelter in place orders are especially difficult for Black girls and girls of color who, even under normal circumstances, must juggle schoolwork, caregiving, and household responsibilities. Now, many have the added burden of being at home (recognizing that home could be a group home, camper, shelter or traditional house) where they may be more likely to experience abuse without the buffer of school resources or adult advocates who provide a safe haven.

Stress and burnout related to gender-specific duties are common themes among my students. Our imperative during the pandemic has been creating safe spaces for them to write, talk, reflect, and self-care.  While feelings of depression, fear, and anxiety are pervasive symptoms of COVID’s staggering mental health impact, Black girls have always struggled with the cultural demand that they repress their emotions and “keep it moving”. This is the story that connects my grandmother’s generation to Generation Z youth coming of age in a #MeToo and “Surviving R Kelly” era still defined by the racist/sexist privileging of white female victimhood and Black male redemption.

Aishah’s new anthology Love With Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Violence addresses these issues head on. The collection, which features essays from Black diasporic child sexual abuse survivors and advocates, including me, highlights restorative justice community-building and critical resistance from an African descent perspective. In the introduction, Aishah explores her own complex history of sexual violence and the hierarchy of oppression(s) in communities of color. She argues,  “It is my affirmation that every single one of us will make the commitment to refrain from marginalizing, or, worse, condoning child sexual abuse or any other form of gender-based violence in the name of any “greater issue” which in communities of color often means solely focusing on white supremacy…the eradication of racism and white supremacy alone will not make our communities safe. We should not have to be murdered by white vigilantes, the police, or any other apparatus of the state in order for our communities to believe harm has been committed. For many survivors of child sexual abuse, physical death is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to us, especially when we have to engage with our harm-doers over and over again without any form of accountability.”

These words resonate when I think about Wren’s generation and those before hers. Black women steeped not only in the trauma and shame of ritualized anti-Black misogynist violence but in the fighting power, creativity, and resilience of thriving survival. In the time that it takes to read this piece, a Black girl might find the healing truths of a Black woman ancestor, holding onto her for dear life, crossing this bridge between starshine and clay.

*Name changed

Saturday, April 11, 2020

COVID Quackery, Faith and Race

By Sikivu Hutchinson

"I'm a Christian and there is a way that the Bible says to protect us from plagues.” This robust declaration was made by one Prophet Climate Wiseman of South London’s Kingdom Church in defense of his “divine plague protection oil” and red yarn coronavirus “cures”. Wiseman is currently under investigation by England’s Charity Commission and has charged that the secular movement and those who hate god are fueling attacks on his credibility. On his website, Wiseman also boasts that his “Miracle Pack” cure has helped millions in the UK and the U.S.  A grainy promotional video on the site depicts a Black woman using the cure to rebound from dreams about witchcraft.  Like notorious white Christian fundamentalist quack Jim Bakker, the Kingdom Church’s charlatan, who is of African descent, exploits the fears of gullible low income believers for a quick buck. Of course, faith healing and snake oil have a long, twisted legacy. Religious crooks have always used them to line their pockets while pimping divine access, but the latest crop of prophet-eers is even more pernicious when viewed within the context of a pandemic that is devastating Black communities and other communities of color.

From Evangelical defiance about holding church services to faith-based rumors of miracle cures (e.g. Trump's widely refuted claims about hydroxychloroquine) and urban legend conspiracy theories minimizing the outbreak, COVID quackery is a virus unto itself. On the far right, COVID denialists and skeptics hold court at Fox News, ginning up vitriol while portraying the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to hijack Trump’s reelection. After the U.S. outbreak accelerated in March, homophobic white evangelical pastors framed COVID as a symptom of God’s judgment against immoral LGBTQ communities. Right wing Christian Trump supporters like Billy Graham offspring Franklin Graham ran TV ads exhorting viewers to call in to his ministry and pray for forgiveness. Liberty University head Jerry Falwell Jr., another spawn of a right wing fundamentalist dynasty, told Fox that coronavirus might be a “bioweapon manufactured in North Korea”.  

In Kansas, four deadly coronavirus clusters came from religious gatherings. After Kansas governor Laura Kelly issued an executive order banning gatherings of more than ten people, it was vetoed by Republicans. As a result, Kelly asked the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn the Republican veto and uphold the ban. In advance of Easter, Kentucky’s Democratic governor announced that he would require those who violate a state order on large gatherings, including at churches, to quarantine for fourteen days. Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who made headlines when he tested positive for coronavirus last month, slammed the decision as anti-Christian discrimination.

On the flip side, some in the African American community initially shrugged off the seriousness of COVID. As recently as last week, my mother was asked by a man in the grocery store why she was wearing a mask. “You know Black folks can’t get it, right?” He chuckled. A cousin routinely refers to the pandemic as the so-called coronavirus outbreak. Although science skepticism among Black folks was historically tied to institutionalized white supremacist medical apartheid targeting black bodies, the persistence of myths that African Americans are “immune” to COVID is also part of a larger climate of faith-based and reactionary pushback. Case in point is a widely circulated tweet suggesting that “immunity” is “God’s” reward for Black folks enduring slavery.

Faith-based denialism and quackery are especially insidious given deep racial disparities in work, health access, and contraction rates. Writing in a March Christianity Today article, authors Elaine Howard and Deidra Coleman speculated that anxiety about the virus might be a form of privilege. Black folks could be far too preoccupied with struggling to provide for their families in the day-to-day to be concerned about taking precautions. In addition, blue collar Black workers are less likely to have paid sick leave and job benefits that safeguard them from layoffs. They are also the least likely to be employed in jobs that allow them to telework.

In her article, “On Being Black, Southern and Rural in the Time of COVID-19”, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson examines the role subpar health care access expansion has played in the rapidly accelerating number of Black folks affected by COVID. Henderson zeroes in on the failure of many Southern states to fund Medicaid expansions. The absence of health care access contributes to a violent self-fulfilling prophecy—African Americans are shut out of the health care system, are more likely to have underlying conditions exacerbated by these gaps in health care, are not fully educated about the dangers of COVID, and consequently end up contracting the disease in disproportionate numbers.

Responding to skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Chicago’s African American community, mayor Lori Lightfoot has created a Racial Equity Rapid Response team that focuses on providing communities with information, health resources, and science-based education. On the federal level, Congressional Black Caucus chair and Los Angeles Congresswoman Karen Bass is pursuing a bill that will provide COVID education, treatment, and funding for African American community-based organizations. Measures would also be put in place to ensure release of and protections for incarcerated populations who are most imperiled by the pandemic. In Milwaukee, where half of the city’s cases are Africa American, the health commissioner said, “We declared racism as a public health issue...It frames not only how we do our work, but how transparent we are. It impacts how we manage an outbreak.” Milwaukee was one of the first cities to publish its racial data and develop an action plan for disproportionately affected communities. Science-based education and data, equitable testing and treatment, rejecting faith-based hysteria, and pushing for a racial justice stimulus that specifically addresses the public health legacy of racism, poverty, and white supremacy are the best weapons for loosening COVID’s deadly grip.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Black Skeptics L.A. COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund

In times of crisis, secular communities of color, as well as queer and LGBTQIA+ communities, are often forced to rely on religious and faith-based institutions for aid and assistance. The BSLA fund is designed to provide immediate assistance to secular people of color and their families -- across religious affiliation -- during the pandemic, when Black, Latinx, indigenous and Asian communities are experiencing record rates of homelessness, joblessness, health disparities, and educational disruption.

Fund Application Link:

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Pushing Out Black Students With Disabilities Under COVID-19

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Over the past two turbulent weeks, empty public schools and barren playgrounds have become stark symbols of how COVID-19 has exacerbated structural inequality. Massive layoffs, food insecurity, and lethal gaps in sick leave, healthcare, childcare provision, housing, and transportation have always been a way of life for people of color, but the pandemic has further exposed this Rubicon as a neoliberal nightmare—the spectral chickens of Reaganomics come to roost.  The recent wave of district-wide school closures highlights their importance as some of the few remaining public “sheltering” spaces where vulnerable children can receive wraparound social welfare services. The shutdowns not only impact classroom instruction, but the mental health care provided by scores of psychiatric social workers, nurses, healthy start coordinators, speech therapists, and other support staff who do their work on the precipice of budget cuts and Orwellian government bureaucracy. For this reason, the COVID breakdown has already proven to be disastrous for children with disabilities. These youth are criminally underserved when it comes to quality classroom instruction in real time. Although they are confronted with a huge technology gap in the COVID age, the gap in instructional time and support services remains a primary issue because special needs students are even more prone to being isolated and pushed out when school schedules are disrupted.

Nationwide, approximately 67% of students with disabilities graduate from high school, versus 84% of students without disabilities. Due to deeply ingrained racist cultural expectations, poverty, and “lower” high stakes test scores, African American students are more likely to be identified as having learning disabilities. However, they typically do not receive the wraparound services that they need to support their learning and social-emotional development (there is recent data, contested by researchers at the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, that suggests that white students are actually more likely to be assigned to special education, while reaping the most benefit from coordinated support, resources, and therapy). Couple this with higher rates of policing and discipline on K-12 campuses, and Black students are at ground zero when it comes to the nexus of disability, criminalization, and school segregation. According to the 2018 “Disabling Punishment” report, “on average, students with disabilities lose over 56 days of instruction for every 100 students with disabilities enrolled” due to discipline. The majority of suspensions are “for minor misbehaviors”, with African American students being the most heavily penalized. Nevada, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri were the worst offenders. Under the corrupt leadership of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has challenged Obama administration-era guidelines protecting students with disabilities and students of color from disproportionately harsh discipline.  

In its egregious response to the pandemic, the DOE issued guidelines that relieve schools of providing in- person educational assistance to students with disabilities if there are no in-person instructional services being offered to the general student population. This directive has been criticized by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which represents special education attorneys.  The directive further disadvantages disabled students and their families because they are now solely responsible for providing the critical support they’d relied on from schools. Many of my students—from foster care, undocumented, homeless, LGBTQIA+, and special needs backgrounds—do regular check-ins with counselors and specialists to ensure their wellbeing as well facilitate their academic progress. Without this support, they might languish. As one special education instructor noted in the L.A. Times, “There’s stress about them losing skills…a lot of our students really thrive with a high level of structure and routine, especially our students on the autism spectrum.”
These concerns have been echoed by providers I’ve spoken to in South L.A.  high schools, who point to a lack of clear coordination for students with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) by the LAUSD. In my work as a resource provider and mentor at LAUSD schools, the relationships I’ve forged with restorative justice coordinators, Healthy Start providers, counselors, and psychiatric social workers have been invaluable. These dedicated caregivers are a lifeline for African American students (across the ability and needs spectrum), especially when it comes to bridging academics, social-emotional needs, and mental health.

At the end of the day, COVID has further underscored how the LAUSD’s diversion of state funding to school police over counselors and mental health practitioners harms African American students and other students of color (According to UCLA’s 2018 “Policing Our Students” report, Black students represented 25% of students arrested by LAUSD school police, despite comprising only 9% of the district). In a District where these practitioners often fight year in and year out at the school board to save their jobs, the next few months will strain fragile therapeutic networks to the brink. Ultimately, pressure must be kept on school districts nationwide to ensure that students are provided with speech pathology tele-therapy, daily assistance with IEPs through video conferencing, unrestricted access to culturally responsive distance learning platforms designed for disabled students, and mental health support services for parents and caregivers forced to navigate this new terrain while juggling work, childcare, and economic challenges. Creating schools based on a culture of justice and caregiving, rather than pushout, is one of the best remedies for a pandemic that has the lives of children of color hanging in the balance.  

LAUSD School Board Member Contact Info,,,,,,
LAUSD Superintendent
Austin Beutner
Phone: 213.241.7000
Fax: 213.241.8442