Monday, December 14, 2009

Call Me Barry: Obama’s Tough Love

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the dark of any given movie theatre, from Main Street USA to MLK Boulevard, they surround us: white America’s Hollywood objects of desire, playing romance and adventure in full amnesiac bloom. They taunt and entice, radiating spunk and derring-do in the face of strenuous man-hunting, universe-saving, dragon slaying and average hardworking Americana family-hood. Missing from the studio green light rosters are the tales of the ambitious, play by the rules black girls and boys newly-minted in the job market and beat down by underemployment. The ones who are initiated into adulthood on reverse discrimination screeds heralding the white working class as the last acceptably dumped on “minority.” The ones who are promised that the legions of Talented Tenth blacks armed with college degrees will level institutional racism. The ones who must quietly “absent” themselves from their resumes as white convicted felons, cashing in on their birthright, waltz through corporate doors.

A recent New York Times article on black college grads’ struggle to find jobs should be sobering for anyone with the deluded belief that Obama’s Talented Tenth magic will rub off on them. According to the Times, some black college grads, fearing that they will forever be consigned to fast food fryers or professional irrelevance, are changing their names from Rashida to Heidi, Omari to Chip (or Barack to Barry). Staggering black unemployment rates five percent above the national average have made black job applicants desperate to preempt racist discrimination by potential employers. In some instances, graduates of historically black colleges and universities have deleted all reference to their tenure and omitted mentions of involvement in ethnically suspect groups.

These trends point to the larger paradox of black invisibility. The Congressional Black Caucuses’ (CBC) futile White House lobby for targeted initiatives to address black unemployment underscores the divide between the image of black assimilation suggested by the hyper-telegenic Obama family and the reality of post-Jim Crow segregation. Jockeying for a white norm, blacks must effectively water themselves down, evacuate their social histories and memorialized sense of self and accomplishment. Racist death threats against Obama, coon/welfare mother cheat references on AOL news posts and Fox News fueled tea party insurgencies offer a steady avalanche of evidence that representations of blackness remain fixed in the white mainstream mind.

Indeed, the current crop of mainstream film narratives about blackness, from the blockbuster white woman’s burden romp The Blind Side to the lurid ghetto pathology of Precious—offer powerful affirmation of the seductive lure and redemptive powers of whiteness. Released in an era where the rhetoric of post-racialism has reached surreal fever pitch, both films are essentially bookended portraits of the perils of being an orphaned black child in a dysfunctional racial “subculture.” The character Precious initially achieves agency by fantasizing herself thin, “pretty” and white, while Blind Side protagonist Michael Oher escapes the “Moynihanian” churn of black poverty into the healing arms and tough love of a benevolent white mistress, or, rather, adoptive mama. While Precious gets props for spotlighting the subjectivity of a non-traditional black female protagonist, it does nothing to disrupt patriarchal assumptions about black femininity or challenge the masculinist culture of violence that underlies Precious’ sexual abuse by her father. The unrelenting bleakness and solipsistic vacuum of Precious’ swaggering welfare mother’s den in the projects effectively lets the dominant culture off the hook. Lacking historical context or socioeconomic critique of the complicity of racist sexist social institutions, these films offer comforting retrograde portrayals of good and evil, where transformation of individual circumstance is the bellwether for social change.

Ultimately, these triumphal human spirit over adversity morality plays go down well with prevailing conservative bromides of bootstraps enterprise and white (or, in the case of Precious, light-skinned black) patronage. Popular culture messages such as these also bolster Obama’s trickle down doctrine of “benign” ghetto neglect. Bailing Wall Street and his corporate cronies out to mega-billions while kicking the CBC to the curb, Obama has symbolically wagged his finger and reminded us hardheaded Negroes once again that he never promised black America any kind of Rose Garden.

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

The White Stuff

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Her name was Sarah Baartman, aka the Venus Hottentot, and she had ass to spare.

Like many Africans staged for public exhibition in 19th Century Europe before her, Baartman became an object of scientific investigation. She was poked, prodded, measured, assessed and ultimately dissected in death by British and French empiricist wizards like the esteemed scientist Georges Cuvier. She was marshaled as resident Other to determine the exact nature of her “difference” from “normal” (i.e., white) men and women. This standard only had weight and relevance in the context of Baartman’s grotesqueness. Her deformations provided white femininity with its mooring as the standard of feminine beauty. Her sub-humanity gave her white male examiners a biological compass (and canvas) that was then translated into immutable racial difference. The sexual deviance signified by her enormous backside literally functioned as an epistemological frame and cover for her interpreters’ own cultural biases and assumptions. Identified as the “missing link,” Baartman’s anatomy was critical to affirming white racial superiority and capturing inexplicable gaps in the ascent from "savage" to "civilized." Through the lens of the scientist, looking, seeing and interpreting were deemed to be “transparent” enterprises--not naturalized through the cultural position of the observer.

Tim Wise, the foremost white critic/interpreter of the phenomenon of white supremacy, once noted that whites “swim in white privilege.” Like fish in water, whites don’t grasp or see the complexity of white privilege because they breathe it and live it 24/7. It immunizes them in the predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, social networks, media, places of worship and scholarly traditions that they inhabit. It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy invisible. And it marginalizes race and racism as part of the narrow, sectarian and, ostensibly, divisive concerns of a “minority” lens.

Navigating a fantasy “post-racial” universe, these “invisible” cornerstones of white supremacy are not supposed to matter. It is not supposed to matter that a five year-old African American male has less chance statistically of going to college or even of living to the age of 25 than his white male sandbox comrade. It is not supposed to matter that home equity for blacks and Latinos of all classes has historically been far lower than that of whites due to institutional segregation in so-called inner cities and working class suburbs. These “blemishes” in the fabric of American liberal democracy are not supposed to matter because individualism is the currency of Americana, and there is no evil intelligent designer separating one’s exercise of free will from free enterprise.

Yet for W.E.B. DuBois, these disparities constitute the “wages of whiteness,” a public and psychological wage of white social capital, translated into everyday white privilege. For those who bemoan the “provincial” and “race-obsessed” orientation of American writers of color, DuBois implicitly forces us to consider how the very arc of European American intellectual, social and economic “progress” has been shaped by the racialization of the Other. As an artifact of a supremely barbaric and unenlightened aspect of the Enlightenment, Baartman’s dissected backside was a key player in the birth of the objectivist researcher. Representing reason and rationality, Baartman’s interpreters were conferred with a personhood and subjectivity that afforded them “unraced” status.

Toni Morrison has defined unraced status as the ability to appear to be beyond racial classification or identification. Whiteness becomes the norm not only through racial segregation but through the discursive tools of defining value and worth. This status rests on having the right to write, analyze, classify, quantify and have one’s conclusions recognized as universal truths, rather than as the culturally contextual products of a racist colonialist legacy.

When it comes to the “new atheism,” the romance and Bambified innocence of not seeing is just a living. Recent debates in the blogosphere about the whiteness of atheist discourse get sidelined by accusations about the perceived “hysteria” of those making the claim. Surveys that suggest that atheist affiliation actually reflects race/gender demographics similar to say a John Birch Society confab are dismissed as being just the way it is because white boys naturally dominate science and are better writers anyway.

So it stands to reason that white folk don’t like it when it is inconveniently pointed out by ghetto interlopers that knowledge production and universal truth claims in the West have historically been marked as white. It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to suggest in the science-besotted circle jerk of atheist-supernaturalist smackdowns that Hottentot-obsessed traditions of scientific racism and fire and brimstone Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history. It belies humanist delusions of pure objectivism to say that “science as magic bullet” boilerplate will not enlarge the conversation to include those for whom organized religion has had some cultural and historical resonance (as an albeit complicated bulwark against white supremacy and racial terrorism). It is treasonous to argue that having the luxury and privilege to proclaim one’s atheism, publish, become recognized as an unraced authority, disseminate tomes to and command a global audience and garner recognition for capsizing the sordid ship of theological tyranny is a peculiarly white enterprise precisely because of the history of Western knowledge production. And it flies in the face of the myth of meritocracy to suggest that eminent white philosophers and scientists don’t “focus” on race and gender because their identities are based on not seeing it.

As Greta Christina has noted in her insightful critique of racism, sexism and visibility within the new atheist movement; hand-wringing about the absence of diversity without confronting the historical power dynamics of access and visibility becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When not seeing becomes a virtue its equivalent to telling all those uppity “missing links” to sit down and shut up. Let us write the record for you, because we know how it ends.

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Houses of Horror

By Sikivu Hutchinson

House of horrors. Nightmare on X Street. Shiftless apathetic residents with criminal pasts. Throwaway victims with dead-end lives.

Over the past several weeks the news cycle has churned with high profile examples of systematized violence against women and embattled communities of color. The Richmond High gang-rape incident, the Department of Justice’s egregious findings on untested DNA rape kits and the Cleveland serial killer case have all demonstrated that sexualized violence continues to be a national unaddressed epidemic. When news of convicted rapist turned serial killer Anthony Sowell’s Cleveland killing spree broke recently the media dove in feet first with its boilerplate on black urban dysfunction. In incredulous narrative after incredulous narrative, black criminal pathology, neglect, neighborhoods saturated with and inured to violence were all on lurid display.

The Cleveland story received more coverage than is normally devoted to poor black communities. Yet the coverage was noteworthy for its relentless focus on the macabre circumstances of the discoveries in Sowell’s house. Lost in the mainstream outrage over the house of horrors was the specter of decades-long neglect by the local police. Cleveland residents have long complained about the lack of police follow-through on missing person cases in the community. In language that echoed the sentiments expressed by black communities from South L.A. to North Carolina, Cleveland community members weighed in on the lack of coverage, exposure and law enforcement presence around local efforts to track their missing. Some of the Internet stories of the missing evoked the stereotype of drug-addicted black women, alluding to their being prostitutes and transients. With their spotty pasts and run-ins with the law the two Sowell victims who were positively identified were portrayed as textbook examples of black female criminality. And what bigger contrast could there be to nationally mourned white female abduction victims who are invariably depicted as apple-cheeked pictures of unblemished innocence. In the mainstream narrative, unruly criminal illicit black women, the kind who “invite” rape anyway, are hardly worthy of mention must less sympathy. Thus, Sowell was able to hide in plain sight because of the presumption of guilt that the criminal justice system associates with black communities. As a parolee in a criminalized community it was easy for him to rack up multiple victims. It was easy for him to let these murdered women literally decompose in plain view on his living room floor because of the belief that black communities are cesspits and black lives are not worth protecting.

In a more "rarefied" sector of the East Coast another “house” of horrors is being buttressed in the name of healthcare reform. Nancy Pelosi and her lawless Blue dog Democrat posse in the House of Representatives have voted to include an amendment to the healthcare bill that would deny women the right to abortion coverage. Under the terms of a private healthcare exchange in the misnamed public option women could not purchase plans from private insurers who provide abortion coverage. This provision would essentially create a two or three tier system in which wealthier women would once again be able to fund abortions and poorer women would be left to their own devices. Black and Latino women, who are disproportionately un and under-insured, and have the most to lose from unwanted pregnancies, would be the most deeply impacted. And with the more conservative Senate trotting out its own bill in a month, hardcore white collar state sanctioned violence against women will be on full display.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Prayer Cult Nation: Faith Healing Scams & Healthcare Reform

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Recently on a popular Black Entertainment Network talk show R&B singer Monica pitched her new reality show and extolled the virtues of prayer. Suited up in hip high boots like an emissary from God’s army, she credited God with guiding her through life and imbuing her with purpose. His word was her marching order, she proclaimed, as the rapt studio audience nodded in approval, giving credence to surveys that indicate African Americans are more religious, more likely to subscribe to Creationism and more apt to break out the Bible for guidance and counsel than any other group in the U.S.

Yet not since the Great Awakening of the 18th Century has “God” spoken through so many American public figures so unequivocally. The medievalist Sarah Palin has risen to cult status touting her personal speed dial to the Lord. The Old Testament God has become the kamikaze co-pilot of the Republican Party. And President Barack Obama frequently invokes both God as an adjudicating figure and prayer as an antidote to tragedy.

Prayer has become the national bromide for generalized suffering. If it can’t be sanitized, domesticated and defanged by prayer then it isn’t worth experiencing. Now, in the midst of the healthcare reform morass, prayer healing “therapy” may become a legitimate form of government subsidized medical treatment. According to the Los Angeles Times, a “little known” provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would authorize coverage for Christian Science prayer as a medical expense. The provision is sponsored by the ultra-conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and the liberal Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. This strange bedfellow pairing is part ideology and part political expedience. Hatch is a notorious Mormon ideologue and Kerry’s state is the Christian Science Church’s base. Despite several high profile cases in which religious fanatic parents have been convicted for using prayer healing to “treat” their terminally ill children rather than seek medical treatment, the Senate healthcare provision would sanction this practice.

In a nation in which millions go bankrupt and/or die from not having health care insurance the decision to include prayer healing into the insidiously partisan healthcare deliberations is an outrage. Increasingly, prayer has wormed its way into the most mundane of American moments. Moments of prayer or “silence” have become more commonplace during local government meetings, schools, social functions and games. A recent AOL poll surveying site users about a Southern school’s decision to post a message to God received overwhelming support. A majority of users agreed that reverence for God is part of “our” nation’s heritage. As more and more Americans shrug in apathy at the leaky wall separating church and state, those who abstain from or question these mass spiritual entreaties are viewed as curmudgeon naysayers at best and un-American public enemies at worst. The explosion of public prayer—exemplified by the near manic drive to enshrine the most simple of pursuits with Godly sanction—seems to bespeak some deep-seated crisis of American selfhood which afflicts all classes and ethnicities.

According to the Christian Science Church, a faith healing internship takes the form of an “'intensive' two-week class instruction in Christian Science healing” after which practitioners “may take patients.” Treatment “may rely on passages of the Bible…or may simply be a period of silent communion. There is no formula and ‘treatment’ can be given in absentia by telephone or email.” Since Christian Science practitioners can hang up their virtual shingles after a two-week crash course why can’t apostles of Frodo or oracles of Pan be similarly credentialed? Ethnocentric bias has apparently banished Pentecostal snakes, Santeria chants, Wiccan spells and animist rituals from consideration as insurable faith treatments. However, the Senate provision would ultimately provide protection for so-called religious and spiritual healthcare, opening the gate to all manner of medically dangerous, clinically unproven treatments.

Few on the Left have raised concerns about the contradiction between conservatives’ draconian attempts to eliminate coverage for abortion (a medically established and lifesaving practice) in the healthcare overhaul and this obscure provision for government subsidized Christian Science hocus pocus. The House of Representatives’ deliberations on its version of the healthcare bill are being stalled by endless wrangling over toughening restrictions on abortion coverage from private healthcare companies that participate in a government public option insurance “exchange.” Under the current language these private plans could be purchased by poor subscribers with the aid of government subsidies. Yet anti-abortion legislators are jockeying to prevent private insurers that offer abortion coverage from even being included in the public option.

Perhaps poor women seeking reproductive healthcare would be advised to submit an email request for God’s intervention to their nearest Christian Science provider, courtesy of the federal government. In the only democratic nation in the postindustrial world that doesn’t have equitable government healthcare the watchwords will be “let them have prayer.”

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

Feminism’s Freedom Fighter? On Feminism, Atheism and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In mainstream media, public conversation about the intersection between atheism and what I will loosely term third world feminism is as rare as Halley’s Comet. In the corporate media universe the groundbreaking work of feminists of African descent like bell hooks, Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins remains largely unknown, relegated to academe. Feminism, when invoked at all in mainstream media, is framed as the province of white women, a vestige of a less “enlightened” phase of American civil society.

The phenomenon of world renowned atheist feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, would seem to defy this pattern. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview entitled “Feminism’s Freedom Fighter,” the Somalian-born Ali proclaimed women’s rights the human rights issue of the 21st century. An outspoken critic of Islam, Ali is a controversial and uncompromising figure with a compelling personal story of triumph over adversity. A victim of clitoral mutilation in her youth, she has dedicated her life to challenging institutional sexism and patriarchy in Muslim societies. Her activism against gender-based terrorism and repression of Muslim women has been influential in the West, generating international accolades as well as death threats from Muslim extremists. Rising to prominence in the post 9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria of the Bush era, Ali has elicited controversy for her perceived Muslim-bashing, garnering a plum position at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and morphing into a champion of Israel.

Much of Ali’s feminist ideology is based on the contrast between the violent repression of women under Islam and the liberal humanist traditions that supposedly shape women’s rights in the West. In her writings and public discourse she is fond of making sweeping pronouncements deriding the cultures of Muslim societies, valorizing the West in ways that downplay its cultural hierarchies. In a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine she waxed, “Western civilization is a celebration of life…everybody’s life, even the life of your enemy.” Of course, in many Muslim societies feminism is still a dangerously radical concept. For many Muslim feminists, the very notion of women’s personal freedom is a space of epic struggle. Yet Ali’s totalizing assessments set up a false dichotomy between the West and Muslim societies. By portraying feminism as a battle that the West has already won, she absolves bourgeois democracies like the United States of their schizoid relationship to women rights and human rights, a relationship in which rape and domestic violence are part of the national “democratic” currency. And by ignoring the historical context of the “third world within the first world,” she ignores the very real socioeconomic differences that exist between American women of color and white women.

For Ali, white supremacy is no longer a credible threat or motivation for feminist struggle. In the Times interview she rightly criticized men of color for their perpetuation of sexist beliefs and practices, calling for heightened focus on the “internal” politics and tyrannies of misogyny in “third world” communities. Addressing the subject of President Obama’s recent trip to Cairo she stated, “It would have been fantastic if…Obama had said, we have taught the white man that bigotry is bad and he has given it up, at least most of it. Now bigotry is committed in the name of the black man, the brown man, the yellow man.” Ali’s apparent unwillingness to engage the connection between white supremacy, imperialism and sexism is a critical blind spot. Her failure to acknowledge the persistence of institutionalized segregation and its relationship to the disenfranchisement of women of color is problematic. These biases, and her paternalistic stance on Islam, explain why she has been such a darling of the European American conservative elite.

Certainly when one assesses women’s socialization into and investment in organized religion there are many commonalities between Muslim and Christian systems of patriarchy. Granted Western women are not subject to some of the more overtly terroristic and repressive social prohibitions that Muslim women are. Clitoridectomies and honor killings are not part of Western cultural practices (nor, as many critics of Ali have pointed out, do they occur in all Muslim societies, and in fact derive from tribal not Islamic law). And granted men of color are responsible for the very intimate interpersonal violations of the lives and bodies of women of color. However, legacies of colonialism and racist beliefs about the sexuality of women of color continue to limit equitable access to health care and social welfare in the U.S. Women of color in Western societies are still subjugated by the dictates of Judeo Christian culture masquerading as secularized society. Puritanical prohibitions on women’s sexuality and mobility inform institutionalized sexual and domestic violence against women. Rising rates of sexually transmitted disease and (in many highly religious white fundamentalist Christian and Latino Catholic communities) compulsory pregnancy due to failed abstinence-only sex education policies continue to imperil life conditions for women. Staggeringly high HIV/AIDS contraction rates, infant mortality rates and intimate partner homicide rates among African American women bespeak unequal access to health and social services in communities of color. Epidemic rates of sexual assault among Native American women reflect not only patriarchal control but the invisibility of Native communities vis-√†-vis federal health public policy.

Thus Ali’s contention that the West has “adjusted” its cultural and institutional structures to redress the hierarchies of Judeo Christian ideology is short sighted. Indeed, one need look no further than the wide cultural berth given to the Religious Right to see that it is one of the most powerful contemporary threats to civil rights and civil liberty in American history. The white Christian fundamentalist movement’s assault upon human rights, women’s rights and reproductive justice have the potential to reverse gains women have made in the U.S. over the past few decades. In the aftermath of decades of abortion clinic vandalism, bombings and murders of practitioners there is still no international outcry over the insurgent white Christian fundamentalist terrorist movement in the U.S.

From an atheist feminist of color perspective it is problematic to espouse reductive critiques of non-Western religions through the lens of a Western or American exceptionalism; particularly when these paradigms are based on the othering of people of color. The West has xenophobically demonized Muslim societies for their backwardness while “whitewashing” its own anti-democratic traditions and human rights transgressions. Ali’s positions unfortunately reinforce this propaganda.

As an atheist woman of African descent Ali’s life narrative and struggle for gender justice is a powerful example for women under the yoke of traditional Islam. Yet her analysis of the path to liberation has been severely clouded by superstar patronage from the very forces that would undermine the human rights mission of global feminism.

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Flat Earth Follies: The Religious Right's Egg Crusade

Taking its “life begins at conception” charade from State Legislature to State legislature, one of the most dangerous political forces in the U.S. is stepping up its crusade for the “rights” of the unborn. Backed by an organization called Personhood USA, the latest offensive from the Religious Right involves a renewed movement to amend state constitutions to establish human rights and personhood status for fertilized eggs. Ever immune to morality, reason, church-state separation precedents and an understanding of the basic laws of biology, the most flat earth reactionary segment of the so-called pro-life movement wants to circumvent constitutional protections for abortion by conferring personhood on fertilized eggs. This would eviscerate the premise that women have a sovereign and singular right to control their bodies by designating rights even before implantation and a clinically viable pregnancy has been determined. For those who have any elementary grasp of the human reproductive process, conception does not automatically result in pregnancy and the majority of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. Yet if the egg crusade zealots had their way these new edicts would potentially criminalize any woman attempting to use birth control pills or IUDs, and jeopardize in vitro fertilization procedures and stem cell research.

Though the egg crusade has failed to gain the imprimatur of the National Right to Life Committee those who would dismiss such a campaign as too extreme to gain traction do so at their peril. According to the L.A. Times, earlier this year the egg crusaders were able to convince the North Dakota House of Representatives to pass a constitutional amendment on personhood although it was later vetoed by the State Senate. Colorado voters also rejected a similar ballot initiative 73% to 27%. Yet in California the egg crusaders are collecting signatures and whipping up support for an amendment insidiously dubbed the California Human Rights Amendment.

One of the most reprehensible arguments that the egg crusaders make to bolster their cause is a comparison between their movement and the movement to abolish slavery. Their website cites Joshua Giddings, a 19th century American anti-slavery legislator who held that “God” as “author” of all life grants the inalienable right to life to every being. Following this argument it is unclear who is exactly “enslaving” pre-implanted fertilized eggs. Is it potential mothers who arrogantly lay claim to their own bodies? Is it the state for failing to protect the right of pre-implanted fertilized eggs to implantation? By cloaking its propaganda in the rhetoric of civil and human rights the egg crusaders avoid delineation of the real life consequences for women, once again reducing them to vessels with no agency, right to privacy or control over their own bodies.

The website does not specify what rights un-implanted eggs would be conferred with other than, presumably, the right to progress to the implantation stage, fetal development and then birth. There are no details about who or what could act on the behalf of the un-implanted egg as person if the host carrier (formerly known as mother) of the egg were to determine that she should receive medical treatment. There was no information on who would legally be empowered to intervene or act on behalf of the un-implanted egg as person (the state perhaps?) to object to any stance that the mother might take. It stands to reason that if contraception were used to prevent the inalienable right of the egg as “person” to implant then host carriers who did so would be criminalized and prosecuted for murder. As a preventive measure, potentially offending host carriers could perhaps be fitted with special ankle bracelets or encoded with state monitored electronic microchips to preclude violations.

The Catholic and fundamentalist Christian activists at the forefront of the egg crusade are curiously silent on these small details. In true schizoid fashion they push for special faith-based government entitlements and yet scream about government interference, rallying big government to run roughshod over women’s fundamental right to privacy through a new regime of policing. And indeed, their own “family planning” policies have proven an abysmal failure, as evidenced by the exploding teen birth rates in Bible Belt states like Alabama and Mississippi in comparison to lower rates in the relatively godless Northeast and Northwest (abstinence-only sex education programs and fundamentalist Christian propaganda against fornication outside marriage would seem to be a source of cognitive dissonance for Southern teens).

The decidedly anti-human rights egg crusade would take this national obscenity one step further by deepening the region’s poverty and straining its already overburdened, single parent-averse social welfare net. The fervor of this “new” brand of anti-abortion activism only underscores the need for a vigorous secular defense against the continued incursions of the Religious Right. It’s either that or get ready for the ankle bracelets.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for
Some of Us Are Brave KPFK 90.7 FM. This is an excerpt from her book Scarlet Letters on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief in America.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Prized Possessions: Media Politics and Missing Women

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When the L.A. Times runs a story on a missing black woman on the front page of its local features section it stimulates inquiring minds. How, in the super-charged climate of breathless cable news reports on Jaycee and her white sisterhood, could such a feat of journalistic subversion be possible? According to a story in the Sunday edition, 24 year-old Mitrice Richardson, an African American woman from South Los Angeles, went missing in mid-September after being released from a Calabasas, California jail. Richardson had been arrested for apparently refusing to pay the tab for a meal she ate at a Malibu restaurant. Prior to the arrest, restaurant personnel and witnesses reported that she was behaving erratically and gave the appearance of being mentally ill. After authorities found marijuana in her car they arrested her on charges of “defrauding an innkeeper” and possession.

The Times chronicled the massive search made for Richardson this weekend by friends, relatives and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The story was also picked up by local news and has outraged many African Americans in Los Angeles. Questions swirl around the County Sheriff’s conduct in both the arrest and release of Richardson. Why, for example, was she not placed on a 72 hour psychiatric hold (a common practice when dealing with mentally ill “suspects”) when detained? And why, after being released from jail was she sent off into the dead of night in a remote area without a cell phone or vehicle? Families of missing and abducted people of color organize tirelessly to generate any shred of coverage they can get from the media in “post-racial” America. Tired of the media’s ritual indifference to the lives of black women in their community, the mothers of missing women in Edgecombe County in North Carolina launched a billboard campaign called MOMS (Missing or Murdered Sisters) to advertise a slew of suspected abductions and murders of black women in their area. So what distinguishes Richardson’s case from that of the scores of other missing and abducted people of color which seldom score even a few lines buried in a big city newspaper? Location is apparently the only factor that would warrant such an aberration.

The Malibu sightings of Richardson were evidently so jarring for residents that they elicited instant recollection from those reported to have seen her. Unlike other missing person cases tainted by the urban “grit” of South L.A. and other communities of color where crime is perceived to be the cultural norm, the crime free veneer of an almost exclusively white community in which “it’s strange to see a black woman walking in the (Malibu) canyon,” is the subtext. Location, race and gender play a pivotal role in the media’s fixation on missing person stories. In the national “victim-ocracy”, small town, suburban and/or university affiliated white women get the most play as valued human interest subjects and cultural possessions. The endless media loop of search parties, dragged lakes, crack of dawn patrols and tearful living room pleas from grieving family members only lodge in the public imagination as national pathos when “our” little hometown girls are at stake. As exceptions to the rule, Richardson’s case—coupled with the more prominent example of slain Vietnamese-American Yale University student Annie Le—illustrates the extent to which location can obscure the regime of white privilege and entitlement that frames the stories and lives deemed most valuable by the mainstream media.

Centered in a bastion of Ivy League power and privilege nestled uneasily in the racially segregated city of New Haven, the Le case garnered national attention in spite of Le’s ethnic background. As a member of the academic elite, Le represented a student body potentially imperiled by the urban dangers of crime-ridden housing “projects” and other undesirable areas. And as with any good colonialist private university regime (e.g., the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California) hellbent on takeover of the “ghetto” these untamed areas naturally sully a city’s cosmopolitan aspirations. Once it was discovered that Le was murdered by a white insider, and not an encroaching racial other, the tabloid cable news mafia modulated its budding hysteria and moved on.

Clearly the racist “model minority” myth and the promotion of the docile assimilable Asian stereotype make Asian Americans more palatable to mainstream white society than African Americans. Le and Richardson’s backgrounds are dissimilar save for their being young women of color. Yet take away Le’s Yale pedigree and they would be “united” as victims of the mainstream media’s hierarchy of the disposable. For it is utterly certain that the mainstream media would not have deviated from its nationally sanctioned script of victimized white women if either Le or Richardson had gone missing in South L.A. or the “gritty” streets of New Haven.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for Some of Us Are Brave, KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.

For more information on MOMS:

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sikivu at AAI Convention

Atheist Alliance International Convention

Why does the "God-concept" continue to dominate African American community and identity? What role can secular humanism and atheism play in disrupting the social inequities of religious traditions? Los Angeles-based writer Sikivu Hutchinson will discuss the tensions that exist in African American culture around living a moral life beyond the boundaries of organized religion. She will address the role secularism/atheism play in shaping contemporary black perspectives on such issues as gender politics and same-sex marriage, discuss the particular challenges of “coming out” as an atheist female of color and examine how the cultural knowledge and lived experience of atheists of color “nuance” the conversation around Western atheism, racial power and privilege.

Friday, October 2nd @4:00 p.m.
Burbank Marriot Convention Center

Monday, September 21, 2009

Letter to a Young Skeptic of Color

By Sikivu Hutchinson

For the longest time religion has simply been an accepted way of life for you, unchallenged, unquestioned, a shopworn ritual, gentle as a vise. If you’re churchgoing the first seeds of doubt may be planted after squirming through umpteen marathon prayer sessions. If you’re not churchgoing, doubt may come from seeing all the privilege and status, the houses, cars and ring-kissing reverence lavished on the pastors, the bishops, the priests and other "hallowed" Christian elite.

At first, doubt feels as though you’re teetering, walking a tightrope over quicksand, staring down into a jury of horrified faces—of family, of friends, of anyone who has ever claimed the right to sit in judgment of you. In doubt, you look around you, and wonder about the incredible amount of real estate churches suck up, the dutiful who power the meager storefronts dotting every block, the elderly sisters resplendent in white usher’s uniforms scrounging their last Social Security check for the collection plate. As a questioning teenager these were indelible images for me, signposts driving through communities decades removed from the 1965 Watts uprising yet still steeped in its turbulence. As a black girl from a politically conscious, secular family this was the everyday currency of black community, “natural” and impenetrable, anchored by the belief that regardless of circumstance, regardless of the crushing blight of racial injustice, there was always the comforting bludgeon of blind faith.

In doubt, the prevalence of suffering and injustice are held up as “evidence” of God’s presence, the lifelong exam of hard knocks that you’re slapped down to take. Indeed, you are told, suffering and injustice validate the need to persevere, to lap up more scripture and take every hardship on the chin in submission to divine providence.

Yet you wonder how God could justify the near ritualistic killings of unarmed people of color by the police in your community, could sanction the lopsided numbers of black youth in prison versus those who go on to college, could turn a blind eye to the bulging ranks of your peers who are homeless, in foster care or simply on the brink. If you are middle class, in a comfortable home with no worries about where your next meal is going to come from, living the insular life of an average teenage sinner, you may be told that you are “blessed,” that it is part of God’s plan, and that you should not consider your good fortune in the context of others’ misfortune but concede to the mystery of God’s ways.

And yet, if you’ve been shattered, like so many of my students have, by the murders of friends who could read your mind, who could make you pee laughing one minute and drive you crazy with fist-clenching rage the next, who were your life raft body, soul and blood; then the bromide of unquestioning faith is brutally, viciously inadequate. Is, in fact, a mockery of justice, an absurd consolation as you walk through the shadows in the valley of death, tiptoeing past grave after grave of the departed, the bright-eyed sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old black and brown faces cut down by boys that look like them the day before graduation, the night after prom, the morning of the first day of college. Will the Lord be your shepherd as it was theirs?

And if you are a young woman at this philosophical crossroads there is the question of whether there is safe space in a culture that defines your worth through conformity, submission and policed sexuality. Of whether your sisters will become the la Buena Mujer figure that your mother and her mother were trained to become, a figure based on the model of self-sacrificing saints and virgins, of protecting sinning menfolk, of being seen and not heard, of having every inch of one’s body mapped out and territorialized like the West Bank in Palestine.

If you have been questioning these violent contradictions you might be asked—what other models of morality are there? You may inwardly reply, “morality” as commandeered by preachers lambasting the gutter religions of competing cults, damning gays on Sunday and screwing everything that moves on Monday? Or “morality” as defined by predators in prayer robes insulated for generations from the full scrutiny of the law? Or “morality” as dictated by fundamentalist terrorists who sanction the murders of abortion doctors in defense of the “rights” of the unborn while millions of living breathing children go without health care in the wealthiest nation on earth?

If you have been grappling with these questions and see no concrete alternatives you may retreat from or go underground with your beliefs. But know that you are not alone in your doubts or passion for truth. There are others in your community who think as you do, who may have already been marginalized and dismissed for their views. They can show you that being a moral person, having inner strength and defining one’s path in life is not dependent upon bowing down to Gods, worshipping on Sundays, knowing scripture backwards and forwards and following the prayerful herd. As African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston once said, “I do not pray. I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny. It seems to me that I have been given a mind and willpower for that very purpose.” It is my belief that being a moral person and building a moral community is based on a justice compass, and it is what communities of color have bequeathed to this bloody experiment in "democracy" ever since the first European illegal “alien” occupied these native lands.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of, a commentator for Some of Us Are Brave, KPFK 90.7 FM radio in Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming book Scarlet Letters on race/gender politics and atheism.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Onward Christian Soldiers: The Religious Right Rides Again

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On a visceral level the scene couldn’t have been more terrifying: a sea of angry virtually all white protestors wielding an array of anti-government, anti-socialist, Obama as marauding terrorist signs raining fundamentalist wrath on the Capitol. “Thank God 4 Fox,” one woman’s sign proclaimed, rising like an incendiary beacon from a motley crew of “insurgents” dressed in revolutionary war garb and other assorted costumes. Despite Republican claims that this weekend’s protest represented a broad cross-section of constituents, the performance on the Capitol was yet another demonstration of the racist provincial fearmongering that characterized the 2008 presidential campaign. The oft-cited vision of the U.S. magically transforming into a post-racial society as a result of Obama’s election has been belied by the precipitous decline of his approval ratings among whites, casualty of the GOP’s thinly-veiled racialized appeals to the white conservative base of Sarah Palin and far right reactionary special interests. Enflamed by the Fox News Network and talk radio, the intersection of far right tax revolt protestors, reactionary health insurance industry shills, “birthers,” and fundamentalist Christian foot soldiers has succeeded in infusing every major policy initiative that the decidedly centrist Obama administration pursues with Orwellian overtones.

What is the connection between this climate of 24/7 Fox engorged right wing propaganda and the religious extremism that has so dominated American politics for nearly two decades? Contrary to earlier predictions, the election of Barack Obama has not dimmed the zealotry of the Religious Right, rather it has invigorated it and propelled it to new heights of pious hysteria. Over the past several months, health care reform has transmogrified into death panels and a government conspiracy to provide federal funding for abortion on demand. Fundamentalist coalitions like the newly-formed Freedom Federation—a group of far right wing organizations like Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council and Gary Bauer’s Campaign for Working Families—claim that health care reform is in their line of fire because of the prospect of further government incursions into so-called Christian charity. In its response to the Obama administration the Freedom Federation has proposed that the government allow churches and faith-based organizations (Satanist, Wiccans ready your applications) to provide care for the uninsured. Speaking for the Federation on MSNBC Perkins declared a government “takeover” of health care fundamentally anti-God and anti-Christian because “Trying to give it off to the government is an abdication of personal responsibility.” Rather, the government should redirect its misguided efforts to expand health care to the 47 million uninsured and simply ratchet up its multi-million dollar faith-based handouts to megachurches. This would enable the faith community to serve all of the Bristol Palin abstinence-only sex ed graduates seeking abortions and HIV/AIDS afflicted LGBT patients courting hellfire and damnation due to their promiscuous gay lifestyles. Despite bending over backward to assure religious groups that federal funding would not go to abortion, organizations like the Federation continue to unleash anti-government propaganda to foment uprising. After a discussion with President Obama and other religious conservatives in which Obama quoted Scripture, Perkins denounced Obama’s hoodwink, blustering that using “Scripture like silly putty to wrap around radical ideas is not going to be sold to the Christian community.”

The idea that expanding access to the millions of uninsured constitutes radicalism is one of the more egregious examples of moral corruption within the conservative Christian community. Rather than defend a universe in which even poor Cubans in Havana and Chinese in Communist China have better health care than unemployed middle class people in the U.S., the Religious Right should challenge the amoral corporate hierarchies that restrict access to citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet. Yet this would not serve the Fox brigade’s Orwellian agenda. According to the platform of Perkins and company is indistinguishable from a States Rights free market manifesto of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. Further privatizing health care to subsidize religious special interests already deep in the back pocket of government threatens the fading prospect of equalitarian care for all regardless of life circumstance or sexual orientation. For example, it would reinforce the Bush era policy (the so-called “conscience clause” which the Obama administration recommended rescinding) of allowing doctors to opt out of medical procedures like abortion or fertility treatments due to their religious beliefs.

The resurgence of the Religious Right—bolstered by Obama’s own continued investment in George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative policy—is fertile ground for a full-blown palace revolt of powder keg conspiracy theorists, anti-government extremists and other disaffected nut jobs that gained sway during the Oklahoma City era. The debate over health care reform may unfortunately be a mild first salvo.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and the author of the forthcoming book Scarlet Letters essays on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief in America

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This Far By Faith? Race Traitors, Gender Apostates & the Atheism Question

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Martin Luther King, Jr. once dubbed Sunday at 11:00 a.m. the most segregated hour in America, a microcosm of the titanic divide that specifically separates black and white America. Yet racial divisions are not the only prominent schism in the Sunday churchgoing ritual that encompasses much of the social and cultural life experience of one of the most God-obsessed nations on the planet. Despite all the “liberal” revisions to biblical language and claims to progressivism among some Christian denominations, mainstream Protestantism is still, of course, a Jim Crow throwback and a man’s man’s world. As Mark Galli, editor of the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today once remarked, “It’s a clich√© now to call institutional religion 'oppressive, patriarchal, out of date and out of touch.' So what else is new? I feel sorry for those people who don't think there's anything greater than themselves…It leaves out the communal dimension of faith.”

From the Deep South to South Los Angeles, this “communal dimension of faith” is one of the most compelling and problematic aspects of women’s investment in organized religion. When it comes to accounting for the disproportionate male to female ratio for self-identified atheists, there has been much wrongheaded conjecture about the supposed emotionalism of women versus the rationality of men. Bloggers muse about women’s intuitive sensitivity to the warm and fuzzy “verities” of religious dogma. Women are portrayed as naturally timorous and thus less inclined to question or suspend belief about the inconsistencies of organized religion. For the most part, there has been no serious evaluation of the perceived gendered social benefits of religious observance versus the social costs of espousing such a gender non-conforming “individualist” ideology as atheism, particularly with respect to American born women of color. Indeed, in many communities of color the very structure of organized religion offers a foundation for the articulation of female gendered identity that has been a source of agency and an antidote to marginalization. On the other hand, patriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles as family breadwinners or purveyors of cultural values to children. Men simply have greater cultural license to come out as atheists or agnostics because of the gender hierarchies that ascribe rationalism, individualism, intellectualism and secular or scientific inquiry to masculinity. So women in traditionally religious communities who come out in real time (as opposed to online) risk greater ostracism because women don’t have the cultural and authorial privilege to publicly express their opposition to organized religion as men.

African American women provide an illustrative case in point. Imagery such as filmmaker Tyler Perry’s bible thumping malapropism spewing Madea, stereotypically heavyset black women in brightly colored choir robes belting out gospel music and sweat-drenched revelers cataleptic from getting the holy ghost are some of the most common mainstream representations of black femininity. These caricatures are buttressed by the unwavering financial and social support of the black church, which is predominantly Christian-based, by African American communities of all income brackets. According to African Americans remain the most solidly religious racial group in the United States, outstripping whites in their churchgoing fervor by a nearly 20% margin. Sunday in and Sunday out, between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a familiar scene emerges in both working and middle class black communities across the nation. Black women shuttle dutifully to church in their sartorial best, backbone of a dubious institution that still accords them only second class citizen standing. The gender dynamics in the breakdown of regular churchgoers reflect an utterly predictable disparity in power and access. While more black women have been allowed to assume leadership roles in black churches in recent years, they remain a minority among deacons, pastors and senior pastors of most black congregations. So although black women are far more likely than men to attend church more than once a week, the officialdom of black religious establishments, and certainly the political face of the black church, is steadfastly male.

What is the relationship between these gendered religious hierarchies and cultural politics in African American communities? Christian religiosity pervades the slang of misogynist black hip hop artists and sports figures and worms its way into their Jesus touting boilerplate award acceptance speeches. Christian religiosity engorges multi-million dollar faith-based empires in poor urban black communities where “prime” real estate is often a triad of storefront churches, liquor stores and checking cashing places. Sex scandals and financial improprieties fester amongst the leadership of black churches yet sexist and homophobic rhetoric remain a mainstay. Blind faith speaks through bulging collection plates and special tithes to the latest charity, pastor’s pet cause or capital campaign, “blessing” donors with another chit to heaven and certitude that black apostates are also race traitors. If mainstream African American notions of black identity are defined by a certain degree of essentialism, then religious identity is certainly a key element. Alternative belief systems are viewed with suspicion because they are deemed to be inconsistent with authentic black identity.

Given this context it is unsurprising that comedian and self-appointed dating guru Steve Harvey’s diatribe against atheism this past spring went largely unchallenged by African American cultural critics. Doling out sage dating advice, Harvey warned black women to avoid atheist gentlemen callers at all costs because they simply have no morals. Harvey’s swaggeringly ignorant declaration was not only a repudiation of atheism but a thinly veiled warning to black women that they should tow the religious line with their personal choices. Failure to do so would have serious consequences for racial solidarity and their ability to be good (black) women, compromising their heterosexual marketability and legitimacy as marriage partners and mothers. It is this brand of essentialism that makes stereotypes associating black identity politics with an anti-secularist stance and religious superstition so irritatingly persistent.

While the greater religiosity of women of color in comparison to men is no mystery, why is it that this peculiarly gendered regime gone relatively unquestioned? The gravity of the social and economic issues confronting black communities—and the tremendous cultural capital and social authority that organized religion exercises within them— compels further analysis. Just as women are socialized to identify with and internalize misogynistic and sexist paradigms, religious paradigms that emphasize domestication and obeisance to men are integral to mainstream American notions of femininity. For many observant women questioning or rejecting religion outright would be just as counterintuitive as rejecting their connection to their lived experiences. In this regard religious observance is as much a performance and reproduction of gender identity as it is an exercise of personal “morality.” Many of the rituals of black churchgoing forge this sense of gendered identity as community. Whether it be maintaining ties with peers within the context of a church meeting, ensuring impressionable children have some “moral” mooring by sending them to Sunday School or even invoking sage bits of scripture to chasten malcontents, enlighten casual acquaintances or infuse one’s quotidian doings with purpose—all carefully delineate enactments of kin and community that have been compulsorily drilled into women as the proper fulfillment of a gendered social contract. And if this gendered social contract were violated en masse patriarchy and heterosexism would have less of a firmament.

What, then, are the lessons for promoting secular humanist, agnostic or atheist belief systems? First, that there must be more clearly defined alternatives to supernaturalism which speak to the cultural context of diverse populations of women and people of color. Second, that moral secular values should provide the basis for robust critique of the serious cultural and socioeconomic problems that have been allowed to thrive in communities of color under the regime of organized religion. Finally, in an intellectual universe where rock star white men with publishing contracts are the most prominent atheists and atheism is perceived in some quarters as a “white” thing, it is also critical that acceptance and embrace of non-supernatural belief systems be modeled in communities of color “on the ground.” Only then can secularism defang the seductions of the communal dimension of faith that defines our most segregated hour.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a presenter at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in October. This article is an excerpt from her book Scarlet Letters an essay collection on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sikivu at Center for Inquiry

For black atheists, actively breaking with religious tradition is an even graver rejection than that of white intellectuals electrified by atheist gurus like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. This is partly due to the fact that the history of African American civil and human rights resistance is heavily steeped in Judeo-Christian religious dogma. In this talk, Los Angeles-based writer-author Sikivu Hutchinson will discuss the tensions that exist in African American culture around living a moral life beyond the boundaries of organized religion. She will address the role secularism/atheism play in shaping contemporary black perspectives on such hot button issues as abortion and same-sex marriage and examine how the cultural knowledge and lived experience of atheists of color “nuance” the conversation around American atheism.

Center For Inquiry
4773 Hollywood Blvd. Los Angeles
August 26th @7:30 p.m.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bootstrapping Out of the Police State

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Margaret Mitchell. Devin Brown. Michael Byoune. Kevin Wickes. Woodrow Player. These are only a few of the names of African Americans murdered by Los Angeles law enforcement over the past decade, specifically the LAPD, Inglewood PD and the L.A. County Sheriff. These are only a few of the names that resonate so powerfully in light of the lifting of the federal consent decree against the LAPD last week.

While the mainstream media have rushed to commend the LAPD for its progress on reform, the rescinding of the consent decree is a criminal sham. According to a 2008 report commissioned by the ACLU on LAPD policing, African Americans are still more likely to be stopped driving while black, ordered out of their cars, frisked, searched and of course arrested than are whites. The report further confirms what community watchdogs and even the Department of Justice concluded about police stops: namely, that stops of blacks and Latinos don’t produce any more weapons, drugs or other contraband that would even justify these measures from a pure enforcement standpoint. Police and sheriffs’ departments essentially waste millions imposing military control on black and Latino motorists. So where are the white fiscal conservatives and live free or die libertarians who bemoan these excesses of big government? Enjoying the entitlements of driving while white.

The consent decree was imposed after the 2000 Rampart scandal, an era in which the wages of whiteness expanded dramatically under Bush’s anti-civil liberties rampage. Even the black elite, who dutifully applauded President Obama’s self-determination pep talk at the NAACP’s annual convention, continue to be reminded of the occupational hazards, or black tax, of working, traveling, driving and even trying to enter one’s house while black. Last week, esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates became reacquainted with the black tax after being arrested by Cambridge police for having the audacity to break into his own home. Despite producing his Harvard i.d., drivers’ license and possibly his dental records to the white police officer, Gates was handcuffed and jailed. It is impossible to imagine eminent white academics like Howard Bloom or Stanley Fish “perp walking” away in handcuffs from their own residences. Gates’ arrest is yet another example of the fallacy of claiming class oppression trumps racial oppression in our post-racial Obama universe.

Being free of the threat of criminalization enhances the mental health and wellbeing of whites of any class. Not being defined and treated as a racial other is an inarguable class advantage. Not knowing the trauma of being programmed to seize up in fear and anxiety at the mere sight of a police car is a form of entitlement. Not growing up with a notion of home and community as occupied territory is, as W.E.B. DuBois framed it, cashing in on the public and psychological wage of whiteness.

Shaking off the cobwebs after decades of being MIA, the NAACP has pledged to make over-incarceration the centerpiece of its new agenda. It is possible that it may find a willing partner in Attorney General Eric Holder, who has articulated some degree of commitment to redressing racially disparate sentencing policies. Possible but not probable, for his boss has become so adept at dismissing the brutal specificity of black disenfranchisement that it has become part of his resume. And as preached by Obama, Bill Cosby and other neo-Booker T. Washington acolytes, all the self-determination bromides in the world won’t empower African Americans to bootstrap their way out of a police state that has claimed so many lives.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for Some Of Us Are Brave: A Black Women’s Radio Show on KPFK 90.7 FM.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Same Sex Marriage, Religiosity & Black Civil Rights Orthodoxies

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Last year’s debate over California’s Proposition 8 exposed deep racial fault lines around the issue of same sex marriage in African American communities across the state. After polls showed an overwhelming number of blacks supported the initiative some liberal whites came out swinging, blaming blacks for the initiative’s defeat in racist diatribes against African American hypocrisy on civil rights. Black religiosity and social conservatism were deemed to be the “culprits” for the failure of same sex marriage to galvanize mainstream black support. As marriage equality advocates of color gear up for another organizing offensive in the wake of the California Supreme Court’s decision upholding Prop 8, it is abundantly clear that when it comes to gay rights, bucking the black religious establishment on civil rights “orthodoxy” continues to be a third rail issue. Exhibit A in this quagmire is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (or SCLC, the civil rights organization once headed by Martin Luther King Jr.), which recently threatened to fire Los Angeles chapter head the Reverend Eric Lee for his outspoken advocacy of same-sex marriage.

The SCLC’s rebuke of Lee reflects a recent L.A. Times poll that showed 54% of African Americans remain steadfastly opposed to same-sex marriage. In this regard straight privilege and religious privilege have converged in a decidedly unholy alliance. The tiresome debate over whether gay and lesbian liberation struggle is a “civil rights” issue hinges on proprietary claims to the civil rights movement legacy that supposedly only straight black folk are entitled to. According to this logic, equality for gays and lesbians isn’t a civil right because there were no state sanctioned segregation laws barring gays and lesbians from employment, schools or housing—an argument which is just as absurd as asserting that gender equity is not a civil rights issue because there were no poll taxes, grandfather clauses, or literacy tests for white women at the voting booth before 1920. In this reductive universe all women are white and all gays are white, and the notion that systematized oppression, as well as systematized privilege and entitlement, intersect via multiple identities is unheard of. Yet black gay and lesbian slaves worked in the plantation house and fields alongside straights while having their lives, identities and right to love tacitly if not violently suppressed by a regime that brutally exploited black reproduction. Black gay and lesbian youth sit in classrooms where they are ritually called out of their names, dehumanized by harassment that passes for harmless jocularity and rendered invisible by cultural norms that equate attractiveness, social acceptance and authentic masculinity and femininity with being heterosexual. And black gay and lesbian partners live in segregated neighborhoods, struggle with unequal access to health care and housing while being denied the privilege of marital benefits to give them a leg up in society stratified by race, gender, sexual orientation and class.

Conflating biblical literalism with morality, Christian partisans condemn same-sex marriage as blasphemy while conveniently rejecting the archaic racial hierarchies that the Bible espouses. Black preachers sanctimoniously opine about the “hijacking” of the civil rights movement legacy while effectively turning a blind eye to the disenfranchisement of their young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered congregants, who suffer disproportionate rates of suicide and depression simply because of the dominant culture’s denial of their fundamental personhood.

For far too long, the more conservative segments of the black church have been allowed to function as the unquestioned moral arbiters of marriage, sexuality, child-rearing and cultural mores. Rather than representing one and only one world view within African American communities-which have their own secular and atheist traditions-the conservative religious civil rights orthodoxy has been enshrined as the prism for black perspectives. Admittedly, Eric Lee and his counterparts are in the minority of those within the black Christian community principled enough to go on record against the anti-gay rhetoric of the pro-Prop 8 coalition. Yet this leadership is crucial to a civil rights movement based on intersectionality, a consciousness of the complexity of African American identity and community in repudiation of the bigoted flat earth ethos that has made silence around black homophobia morally and socially acceptable.

Sikivu Hutchinson is editor of and an advisory board member of the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools curriculum guide on family diversity, gender stereotyping and anti-LGBT bullying.

Monday, June 8, 2009

“God Sent the Shooter:” White Christian Terrorism and the Assassination of George Tiller

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“God sent the shooter,” the signs wielded by anti-abortion protestors at the funeral of slain doctor George Tiller proclaimed. Last week’s assassination of abortion provider and feminist George Tiller in a Kansas church on the so-called holy seventh day was not only a barbaric act of religious cowardice but a terrorist assault on the rights of women. Tragically similar to the 1998 murder of New York doctor Bernard Slepian, Tiller’s murder was the culmination of years of attempted murders, death threats, bombings and arson attacks waged against abortion providers by white Christian terrorists.

Despite the scope of this orchestrated campaign mainstream media rarely identify these acts or those who commit them as “terrorist.” Those who invoke Christian fundamentalism as justification for their barbaric incursions against women and their allies are dismissed as aberrations, even though the profiles of the killers are always the same, the suspects—generally disaffected white middle aged males, aligned with a crackpot anti-government militia and/or fundamentalist ethos steeped in the bloody retribution of the Old Testament—virtually plucked from central casting.

These spasms of Christian fundamentalist violence are largely peculiar to the United States. Anti-abortion activism in Western European countries such as Britian, France and Italy doesn’t inspire anywhere near the level of militant resistance seen here. This virulent strain of fundamentalism was nourished by three theocratic Republican administrations that dismembered the Constitution and effectively sanctioned criminal campaigns against abortion providers. So while the U.S. condemns Muslim religious fundamentalism and trumpets itself as a beacon for individual and civil liberties unbridled by theocratic intolerance it has become a breeding ground for the most dangerous Christian fundamentalist terrorist movement in the world.

Christian fundamentalism has always objectified women’s bodies as patriarchal property and territory for reproductive control. It’s no surprise then that these white men deem themselves to be Christian soldiers in the war over the wombs of Middle American and Southern white women. It’s also no surprise that the Bible Belt, fount of hyper-religious public policy that demonizes sex education and contraception, has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Christian fundamentalist dogma is about keeping ‘em barefoot, knocked up and in obeisance to a God that would rather see an impoverished 12 year-old incest victim carry her rapist father’s baby to term and suffer lifelong psychological trauma than undergo a safe legal abortion and have a reasonable expectation for a future. And it is immoral, radically anti-woman positions like these which make the “pro-life” misnomer appropriated by the anti-abortion movement so infuriating. In the militant anti-choice universe the lives of real babies living in poverty and their real mothers and real families are of no consequence next to protection of the religiously decreed “rights” of the unborn. White male anti-abortion terrorists can’t get similarly exorcised about cuts to women’s health care benefits and pre and postnatal care to mothers in real time because it would mean ceding control to flesh and blood women.

Tiller’s assassination also dovetails with a dangerous shift in public opinion regarding the future of choice for American women imperiled by unwanted pregnancies. Influenced by a decade of unrelenting right wing propaganda that equates abortion with murder and abortion providers with Nazi eugenicists, polls indicate that a growing majority of the American public has adopted a “pro-life” stance and is willfully ignorant about the life-giving and life-saving potential of legal abortion. Dispatching shooters from “God,” the anti-abortion movement must accept responsibility for the murderous religious rhetoric that led to the assassination of George Tiller and the terrorist assault on the rights and lives of American women.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Listen To Some Of Us Are Brave








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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Out of the Closet:" Black Atheists

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In some black communities it’s akin to donning a white sheet and a Confederate Flag. In others it’s ostensibly tolerated yet whispered about, branded culturally incorrect and bad form if not outright sacrilege. For black atheists like myself, proclaiming one’s non-belief amidst genial wishes to “have a blessed day” is never easy in the seemingly innocuous context of casual chit chat between black folk. Yet, according to the New York Times, a small but growing segment of the American population, galvanized by the hyper-evangelical climate of the Republican Pleistocene, have begun organizing nationwide and becoming more vocal about their atheism. Although African Americans are not visible in the “movement” some are easing away from religion. For black atheists, actively breaking with religious tradition is an even graver rejection than that of white intellectuals electrified by the “pew-storming” rhetoric of atheist gurus like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. This is partly due to the fact that the history of African American civil and human rights resistance is heavily steeped in Judeo-Christian religious dogma. Despite the White Anglo Saxon Protestant religious justification for slavery and domestic terrorism, African Americans converted to Christianity and utilized it as a source of succor, community and spiritual redemption. No matter one’s actual deeds, life path or personal mores, to be unquestioningly religious in some quarters is to be inoculated from criticism. Noting this historical irony in his blog “The Black Atheist,” Wrath James White states, “In these (black) communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God.” For Wright, this “is one of the most embarrassing elements of Black culture, our zealous embrace of the God of our kidnappers, murderers, slave masters and oppressors.”

While there have been critical appraisals of African American adoption of Christianity within the context of European conquest and racial slavery, few propose atheism as a corrective. Indeed, atheism would seem to fly in the face of a cultural ethos that frames earthly pain and suffering as a crucible for achieving rewards in the afterlife. In the midst of extreme brutality religious faith can either be seen as a means to mental health, or, as Karl Marx put it more bluntly, an opiate.

In this sense contemporary black religiosity is the legacy of a culturally specific survival strategy. Many black secular community-based organizations still look to the black church as a coalition partner and resource. Disturbingly, the church is often uncritically perceived as the “backbone” of the black community. However, as the debate over California’s Proposition 8 demonstrated, the notion that there is a monolithic “marching in lockstep” black community is terminally outdated. On issues of gender and sexual orientation, the overwhelming opposition of many prominent black churches to granting civil rights to partnered African American gays and lesbians is morally indefensible. When it comes to attitudes about traditional gender roles, gender-based assumptions about black female religiosity are double-edged. While black male non-believers are given more leeway to be heretics, black women who openly profess atheist views are deemed especially traitorous, having abandoned their family role as purveyors of cultural and religious tradition. Images of black women faithfully shuttling their children to church and socializing them into Christianity are a prominent part of mainstream black culture. If being black and being Christian are synonymous, then being black, female and religious (whatever the denomination) is practically compulsory. Black women with children who don’t fall in line, who raise their children as atheists, may find their race credentials revoked.

On the national level the contradictions between American secularism and religion have produced a schizoid tension in the U.S., whereby religious fundamentalism and intolerance for secular thought have become the norm. When it’s practiced in the non-Western world Americans routinely brand this kind of propaganda as backward and extremist. Yet, in this, the most swaggeringly “liberal humanist” of all nations, “coming out” as an atheist in a culture that parades religious dogma as a substitute for true morality may be one of the final ideological frontiers for African Americans.

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Silence Equals Death

"Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated."Kimberle Crenshaw, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex."

By Sikivu Hutchinson

There is silence in the classroom. Even amidst the clockwatching ten minutes-before-the-bell-rings clamor of a typical high school class there is silence, deafening and thick as quicksand. I have asked the class a question about the widespread use of the words “bitch” and “ho” to describe young women of color on campus and several boys are holding forth in response. They are the same four opinionated boys who have been the most vocal throughout these sessions, always ready with a quip, a deflection or, sometimes, serious commentary that reveals deep wisdom. They are bursting with perspective on this topic, but the girls in the room are silent. Some twist in their seats, some study the tops of their desks in calculated boredom, transporting themselves outside of the room, slain by the language of dehumanization. Finally a few girls chime in and say they use the terms casually with friends, as in “my bitch or my ho,” supposedly neutralizing their negative connotations akin to the way they use the word “nigga.” Some claim the words are justifiably used to describe “bad girls” who are promiscuous and unruly, not realizing that black women have always been deemed “bad” in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for pornographic exploitation. When I wondered aloud whether white women call themselves bitch as a term of endearment I got uncertain responses. My guess is that they don’t, not because white women are necessarily more enlightened and self-aware than women of color on gender, but because white femininity is the beauty ideal and hence the human ideal. Despite the misogyny that pervades American culture there is inherent value placed on the lives of white women. Every aspect of the image industry affirms their existence, and the spectrum of culturally recognized white femininity extends from proper and pure to “sexually liberated.”

This is exemplified by the tabloid media’s obsession with missing white women and white girls. Plastered on websites like AOL, relentlessly rammed down our collective throats in titillating morsels with whiffs of sexuality and scandal, poster child Caylee Anderson and company are a metaphor for Middle America’s Little Red Riding Hood fetishization of white femininity. Tabloid narratives of imperiled white females highlight the suburban virtues of white Middle America and not so subtlely evoke the social pathologies of the so-called inner city. Indeed, the spectacles of grief, mourning, and community outrage trotted out on CNN and FOX not only program viewers to identify with the injustice that has been done to the victim and her family, but to her community. In the world of 24-7 media these victims become our girls, our daughters, while the “bitches” and “hos” of the inner city symbolize the disorder and ungovernableness of an urban America whose values must be kept at bay.

In many regards this is part of the same “post-feminist” trend of telling women to sit down and shut up, to internalize the values of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and stay in their place. A generation of Bush militarism and corporate reign over media has turned sexualized violence against women into a billion dollar industry, as illustrated by global romance with gangsta rap, violent video games and Internet pornography. Yet the desensitization of young black women to these trends is perhaps the most painful. When I talk to my students about the staggering rates of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse in black communities they are quick to judge themselves and their peers for inciting male violence. Unable to see themselves and their lives as valuable they slam other girls for being “hoochies” and sloganeer violent misogynist lyrics without a second thought. Awareness about the relationship between pervasive violence against black women in the media and male behavior is lacking. During the 2008-2009 school year a few South L.A. schools have been willing to partner with media literacy organizations like the Women of Color Media Justice Initiative on a gender equity curriculum that trains young people to engage in media advocacy. But unless we change the self-hating mindset of many young black women, silence—as the gay HIV activist saying goes—does equal death, and we are poised to lose another generation to a media-colonized sense of self worth.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of, a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM and co-founder of the Women of Color Media Justice Initiative, a partnership with the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, the Ida B. Wells Institute, Mother’s Day Radio and the Women’s Leadership Project.

Sikivu's commentary will be broadcast on SOME OF US ARE BRAVE, KPFK Radio on Thursday April 9th @2:30


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Friday, February 6, 2009

Redefining the Stimulus

By Sikivu Hutchinson

What if an economic stimulus package took into account the real cost of living in the United States, the wealthiest nation on the planet with the most raggedy family social welfare net in the post-industrial world? Said stimulus package would acknowledge the reality of working families and the gendered economy of raising and socializing children and working outside of the home. Said stimulus package would include mandatory childcare provisions, paid family leave, universal health care and funding for family planning to ensure that working women remain in the workforce. Said package would include a provision for generating urban jobs where the majority of people of color, segregated from exurban professional networks, must live and work.

With provisions for expanding unemployment and health insurance president Obama’s stimulus package addresses some of these issues. But ever the bipartisan Pollyana, Obama has been furiously courting Senate Republicans, countering a Rush Limbaugh-fueled backlash to the stimulus. In a one hand giveth, one hand taketh away gesture, Obama signed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill into law, making the kids of working families who don’t qualify for Medicaid eligible for health coverage—then quietly dropped a stimulus provision for family planning after Republicans expressed opposition. Obama characterized the SCHIP bill as a “down-payment” on his campaign pledge to provide health coverage for all Americans. But his massaging of Republicans in Congress makes it questionable whether he will have the political stamina to negotiate the creation of expanded health care coverage in the midst of insurance companies and conservatives hellbent on demonizing health care reform as socialist.

In the wake of a campaign season marked by studious avoidance of poor and working class women and men of color, it was almost otherwordly to hear President Obama publicly assert while signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, that women of color receive even less pay than their white female counterparts. Based on a lawsuit from a 19-year veteran of Goodyear Tires, the Ledbetter Act holds that due process for wage discrimination should extend beyond a 180 day window for filing. Obama’s bill recognized the brutal reality of pay discrimination—namely that it often takes years to discover and document inequities in pay. The years of pay disparities that women suffer not only translate into lost income but lost savings, lost capital, lost resources and lost time.

Single women of color still make the least, work the longest paid and unpaid hours and have the most riding on them if they fail as providers. And the bitter fact remains that single black women are the primary breadwinners in many urban African American families. As job losses and foreclosures continue to ravage urban black communities, the frontline impact will be on single parent families who can’t float on the feel good uplift of the president’s inauguration in place of a real safety net. With community colleges under strain due to the state budget deficit, adult education will be an iffy means of retraining a service-oriented workforce in the skill sets needed for the green jobs the administration has hyped. Then, there is the matter of finding affordable daycare for the children whose parents need retraining. As it is, working black parents must navigate a maze of providers and regulations to find affordable daycare. The recent tragedy of the murder-suicide of a Los Angeles couple terminated from their jobs at Kaiser for falsifying a signature on a daycare application underscores this painful dilemma.

In their “government handouts for Wall Street arrogance,” Republicans and some Democrats are riding the one trick pony of even more individual and business tax cuts as a remedy for the economic meltdown. Despite his concessions to Wall Street, the GOP and the Clinton establishment in his cabinet choices, Obama has signaled a willingness to piece together the social welfare net—now it’s up to us to make sure that his bipartisan Pollyannish-ness doesn’t derail the change mantra he swept into office on.

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

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: The Underbelly of Cadillac Records

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Midway through the recently released Cadillac Records, director Darnell Martin’s film on the groundbreaking record label Chess Records, Martin depicts rock pioneer Chuck Berry unleashing his signature “Sweet Little Sixteen” guitar riffs against scenes of surfing revelry. Berry’s song was notoriously pilfered by the Beach Boys in their song “Surfin’ USA,” a homage to white California youth subculture. Chewed up and spat out by an imperialist marketing machine, Berry’s music becomes yet another Jim Crow soundtrack for Americana pleasure. The first African American female to direct a studio film, Martin’s take on the Chess saga breathes new life into the all too familiar history of gifted black musicians ripped off by a white record promoter. Chronicling the rise of Chess artists Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Berry, Little Walter and Etta James, Martin highlights their struggle to gain fair compensation and recognition in a culture whose appetite for “black music” would ripen into a multi-million dollar industry during the 1950s. The avarice of record company owner Leonard Chess, who amassed a fortune from the music of these artists, paying them off with Cadillac cars and shady contracts, is a vivid reminder of the plantation ethos that drives American pop music.

It’s no revelation to say that white appropriation of African American derived music and idioms has been a cornerstone of mainstream American cultural identity, yet Martin’s film throws the question of consumption, commerce and the capitalist subtext of white pleasure into vivid relief. In the film young white women flock to black guitar players at segregated concerts, parading their relative racial and sexual freedom, oblivious to the consequences for black men. For white Americana, the rise of 1950s rock and R&B transformed racial otherness into a more mainstream adventure, a resort vacation into unexplored vistas of self-discovery that even white consumers with a few cents for a 45 record could take. White postwar prosperity and suburbanization made blackness all the more appealing because of its transgressive potential. As long as actual black people remained “out there,” in segregated urban ghettos and rural communities, black cultural production would continue to be a seductive bromide.
The 1956 Interstate Highway Act paved the way to white suburbia and ignited a car culture that was baptized in the sounds of rock and R&B. As suburban white flight exacerbated residential segregation, black music became the commodity of choice for a new generation of young white consumers. Yet in the film, scene after scene of crushing poverty, racist police abuse and public humiliation endured by Waters and company underscores the parasitic relationship between white consumption and spatial apartheid. For scores of white record buyers and musicians, classics such as Wolf and Willie Dixon’s “Backdoor Man” and Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” would become standards, while segregated black spectators would grow up watching Hollywood scenes of white romance and redemption against the backdrop of black music.

Like Motown, Stax Records and other black-dominated labels, the work of the Chess artists established a new language for white self-invention while foregrounding the disparity between white and black postwar opportunities. The parallels between this history and the commodification of hip hop are compelling. As hip hop has spanned the globe netting mega millions for white corporations it has become another metaphor for imperialist exploitation of black America. Though Berry ultimately won song writing credit on Surfin’ USA after a threatened lawsuit, the film leaves us with the image of the hip swiveling Elvis Presley; his legacy and global empire forged on the backs of African American geniuses unknown and unrecognized in American music history.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.