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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 blackfemlens.org and a commentator for Some of Us Are Brave, KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.

For more information on MOMS: http://essentialpresence.blogspot.com/2009/07/moms-group-puts-up-billboard-to-give.html

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
http://www.atheistconvention.org/schedule/speakers/

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 blackfemlens.org, 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 rightwingwatch.org 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 blackfemlens.org 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 cliché 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 blackdemographics.com 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 blackfemlens.org 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.