Monday, December 15, 2008

Modeling Submission: Gender and Consumerism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

During the presidential campaign it became customary for ill-informed pundits to make declarations of gender equality because there were two female candidates running for high office. Feminist critics pondered the implications of having elite white women in the race, while Barack Obama gave a nod to gender by promising to address the pay equity gap when elected.

Now that the campaign has ended, the economy smolders and a trillion dollar bailout-fueled deficit looms, the prospect of seriously addressing the pay gap at the federal level looks bleak, due to opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Congressional wage reform bills. Despite all the inspirational sisterhood rhetoric that Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama inspired during the campaign, there was little focus on the actual circumstances of working women of color, who comprise the majority of the American (paid and unpaid) workforce and a big portion of American consumers. The myth that educated women of color have equal access to all professions regardless of their obligation to home and family persists despite a sweeping report from the Public Policy Institute of California which concluded that the gender divide in wages and occupational equity has widened. Women are still concentrated in lower-paying service sector jobs and excluded from more lucrative male-dominated science, engineering and technology fields. And women, surprise, surprise are still saddled with the majority of childcare.

So this myth of equal access has particular relevance to the way girls and boys are “gender programmed” into their roles as providers and caregivers by consumer culture. Girls’ social construction as objects and boys’ construction as active subjects begins right out of the womb. From clothes to toys to media images, gender programming amounts to little more than political propaganda on how to be male or female. Non-gender conforming little girls and boys are marginalized by the near-Victorian enforcement of gender hierarchies for children. When navigating the explosions of pink and blue in the infant and toddler clothing aisles the divisions are clear—based upon the designs and insignias that manufacturers slap on their clothes, little girls are to be pampered, indulged as sweet, beautiful, precious and deferential. Boys, on the other hand, are to be productive, self-sufficient, enterprising, rough and, ultimately, violent. Despite the inroads women have made into “non-traditional” careers, many children’s catalogues still feature scenes of boys engaged in rough and tumble or discovery-oriented play and girls decoratively draped around toy stoves, kitchen sinks and life-size dollhouses. These images of domesticity reinforce the not-so mixed messages that girls get from Bratz Dolls hawking multiculti coquettishness to pop singer Ashanti’s Donna Reed-style sex kitten video “Good-Good”—namely, that having professional aspirations is fine but make sure that you are fetching, non-threatening and know how to keep your man happy in the process. Female submissiveness is a given that young women internalize and act out in their interpersonal relationships, even as they see strong women of color all around them struggle with raising families and working jobs with no benefits.

For boys, gender programming results in conformity to destructive social norms. When they talk about gender the teens I work with often reflect on how they are taught to suppress their emotions in order to appear strong and invulnerable. Invulnerability translates into acceptance from both their male “homies” and female peers. For some, life in working class black and brown communities demands adopting a code of “hardness,” one that is reinforced by the glorification of violent masculinity that they see in white-dominated TV, film, network news and video games. Yet while young white men are validated by the media regime, the stakes are higher for men of color. The heinous levels of assault and murder of black girls and women and the homicides of black boys who die at the hands of their so-called “niggas” exemplify the self-annihilating influence of sexism and patriarchy. Just as the national economic crisis imperils communities of color the crisis of destructive gender socialization amounts to low-intensity warfare on youth of color. And until we begin to empower young people to redefine and re-envision the boundaries of masculinity and femininity we will continue to be under siege.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thoughts on California and the Next Generation

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the excitement over the historic election of Barack Obama it is important to reflect on the landscape-altering impact of this year’s California ballot initiatives. Boasting one of the most divisive socially conservative agendas in recent memory, this year’s ballot initiatives highlighted why the initiative process has become a virtual cesspool for plutocratic special interests. At least four initiatives were bankrolled by millionaires, political action committees disguised as tax exempt faith-based initiatives and out-of-state GOP power brokers.

Voters rightly rejected the stentorian law and order Runner Initiative or Prop 6, yet also nixed humane treatment of non-violent drug offenders and potential reductions in the prison population by voting against Proposition 5. Voters approved an increase in the county sales tax for highways and public transit and backed millions for a high speed rail bond measure that the progressive Labor/Strategy Center argued will have little benefit for transit dependent L.A. communities of color. And as the nation now knows, voters backed Prop 8—the controversial anti-same sex marriage initiative that got overwhelming support from blacks and Latinos—yet they also rejected Prop 4’s parental notification for abortion policy by a slim majority.

If we examine the generational divide that exists between youth and adults on social issues such as sexual orientation, young people consistently express more tolerant views of gays and lesbians in polls than do older respondents. Last week, during an election forum at predominantly black and Latino Gardena High School, students spoke out against Proposition 8, arguing that using religious dogma to strip gays and lesbians of their constitutional right to marry was dead wrong. The generational divide is part of the reason why the margins of victory for this initiative have decreased when compared with over 60% of the electorate that supported a similar initiative, Proposition 22, in 2000. Although many have criticized the anti-Prop 8 forces for not mobilizing enough among communities of color, I believe that black folk in particular had a moral obligation and responsibility to reject this initiative. First, out of solidarity with lesbian and gay parents, families and caregivers in our communities, and second out of solidarity with our history of having been violently denied marriage rights as slaves and as racial others. On the flip side, the specter of state control over the bodies and destinies of young women moved the electorate and elicited outrage from young people over Prop 4. Regardless of their religious or ideological orientation, most young people were sensitive to the grave implications of encroaching upon the bodies and right to self-determination of young women. When the students learned who funded the initiative most scorned the right of a handful of white male millionaires to police the futures of young women.

While Obama’s mobilization of the youth vote inspired folk who had never voted before to go to the polls, not everyone felt empowered. When I went around to senior classes with my Women’s Leadership Project students to register 18 year-old voters a couple of young men were apprehensive about registering, moping that their vote wouldn’t count, so why register. I had to give them a mini primer on the bloody history of voting rights in this country, the thousands who fought and died, weathered literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and worse just to exercise their constitutional rights. In many regards this election has been a litmus test for that legacy of struggle. And while we celebrate Obama’s victory, the lessons from California remind us that it will only be through critically conscious engagement with the full diversity of our communities—challenging the anti-democratic ideology of religious fundamentalism—that black people will continue to be at the forefront of progressive social change in this country.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Moral Choice: Blacks, Homophobia and Proposition 8

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On the corner of King Blvd and Crenshaw black street preachers goose step their way through anti-gay slogans, adding an unwelcome touch of street theater demagoguery to the flow of everyday pedestrian traffic. A few blocks away, Yes on Proposition 8 (the California ballot initiative that would amend the state Constitution and outlaw same-sex marriage) signs have begun springing up like weeds, a final appeal to black and Latino conservatism by the anti-gay marriage regime.

The perception that black folk in particular are more receptive to homophobic propaganda is partly grounded in reality and partly grounded in stereotype. Polls have shown that African Americans are 10 percent more likely to support Prop 8 than other racial groups. Because the pro and con polling numbers for Prop 8 are so tight, black support for the measure could put it over the top. And what exactly do black straight people like me have to be threatened by? Cultural nationalist supporters of Prop 8 argue that homosexuality and the insidiously labeled “gay lifestyle” (a slur that presumes that gays and lesbians are monolithic) threaten the already besieged black family. Given this belief, African Americans are presumably more invested in propping up heterosexism because of the pathologization of black families. Yet Prop 8 rests on the same logic that prohibited interracial marriages, a premise that the California Supreme Court cited in its ruling in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages. Slavery and antebellum p atriarchy were rooted in rigid definitions of family and marriage aimed at preserving property rights, lines of descent and white purity. This legacy continues to influence the gender hierarchies underlying so-called traditional family structures and to police families that aren’t nuclear or heterosexual.

Voting to amend the California Constitution will extend this legacy. It signifies a concession to flat earth politics, a betrayal of civil rights principles and a hypocritical denial of some of the real crises that imperil black families. As straights we live in communities that are devastated by the large number of black children in foster care due to parents who are either unwilling or unable to take care of them. As straights we lament the absence of affirming role models for children in a racist hyperviolent culture that devalues black lives, yet fail to connect this to a cult of masculinity that demeans women and gays and lesbians. As straights we engage in the schizoid rhetoric of championing black self-determination yet vilify full citizenship for gays and lesbians as a “European” thing. As straights we cherry pick who is “rightfully” part of the community based upon heterosexual privilege while disrespecting the valiant heritage of black liberation struggle exemplified by gay freedom fighters such as Audre Lorde and Bayard Rustin.

Although there are several California-based African-American churches that have consistently advocated for gay and lesbian partnerships, black religious fundamentalism is still the number one barrier to aligning a progressive black civil rights agenda with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) rights. Gay and lesbian families of color are invisible in the mainstream media, yet they are an integral part of communities of color. Contrary to the propaganda of black fundamentalists gay and lesbian caregivers, parents and grandparents nurture black children alongside and within so-called straight households. As a black atheist and parent, I want my seven month old daughter to grow up in a culture where—gay straight or bi—her entire range of personhood, love and commitment to another human being is not legally bound by the Paleolithic mores of religious fundamentalism. In this regard, voting no on Prop 8 is the only moral choice.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Great White Hope

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Cindy McCain has spoken. Shellacked white blond hair bristling with outrage, the beermeister lit into Barack Obama recently at an election rally, accusing him of voting against troop supply funding for soldiers in Iraq and thus endangering her enlisted son. The beermeister’s liberation from St John power suit-cosseted trophy wife to mother bear-firebrand has been hastened by Sarah Palin’s transformation into the self-styled attack dog of the McCain campaign. The visual choreography of McCain events now spotlights the two in tandem—Palin rallying the Christian soldiers onward with her nationalist screeds on homeland security while the beermeister hovers close behind in all her Stepford glory. Snatching a page from their nativist 19th century white feminist forebears, the beermeister and the demagogue evoke a nightmare vision of black insurgency. Linking Obama to William Ayers and domestic terrorism, Palin exhorted that “this is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” to her rapt audiences. Despite all his efforts to distance himself from a black agenda, the assiduously race-averse Obama is still playing as a fist in the air black Muslim to the American Legionnaires in East Overshoe. In response to Palin’s innuendo, lynch mob chants of “terrorist,” “treason” and “kill him” have been gleefully hurled at Obama, eliciting the usual tepid condemnations from the McCain camp. McCain’s contempt for Obama as lawn jockey crashing the country club was on snarling display during Tuesday’s debate when the uber male American war hero couldn’t bring himself to look at the Senator and infamously referred to him as “that one.” In a desperate attempt to reverse his falling poll numbers, McCain melds xenophobic and Orientalist rhetoric, conjuring up the dark inscrutable treasonous other when he asks “who is the real Barack Obama.”

Yet it is Palin who is the great white hope, mobilizing the faithful in the hinterlands while exploiting the far right electorate’s bloodlust. And what better messenger to paint Obama as a black subversive than Palin, whose pro-death views would even prohibit a woman from getting an abortion in cases of rape and incest? Far right prohibitions on women exercising rights over their own bodies and destinies have a direct correlation with the preservation of God, country and the virtues of white womanhood. Nationhood and the territorialization of white femininity have always been inextricably linked in the American imagination. D.W. Griffith’s anti-Reconstruction epic Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, associated black rule with miscegenation and the rape of white women. Racial terrorism against Reconstruction-era black legislators was justified on the grounds of protecting the Union from the scourge of race-mixing and a slide into anarchy. Insofar as an Obama presidency foreshadows these primal threats to home and hearth it won’t matter that McCain backs welfare handouts for the Wall Street and multinationals and shrugs off his ignorance about how many houses he has while morphing into a populist.

By evoking this symbolism, the McCain-Palin doubletalk express taps into the deepest reservoirs of white racial angst. It has become a truism among many white left progressives that working class whites are essentially voting against their class interests when they vote conservative, but are they really? The scores of white Democrat undecided voters and the all white legions who throng to the McCain-Palin circus tent revivals prove that white class solidarity has been, and always will be, about the the defense of the homeland from the incursions of the other.

Sikivu's commentaries can be heard on Fridays @KPFK 90.7 FM

Friday, October 3, 2008

State of South L.A.?

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The South L.A. flank of Manchester Boulevard remains largely unchanged from the street of my childhood memory. There are nail places, fast food chains, motels, car washes, an orgy of little strip malls, and a theatre, boarded up and cadaverous since the early 80s, that juts out on the corner of 5th Avenue in Inglewood. It is easy to miss the theatre in the ruckus of westward traffic, easy to assign it to the category of visual bric-a-brac as yet another figment of South L.A.’s past. When the theatre was open during the 70s and 80s it was a B movie haven that provided local Morningside Park kids, steeped in our largely black insular world, with a dependable weekend hangout. Now, with one exception, movie theatres in 21st century South L.A. are as common as meteor showers. The disappearance of recreational public spaces for youth is a subtext of the bleak portrait presented in the UCLA School of Public Affairs’ recent State of South L.A. report. There are no major revelations in the report, which focuses on jobs, education, crime, poverty, housing and the considerable demographic shift that’s occurred since the 1992 uprising. Now predominantly Latino, South L.A.’s black population continues to shrink by the year. Motivated by lower housing prices and the desire for better living conditions, African Americans have migrated to the Inland Empire and the South in greater numbers since the 1990s. Despite these patterns of black out-migration, the severity of black residential concentration in South L.A. is still pronounced, with nearly 90% of the black population in the county represented in South L.A. Over half a century after restrictive covenants, African Americans have the least residential mobility. Put simply, even the most affluent black Angelenos, the Baldwin Hills/View Park/Windsor Hills dwelling elites, are living in relative poverty conditions when viewed in the context of the county as a whole. All of the disposable income, advanced degrees and ability to code switch with white culture in the world won’t mitigate the reality reflected in surveys nationwide—namely, when it comes to living in the same neighborhoods as black folk white respondents invariably express a greater willingness to welcome Latinos or Asians into the block club.

The reassessment of the “identity” of South L.A. comes during a period when the national political profile of blacks would appear to be on the rise. Yet, the South L.A. centered 2nd District supervisorial race between Councilman Bernard Parks and Senator Mark Ridley Thomas is widely predicted to be the last to feature two African American candidates. For the past decade, the obscenely long terms of the supervisors have bred abdication of leadership around King-Harbor, gang conflict, education and development in a district that has the highest number of black and brown residents living below the poverty line. Thrust together by circumstance in a climate that does little to validate their shared history, blacks and browns coexist from Watts to Inglewood to Baldwin Village. However, it is generally believed by African American community activists that blacks have taken the lead in black-brown collaborations. As Latino political capital is on the ascendant, tensions over the receding black identity of the community will fester if the perception that Latino leadership is resistant to reaching out to African Americans persists. Countering this perception, and making sure that the next supervisor pushes an agenda that addresses the culturally specific dynamics blacks and browns face in divide and conquer economic conditions is one of the key challenges for the new state of South L.A.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: Gender Politics and Palin Propaganda

By Sikivu Hutchinson

With her rifle on one hip and baby Trig on the other, Sarah Palin’s tabloid VP candidacy proves that only in America could a flat-earther who espouses antediluvian policies consigning women to second class citizenship be hailed as a feminist icon. The fierce cult of celebrity worship that has sprung up around the Palin nomination has displaced any serious mainstream critique of McCain’s lock step march with Bush-style imperialism. In her recent interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson Palin’s ignorance of the so-called Bush doctrine of preemptive defense and her reflexive get tough on Muslim extremists swagger was enough to inspire a run for Canada. While the heartland swoons for Palin, allegations of scandal, double dealing, racist slander, civil liberties infringement and bug-eyed Christian fundamentalism continue to bounce off Palin’s Teflon power blazers because unrepentant reactionary white femininity suddenly has fresh currency in national politics. Let’s break it down—the Palin choice was a transparently racist bid for the votes of white women enraged by the prospect of a black man in Hillary’s White House. When Palin burst onto the national scene proclaiming that “the women of America aren’t finished yet” she clearly wasn’t thinking about inviting women of color into her sister friend council because Black women are certainly not having it. Had it not been for the success of Clinton’s race-baiting appeals to hard working white Americans a white female candidate would not have been seriously considered for the Republican ticket. Thus far Clinton has remained muted in her criticism of Palin. According to Clinton insiders, she has no intention of directly addressing the implications of the Palin candidacy nor of urging her white female supporters to look past the sisterhood hype.

In a reality show besotted culture that fetishizes white female soap operatics in rags like Us magazine, People, and the National Enquirer it is not surprising that the Palin sideshow is playing big in Peoria. The GOP’s silence about Palin’s pregnant teen daughter’s departure from the traditional family values script highlights its racist hypocrisy. For, clearly, had the Palin family soap opera played out in the Obama household his bid for the presidency would have been gutted by right wing hysteria about promiscuous black welfare mothers in training and irresponsible baby daddies. For white folk though, the national narrative of family has always extolled the kinder gentler virtues of “tolerance” about life’s “circumstances.” Middle and working class white families that experience an unplanned teen pregnancy in the public eye garner sympathy and disease of the week prime time TV while families of color elicit policy screeds about immorality.

Having benefited from the women’s and civil rights movements while touting anti-choice policies and abstinence only education, Palin is a poster child for GOP-style affirmative action for white women. But the insidious reversals don’t end there. McCain has attacked recent comments Obama made comparing McCain’s policies to putting lipstick on a pig as a sexist slam of Palin. This from a candidate that has endorsed the Bush administration’s savaging of family planning, pro-choice, anti-domestic violence legislation and equal pay for equal work policies that support real women with families that aren’t blessed with the divine providence of oil dividends. The McCain-Palin ticket’s attempt to portray itself as a maverick change agent is akin to Orwell’s totalitarian metaphor two plus two equals five; that is, if we speak in tongues enough times to a captive audience in defense of the homeland it will be true, and Oceania has, and always will be, at war with East Asia.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The School to Prison Pipeline

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As euphoric images of post-racial unity from the Democratic National Convention recede, it is worth recalling the heady sentiments of the 2004 convention speech which launched Barack Obama into the public eye. Proclaiming that there was no “black, white, Latino or Asian America” just the United States of America, Obama captured the imagination of a white Democratic electorate weary of the messy racial dust-ups of the Rainbow Coalition era. The historic nomination of Obama in the 45 year anniversary of King’s "I Have a Dream" speech has been embraced by some as a full circle realization of a future of black and white children holding hands. Yet in all of the Convention's Americana electionese there was nary a word about the fact that much of America’s future is being warehoused in prisons. If we just waved a magic wand a black South L.A. high school student would enter the ninth grade with the same access and cultural affirmation as a working class white child from, say, Scranton, PA. If we just waved a magic wand that same child would go through four years knowing that the rhetoric of “one America” is more than a seductive fantasy belying the prison pipeline that urban youth are initiated into when they are bounced out of school for discipline problems. If we just waved a magic wand none of the students in my high school classes would stand during a discussion icebreaker when asked if they have a friend or relative who is either on parole or currently incarcerated. Often deep into their row by row cliques of playing the dozens, disguising their intelligence and vulnerability, black and Latino ninth and tenth grade boys who were otherwise bashful about speaking out in class related that they were routinely harassed as gang members or drug dealers in encounters with the police. Many of them have internalized this treatment as part of a soul devouring male rite of passage. But having been subjected to racial profiling, juvenile detention and harassment on their campuses, the bond of criminalization is shared by both black and brown students who sit side by side yet may otherwise be miles apart in their cultural outlook. With precious few resources inside the classroom that educate them about their rich shared history and shared struggle, many black and brown students are united by the crucible of living in occupied communities. Occupied communities that are not just paramilitarized by law enforcement but by the regime of mass media that destroys the self-images of youth of color.

With one of the most incarcerated populations on the planet, California voters are now being asked to consider yet another proposition that would further criminalize youth of color. The Runner Initiative, or Proposition 6, has been targeted by youth justice and civil rights organizations across the state for its proposed diversion of funding from education and social services to more incarceration and sentencing for youth. The passage of this initiative would have a devastating effect on black and Latino communities already laid waste by the prison industrial complex. But as the law and order right becomes more strident similar initiatives will crop up nationwide.

It remains to be seen whether an Obama administration would redress the national disgrace of the school to prison pipeline. Certainly this is the real twenty first century challenge of King’s legacy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Looting Black America: "The End of Black Politics"

Inside a recent NY Times magazine story entitled “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” four dapper African American male politicians are posed in conversation mode, pontificating on the fate of black America. Emboldening those who would declare black resistance a throwback to a bygone era, the article questions the viability of a race focused political agenda in the potential wake of Obama’s election to the presidency. Throughout the piece traditional civil rights movement politics were contrasted with the race neutral (i.e., assimilationist) approaches of younger politicians like Obama. Echoing CNN’s flaccid special on Black America, the NYT’s snapshot is one of black “bourgie-dom” uneasily holding the urban pathology of poor blacks in the ghetto at bay. The problematic focus on male politicos trying to be post-black under apartheid conditions reflects the usual corporate media paternalism. In this brave new post-black world charismatic black male leadership (with women cheerleading on the sidelines) is still the currency of black political capital as affirmative action devolves into redress for white Appalachians.

The so-called “end of black politics” monolithically defines the terms of black leadership as constituent politics divorced from community organizing and a vision for redressing the structural consequences of segregation. This is a particularly egregious premise considering the scores of black communities devastated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Drive through any neighborhood in South L.A. and the sea of for sale signs flapping on the lawns of single family homes is a powerful visual symbol of the foreclosing of the black American dream. While traditional channels of white upward mobility exclude most African Americans, homeownership has alway s been both crucible and preserve of black stability in the face of centuries of violent dispossession. So the anemic response of mainstream black politicians to a crisis which has been dubbed the largest loss of black wealth in American history is especially troubling given the lip service that many of these politicos pay to middle class self-determination.

The only presidential candidate to address the subprime mess from an economic and racial justice standpoint is Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney. Following the lead of Shirley Chisholm’s good old boy challenging candidacy in 1972, McKinney has consistently linked the hijacking of black neighborhoods by predatory lending with gentrification. McKinney’s critique of gentrification defies the see no evil development friendly approach of Barack Obama. The loss of scores of older homes and apartment buildings to gentrification has deracinated African American and Latino communities while remaking neighborhoods once deemed undesirable—such as the western part of downtown LA. and Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill—into real estate rich yuppie enclaves. As progressive housing analysts have noted, the mortgage crisis has effectively reversed the increase in black home equity which grew out of a decades’ long effort to redress racist Federal Housing Administration lending policies that bankrolled postwar white flight to the suburbs. Although white homeowners also face record losses in equity, their communities are not rooted in the inveterate urban poverty and underdevelopment that devalues black and Latino property. With lower property values to begin with, black homeowners are in a free fall, at the mercy of piecemeal bailout plans like the recently passed housing recovery legislation championed by the CBC, which would only help 400,000 homeowners and contains a few provisions for remedying blight in neighborhoods with heavy foreclosures.
As billions in black equity is sucked down the drain, bankrupt racist prophecies about post-race, post-black politics are really about sanctioning the looting of black wealth.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s commentaries can be heard on Fridays @6:25 on KPFK 90.7FM

Friday, August 8, 2008

Turning Back the Clock: The Dropout Crisis and the Wages of Whiteness

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which George W Bush is educated in a poor urban school where he is taught that people that look like him made history; while his black and brown classmates are policed and criminalized, warehoused in foster care and prisons and objectified in a 24-7 menu of hypersexual, criminal imagery. In this parallel universe Dubya, a less than mediocre student lacking the benefit of a legacy admission, drops out of high school and tries to find a living wage job. Armed with a middle school diploma, a prior felony conviction and one broken bootstrap, Dubya remains unemployed until a grill position opens up at the local Rally Burger. As a working class white dropout ex-con, Dubya would naturally take his place at the head of the line for any job over black men with college degrees. His rise to imperial ex-con would be complicated but not prohibited. For what In answer to your questions: distinguishes white dropouts from black and brown dropouts is the wealth of cultural capital that the curricula of school and life confer onto whites regardless of class. Even the poorest whites see themselves reflected in the founding myths of this country, see themselves as hell or high water citizens and know implicitly every time they flip on a TV, watch a movie or pick up a newspaper that people who look like them are represented on every rung of the global media hierarchy.

The conferral of social advantage onto even the most economically disadvantaged whites fuels the underclass status of young blacks and Latinos. Last month, when the California Department of Education published yet another dismal report on the dropout crisis among black and brown students there was little media focus on the social costs of educating young people of color.

With no safety net, institutionally racist curricula, rote instruction, and deadening high stakes tests it is not difficult to see why so many black and brown students are dropping out of the system. Band-aid approaches like the LAUSD’s dropout recovery and prevention program don’t address students’ mis-education. At Gardena High School, one of the schools on the over 40% dropout list, the four year college-going rate is abysmal, the number of opportunity transfers is high and black students comprise 60% of school suspensions. Despite the district’s bluster about preparing students for college, many of the students in the leadership program I run at the school are not even aware of A-G college preparation requirements until the topic is introduced in our sessions. Enrolling in A-G classes is one thing, but navigating them successfully requires teachers and counselors who are politically invested in the culturally specific needs of black and brown students. Making teaching and curricula relevant to students and institutionalizing the exemplary work of the hundreds of teacher leaders who do so should be the district’s mandate. Barring that, students who face challenges like caring for siblings, living in foster care, working after school jobs and surviving teachers who believe that black students are deficit-laden are especially vulnerable to dropping out.

As the economy worsens, the importance of having at least an undergraduate degree will magnify for people of color, particularly for younger blacks who now fare worse than their parents’ generation with regard to earnings, savings and education. Turning back the clock on Brown v. Board even further, many young blacks are living the American nightmare, sold out by Schwarzenegger’s slash and burn budget and the national trust that pays the wages of whiteness.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

White Out: Black Bloggers and the Democratic Convention

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic Party’s nomination for president at its convention in August he will do so in an atmosphere where precious few people that look like him have been invited to join the punditocracy. Although bloggers have been admitted to the Convention in record numbers, in typical plantation politics only a limited number of bloggers of color will be at the table. According to Frances Holland of the Afrosphere Coalition, black bloggers represent a mere 7.2% of those attending. So on the ground commentary about this historic moment will be largely confined to a select group of white bloggers. The media white out of black voices is not surprising given the cherry-picking of commentators of color on the pundit-driven evening talk shows. Though outlets like CNN and MSNBC have been prompted by the cache of the Obama candidacy to include more faces of color in their white palette, the general tenor of these voices, with few exceptions, is mainstream and corporatist. Even avowedly liberal leaning shows like MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann stick to a quota of one East Coast black journalist a week to round out its critical commentary on the misdeeds of Bush and the reactionary right.

Indeed, the Obama candidacy has demonstrated the old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same, and that left/right labels have very little meaning when it comes to equitable inclusion of commentators of color. In 2005 Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting released its annual diversity in media survey which not surprisingly found that women of color were all but nonexistent in the TV punditocracy due to the preference for white women and men of color. Fast forward to 2008 and women of color are ghettoized to commentary on race-related themes pertaining to the election, only to vanish when the topic is foreign policy or the economy. Whatever the deficiencies of the blogosphere, it is one of the only mechanisms to chip away at the preserve of white male media supremacy in which a few anointed talking heads and issues framers are allowed to dominate cable, network and online news. Despite his rhetoric about the multicultural inclusiveness of American democracy, Obama has turned a blind eye to the very un-inclusive composition and framing of mainstream newscasts which rake in millions for their corporate sponsors.

So the white out at the Convention is yet another potent reminder that merely having a black face at the helm of the Party is no antidote to black media invisibility.
In fact, as the nation enters the Obama era the power to shape opinion on civil liberties and social justice will become even more crucial due to the perception that Negroes have been fully emancipated and that racial inequities are a thing of the past. The election of a black president will further embolden the anti-affirmative action and anti-equity propaganda of conservative media and public policy makers. Since his rout of Hillary Clinton, Obama’s problematic support of immunity for wiretapping under the FISA bill, his unqualified endorsement of Bush’s faith-based initiatives and his deafening silence on drug sentencing reform suggest that he is increasingly willing to bend and twist the legacy of the civil rights movement to pander to the center. While many black folks are already celebrating his victory as a salutary moment in history they would do well to heed the Democratic committee’s decision as a powerful reminder that the Head Negro in Charge syndrome is alive and well.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM

Friday, July 25, 2008

Jim Crow Justice in Inglewood

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Nearly four months after the May shooting of four unarmed African American young men at the corner of Crenshaw and Manchester in Inglewood, the Inglewood Police have committed yet another heinous act of deadly force. As most of the city knows, the killing of Kevin Wicks, a postal worker who allegedly came to the door of his apartment with a gun after the police knocked on his door at 12:30 a.m., was committed by IPD officer Brian Ragan, the same officer responsible for the killing of 19 year-old victim Michael Byoune in the May incident. Ragan had recently returned to duty after being placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. After the Byoune killing, the community protested the department’s shoot first ask questions later stance and demanded accountability from a predominantly white police department that has consistently targeted blacks and Latinos as guilty until proven innocent. While the LAPD has made some progress on redressing its bloody history of police brutality due to unrelenting community pressure, the IPD has largely flown under the radar. The circumstances of the Wicks shooting smack suspiciously of countless other police invasions against victims of African descent such as the LAPD’s fatal 1979 shooting of Eulia Love in her apartment and the NYPD’s forty six bullet murder of Amadou Diallou at his apartment in 1999. In both instances the victims were dubbed as armed and dangerous. In both instances the official accounts of the police were then contradicted by witnesses and the evidence that emerged from the investigation of the shooting.

According to the Department of Justice, the number of officers who even use their guns in the line of duty is approximately 2 percent, a conservative estimate which nonetheless puts Ragan over and above official statistics for excessive force. The IPD quietly allowed Ragan to return to duty after receiving clearance from a staff psychologist. What specifically did the department conclude exonerated Ragan and his partner Roland Martinez, the other officer implicated in the May shooting? When questioned about the reinstatement, IPD chief Jacqueline Seabrooks provided no concrete criteria for his having been allowed back on the force. In the IPD officers are not required to await findings of a formal investigation and their actions are not subject to independent review. It is inconceivable that an officer accused of gunning down an innocent in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills would be returned to duty with such cavalier swiftness. Ragan’s return to duty and the IPD’s seeming lack of even basic standards of accountability is an outrage which demands investigation by the Justice Department for civil rights violations. Community activists have also called for a Christopher Commission style oversight review board as well as the resignation of Chief Seabrooks. Although the circumstances of the shooting remain unclear, what is clear is that the Inglewood police department has returned an officer with no regard for black life back to work and given him carte blanche to terrorize the citizens of Inglewood. The IPD’s sanction of officers like Ragan will only embolden those on this force and others who exercise Jim Crow justice against black and brown citizens with impunity.