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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

#AtheismSoWhite: Atheists of Color Rock Social Justice

SSJcon 2016 beyond #atheismsowhite

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Back in the day, supergroups ruled rock’s largely white, largely male landscape.  Megaliths like my boys Cream, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young bestrode the earth in all their swaggering testosterone-oozing alpha glory.  They dominated the music charts and arenas with power chord chestnuts which legitimized the careers of gatekeeping white music critics and fueled a multi-billion dollar recording industry fattened by the unsung influence of black rock trailblazers like Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.  Outmoded, the supergroups of the 60s and 70s eventually crashed and burned, victim to the ravages of time, drugs, egos, corporate bloat, and the encroachments of Disco and punk.

The recent merger of the secular organization Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDF) has been dubbed atheism’s supergroup moment.  Acknowledging the two organizations’ outsized presence in the atheist world, Religion News Service acidly declared it a “royal wedding”.   The partnership, which gives Richard Dawkins a seat on the CFI board, smacks of a vindication of Dawkins’ toxic brand of damn-all-them-culturally-backward-Western-values-hating- Muslims New Atheism.  As one of the most prominent global secular organizations, CFI’s all-white board looks right at home with RDF’s lily white board and staff.

Meanwhile, atheists and humanists of color have been going against the white grain to address issues that much of organized atheism and humanism are resistant if not outright hostile to.  Last week, the Black Non-Believers organization, the largest network of African American atheists in the country, celebrated its five-year anniversary in Atlanta, Georgia.  Founded by activist Mandisa Thomas, the network is an antidote to the ostracism black atheists in the Bible Belt and beyond experience, especially in the absence of supportive secular institutions. 

The intersection of racial segregation, economic inequality and cultural identity is the reason why religious traditions predominate in black communities.  When African Americans across the economic spectrum look to social welfare, educational and civic organizations they are more often than not tapping into those either provided by or connected to faith-based institutions.  For example, at a recent Drew University conference (named after pioneering African American physician and scientist Charles Drew) I attended on resiliency and African American men, faith was often cited as key to motivating young black men to pursue community leadership and academics.  High school students spoke of getting mentoring and college readiness resources from their congregations.  In South Los Angeles, reentry programs that provide jobs for formerly incarcerated black workers meet in and partner with churches.  In the absence of community, job and recreation centers, churches offer stable physical space which simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in most poor and working class communities of color. Simply put, churches—for good or ill—are a political and social platform for people of color in the absence of the kind of secular institutions that provide white people with political leverage, visibility, and validation.  Atheists who bash religion but aren’t about the business of building social justice institutions that provide alternatives to religious ones are just making noise.
The need for secular reentry initiatives is one issue that will be taken up at this week’s Secular Social Justice conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  Featuring atheist and humanist activists, educators and writers of color, the event is the only secular conference to focus exclusively on racial, gender and economic justice in communities of color without apology or accommodation to white folks’ let’s-ghettoize-this-into-a-diversity-panel reflex. From the cultural relevance of feminism, to the impact of mass incarceration, the intersectional activism of queer atheists of color and the neoliberal re-segregation of public schools, progressive folk of color who also identify as atheist and/or humanist are broadening the scope of atheist activism beyond merely challenging religious prejudice.

LGBTQ queer Black atheists on Social Justice

But, typically, mainstream media can’t seem to see atheists or atheist “activism” unless it’s Dawkins or Sam Harris going on yet another Islamophobic atheist rock star rant. Last year’s CNN show featuring the white atheist elite—the most privileged among an already economically and racially privileged class—reinforced the reductive anti-religious focus of mainstream atheism.  Having the ability to claim the space of atheism unabashedly, while being viewed as a secular authority, has everything to do with race, gender, class, and sexual privilege.  It is precisely because Dawkins and company are not criminalized, protected from the brunt of state violence due to their inhabitance of white male cis bodies, that they’ve gained global credence as atheist paragons of science and reason.  Of course, mainstream media will never be ready for the intersectional atheist organizing represented by non-believers of color who’ve pushed the movement to go beyond the safe platitudes of church state separation.  That would involve confronting the “revelation” that a humanistic atheism demands more than simply non-belief, but a radical dismantling of the same old social norms that center whiteness, maleness, straightness and private enterprise as “secular” God substitutes. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Blood on Their Hands: Tamir Rice’s Stolen Innocence

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Once again, white America can breathe a collective sigh of relief that its kids are alright.  They are protected, they are innocent, they are worthy of all the privileges that the U.S.' bankrupt legal system can offer.  They are validated as human beings and as children who should be allowed to experience life as children.  When they fall, make mistakes, push boundaries, the system is always there to catch them.

Condemning Cuyahoga County, Ohio prosecutor Tim McGinty’s decision not to indict the white officer who murdered twelve year-old Tamir Rice, the Reverend Traci Blackmon said, “Even in an open carry state, the killing of a black child carrying a pellet gun is rendered justifiable.  Blackmon’s reference to open carry is a reminder of the racist hypocrisy of the NRA’s pathological gun culture, its role in shaping American male identity and white nationhood; and its deadliness when it comes to the lives of black youth. Because open carry is designed to ensure white citizens’ right to exercise violence in public space, Rice could only have been protected by the logic of this permissive gun law if he was white.   

In the death scope of the Cleveland police and the Cuyahoga grand jury, the state’s second murder weapon of choice, Tamir Rice could only be a lawless criminal, junior thug and public enemy, “older” than he appeared and hence culpable for his own murder. What he was not was a typical boy—a child playing cops and robbers with the same toy gun that scores of white boys pick up in the course of an average day, a child mimicking the very police officers who assiduously protect their families and communities from the black Other represented by twelve year-old babies like Rice.
In 2010, when seven year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was murdered as she slept in her bed by a white Detroit police officer during a SWAT team raid on her home, the community marched, protested and mobilized against police terror. Because she was a black girl, Jones’ execution did not receive the same level of attention that Rice’s has.  In January, after nearly five years of legal wrangling, mistrials and retrials, all charges against Joseph Weekley, Jones’ killer, were dropped and he walked free. 

As an instrument of the prosecution, the grand jury process shielded Rice’s killers from justice.  Writing in the Washington Post, Ari Melber notes, “Grand juries are built to be a tool of prosecutors. They don’t hear from both sides in a case, like a trial jury would. They hear only from the prosecutor, who decides what evidence and testimony is presented.  That’s why the old saying goes that a grand jury will ‘indict a ham sandwich’ if a prosecutor tells them to — because the prosecutor calls the shots…assum(ing) the prosecutor wants to prosecute and, ultimately, secure a conviction.”

McGinty and his grand jury have blood on their hands.  And while the U.S. masquerades as an exceptionalist beacon of democracy, smugly "superior" to other nations’ illiberal rejection of due process, the community is calling for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate the grand jury process and immediately fire Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir. The lives and stolen innocence of all black children demand no less.

Monday, December 14, 2015

No, Trump’s Racist Anti-Muslim Proposal is Very American

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1963, Malcolm X declared that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was an example of “chickens coming home to roost”.  He argued that the U.S.’ climate of bigotry and state violence was to blame for his death.  Taken out of context, his comments were misconstrued by some as endorsing Kennedy’s murder.  In an interview with journalist Louis Lomax he maintained, “I meant that the death of Kennedy was the result of a long line of violent acts, the culmination of hate and suspicion and doubt in this country.”

Malcolm X’s critique resonates in an environment of in-your-face white supremacist vitriol stoked by nearly eight years of hating on Obama and social justice.  Exhibit A is Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and the nativist feeding frenzy it’s inspired from white Middle America.

Yet, one of my pet peeves is those who self-righteously claim that these fascist acts are “un-American”, when they are merely chickens coming home to roost. In his criticism of Trump’s rhetoric, President Obama claimed that this “is not who we are as Americans”.  Continuing in this vein, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote recently about being “appalled” by Trump’s bigotry as a naturalized American citizen (the essay is entitled “I am a Muslim. But Trump’s views appall me because I’m an American”).  Zakaria said he’s “proud of that identity because as an immigrant, it came to me through deep conviction and hard work, not the accident of birth.” 

Zakaria’s statements are problematic on a few levels.  First, there is the specter of model minority bootstraps meritocracy implied by the characterization “hardworking immigrant”.  While some are “simply” granted the so-called rights and privileges of American citizenship due to the accident of birth, others like Zakaria, have worked damn hard to earn it.  Zakaria’s evocation of American exceptionalism discounts the realities of people of color in a nation where “hardworking” has practically become an antonym for being black. 

Secondly, Zakaria laments being forced to claim his Muslim otherness despite identifying as a secular agnostic. Perhaps privileged brown folk like him can turn a blind eye to the pervasive invisibility and bigotry that non-white non-Christian Americans experience, but the majority don’t have the luxury.
After each terror attack allegedly perpetrated in the name of Islam, the U.S. launches into a predictable cycle of heightened anti-Muslim Islamophobic attacks and hate incidents.  Muslim communities become more visible to the mainstream as a reviled other, while public officials decry these explicit acts of profiling as an anomaly—not reflective of the “true” spirit of American values.

But the true spirit of American values has always been demonization of the other in the name of “democracy”.  Homilies about the U.S.’ moral uprightness and vaunted democratic freedoms are belied by the staggering reality of epic racial wealth gaps, deepening racial segregation and state violence.  Exceptionalists like Obama and Zakaria cling to the notion that the U.S. has the highest standard of living and greatest economic mobility among “developed” nations.  They peddle the illusion of American religious freedom and tolerance, despite the overwhelmingly Christian face of elected officials and the anti-Muslim, anti-secular bigotry that this dominance fuels. And they bandy the myth of civil education despite the apartheid structure of American public schools, their Eurocentric curricula, destructive zero tolerance policies and policing of children of color. 

What the “I’m appalled because I’m an American” flag-wrapping posture really implies is that those others—in backward non-enlightened, non-Western societies that are supposedly so radically different from ours—don’t have the same high regard for principles of equality and justice.

Tell that to the descendants of Japanese Americans displaced from their homes, jobs and livelihoods during the World War II-era internment.

Tell that to the hundreds of activists of color discredited and slaughtered under the U.S.’ COINTELPRO regime. Tell that to black children systematically brutalized in the Obama administration’s police state schools while they pledge “one nation under God”.  Flag wrapping and patriotism in the face of fascism, overt and covert, are the last refuge of ahistorical scoundrels. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The GOP's Christian Fascist Litany of Hate

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Now that the GOP has declared open season on human rights its surrogates are out in full force, shoring up the Party’s ground game with the deadly zeal of an old time Christian tent revival.  After months of anti-abortion backlash from Republicans on Capitol Hill, yet another right-wing influenced anti-abortion terrorist gunned down and murdered several people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. After weeks of Fox commentators demonizing Black Lives Matter organizers, several activists were shot during a peaceful demonstration in Minneapolis.  And after a steady drumbeat of post-Paris anti-Muslim tirades from Donald Trump and his GOP clown car compatriots, members of a local mosque in Fredericksburg, Virginia were verbally attacked by residents for being part of an “evil cult”.  While the GOP vilifies the dark Other of heartland nightmare, the national security threat of armed red-blooded white American males—the NRA’s “good guys” with guns—remains unaddressed. 

The GOP’s racist, sexist, xenophobic platform of religious extremism has created a climate in which the public rhetoric and apparatus of state violence are in perfect alignment.  Trump has been the Party’s most potent mouthpiece for Christian white supremacy.  His call for a national registry to track Muslims, as well as surveillance of “certain” mosques, is merely the natural progression of the nativist platform he articulated this summer.  As has been widely noted, his vociferous stance on immigration almost singlehandedly shifted the debate to a national security pissing contest over which Republican candidate is macho enough to take on the border, and now, ISIS.  In a recent CBS poll, Republican voters say that, “ISIS has become a litmus test for candidates … and immigration a deal breaker”.  The increasing “hawkishness” of the Republican electorate has ominous overtones for a renewed military push in the Middle East. 

Yet, nipping at Trump’s heels is radical right attack dog Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  Due to his strong coalition building among Christian evangelicals and bully pulpit in the Senate, Cruz poses a more credible long term threat than Trump.  According to new polls, Cruz has surged to number two in Iowa.  The Paris attacks have made early voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina more receptive to his slicker brand of demagoguery.  As Trump’s loyal wingman, Cruz has reportedly been biding his time until Trump falters.  Aping Trump, Cruz’s rise would seem to validate his toxic Christian fascist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda.

Once viewed as a third rail candidate, Cruz is now a “viable” prospect to take up Trump’s mantle, enlisting his evangelist father Rafael Cruz to solidify his lead with Christian fundamentalists.  It was Cruz, after all, who tried to force a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding.  In the Senate, Cruz was one of the loudest voices demanding that Planned Parenthood should be prosecuted for its alleged mining of fetal body parts for profit.  On the campaign stump this summer, Cruz and the other GOP candidates viciously maligned Planned Parenthood and called for blood.  Nationwide, hundreds of Republican-sponsored bills that place draconian restrictions on abortion and contraception have put women’s lives and health in jeopardy.  Because of the GOP’s attacks on women’s right to abortion and contraception, Missouri only has one abortion clinic left in the entire state.

As per the claims of most violent religious extremists, “God” is on the GOP’s side.
In his bid to lock up the white evangelical vote, Cruz has announced plans to organize a “national prayer team”. According to Cruz, this group would “establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.”  With this “direct line” of communication to Christian soldiers, Cruz is consolidating the faith-based audience for his bigotry. In the propaganda wars, the biggest national security menace is the GOP and its loyal surrogates, fanning the flames of religious hate in “secular” America.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On the Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, Black Women Matter

California Historical Society

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015

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

By Sikivu Hutchinson

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Black Girls and the Police State Menace

By Sikivu Hutchinson

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

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

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

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

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