Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Usual Suspects: Arizona and the Black/Latino Divide

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As soon as Arizona’s fascist anti-immigrant SB1070 legislation passed, black civil rights leaders from Jesse Jackson to California Assembly member Karen Bass roundly condemned it. The toxic national climate couldn't be more primed for this law. In recent months, the high octane atmosphere of jingoistic racism, xenophobia and Manifest Destiny posturing amongst white zealots and the legislators who shill for them has become standard order. Now that the nation is in an uproar over SB1070, civil rights coalitions have begun trying to mobilize African American opposition to the Bill by linking black social justice activism with the immigrant rights movement.

However when it comes to immigration rights and reform, there is a pronounced disconnect between black leadership and average black folk. In the L.A. African American Conservative Examiner respondents expressed support for SB1070. One believed that if similar laws were enacted in California it would be a deterrent to attacks on African Americans by Mexican immigrants. On the liberal to moderate The Grio website some black posters sounded off about bearing the brunt of racial discrimination, yet saw little connection between their experiences and an authoritarian crackdown on Arizonans of color under the legislation. Living elbow to elbow with Latinos in the same socioeconomically depressed communities, black anxiety over interracial violence and social/demographic usurpation by Latinos in the low wage job sector has intensified. In cities where black and Latino day laborers compete for construction and home improvement jobs, white hiring preferences for Latinos have ignited controversy over racist stereotypes about lazy blacks versus hardworking Mexicans. In Los Angeles communities where predominantly black neighborhood schools have become majority Latino, social and classroom segregation between the two groups is a hard reality. The prevalence of Latino anti-black prejudice, ranging from “pigmentocracy” bias to caricaturing blacks as backward and “ghetto,” is a recurring complaint among some African American youth. Further, the perception that Latino organizations don’t support African American activism around such issues as racial profiling and police brutality has long fueled mainstream black wariness of black/Latino coalition building.

It is little wonder then that during last month’s Washington D.C. immigration reform protests there was a notable dearth of black participation. According to the online magazine The Root, immigrants of African descent purportedly don’t participate in immigrant rights activism because of class differences with Latin American immigrants. African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants who come to the U.S. legally on H1-B or student visas may perceive immigration reform as a “Latino phenomenon.” Seeking professional careers, many don’t identify with the socioeconomic desperation that motivates undocumented Latin American workers and families to come to the U.S.

Homegrown black support for or ambivalence about the Arizona Law is symptomatic of a deep vein of frustration, anger, cultural resentment and xenophobia. Study after study indicates that African Americans are the most residentially segregated, suffer the greatest discrimination in job application and employment and are amongst the biggest recipients of predatory mortgage loans. Fifty six years after Brown v. Board there is greater social isolation between African Americans and whites in comparison to other racial groups. And white backlash to Obama’s election continues to illustrate the intractability of post-Jim Crow racism.

Because of the legacies of slavery and racial apartheid, the word “nigger” is still the universal signifier for dehumanization and otherness. For this reason, black liberation resistance has always been based on the struggle for recognition of both African American humanity and the basic right to citizenship. So there has always been a visceral yearning amongst black folk to wake up one morning and not be the ultimate other. A yearning to truly be considered a “native” son or daughter in a global empire based on forced African American immigration.

For many working class African Americans who see the gains of the civil rights era smoldering in the ashes of staggering unemployment, incarceration and high school drop-out rates, the plight of recently arrived undocumented immigrants does not register as a cause for solidarity. Ignorant of the bloody history of European imperial conquest of the Southwest, African Americans selectively lap up the white nationalist “taking back our country” swill at their peril. Creating a pure police state to "protect" (white) citizens from government coddled illegals and welfare leeches is part of the same old divide and conquer dynamic that allows the way white elites profit from illegal immigrant labor and low wage black labor to go unexamined.

Recently, a white Alabama Republican gubernatorial candidate called for the state’s driver license exam to be given in English because, "If you want to live here, (you need to) learn it." This nativist attempt to secure the borders of the new Confederacy is a harbinger of public policy that hearkens back to the literacy tests, poll taxes and other disfranchising regimes of Jim Crow. Word to ambivalent black folk—the narrative of nationhood, when spun by white supremacists, will never include you, no matter how Anglo your sur (read, slave) name or how “un-inflected” your English is. In the lynch mob mentality of some law enforcement, SB1070’s mandate for investigation with “reasonable suspicion” will always mean you.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Debunking the Myth of a Colorblind France

By Sounia Johnson

In the early 1930’s many African American artists fled to Paris in order to escape racial inequalities and the constant oppression and dehumanization they experienced in the United States. “ Liberty, Fraternity and Equality,” a motto celebrating freedom that traces its roots in the French Revolution, attracted many African American expatriates such as James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, who found acceptance in what they perceived as a generous France -- liberal, receptive and a champion of social equality and civil rights.

Unexpectedly, a different reality was observed by world renowned American essayist James Baldwin. Baldwin witnessed the deep hatred toward and unequal treatment of French North Africans. Baldwin pledged his support of Algerians (referring to them as Paris’s niggers) while vehemently opposing the way the white French would treat minorities, thereby debunking the notion of colorblind liberal France.

It is thus not surprising that the widely held belief of a romanticized France does not hold any credibility for the many disenfranchised North Africans whose voices are consistently marginalized. The recent 2005 riots in France’s most underprivileged cities have been the result of ongoing racial and ethnic tensions. These tensions have highlighted the profound disconnect between the French Republic and overwhelmingly disenfranchised French Muslim youth, who are frustrated with being constantly marginalized as radical Muslim thugs, and not being given equal treatment as their white French counterparts.

Circumscribed access to education for the French-Magrehbi youth who mostly reside in insalubrious conditions housed in HLMs (Habitations De Loyer Modéré), commonly referred to as subsidized low-rent housing located in heavily Pan-African suburbs, is reflective of an unprecedented ghettoization not found anywhere else in Europe. These developments mirror housing projects found in American’s most underserved urban areas. The high unemployment rate— which in turns leads to juvenile delinquency amongst a frustrated urban youth— has led many young Muslims to fall prey to religious radicalism, with all the negative political implications this entails for France and the war against terrorism.

The problems are endless but are rooted in the fact that the French-Maghrebi youth cannot find sustainable employment due to lack of formal education and immeasurable social ills that have plagued and paralyzed young French North Africans into a dark abyss with no hope in sight.

Applying for a job with Arab-sounding names such as Mustafa, Mohammed, Nadia or Fatima remains a challenge for most French North Africans who feel that they are being discriminated against due to their dual French North African heritage. Because of this there is pressure to get French sounding names such Nadine instead of Nadia, Maurice instead of Mustafa. Many feel that their chances of finding employment are slim. Thus it becomes apparent that France’s emblematic motto of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality” is an utopist venture which holds no credibility to those that find themselves being discriminated against by an alleged government that professes to be a champion of human rights and equality.

The lack of equal employment opportunities is a reality experienced amongst many French North Africans who feel that no matter how much they try, they will never be provided with the same opportunities accorded to their French white counterparts. This reality is reflected on the organization charts of many French Corporations, revealing a systematic white corporate ceiling culture. Racism is indeed well and alive in France.

With an increasingly diverse population, France must realize that it cannot keep burying its head in the sand nor turn its back on its youth. Race relations and inequalities have reached an unprecedented plateau, and ignoring rising tensions will create a further wedge between young French North Africans.

In order to regain its credibility as a champion of human rights, it is in France’s interest to aggressively incorporate equality laws that celebrate cultural and religious differences while investing in the crumbling educational system and rejuvenating urban planning in the inner cities. France must find a way to attract minorities to pursue fields that have historically been denied to them rather than inspiring kids to pursue vocational trades. France’s government must enforce stiff penalties against companies that practice discriminatory hiring practices in favor of an all white French work force.

What is needed in France is a highly educated work force that includes French Algerian lawyers, judges, doctors, politicians, journalists, corporate executives, scientists, but above all, an honest national discourse that celebrates cross -cultural differences while acknowledging France’s role in slavery and colonialism something France has yet to do.

Sounia Johnson is a French Algerian Los Angeles based correspondent for the North African Journal. Her perspectives on racism in France, as well as issues related to French-North African relations in Europe and French-Algerian life stand peerless. Follow this clever, adroit young writer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Bluest Eye Revisited

By Sikivu Hutchinson

She was an eleven year old African American girl ostracized by her small Midwestern World War II era community after she had been raped and impregnated by her father. Demeaned for her dark skin and “ugly” features, she became a repository for all of the community’s fears and anxieties about the status of black people in Jim Crow America. Perhaps no other book in contemporary American literature has captured the ontology of black female childhood experience and imagination as devastatingly as Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye. In the novel, Morrison’s preteen female protagonists bear fierce witness to the psychological disfigurements of racism, sexism, and segregation. They comment on the mystery of adulthood and the savagery of being dehumanized as young black girls in a culture that exalts the blue-eyed Barbie ideal. Speaking from an era in which racial progress was equated with the enfranchisement of black men, the female voices of The Bluest Eye quietly historicize the trials of black women in apartheid America.

Yet, thirty years later, Morrison’s portrayal is just as searingly relevant as it was when it was published at the height of the black power movement in the seventies. In its attention to the role media (as represented by 1940s Dick and Jane grade school primers and Hollywood film) play in shaping black adolescent female self-esteem, Morrison’s novel almost anticipates the intersection between the rise of 24/7 video and Internet media and the codification of racist/sexist imagery.

During a recent screening of a video on girls’ perspectives of media images in the high school class I work with, I was rudely reawakened to the resonance of The Bluest Eye, and the intensity of internalized racism and sexism among young black female students. Entitled What a Girl Wants, the video was a relatively tame portrayal of the effects of dominant images of sexuality in pop music videos and advertising upon middle school and high school age young women. Focusing on such overexposed mainstream artists as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore, the video attempted to elicit candid reflections from girls on the connection between these media images and their own sense of self esteem, identity and future aspirations. In post video discussion the girls in my class responded intelligently about the media’s impact on normalizing casual sex for younger audiences. However, like modern day Pecolas, some of the young women bought into the belief that the booty shaking, thong wearing, weave sporting “vixens” of hip hop media are symbols of authentic black culture. Most disturbingly, when they commented on the sole African American girl who participated in the interviews, they raised a hue and a cry about her “unfitness” as an interview subject. The classes’ real objection was that the girl was not conventionally attractive; her dark skin and short hair making some of them refuse to identify with her as representing a genuine African American female viewpoint. The discussion then devolved into vigorous denials of their own black heritage. “I’m barely black,” one brown-skinned young girl declared, while another asked, “Why must we all be called African Americans even though we’re mixed with different races in us?” Far from being a relic of a bygone less enlightened era of black cultural identity, the skin color caste system among blacks remains rampant yet largely unaddressed by educators and youth advocates. These views are especially devastating for young women, who are disproportionately affected by the color regime in film, TV, video and print advertising, where depictions of black couples typically feature a black woman who is several shades lighter than her male counterpart.

Consequently, searching for media that deal with the authentic lived experiences of young women of color is a frustrating enterprise. Although there are a good crop of independent black female oriented websites (, that open up new vistas for authentic expression, the Web continues to be catnip for an epidemic of adult voyeurism that has transformed childhood and adolescence into sexualized spectator sport. Young girls, sexualized at ever earlier ages, are constantly confronted by the funhouse mirror of normative femininity—the tighter and more revealing the clothes, the more provocative the sexual behavior and innuendo, the more desirable, and hence feminine, a girl is deemed to be.

This trend mirrors the way in which the sexuality of women of color has become a global fetish object. Global images of black femininity range from the suggestive symbols of black women with large Afros on hip hop t-shirts from Japan to such stereotypical depictions of the black woman as tacky prostitute trotted out in the 2006 film Borat. In this much-lauded “satire” of Americana, an overweight bleached blond black woman is parodied as the grotesque antithesis of normative desirable white femininity (represented by the silicone addicted Pamela Anderson). While the portrayal of this character, in a vehicle rife with scatological sexual references and over the top stunts, was framed as just another example of the movie’s irreverence, it gamely traffics in the recycling of the Jezebel/Mammy figure (perfected as of late by Queen Latifah) in contemporary mainstream media. A traveling journalist from Kazakh, Borat’s fleeting encounter with the prostitute is played for tragicomic relief as the antidote to his despair over the revelation of Pamela Anderson’s decidedly unchaste behavior in her pornographic wedding video. Later on in the film he commits the ultimate racial/social faux pas when he brings the woman to a society dinner at a Southern belle’s home and is swiftly ejected. He repairs to a local country and western dive where his lust interest climbs onto a mechanical bull and displays her “assets.” This interlude completes the Kazahk innocent’s voyage into the American heart of darkness, the travelogue of American blackness mapped through illicit sex, buffoonery and idleness. When Borat takes his paramour back to his native country as his wife at the end of the film, she fits in perfectly with the cultural pathology and primitive folkways of this Eastern European backwater.

It is not surprising that these images have gone unaddressed by many mainstream and so-called progressive critics, who’ve scrambled to out-drool one another hailing the film’s comic genius. Yet the ecstatic embrace of the film, and, by extension, its indictment of the black image (as a less than subtle caveat on cultural diversity and the vaunted freedoms of America), underscores how the media regime utilizes race and gender as powerful vehicles for repressive public policies. Increasing rates of STD and HIV/AIDS infection, the absence of culturally relevant sex education or the overemphasis on abstinence-only sex education, coupled with the cancerous global reach of misogynistic hip hop, have brought caricatures of black femininity back to the international fore as symptoms of American dysfunctionality. It is no wonder then that many middle and high school age black women struggle to achieve self worth and agency in their lives. The challenge for socially conscious educators and adults is to put the same emphasis on black female image formation as for black male image formation, and to help young women develop media literacy to fight back against the insidious assumptions that the global media regime imposes on their lives.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The GOP’s Rebel Yell

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Standing jubilantly before his subjects like a cartoon potentate, Newt Gingrich, the GOP’s resident court jester/sage/adulterer extraordinaire, declared Obama to be the most “radical” president in U.S. history at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Reveling in the event’s torch passing pageantry, the audience lapped up Gingrich’s tirade against the “secular socialist” Obama machine. Coming on the heels of Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s racist paean to Confederate pride (in which Southern honor was smote in a zip-a-dee-doo-da world without slavery or slaves), the conference issued another call to arms.

The RNC’s recent “party of family values’” peccadilloes notwithstanding, the past week has been very good for the GOP politically. Both liberal Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens and conservative Congressman Bart Stupak announced their retirements at a moment when white nationalist backlash is rapidly growing into a palace revolt. Stephens is the thin tissue between the far right judicial activist wing of the Supreme Court. His departure will spur another dogfight over the tenor of the bench and an Obama administration scramble for a palatable moderate. Stupak’s swift departure is an ironic end for a heretofore obscure legislator who saw his anti-abortion victory for the Religious Right rewarded with the junkyard intimidation tactics of the Tea Party.

During the health care deliberations, Stupak and his Blue Dog posse gave mainstream America a naked glimpse into the Capitol’s corrupt congressional machine. After all, it was Democrats who kowtowed to the insurance industry and caved on single payer and the public option. And it was Democrats who fought tooth and nail to trample a woman’s right to choose by making abortion a third rail deal breaker. So the charge that the Obama era signals a descent into radicalism would be laughable if it weren’t so insidious. In a rational universe, a review of the Obama administration’s policies thus far would yield universal approbation by conservatives. For example, by increasing troop deployments in Afghanistan Obama has fallen in lock step with the most hawkish Republicans’ imperialist claims on the Middle East. On the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Obama administration’s tepid stance has barely deviated from that of the Bush administration. Obama’s recent backpedaling on offshore oil drilling should cheer his most reactionary critics and his inaction on climate change should bolster the growing chorus of flat earth troglodytes who believe global warming is a hoax. His campaign outreach to the Religious Right and his unswerving support of Bush’s faith-based initiative mark him as no sop for godless infidels. And his curt dismissal of the Congressional Black Caucus’ advocacy for specific policies to address the recession’s disproportionate impact on African Americans should have dispelled any lingering delusions that Obama would throw black America a bone.

Yet, like the little white boy who assailed Martinican psychiatrist-revolutionary Frantz Fanon with the reflexive "look, a Negro," white power will concede nothing to Obama's brokering for the ruling class. 'Secular' 'socialist' and 'big government' are now 21st century "code" words for the marauding black Other. And as the architect of the GOP's 1994 Contract with America Gingrich is chomping at the bit for a return to Old Glory. With Stupak and other retiring Democrats out of the picture, the prospect of a Republican midterm election sweep looks even more tantalizing. In draconian language much like the simple-minded rhetoric of the Tea Party, the Contract spelled out an agenda mandating limited government, low taxes and so-called personal responsibility, reinforcing race and class inequity in the “liberal” Clinton years. On April 15th the Tea Party will unveil a new “Contract From America,” a sprawling proposal purportedly generated from thousands of conservative survey participants that would provide newly elected legislators with a platform. Among the proposals is a demand to “Protect the Constitution by requiring each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.” Ostensibly aimed at Congress, this newfound right wing obsession with Constitutional integrity was never evident during the Bush years, when the administration criminally bucked constitutionality with illegal wiretapping, torture and preemptive wars. In its toxic mix of physical and rhetorical violence, the GOP/Tea Party is re-initiating middle America's masses into the time-honored best policy practices of the Confederacy —- namely, that the best “defense” is a white sheet offense.

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Unbearable Whiteness of Tween/Teen Film

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On Friday nights, after the clamor of the school day dies down and the kid-driven euphoria of the weekend mounts, a simple trip to the video store in search of a children’s DVD can resemble a cultural minefield. While feature length DVD's of Barbie, imperiled princesses, anthropomorphized ponies with flowing hair and big blue eyes, and Europeanized Japanese characters abound, cartoon or dramatic depictions that center on girl of color protagonists are, not surprisingly, absent from the shelves.* The lack is a reminder of how little progress has been made in the tween/teen film industry, despite the widespread mantra that youth multiculturalism in advertising and programming is “hot,” and a colorblind standard is the norm.

To be a girl of color and a media consumer is to be positioned as perpetual voyeur. Media savvy, deluged with the latest fashion and glamour news on pop singers and fifteen minutes of fame movie stars, girls of color negotiate a morass of cultural products that supposedly promote “affirming” themes for tween/teen girlhood. In this era of tween/teen consumer sophistication, the narrative of the empowered heroine predominates. One of the more shopworn examples of this empowerment narrative is represented by the scrappy white heroine, alà the protagonist of the movie musical hit Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore. The scrappy white heroine is a time honored tradition in literature, mainstream movie melodrama and teen flicks. She is generally an outsider of sorts; either in appearance, class station or both. She fearlessly treads where the more self-absorbed won’t deign to venture, breaking curfew, defying the strict Christian mores of her straight-laced family and/or most daringly, consorting with the denizens of black communities. For this heroine racial otherness is an adventure, a resort vacation into heretofore unexplored vistas of self-discovery. As always in these kinds of scenarios blackness holds special appeal for the white outsider because of its transgressive potential. Black music, black dance styles, black lingo—are all ripe territories for vigorous Euro mining and imitation. The exploration of these hackneyed themes via the travails of a white female protagonist struggling with her own “outsider” status in the thin, blond-worshipping, relatively privileged world of middle class Baltimore has its precursor in literature like Norman Mailer’s infamous 1950s “White Negro” shtick and the global appropriation of hip hop by white consumers.

In Hairspray, the white female protagonist’s spiritual journey officially takes off when she is sent to detention and discovers that it is merely a showcase for “funky” black dance shenanigans. The blacks, of course, are just waiting to corrupt an impressionable young white thing like her. Much of the film’s visual spark lies in its near obsessive focus on Tracy’s bright-eyed bushy tailed exuberance over her dalliances with forbidden fruit.

What are young black female viewers to make of these portrayals? While my elementary school-aged nieces loved the singing, dancing and pageantry of the film, they are old enough (with some prompting), to grasp the relevance of all the black students in the film being confined to detention. Disciplinary action at any age is a harsh and ever present reality for black children, one that satirical movie portrayals of frolicking black youth can’t obliterate. Since images of unruly black children abound in American culture, featuring a group of black teens dancing in a classroom with no teacher in evidence is just another slice of comic relief for most mainstream audiences.

When presented with evidence of their irrelevance, children of color make the painful adjustment to misidentification. Socialized with white beauty norms, consuming and misidentifying with whiteness becomes an intimate part of the young female viewer’s experience of visual “pleasure.” Countervailing images of black, Latino and Asian femininity are available in literature (and to a much lesser extent in alternative film by artists of color) but are insidiously measured against the gold standard of white femininity. In fact, a revisitation of the 1954 Kenneth and Mamie Clark “doll test” by a young filmmaker named Kiri Davis found that black children still identified white or lighter skinned dolls as being “nice,” while darker-skinned dolls were still rejected as being “bad.” Davis’ widely acclaimed 2007documentary on black female teen self-identity, “A Girl Like Me,” is a welcome antidote to depictions of black female hyper sexuality, and a reminder that more black women need to be behind the camera to truly turn the tide of disfigured black images.

The dominant culture’s equation of female agency with unbridled sexuality and exhibitionism is especially damaging for young black women. While white women like Hairspray’s fictitious heroine have always had the luxury to flout patriarchal categories of “good girl” “bad girl” without fear of relinquishing their claim to white privilege, black women and other women of color are already marked as amoral, sexual and hence outside of “normative” femininity. Early exposure to these kinds of narratives sets a dangerous precedent for tween/teen girls of color, who are readily deployed in white TV programs and films as streetwise/commonsensical sidekicks for imperiled white girls and/or the “sassy” antidote to white girl “blandness.”

If efforts like Davis’ are to be more than just a drop in the bucket there must be a nationwide push to train middle and high school aged black women to do similar documentary and narrative film work around image construction. Programs such as L.A.’s Inner City Filmmakers and New York-based Women Make Movies help connect youth with production, development and distributional resources to critically engage the media regime with their films. Without these initiatives, and more, the multi-billion dollar tween/teen film industry will continue to thrive on our complicity in the distortion of black female subjectivity.

*With the possible exception of such popular staples as Dora the Explorer and the Cheetah Girls.

Friday, April 2, 2010

White Like Us: The National Review's Black Unemployment Confab

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Not content to be the mouthpiece of the Bell Curve ethos--the insidious 1994 screed which advanced a racist deterministic view of black “underachievement”--conservative icon the National Review hosted an online conference on black unemployment with an all white panel of subject matter “experts” pontificating on the possible causes and implications of the staggeringly high black jobless rate. The National Review session continued the tradition of scholarly imperialism in which white conservatives with academic and think tank backing “explain” the cultural deviance of black folk. Dubbed “Really a Racial Recession?” participants in the white stuff confab concluded that systemic and institutional factors such as racial discrimination were ultimately not to blame for disproportionate black joblessness. Rather, as panelist Stephen Thernstrom boldly pointed out, African Americans just lack sufficient entrepreneurial drive and ingenuity—a cultural deficit that exacerbates the collateral impact of lingering racial discrimination in hiring and promotion. At over 15% black unemployment numbers are simply too high to have anything to do with preferential treatment for white workers by employers confronted with comparably matched white and black job applicants. Or a public education system that is now so deeply and intractably re-segregated that the achievement gap has become the fount of the class divide between blacks and whites. Yet the National Review’s take on black unemployment as aberrant object of investigation not only disdains the very idea of a black work ethic, but represents another example of how the white anthropological gaze influences public policy.

The narrative of the lazy Negro has had a long and illustrious career, from plantation era propaganda about lazy darkies to the gangsta cum minstrel movies of the 1990s.