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.