Friday, March 26, 2010

Mob Rules: Tea Party’s High Noon

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Back in 2009 when the first round of health care reform protests rippled across Middle America, open-carry gun fanatics set the tenor of the mob-ocracy to come; flaunting their weapons, exhorting white "patriots" to stockpile and evoking the specter of an Obama driven apocalypse. Now that the health care overhaul bill has passed the End of Days are upon us. During deliberations on the bill on the House floor a Republican lawmaker yelled “baby killer.” During a Tea Party protest in D.C. Congressman John Lewis was called the N-word and Congressman Barney Frank was lispingly labeled a “faggot.” At the same protest one enterprising man in the crowd hoisted a sign with the slur “Obama Plan, White Slavery” on it. After President Obama signed the legislation the offices of Democrats who supported the bill were vandalized.

Reveling in nightly PR infusions from the corporate lapdogs of American journalism, the freshly evangelized macho racist right has ensured that its charge of a socialist government expansion is now viewed as a “reasonable” critique of an overhaul that effectively concedes universal coverage to the insurance industry. Mining a deep strain of patriarchal backlash, the Tea Partiers have taken Christian fundamentalists’ language of “moral” panic and used it as a goad to a white nationalist uprising obsessed with imagery of enslavement.

The intersection of patriarchal resentment and so-called white cultural disenfranchisement has always animated conservative mass protest and activism. During the 19th and 20th centuries “white slavery” was the catch all term for moral panic about sex trafficking of white women. The association of the health care overhaul with this historical theme is a telling glimpse into the mind of the macho racist for whom sexual invasion is a metaphor for the imperiled white body as Nation. The specter of “enslaved” white people under the yoke of a black patriarch (ala the lawmaking blackface grotesques of Birth of a Nation) elicits visceral terror amongst white supremacists. True to their Confederate provenance, the Tea Partiers have begun to rally more vociferously for a return to States Rights. Before the ink was dry on the health care bill, 14 states lined up to contest its mandate that individuals’ purchase health care coverage. Back in February, during the Tea Party’s first convention, States Rights was the clarion call, with seminars on nullification—States Rights as trumping federal authority—and the heroism of Confederate president Jefferson Davis whipping up a secessionist frenzy.

Hijacking Christian fundamentalist propaganda, the Tea Partiers have succeeded in casting the “incursions” of the federal government as a grave moral transgression. In the misogynist hysteria over federal funding for abortion it did not matter that the Hyde Amendment was unequivocal on funding restrictions for the procedure. And in the thuggish sound and fury over “socialism” it did not matter that the final health care bill merely opened the gateway for competition amongst health care insurers, rather than single payer or even a public option. So-called nationalized health care is an affront to white Americans’ god given right not to subsidize minority leeches who exploit decent taxpayers with abortions, drug abuse treatment and emergency room visits.

Progressive organizations such as the Color of Change and Move have called on GOP leaders like Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele to publicly denounce the Tea Party violence. Fat chance when the GOP is all but stage managing the Tea Party “movement.” Cruising into the midterm elections House Negro Steele and the GOP operatives are no doubt licking their chops at the media blitz, banking on Independent voters’ “buyers’ remorse” to sweep Obama and his health reform allies out of office. Playing Orwell’s O’Brien to Middle America’s Winston Smith from the novel 1984, the GOP knows that it can hold up four fingers and seduce the white electorate into believing there are five.

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

Friday, March 19, 2010

Black Infidels: Humanism and African American Social Thought

By Sikivu Hutchinson

excerpt from The New Humanist Magazine, A Publication of Harvard's Humanist Chaplaincy

During a talk show discussion on relationships last year, radio personality and self-proclaimed dating guru Steve Harvey charged that atheists had no moral values. Anyone who didn't believe in God was an "idiot," he said, and women should steer clear of these rogue blasphemers at all costs. While atheist websites were abuzz with condemnations of Harvey, his tirade went unchallenged by mainstream African American media. Yet his view reflects conventional wisdom about African American communities and faith. Namely, that African Americans are so unquestioningly religious that having any other viewpoint is grounds for "revocation" of one's race credentials. With churches on every corner, religious idioms seamlessly woven into everyday black speech, faith-based license plates ubiquitous in black neighborhoods and black celebs thanking Jesus at every awards event, how could it be otherwise? According to a 2008 Pew Research Forum study, African Americans are indeed the most "consistently" religious ethnic group in the U.S. However, black Humanist scholars like Norm Allen, Executive Director of African Americans for Humanism, and Anthony Pinn, Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, point to another tradition. Both have critiqued the exclusion of Humanist influence from appraisals of African American social thought and civil rights resistance. Whilst acknowledging the key role African American Christian ideology played in black liberation, these scholars believe it is also crucial to highlight the influence of Humanist principles of rationalism, social justice, skepticism and freethought...


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

International Women’s Day: Iran and The Global Struggle for Women’s Liberation

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The influence of mainstream media has often made it difficult for Western women to draw parallels between sexist oppression of women in the West and that of Middle Eastern women. Programmed to see Middle Eastern women as the “other,” shackled by backward, terroristic Islamist regimes, many uncritically accept the mainstream media’s portrayal of the “secularist” enlightened West as the liberator of Middle Eastern women. As an activist in the Iranian women’s movement, Sussan Gol has been outspoken in making connections between her struggle and the global implications of women’s oppression.

Gol recently traveled to the U.S. to participate in the commemoration of International Women’s Day on March 8th. She went to high school in L.A. and moved back to Iran after the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah government in
1979. The rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini led to the repeal of virtually all of the civil rights women had begun to enjoy prior to the Revolution. Compulsory implementation of the hijab (a practice which entails modest traditional dress, such as the veil) and the draconian restrictions of Sharia (Muslim law) have severely limited women’s basic mobility, access to education, rights within the family and in the political sphere. During the Shah’s rule, separation of church and state was observed and overt control of women through the hijab was relatively minimal. With the institutionalization of a theocratic Islamic fundamentalist state, women were routinely forced into arranged marriage and treated as the property of their husbands and male relatives. Policed in every aspect of public and private life, women have no right to their own children and are even forced to sleep with their husbands four times a day.

Because of their activism, Gol and her husband were jailed and placed in solitary confinement by the Khomeini regime. In the mid 1980s her husband was executed by the government. She has continued to agitate for women’s rights in an atmosphere that she describes as “suffocating,” holding that Islamist feminists are making a bargain with the devil. For Gol, the relationship between gender equality and fundamentalist Islam is unequivocal. While some Iranian women’s rights activists are interested in reforming Sharia law, Gol believes that any version of Sharia critically undermines human rights by policing women’s bodies, constructing them as property and denying them the fundamental right to control their own lives and destinies. She sees parallels between the struggles of Iranian women and those in the West. Historically there has been a paternalistic divide between women’s rights activists in the West and Islam. Some Western feminists view Islamic fundamentalist oppression of women as the antithesis of Western ideals and values. However, Gol stresses that there are similarities between Muslim women’s experiences and that of non-Muslim Western women. Despite the claim of Western cultural superiority, Christian fundamentalist incursions into reproductive rights, epidemic domestic violence, the near enculturation of sexual assault in American society, inequitable access to child care and gender-based pay inequities continue to imperil women’s right to self-determination.

Thus, although the U.S. and Europe are often regarded as the models for women’s political agency, Middle Eastern feminists like Gol emphasize their solidarity with the struggles of disenfranchised women in the West, particularly that of women of color. Sex trafficking and prostitution as a form of capitalist commodification of women’s bodies is a common thread. Due to the Iraq War, sex trafficking of Iranian women has exploded. In some instances poor women are “exported” to countries like Dubai and sold into kingdoms as sex slaves and prostitutes. Because of the gender wage hierarchies imposed by the West, the inability of unskilled female laborers to find living wage employment to support their families has made sexual slavery a desperate final option for some women. For example, in the absence of job opportunities, young African American women may turn to the sex trade or be “pimped” into prostitution by predatory male hustlers. Gol also points to the pervasiveness of international sex trafficking in the U.S. and Eastern Europe as examples of how women’s bodies and sex work have continued to be valuable commodities in the global marketplace.

These regimes of patriarchal exploitation and control have been exacerbated by U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. Driven by the U.S.’ strategic interest in controlling Iran’s oil reserves, Iran has historically been caught in the crosshairs. According to Women for Peace and Justice in Iran, U.S. intervention in Iran “postponed the advancement of rights in Iran for decades,” undermining “secular and left opposition to the rule of the Shah and bolstering the superiority of the Islamic forces when the revolution was eventually won.” Over the past several years, the mainstream media’s portrayal of the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq as a democratic mission has been exposed by human rights and anti-war activists as nothing more than imperialist propaganda.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration has renewed its predecessor’s commitment to this agenda. Consequently, Gol condemns the U.S.’ deployment of 70,000 more troops in Afghanistan. She views U.S. occupation as destructive to progressive social justice change in the region. As many Middle Eastern activists have noted, U.S. occupation has been a major catalyst for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. However, Gol cautioned, “Islamic fundamentalism hangs on its ‘death to America’” rhetoric as a means of legitimizing and reinforcing nationalism. In some regards, poor people in the region see no other viable alternative to Western imperialism besides Islamic fundamentalism. Tragically, some Iranian feminists and intellectuals also buy into this line. And it is for this reason that Gol faults the activists of the Iranian Green Movement for their failure to challenge its leaders on the issue of nationalism and women’s rights.

Global women’s liberation is undermined by cultural binaries that weave a narrative of Western enlightenment versus Middle Eastern fundamentalism. In their pursuit of human rights for women in Iran, Gol and her feminist allies provide important global context for shared struggle and justice.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a contributor to KPFK’s Some of Us Are Brave and WBAI NY’s Women’s Collective.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

UC Swindle: California’s Apartheid Schoolhouse

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On March 4th, as the University of California San Diego continues to roil with the fallout from the so-called Compton Cookout, thousands of students and faculty will participate in statewide protests against a draconian budget that has cut a bloody swath into California’s public universities. UC and Cal State student activists across the state are calling for an end to the “privatization” of public higher education. Activists charge that university officials are increasingly siphoning funding for instruction to research and development through byzantine private investment schemes. In addition, there is a growing trend to give preference to out-of-state students who pay higher admission fees. The majority of these students are not from historically underrepresented African American and Latino communities. This strategy essentially constitutes creaming, ultimately reducing spots for working class students of color who are far more likely to rely on financial aid. While UC chancellor Mark Yudoff recently boasted of an $800,000 salary and perks to star faculty, “grunt” faculty and staff were laid off or forced to take furlough days, classes were cancelled, program funding was curtailed and a draconian 32% tuition hike was proposed. Yudoff’s king’s ransom was garnered on the backs of California students of color who will be denied access to a system that is nationally regarded as the “Rolls Royce” of public higher education.

For those experienced with the business of white supremacist higher education politics, the UCSD administration’s pro forma soul searching, public denunciations and earnest pledges to discipline the “Cookout” offenders are all tiresomely familiar. In 2005, a Black female student at the private California Institute of the Arts found vulgar anti-Black epithets scrawled in her dorm room and degrading anti-Black graffiti had been written on an artwork in the Institute’s gallery. In response to the incidents, the campuses’ Black Student Union organized protests and meetings with the administration which yielded few commitments to long term change. The school’s miniscule Black and Latino population was imperiled by scant financial aid, invisibility in the Eurocentric curriculum and the paucity of faculty mentors of color. White faculty fiercely defended their liberal/progressive credentials with showy claims of multiculti “down-ness.” The college president publicly invoked his appreciation for Martin Luther King and deplored the hate crime as an isolated incident. When I was hired in 2006 to teach Cal Arts’ first Women of Color in the U.S. course, the campus was still festering with resentment and racial unrest. Pushing for campus climate change in a group of faculty and student advocates, I presented at endless meetings in which the administration stonewalled on redressing institutional bias through professional development training. The perpetrators had been given a slap on the wrist and it was business as usual in the “liberal” “inclusive” world of arts education that privileged the canon of the white avant garde.

During an interview on CNN UCSD Ethnic Studies professor Sara Clark Kaplan outlined the crux of the problem with scapegoating individuals in the midst of a systemic crisis. It’s simply not acceptable to blame the university’s egregious disregard for the needs of students of color on the bigoted acts of ignorant white or “minority” students. UCSD’s gross underrepresentation of Black students reflects the UC system’s institutional neglect of recruitment and outreach to African American high schools. The devastating impact of Proposition 209 (which prohibited California public universities from using affirmative action admissions criteria) has been a convenient smokescreen for maintaining segregation in the UC system. When I taught at UCLA in 2001 at the Graduate School of Education I had only one African American student in my course on culturally relevant pedagogy. Black students had gone from having a vibrantly visible presence during my stint as a student there during the late 80s and early 90s to barely registering. In some instances it was more difficult for accomplished African American seniors from highly regarded predominantly Black Los Angeles high schools like King-Drew Medical Magnet to get into UCLA than Ivy League colleges. At slightly more than 1%, UCSD’s Black student enrollment is yet another indictment of the UC’s disgraceful wholesale complicity with the spirit of 209. As part of its demands to administration, UCSD’s Black Student Union has called on the university to step up its recruitment and retention efforts for underrepresented students. They have also pressed for more recruitment of diverse faculty and granting of tenure to faculty of color.

Recruitment, retention and tenure are important goals. Yet the deeper question of the lack of cultural responsiveness of the faculty and administration is a thornier issue. The ghettoization of ethnic studies and other so-called “minority-oriented” interdisciplinary departments contributes to a segregation of cultural knowledge in which the historical foundations of racial apartheid are obscured. Racism is viewed as a series of misguided individual acts rather than as an integral part of American national identity, power and authority. At core, the UCSD events are merely another manifestation of the post-racial fallacy that plays out every day in California’s first world apartheid classrooms.

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