Sunday, March 31, 2019

Who Killed Hannah Bell?

By Sikivu Hutchinson

There are few accessible youth community centers in the over half-mile stretch where fifteen year-old Hannah Bell was killed in April 2018 in front of a South L.A. hamburger stand on Western and 78th Street.  Out for a bite to eat, Bell and her mom, Samantha Mays, were engaging in a familiar weekend ritual that should have been one of ordinary, average mother-daughter togetherness.  Instead, she became one of the scores of African American youth slain on Los Angeles streets with no leads on their killers. At a spring 2018 press conference and vigil organized to commemorate Hannah and call for the apprehension of her killer, her family and friends highlighted the irony of national focus on the Parkland, Florida mass shootings when gun violence disproportionately impacts working class African American communities.  Bell’s brother commented that, “If we’re supposed to be this great ‘sanctuary state’ we need to make sure it’s a safe place for our kids.”  Hannah had “great, positive role models. They were all headed to college, they were all learning. She was a great person.”
Nearly a year later, Bell’s murder remains unsolved, the City’s offer of a $50,000 reward for information on her killing is still in play, and the corner where she was slain bustles with “normal” activity.

It is not normal for a child to be killed at virtually point blank range on a busy street at nighttime. Hannah, like seven year-old Jazmine Barnes, whose recent murder in Houston, Texas elicited national outrage when it was reported that she was potentially targeted by a white killer, was more than likely killed by someone from the community. By a person who knew that targeting a black girl from the neighborhood would probably not elicit national attention.

A student at nearby LAUSD Santee High School, Hannah lived in an area that is notoriously bereft of safe, culturally responsive spaces for young people.  Though violent homicides have purportedly declined in Los Angeles, Black women and girls remain disproportionately vulnerable to gun violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence in greater numbers.  The nexus of these issues makes basic safety in school communities and neighborhoods a pressing Black feminist concern.  Being deprived of the right to patronize local businesses safely is not an issue that white students have to contend with in L.A.’s Westside and Valley neighborhoods. This, and the constant specter of an early death, or sexual violence victimization, are not issues that define the mental health and wellness of white children. Yet, Black girls must navigate these traumas in their everyday lives while they are still expected to be high-functioning, mega-strong caregivers conditioned to meet the needs of others before themselves.

During a recent feminist of color mental health institute for Black and Latinx girls from three South L.A. high schools, students identified stress from caregiving, violence, and harassment (at school and online) as being the most pressing issues they confront on a daily basis. In intergenerational workshops with Shaunelle Curry, founder of Media Done Responsibly, and storyteller/poet Jaden Fields, they discussed self-care and community empowerment strategies, and explored the power of creative writing as healing and resistance, drawing upon Black lesbian poet Audre Lourde’s maxim about self-care as a political act. Fittingly, newly appointed Black female California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris has identified preventing and addressing toxic stress among children as one of her highest priority agenda items. She notes that, far too often, “mental trauma is considered unrelated to medical care”.  This perception only reinforces the systemic denial of mental health care to Black girls.

Bell was killed a stone’s throw away from where LAPD officers gunned down 18 year-old Carnell Snell in the Westmont community near Washington Prep High School in 2017. The corridor is still dominated by fast food joints, storefront churches, 99 cent stores, and beauty salons. Pushing back against the absence of culturally responsive spaces for youth of color in Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) and other activist groups pressed for the passage of a Youth Reinvestment Act in the California Legislature. The 2019 Youth Reinvestment Grant fund provides $37.3 million to fund “diversion programs & community-based services for youth at risk of system involvement”. While the fund is a good start, it’s still a drop in the bucket, which is why the National Center for Youth Law is asking that the fund be boosted by another $100 million.  It is precisely because of the lack of educational, job training and therapeutic facilities in communities like South L.A. that Black and Latinx youth are at “greater risk” for becoming victims of violence and system-involved.  After a long battle with city and county government, YJC was recently victorious in its efforts to get an abandoned South L.A. jail facility converted to a new youth center for its community offices.  But, in most neighborhoods of color, the lack of access to designated youth spaces, coupled with high rates of criminalization and police suppression, make Black girls especially vulnerable to street violence, sexual violence, and domestic and intimate partner violence.

Speaking on the tragedy of Hannah’s killing last year, Rashad Mays pleaded, “Imagine if it was your daughter that was taken.  I’m asking the community to come forward and help us out.”  We owe it to Hannah and all the other victims of “normalized” gun violence right here in our communities to make their lives visible.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Southern Baptist Convention's Gospel of Rape and Redemption

By Sikivu Hutchinson
“Won’t people get mad if we criticize religion in our presentation?” My student asked. She was referring to the prevalence of sexual abuse allegations against religious leaders and my recommendation that we talk about them in our Women’s Leadership Project sexual violence prevention trainings at her high school. When it comes to reckoning with sexual violence in the #MeToo movement era, the veil of silence around the faith community remains a toxic deterrent that destroys lives. Recently, the Houston Chronicle reported on decades of abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches in a three part series (the SBC is the largest Baptist denomination in the country). The report was an important first step toward holding the evangelical Christian community accountable for the same kind of institutionalized sexual abuse that has rocked the Catholic Church.
The unseen, everyday atrocity of sexual violence is amplified in the insular culture of American evangelical churches. For this reason, it’s important to reiterate what invisible Christian privilege and supremacy look like.
All Christian religious institutions enjoy tax-exempt status, granting them fundraising clout and political influence held tenuously in check by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and by the Johnson Amendment to the US Tax Code. These institutions are bolstered by a dominant, hyper-religious culture where it’s still considered dangerous for a politician (especially one of color) in national office to identify as an atheist. They are automatically granted the presumption of innocence in matters of morality relative to atheists and humanists. Despite the Bible’s endorsement of rape, murder, misogyny, and other acts of violence, Christian religious institutions are routinely allowed to explain away duplicitous acts by Christians leaders as not representative of “true” Christ-like principles. They benefit from a culture where virtually anyone can throw up a shingle or set up on a sidewalk, deem themselves a Christian house of worship, and enjoy some measure of social respectability. They are given the unquestioned license to act as arbiters policing the bodies, sexuality, and reproductive rights of women and girls. And they wield outsized influence in school curricula and school policy, meddling in science, health education, American history, and the treatment of LGBTQI students across the nation through coordinated policy campaigns like “Project Blitz.” Thus, although the United States was not founded as a “Christian nation,” it effectively functions like one. These factors allow Christian churches to operate as though they are above the law.
The aforementioned Houston Chronicle series exposes the SBC for hiring sexual predators(offenders Timothy Reddin, Charles Adcock and Doug Meyers are all named). It also documents how SBC officials covered up their abuse by either denying it outright, blaming the victims, or allowing predator pastors, volunteers, and rank-and-file employees to transfer to other churches (such as former missionary Mark Aderholt, charged with assaulting victim Anne Marie Miller).
At the same time church leaders were cosigning sexual abuse, they were persecuting LGBTQ pastors and parishioners for their supposed sins against God. The Chronicle notes that SBC governing documents outlaw homosexuality but not sex offenders. These practices are hardly surprising given the SBC’s history of opposing same-sex marriage and prohibiting women from entering the clergy.
The notoriously conservative denomination emerged as a nineteenth century pro-slavery organization that endorsed Jim Crow and continues to entrust ordination to local churches rather than a national governing body.  As African-American pastor Lawrence Ware noted in a 2017 New York Times op-ed regarding his break from the church, the SBC “was founded in 1845 because white Southern Baptists disagreed with the antislavery attitudes and abolitionist activities of Northern Baptists.” Ware also contends that with the rise of Trump, “They hesitated to adopt a resolution that condemned white supremacy, (but) did not hesitate to throw out activists who tried to raise awareness about the ways in which the convention fails its LGBTQ members.”
The breadth and depth of SBC officials’ crimes illustrate how the structure of organized religion encourages predation. In interviews with Chronicle investigators, some of the predators commented on how easy it was to reel in victims under the guise of Christian moral authority (the reporters solicited written responses from convicted felons and conducted oral interviews with them). The church provided unlimited access to victims, allowing predators to hide in plain sight. As one survivor maintained, “It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister.” Of course, the con artist/predator wielding unchecked power and authority is at play in high profile cases outside the church, with power broker victimizers like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby. Yet, although con artists thrive in many contexts, religious institutions hold a special appeal precisely due to the cult of patriarchal authority “sanctioned” by a fictitious God. Because of this propaganda, many adult victims reported seeking out church predators for guidance, while child victims were lured or left in the care of predators.
The toxically familiar pattern of indoctrination and betrayal extends from the Catholic Church to contemporary black churches that demand blind faith as a bulwark against corrupting outsiders while they rape, steal, extort, intimidate, and annihilate with impunity. Nobody will love/validate/purify/redeem you the way we do, they all say to the so-called sinner in true pimp-pusher mode. And hour after hour, day after day, week after week, decade after decade, millions more get fatally addicted to their insidious propaganda.
Even after victims pressed charges and implored the SBC to adopt comprehensive standards for rooting out abusers, the church refused. It kept abusers in power, cosigned the abortions of victims who’d been raped, and drove some victims to suicide. The SBC case isn’t just a religious crisis but a humanist crisis. Institutionalized sexual violence against women and girls continues to be the most normalized health epidemic in the world, cutting across class, ethnicity, and nationhood. Sexual violence against men and boys is also a growing epidemic—vastly underreported, if not normalized through rape culture.
As activism spotlighting the devastating social, cultural, and economic impact of institutionalized sexual violence increases, radical humanist practice can play an important role in changing public policy, school cultures, workplace practice, and social attitudes. There is a growing need for professional development that actively challenges the way heteronormative gender roles influence violence and harassment in K-12 schools, workplaces, and religious institutions. There is a growing need for programs that redress the harm done by religious institutions and religious dogmas that prop up binary gender roles. And, as per the Catholic Church indictments and R. Kelly’s recent indictment as a result of author-activist Dream Hampton’s documentary, there is growing consciousness about the pernicious role of enablers. The predators that thrive in secular and religious institutions do so because the cultural norms of these institutions encourage it. This culture of violence ends when silence and complicity are no longer a shield for enablers.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Black Teachers Buck Beutner’s Billionaire Boys Club

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

While thousands of L.A. teachers, students, parents, caregivers and supporters took to the rain-soaked streets to strike and fight for the life of public education this week, LAUSD’s one-percenter superintendent Austin Beutner took to the op-ed pages of oligarch mouthpiece the Wall Street Journal to scold UTLA for bad math skills. The union’s challenge to Beutner’s privatization regime has been a national lightning rod for a revitalized resistance movement. 

Black teachers have consistently been on the frontlines of this resistance. A recent study on Black student achievement found that Black students who had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to go to college. Those who had two Black teachers were 32% more likely. Overall, having a Black teacher made students more likely to “ask questions and talk about school subjects out of class”. This is not rocket science for those of us who were fortunate enough to have gotten a solid foundation of Afrocentric pedagogy growing up or to have been raised in a community of conscious Black teachers who challenged us to think critically. Yet, many Black students aren’t exposed to Black teachers at an early age because of the overwhelming whiteness of the profession and racist, sexist barriers to Black recruitment and retention.

African American teachers are approximately 8-9% of the LAUSD’s teacher population. They are in the trenches of a district that has become a national symbol for the crippling effect urban apartheid, neoliberal control, and disinvestment have had on historically Black public schools and neighborhoods. This week, Black teachers walked the line and spoke, chanted and testified their truths on street corners and in traffic, driving one of the biggest public employee union uprisings of the decade.  As Dorsey High School English teacher Ashunda Norris commented, “We know that systematically, across the country, large numbers of Black students are not being adequately served in the public school setting. When the demands of this strike are met, it means a great amount of Afro American children will receive resources in their school communities that are, quite frankly, long overdue. In the spirit of Black educators such as Lucy Laney and Ida B Wells, we're simply demanding what rightfully belongs to our students: free and stellar educational opportunities.

At Seventy Fourth Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, fifth grade teacher Dr. Tammara Lewis slammed the pro-charter school board majority for taking a 174% salary increase (bringing their salaries to $200,000 a year) on the backs of children of color.  Students at her high-achieving school have reported seeing ants coming out of the classroom faucets, nurses are only on site once a week, and dated textbooks extol the conquests of heroic white historical figures in narratives spiced up with the occasional appearance of Black, Asian or Indigenous “mascots”.  As one of the few predominantly Black gifted magnets in the LAUSD, Seventy Fourth has an over 80% African American, majority female faculty. This week, the school had 100% faculty participation on the picket line. On the line, teachers spoke about providing their own funds for supplies, pushing for culturally relevant textbooks, STEM and music education, and fighting for more nutritious student food. 

Mr. Garrett Lee @ GHS
Walking the line at Gardena High School in South L.A., Restorative Justice and special education teacher Garrett Lee discussed the importance of mental health services for students of color coming from communities where there are few services, high rates of trauma and violence, and strong cultural stigmas around therapy. Nationwide, Black male teachers account for only 2% of the teaching population.  And Lee’s position is one of the scores of vital support jobs jeopardized by the district’s multi-billion-dollar police state apparatus. The district’s quiet push to phase out its already piddling restorative justice programming and ramp up funding for school police and surveillance would have the most harmful impact on Black students. As an adviser to the school’s Black Student Union and mentor to Black male students, Lee sees the strike as a continuation of the legacy of the civil rights movement and a platform for Black student organizing.  He noted that “It’s critical for Black students in particular to see this example from Black teachers and to know that their voices can be heard.” Across the district, African American students, who comprise 8.2% of LAUSD’s students, are the least likely to go on to four year colleges after graduation, the least likely to have access to rigorous A-G coursework, and the least likely to be placed in gifted and talented (or GATE) classes. Conversely, they are more likely to be “randomly” searched by school officials, suspended, expelled and permanently pushed out of school.

Walking the line at Seventy Fourth Street, fourth grade teacher Ms. Frierson stressed the need for a visible Black teacher presence to combat Black erasure: “How do we bring our best and brightest to the profession when teachers are constantly being marginalized, constantly being told ‘oh you’re just a teacher’ and constantly being forced to spend our own money just to ensure our students’ needs are met? For Black students to come to school and not see folks who look like them is problematic.  Why would they want to be a teacher if they don’t see people who look like them?”
Dr. Tammara Lewis @ 74th Street
Echoing Ms. Frierson, first year King Drew Magnet History teacher Brooke Moore-White said, “This strike is such a tiered issue for me. As a young black educator, I see few black peers in my credentialing classes. I see how hard it is for me to stay in the profession due to the low pay. I see how many students could benefit greatly from smaller classes. And I see a district that won't invest 
Ms. Frierson @ 74th Street ES

the resources it has, I think this strike is step one towards the changes that need to occur to save the district and possibly public education. Let's increase pay to make the job more attractive to qualified, culturally responsive individuals. Let's limit charter growth that has siphoned students and resources that desperately need to be reinvested in the district.” 

On her fourth strike day, Dr. Lewis, a former charter school principal, assailed Beutner's kleptocracy class agenda: “Our superintendent comes to work in a limo while students are catching buses to school. He has a strong friendship with billionaire Education Secretary Betsey DeVos. The district is trying to privatize education just like they did prisons. Board members have funneled money out of the district into charters and now their agenda is being exposed. Would this ever happen in Beverly Hills or Calabasas?” 

As the teachers go back into the streets for a fifth strike day a petition demanding that Beutner resign has already collected over 15,000 signatures.

Twitter @sikivuhutch

*Permission to use photos for reprint granted by author

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Respectability Among Heathens: Black Feminist Atheist Humanists

From White Nights, Black Paradise, 2018

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Originally published in Humanism and the Challenge of Difference, 2018
After a barnstorming night of raunchy revelry the four black women protagonists in the 2017 Hollywood comedy Girls Trip cap off their adventures with a group shout out to Jesus in their hotel room.  Kneeling down in prayer, they thank Jesus and trot out their blessings.  The scene is presumably intended as an antidote and winking mea culpa for the scandalous no holds barred behavior the women indulged in moments before.  Girls Trip raked in over 50 million at the box office and was hailed as the first black women’s film to shatter the glass ceiling of white male dominance in comedy.  Yet, in a movie that aspires to “bust stereotypes” and upend black respectability politics, the prayer scene is a clunky reminder of how faith is used as shorthand for the black female experience.  While Girls Trip superficially challenges certain conventions of heterosexual gender politics, its faith-based respectability politics are a not so subtle caveat to black women that failing to give props to God is unacceptable when it comes to expressions of black female identity.
Scholar Elizabeth Higginbotham first coined the term “the politics of respectability” in reference to confining social mores and cultural conventions that were imposed on the black masses, often by middle class African Americans.[i]  Higginbotham argued that the politics of respectability “disavowed, in often repressive ways, much of the expressive culture of the folk”.  Here, “respectability” domesticates or sanitizes black expressivity in service to bourgeois class norms that would ostensibly make blacks more palatable to mainstream white America.[ii]  Over the past decade, respectability politics have frequently been cited by writers, activists and artists as an insidious influence on black folk vis-à-vis higher education, politics, state violence and popular culture.  Nonetheless, there has been very little commentary on the role respectability plays when it comes to the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and secularism among African American women.  For example, despite the much vaunted rise of so-called religiously unaffiliated “nones” in the U.S., pop culture portrayals of non-theist or secular views in African American communities are few and far between.[iii]  
Pop culture is a reliable guide to the ubiquity of religious dogma in the African American community in general and among African American women in particular. From the prevalence of black luminaries thanking Jesus at awards shows to caricatures of Bible-thumping, scripture-spewing black women characters in Tyler Perry films to the OWN network’s popular black church family drama Greenleaf, representations of faith are a booming business in black America. 
For African Americans, faith is a deeply public cultural affair, borne of centuries of struggle, segregation, and strife. Because of racial segregation and white supremacy, black churches became an epicenter of African American solidarity, civil rights organizing, and civic engagement.  They remain vital to many African American communities because of black economic disenfranchisement and the intractability of institutional racism in housing, employment, and education.  Of course, black women have always been essential to leadership in black churches but continue to be eclipsed by a male dominated leadership steeped in patriarchal Christian notions about controlling black women’s self-determination, sexuality, and roles in the family. Historically, the plight of black women pastors “was intensified by the fact that the church has traditionally been the primary vehicle for black men to exercise both religious and political power.”[iv] 
According to the Pew Religion Research Forum and the Kaiser Foundation, 87% of African Americans are religious, making African Americans among the most religious communities in the U.S.[v]  As the Kaiser Foundation survey notes, “in times of turmoil, about 87 percent of black women — much more than any other group — say they turn to their faith to get through.”[vi]  A majority of black women go to church on a regular basis, read the bible on a regular basis and tithe a significant portion of their incomes to churches and faith-based institutions.[vii]  
According to Kaiser, faith is of a higher priority to black women than having children or getting married.  It is the glue that holds the lives of many black women together, often substituting for more traditional therapeutic approaches practiced by the Western medical establishment.  By contrast, a 2014 Pew survey indicated that while 18% of African Americans were religiously unaffiliated (or “nones”) a miniscule 2% identified as atheists or agnostics.[viii]  A majority of African Americans nones (a category that includes those who consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious”) believe in God (57%), heaven (67%) and hell (51%).[ix]  Not surprisingly, more African American men (56%) than women (44%) identified as religiously unaffiliated. 
Thus, in addition to longstanding cultural religious traditions in the African American community which stretch back to slavery, black women’s economic status is a primary factor in their high level of religious observance.  Moreover, black women have the lowest proportion of household wealth in the U.S., possessing only pennies to the dollar of white families.  In a Forbes magazine article entitled “Black, Female and Broke”, Maya Rockeymoore noted, “Single black women, for example, own only $200 in median wealth compared to $15,640 for single white women. Those with children have a median wealth of $0 compared to $14,600 for single white women.”[x] Even more damningly, although black women have some of the highest workforce participation and college-going rates among women in the U.S., these factors have not contributed to commensurate increases in wealth.  For example, according to a 2017 study by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center, “Single white women without a degree have $3000 more in wealth than single black women with a degree”.[xi]  Single white women with bachelor’s degrees have seven times the wealth of single black women with bachelor’s degrees.[xii]  Not surprisingly, these disparities increase with marriage.  Married black women with bachelor’s degrees have five times less wealth than married white women with bachelor’s degrees.[xiii] 
Thus, on every demographic indicator, black women fare significantly worse than white women in wealth accumulation.  Age, educational level and marital status did not equalize their access to wealth relative to white women.  Wealth accumulation is strongly influenced by residential and housing patterns.  Because black women of all classes live in disproportionately segregated communities with high levels of poverty and transience they have less access to the home equity that constitutes the primary source of American wealth.  As a result, white women’s across the board advantages vis-à-vis black women is rooted in the intersectional privilege of race and class.  White women have historically had the advantage of “intergenerational transfers like financing a college education, providing help with the down payment on a house and other gifts to seed asset accumulation (that) are central sources of wealth building.”[xiv]
 Consequently, gaping wealth and income disparities between African American women and white women play a key role in shaping high levels of religious observance among black women.  Black women’s relatively high levels of education also belie the reductive claim that their lack of education is a primary factor in their devoutness. 
Over the past decade, more data has emerged about gender and sexual diversity in African American communities.  These demographic shifts further challenge single variable and hetero-normative analyses of black female religiosity.[xv]  According to the Pew Research Forum, African Americans and other people of color are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual than are whites.[xvi]  A study by researchers associated with UCLA’s Williams Institute concluded that black LGBTQ folk have higher levels of religious observance than LGBTQ whites.[xvii]  This seemingly counterintuitive pattern may be due to the foundational support provided by non-traditional or non-denominational churches to queer black folk (although the study also noted that a large number of LGBTQ folk of color reported attending churches that weren’t supportive).  In addition, African American LGBTQ families are more likely to have children than their white counterparts, perhaps making access to the resources and social services that faith-based institutions provide even more critical.  Black and Latino LGBTQ folk are also more likely to live at or near the poverty line.  And black trans women have some of the lowest incomes and highest risk of being victimized by sexual and intimate partner violence—factors which contribute to long term economic instability and poor health outcomes.

Attention to the material and socioeconomic conditions of straight, queer and trans black women’s lives rarely inform mainstream considerations about their receptiveness, or lack thereof, to non-theism, secularism and humanism.  In a highly religious cultural and national context, the barriers to embracing an explicitly non-religious and non-spiritual ethos are especially challenging for black women.  As the not-so irreverent Girls Trip protagonists attest, being perceived as a good soldier for Jesus is practically a prerequisite for establishing authentic straight black hetero-normative femininity. 
Again, the absence of portrayals of black women or women of color secularists in mainstream media, art and politics contributes to this vacuum in real life representation. Black female faith in god becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as “art imitates life imitates art”.  Questions about gender, sexuality, family, heterosexual relationships, motherhood, home, and work are invariably filtered through a faith-based, spiritual or religious lens.  Even portrayals that highlight the pitfalls of organized religion still promote certitude about and belief in god(s) as an essential, redeeming life force.[xviii]  In these narratives, the flaws of organized religion and the Black Church are implicitly contrasted with having unmediated access to God’s benevolent and affirming influence (as signified by the increasingly popular declaration that one is “spiritual” not religious).  
While spiritualism may be a refuge for black women recovering from organized religion, religious melodramas remain hugely popular with black audiences.  Inspired by Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes’ successful line of faith-based morality tale films, a cottage industry of independently produced, straight to DVD “urban” (generally a euphemism for black) Christian films has sprung up over the past decade.  Often featuring black women protagonists grappling with a moral crisis which puts them on the inevitable road to redemption through God, this popular sub-genre has heavy rotation on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.  The bustling market of urban Christian films (in a genre that has proven to be globally profitable), underscores how problematic the climate is for black films that have an explicitly secular message or theme. 
Mindful of this, I shot a film version of my 2015 novel White Nights, Black Paradise, which features perhaps the first narrative film portrayal of a black atheist lesbian protagonist.  The film focuses on the interlocking lives of a multigenerational group of black women members of San Francisco’s Peoples Temple church, which was founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s.  It chronicles the events leading up to the Temple’s demise in the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana massacre.  Pushing back against respectability is a recurring theme in the development of the identities, politics and relationships of the film’s characters.  Each woman rejects orthodoxies of religion and culture in pursuit of a more radical vision of self and community.  The question of what constitutes authentic black community, given decades of de facto segregation in the so-called Promised Land of California/the North, informs the lead character Taryn Strayer’s ambivalent attraction to the secularized, activist Temple.  Insofar as the Temple questioned the white supremacist foundations of Judeo Christian religion it was a radical alternative to mainstream black churches and a diverse community for folks from all walks of life.  In the novel and film, Jonestown (intended as an independent agricultural settlement) also functions as a platform for allowing black women to fulfill the revolutionary possibility of building a multiracial society outside of the capitalist U.S.  Its promise sprang from the diasporic hopes and dreams of African descent black folk whose desire for a homeland free from white terrorism fueled by the Great Migration.  In the end, the failure of Jonestown was also a cautionary tale about idolatry, as Jones, the self-proclaimed Marxist atheist, required his parishioners to bow down to him instead of the Judeo Christian god. 
Ultimately, respectability politics, in service to white supremacy, was one of the factors that prevented Peoples Temple from being a site of genuine revolutionary struggle and change.  The white leadership largely excluded the black rank and file who sustained the Temple and Jonestown.  In this regard, Peoples Temple was a microcosm of the fractious racial politics of the second wave women’s movement, as well as a brand of secular feminism that quietly looked askance at traditional religious institutions.  Yet, while white women had greater luxury to be openly scornful of organized religion and false prophets, black women risked social ostracism and policing about their morals.

[i] Elizabeth Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 251-274.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] According to the Pew Research Center, “Religious ‘nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population…a stark increase from 2007.” Michael Lipka, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Nones,” Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015 (
[iv]Ari Goldman, “Black Women’s Bumpy Path to Church Leadership,” The New York Times, 1990 (; It’s estimated that black women comprise between one and four percent of black clergy. See Sandra Barnes, “The Alpha and Omega of Our People: A Sociological Examination of the Promise and Problems in the Black Church,” in Juan Battle, Free at Last, Black America in the Twenty First Century (Routledge: New York, 2006), pp. 149-172.
[v] Pew Religion Research Forum, “A Religious Portrait of African Americans,” January 23, 2009 (
[vi] Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll of Black Women in America (
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Pew Research Forum, “Religious Composition of Blacks,” (, 2014.
[x] Maya Rockeymoore, “Black Female and Broke,” Forbes Magazine, 2017 (
[xi]Khan Jaw, et al. “Women, Race and Wealth,” Volume 1, January 2017, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Equity and Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 1(
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 3.
[xv] The term “single variable” refers to traditional analytical approaches that do not consider the multiple factors informing identify formation, social development and subjectivity.  Single-variable is the opposite of intersectional approaches which frame identity formation, et al. through a dynamic lens which is more inclusive of non-dominant communities.
[xvi] Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” June 2013 (
[xvii]David M. Barnes and Ilan H. Meyer, “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Volume 82, Issue 4, October 2012, 505–515.
[xviii] Recent depictions that are critical of certain elements of the Black Church (e.g., homophobia, sexual predation, prosperity gospel exploitation) such as the 2016 TV series Greenleaf and the 2012 film The Undershepherd come to mind.

[1] Elizabeth Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 251-274.
[1] Ibid.
[1] According to the Pew Research Center, “Religious ‘nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population…a stark increase from 2007.” Michael Lipka, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Nones,” Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015 (
[1]Ari Goldman, “Black Women’s Bumpy Path to Church Leadership,” The New York Times, 1990 (; It’s estimated that black women comprise between one and four percent of black clergy. See Sandra Barnes, “The Alpha and Omega of Our People: A Sociological Examination of the Promise and Problems in the Black Church,” in Juan Battle, Free at Last, Black America in the Twenty First Century (Routledge: New York, 2006), pp. 149-172.
[1] Pew Religion Research Forum, “A Religious Portrait of African Americans,” January 23, 2009 (
[1] Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll of Black Women in America (
[1] Ibid.
[1] Pew Research Forum, “Religious Composition of Blacks,” (, 2014.
[1] Maya Rockeymoore, “Black Female and Broke,” Forbes Magazine, 2017 (
[1]Khan Jaw, et al. “Women, Race and Wealth,” Volume 1, January 2017, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Equity and Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 1(
[1] Ibid.
[1] Ibid.
[1] Ibid., p. 3.
[1] The term “single variable” refers to traditional analytical approaches that do not consider the multiple factors informing identify formation, social development and subjectivity.  Single-variable is the opposite of intersectional approaches which frame identity formation, et al. through a dynamic lens which is more inclusive of non-dominant communities.
[1] Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” June 2013 (
[1]David M. Barnes and Ilan H. Meyer, “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Volume 82, Issue 4, October 2012, 505–515.
[1] Recent depictions that are critical of certain elements of the Black Church (e.g., homophobia, sexual predation, prosperity gospel exploitation) such as the 2016 TV series Greenleaf and the 2012 film The Undershepherd come to mind.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Looting Public Education For the One Percent: Support the UTLA Resistance

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When the pro-charter LAUSD school board majority appointed investment banker Austin Beutner to superintendent earlier this year it effectively declared war on schools of color and communities of color.  Nationwide, public schools have been gutted by the rising tide of charterization, privatization, high stakes testing, union-busting, civil rights rollbacks engineered by the Trump/DeVos Department of Education. Teacher walkouts have reverberated across the country as states slash public education funding and schools re-segregate to pre-Brown v. Board levels.  The cynical appointment of the grossly underqualified Beutner (a one percenter white male with no prior public school teaching or administrative experience) signified that the board was essentially handing over the District to these forces on a silver platter in a swaggering f-you to parents, teachers, and students who’ve seen their schools reduced to detention centers.

When I attended Hamilton High School in the LAUSD in the eighties there were no school police, random searches or metal detectors.  College preparation was largely the domain of middle-class kids who could afford expensive Kaplan SAT test prep classes, and “guidance” counselors routinely advised students of color to go to vocational school or try their luck finding a low wage job “if” they graduated.  Flash forward and I’m the parent of a child who attends one of the last predominantly Black magnet elementary schools in a district that has morphed into a bloated police state bureaucracy.  With a dedicated police presence at virtually every campus of color, the district is a national leader in school paramilitarization. In this Orwellian LAUSD, lorded over by pro-charter privatizer shills and developers, students of color must navigate searches by deans, patrolling by police, and campus aides. Black, Latinx and Indigenous students in overpoliced schools struggle to gain access to college preparation opportunities and classes that reflect their social histories, while full-time college counselors, social workers, nurses and other resource providers are a luxury for affluent white schools.

In resistance to these blatant inequities, the UTLA is holding a massive demonstration downtown at Grand Park this Saturday at 10 a.m. The event is a clarion call to save public education from the privatization regime espoused by Beutner and his billionaire allies from the Broad and Walton Foundations.  The rally is expected to draw thousands and is being supported by ally unions like the SEIU.  On the brink of a potential strike in early January, UTLA has been locked in a battle with the district over teacher salaries, class sizes, and funding for counselors, librarians, nurses and community schools.  Although the district is reportedly sitting on a 1.86 billion dollar reserve, it is still playing hardball with the union, stalling on negotiations and ramping up rhetoric about teacher greed (the district is offering teachers a 6% salary increase, up from 3%, but has tied it to increased class sizes, reduced healthcare coverage for new employees, and mandatory professional development hours, conditions that would undermine instructional time, student success, and teacher morale).  According to UTLA: “The state requires only a 1% reserve, yet LAUSD has 26.5% in reserves. We have not been shown why it is so high, nor why district officials continue to ignore requests for financial information, the basis for why they say UTLA’s bargaining proposals are unreasonable.”  And as the district fiddles while schools of color burn, it has slashed funding for arts, music and STEM education, imposing testing that’s not even required by the state or federal government to the tune of $8.6 million a year.

In October, youth from the student-community activist organization Students Deserve confronted Beutner in a Westside mansion at a cozy invitation-only dinner on the “state of public education”.  Beutner was caught on camera scuttling away from the hard questions Dorsey High students Saisha Smith and Marshe Doss posed about the district’s refusal to end random searches.  Indeed, Beutner—who is the CEO of a district with over 15,000 homeless youth—has shown himself to be overly adept at doing overtime on district business at  expensive dinners, lunches and other toney retreats far removed from his constituents in the “ghetto”.     

The school board’s reckless disregard for communities of color is especially destructive for queer and LGBTQI students who are being silenced and/or pushed out of schools in disproportionate numbers.  In a recent survey on LGBTQI climate issues that my students conducted at their South L.A. high school, the majority of students reported hearing homophobic remarks and could not identify administrators that were openly supportive of LGBTQI students on campus.  Similarly, the African American young women that I work with through the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) say they don’t feel safe on their campuses and classrooms due to chronic sexual harassment.  Nonetheless, consistent programs that deal specifically with prevention education, mental health, and trauma for
WLP's "An Average Day in a Black Girl Student's Life"

girls of color are lacking in the district. These issues are at the heart of UTLA’s battle with the district.  While Beutner and his lapdog school board are hellbent on breaking up the district into 32 mini-districts (a tactic that is already represented by the moribund local district model) the parents, students and teachers who will be joining UTLA’s resistance recognize how high the stakes are and are prepared to go the distance.

Expressing her support for the march, WLP student Nigia Vannetty said, “As a student this march means a lot to me because of my experiences at Gardena High School. The ‘random’ searches conducted at my school are unfair and unjust. These random searches do more harm than good like disrupting class time and causing a huge scene for students. I have fallen victim to random searches and the feeling it gives you when you’re called is a mixture of fright and embarrassment. It’s even worse for girls who are on their time of the month and for their feminine products to be spewed all over the ground for the girl, boys, and staff to see. Overall, random searches are a humiliating experience that shouldn’t be implemented at schools at all. I hope that what I say makes a difference to students, teachers, staff, and administrators.”

Twitter @sikivuhutch