Friday, January 29, 2010

Mainstream Media's Tea Party Tryst

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Its déjà vu all over again as the mainstream media trumpet the ascent of the so-called tea party movement. In its rush to frame the recent victory of Republican State Senator Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race as a tea party triumph mainstream media have given more ammo to the politics of racial hysteria. Last fall’s health care reform inspired outburst of anti-Obama anti-government hysteria officially inaugurated a return to the in-your-face “populism” of angry white men. Thinly disguised as saber rattling against big government, race-baiting propaganda has been revitalized as the Republican strategy for taking back the country. A bolded asterisk should be stamped on these tired broadsides, as big government never includes defense, domestic law enforcement, prisons, functioning stoplights or pothole free roads for ozone shredding SUVs.

Instead of critiquing the real roots of these spasms of white supremacist “reclamation,” mainstream and even some liberal-progressive media have largely parroted the view that there was some new and unprecedented backlash in Massachusetts. Head scratching pundits counsel Democrats to “listen” to the sentiments of the tea baggers and stop parodying them as ignorant philistines. Yet Massachusetts state Attorney General Martha Coakley was simply a weak candidate. Like most Democrats she took the support of black and Latino constituencies for granted and failed to do the campaign trench work required to win election. Kowtowing or trying to “understand” the motives of a narrow segment of the Massachusetts electorate simply legitimizes a long strain of American politics that dates all the way back to Strom Thurmond's twenty-four hour filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Bill.

If a really dumb space alien landed in the middle of a tea party protest they wouldn't need a decoder ring to tell them what the demographic “411” is when it comes to power and privilege in the United States. Before Massachusetts, so-called disaffected white independents were only one slimy teabag away from their “birther” brethren. In the 2008 campaign Obama won a mere 43% of the white vote, greater than either Gore in 2000 or Kerry in 2004, but miniscule when considering the carnage left by the Bush administration. As historians have noted, the Democrat Party has never recovered from the mass exodus of whites after the passage of the 1964 Civil and 1965 Voting Rights Acts. Hence, the post-racialism which conservatives tout as an outcome of Obama’s election has simply never been borne out in the numbers.

On the black side of Flat Earth, black conservatives valiantly uphold this dramatic tradition of casting the universe as one giant self-reflection. Recently, in commemoration of King's birthday, African American commentators were trotted out on MSNBC and NPR to assess the nation's racial climate. Questioned by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews during a race roundtable John McWhorter, a pundit at the conservative Manhattan Institute, proclaimed his love of segregation, noting that it's a good thing—Cleveland, Philadelphia, D.C., Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore and South Los Angeles aside—when black people live together. On NPR conservative watchdog Joe Hicks swaggeringly boasted that he could go anywhere in the country without fear of legal barrier, reminding the listening audience that King probably would have opposed affirmative action had he been alive today.

Like their white counterparts, black conservatives hew faithfully to Ronald Reagan’s old caveat that facts are “stupid things.” On the phenomenon of lending discrimination against homebuyers and homeowners of color they can't be bothered to read decades of research documenting the institutional basis for segregation. On the issue of African American over-incarceration they point to black matriarchs like the fictitious Mary Jones of the film Precious and baggy pants wearing young black males. Over-incarceration is merely a symptom of poor blacks' refusal to assimilate. Similarly, the fact that blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in areas that are environmentally toxic, with little access to healthy shopping alternatives is really just evidence of their failure to learn how to say “ask” instead of “axe” in order to take advantage of all the higher paying private sector jobs that would spring them from the ghetto.

The conservative tradition of cultural and historical illiteracy is now a permanent and defining part of the political landscape. Due to its influence the general tenor of the country is proudly unabashedly hostile to evidence and documentation. Global warming is a liberal conspiracy. Evolution is cultural propaganda and any research-based evidence is deeply suspect. The Supreme Court's recent ruling giving corporations free reign to influence peddle and steal elections have liberated them from “second class citizenship.” The Fox regime’s scant coverage on Haiti, coupled with “Boss” Limbaugh’s reduction of the nation’s mammoth death toll, destruction and human suffering to a money pit exacerbated by too much global welfare, is bolstered by the witch-hunting moral authority of Pat Robertson. The media’s new love affair with the tea party phenomenon is entirely in service to a racist narrative in which capitalism and imperialism are endangered and the white electorate is the underdog minority. In the hype of the old its 1995 all over again, and the militia are massing at the gate.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and the author of the forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheism, Gender Politics and Secular America.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Black America and the Morality of Choice

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the film Precious, a teenage African American girl has two children by her HIV infected father. The possibility of abortion is never spoken of and the girl’s delivery of her second child is treated as a bootstraps triumph over the matriarchal hell of her upbringing by a degenerate “welfare queen” caricature. Yet Precious is simply one more example in a long line of contemporary American films that “omit” reference to abortion as a viable life option. Popular glorifications of young motherhood in such white female-centered vehicles as Juno, Sixteen and Pregnant and Knocked Up ,promote a conservative pre-feminist vision of compulsory motherhood. In this moral universe abortion is a third rail alternative that only bad women make in shame and secrecy.

When I chose to have an abortion in my 20s as an underemployed college student on the road to a PhD., it was in a climate in which the horrors of the pre-Roe vs. Wade era seemed distant and unimaginable. Now the pendulum has swung back, underscored by the recent debate over abortion coverage in the health care reform bills. Ostensibly drawing on the ban on federal abortion funding mandated by the 1977 Hyde Amendment, both the House and Senate bills drastically restrict abortion coverage in ways that will reduce the access of working and middle class women to safe legal abortions. Hyde restrictions on funding for abortion through Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for low-income women, effectively denied access to poor women seeking abortions. The House bill goes beyond Hyde, prohibiting insurers who participate in health reform insurance exchanges from including abortion coverage in their plans.

There has been very little national discussion of how women of color will specifically be affected by draconian restrictions on abortion in the health care bills’ mandated insurance exchanges. At approximately 6% of the U.S. population, African American women have a disproportionate number of abortions. African Americans’ long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party has led to the assumption that blacks are unwaveringly pro-choice. However, there is tension between public support for choice among black voters and deeply held antiabortion sentiments in African American communities. A 2006 Zogby International poll showed an increase in anti-choice views among African Americans. Black anti-choice factions have gained greater visibility in the national arena in such influential far right media as Fox News. Internet searches for information on abortion and African Americans yield more references to “black genocide” than to pro-choice African American views. Mainstream black civil rights’ leadership remains steadfastly silent on the urgency of protecting legal abortion access and reproductive justice for black communities.

The overwhelming religiosity of African Americans, coupled with the political ascendance of the Religious Right, has made religious nationalist abortion foes the “authentic” voice of black America by default. It has also made frank talk about abortion's role in addressing the crisis of unwanted births in black communities virtually impossible. This climate fuels black nationalist and religious propaganda equating abortion with genocide. Hearkening back to eugenicist history, black abortion foes point to a white conspiracy to reduce the black population. However, skyrocketing numbers of black children who are homeless, in foster care and/or Child Protective Services illustrate the gravity of caregiving issues facing many African American families. And black abortion foes offer no viable program for addressing this moral and social crisis. They offer no viable program for the dilemma of an 18 year-old who had her first child at age 12. They’re MIA when it comes to concrete assessment of how this 18 year-old (multiplied by 10,000) raising her second child by an incarcerated older man, develops parenting skills, deals with anger management, gets an education, gets a job, finds health care resources, puts food on the table and grapples with the probability of being a single mother for the rest of her life.

The pervasiveness of popular images in which getting a man and becoming a mother are the end all be all of femininity make it easy to see why some young women decide to forgo abortion. Steeped in a culture where having a child at an early age is not stigmatized, being a young mother becomes an “antidote” to low self esteem and limited life opportunities. It is no mystery then why girls who see their friends get pregnant and have no other meaningful affirmation in their lives decide to sacrifice their youth for the fantasy of a baby’s unconditional love. It is no mystery why girls who are ambivalent go forward with a pregnancy anyway due to ignorance and/or fear about seeking out reproductive resources or lack of access. Because of the deep social stigma associated with abortion and the frayed social welfare net, the burden of educating young women about the existence of alternatives to early motherhood increasingly falls on peers and mentors in their communities.

Historically black women have not had power and control over their bodies. Under slavery compulsory pregnancy through rape and forced breeding was the norm for black women in this country. In the 19th and 20th centuries eugenicist sterilization policies were imposed on black women to assert racist control over black reproduction. However, noting the connection between reproductive freedom and social justice, Loretta Ross, co-founder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong remarked, “We understand why African-American women risked their lives then and why they seek safe, legal abortion now. It's been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children.” Choice is a key aspect of achieving self-determination and sovereignty for black communities in a racist patriarchal culture.

Nonetheless, recent polls such as Zogby and Gallup have shown that there is increasing support for anti-choice, antiabortion views among younger people. In a national culture in which the bankrupt “morality” of the Religious Right is the default position on ethics and personal choice, many young people have a limited a-historical view of the real life implications of restricted abortion access. In the debate leading up to the House and Senate bills, the morality police, led by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council, were out in full force, lobbying for more comprehensive restrictions on abortion coverage.

These views are reinforced by the Democratic shift in framing abortion initiated by President Obama. In January Obama lifted a Bush-era “global gag rule” ban on funding for foreign family planning agencies that provide abortion services. Yet early in his presidential campaign he showed his willingness to kowtow to antiabortion forces out of political expediency. He cozied up to antiabortion evangelicals with rhetoric about “reducing” the number of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies. He rubbed shoulders with homophobe Pastor Rick Warren at his mega-church in Orange County and gave him a plum position at his inauguration. He re-legitimated Bush’s faith-based initiative program by approving its funding base and tacitly endorsing discriminatory church hiring policies. Obama’s politically expedient approach to choice has bolstered the anti-choice antiabortion agendas of Blue Dog Democrats like Congressman Bart Stupak and Senator Ben Nelson. The aggressive recruitment of the Blue Dogs by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has led to the gutting of any semblance of progressive legislation in the Democratically-held Congress.

In the health care reform charade this will have disastrous consequences for black women and communities of color, who rely heavily on services like Planned Parenthood for preventive care (due in part to the Hyde Amendment). Every state that enacts parental notification laws and late term abortion restrictions further imperils the lives of women of color who generally have fewer health care resources than do white women of any economic level. The crisis of unemployment, unequal pay for equal work, unequal access to health care and a cradle-to-prison pipeline mean that African American women can least afford to be mis-educated about the right to choose because of religious dogma or destructive nationalist blather. In the midst of a dangerously reactionary climate we can least afford to cede visibility to the self-appointed “authentic” morality police of black America. Simply put, abortion saves lives, black lives, and standing on the sidelines while the Religious Right and its black allies hijack our rights is not an option.

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