Thursday, December 22, 2011

Our Feminist Future

By Sikivu Hutchinson, From the Feminist Wire

On the school grounds they call each other bitches with machine gun fury. This is the “new” term of “endearment”; a grand show of eye-rolling, teeth-sucking hardness to a world that chews them up, spits them out, and leaves them for dead, stranded between Virgin Mary and Jezebel. The righteous fury that they direct at and expect from each other is a function of criminal invisibility and zero expectations. Who would expect them to do anything more than pop out babies, latch onto some man, and live in the shadows of mainstream America’s white supremacist Barbie-Disney princess infantilizing caricature of womanhood? When I first met Sanaa and Karin* as 9th and 11th graders while teaching classes for my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) feminist mentoring program, I was immediately impressed by their agile minds, sage observations, and sharp wit. Karin was in foster care after losing both her parents; Sanaa was one of six siblings from an emotionally turbulent home environment with little parental support. As the founder of WLP, which is based in South Los Angeles high schools, I train my students to do peer education on the everyday impact of sexism, heterosexism, misogynistic language, violence against women, and media imagery. Central to WLP’s peer training is enabling our students to develop a humanist critical consciousness about their shared struggle around paradigms of the sacrificial good black/Latina woman of faith.
I have been fortunate to have the assistance and vision of Diane Arellano, herself a mentee and former student of mine from the California Institute of the Arts. As an emerging artist and activist in her own right, she has been deeply committed to our goal of developing partnerships between black and Latina young women. Our program also provides reproductive justice resources, HIV/AIDS prevention education, and peer mentoring for undocumented youth. The high schools where our programs are based have high dropout rates and low four-year college going rates. In some instances, students can go all four years at these schools without knowing what California’s “A-G” college preparation requirements are.

Both Sanaa and Karin blossomed as speakers and feminist activists, challenging mainstream notions of what it means to be a girl of color...MORE @ The Feminist Wire 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Faith Pimps, Secular Conspiracies

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In American politics, patriotism, race-baiting and faith-based pandering are the last refuge of a scoundrel. And this political season militant GOP appeals to white Christian evangelicals have veered into neo-Cold War hysteria. One of the most powerful scenes in Orwell’s 1984 was when Party member O’Brien succeeds in brainwashing protagonist Winston Smith into believing that 2+2 equals 5. The Religious Right has been practically virtuosic in its 2+2=5 mass doublespeak; convincing mainstream America that Christians are the new minority and that commie pinko “secular progressives” (Bill O’Reilly’s preferred “smear”) are at the helm of a socialist conspiracy. The latest salvo in right wing doublespeak comes from Rick Perry, playing the Christian victim card in a desperate bid to remain relevant in the hinterlands. Primed for the Iowa caucus, Perry’s new campaign ad opens with an alpha male declaration that he is not “ashamed” to say he is a Christian. The ad then blasts the very Christian-identified Obama’s “war” on religion, the indecency of allowing gays to serve openly in the military and the prohibition on prayer in schools.

When Newt Gingrich coined the term “secular socialist”machine to flog his new book in 2011 he was just another overpaid neo-con on the rubber chicken circuit. In the years since he was forced out of the House in disgrace, he sleazed up to evangelicals with a Ted Bundy-esque conversion/redemption line—“humbly” laying his sins as a serial philanderer and ethics violator at the feet of God. Now his rise as frontrunner in the GOP race ensures that Glock force culture war rhetoric, diverting attention from the GOP’s war on the working class, will continue to command center stage. Good Christians know that poor children, who, according to Gingrich, never see anyone working in their crack-ridden, pimp-patrolled, drive-by riddled urban jungles, should rightfully be shoveling the shit of the bootstrapped middle class. This is what God intended. Poverty doesn’t speak the language of hard work, thrift and enterprise and poor children mean lazy Blacks and Latinos, shuffling from classrooms to prison cells. In a rigidly segregated downwardly mobile society the GOP’s moral assault on workers’ human rights and protections for poor children is the perfect template for a fascist Christian nationalism.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

WORLD AIDS DAY & Gender Justice Education

From The Feminist Wire

What will need to happen to achieve the goal of eliminating new HIV infections, AIDS related deaths, and discrimination? What can we do, collectively, to get to zero?

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Young women of color are at the epicenter of this crisis. My Women’s Leadership Project students are kicking off two days of World AIDS Day peer education. So as an educator who mentors teenaged girls in South Los Angeles schools, I believe preventive education has to begin with breaking down the myths and stereotypes associated with heterosexist relationships, misogynist media images and patriarchal gender norms that undermine young women’s right to self-determination. Increasingly, working class African American and Latina women are being indoctrinated into a decidedly misogynist, anti-feminist view of womanhood and sexuality that has both a secular and faith-based tenor. Coming from highly religious households, many of my students have been socialized to believe that their “authentic” destinies lie in getting and pleasing a man. They struggle with the challenge of developing their own voices, preparing for college, careers and intellectual pursuits whilst battling the insidious tide of a so-called post-feminist universe where hypersexuality is conflated with liberated femininity. Young men of color are also imperiled by heterosexist, masculinist gender norms that promote hard thugged-out male identities at the expense of women’s human rights as well as loving/respectful homo-social, heterosexual and same-sex relationships and families. Getting AIDS cases down to zero must involve a revolution of mind and deed; a transformation of the way masculinity, femininity, and sexuality are perceived in the U.S. MORE@

Saturday, November 12, 2011

From BOYZ to Gentleman Scholars: Literature as Life (Excerpt)

By Yvonne Divans-Hutchinson
I am a nationally board certified teacher and a veteran of forty three years as an English teacher in middle and high school in South Los Angeles. A product of South L.A. myself, I have always been concerned about the so-called achievement gap of African Americans, especially African American males. Despite the dismal statistics regularly trumpeted by the media—lowest academic achievement, highest in unemployment, lowest in college degrees earned, highest number incarcerated—I know that, with effective, culturally sensitive instruction, our young men can—and will—achieve. In fact, my greatest joy in the last two years of teaching came from my participation in the All-male Academy (AMA) at one of my former schools, an urban magnet high school.  The AMA was established in 2004 to address the absence of African American males in Advanced Placement classes, the discrepancy between one young man’s  score of advanced on the CST and his academic achievement—he received an F in English—and the disproportionate number of referrals and suspensions (51%) among male students, who were only 30% of the student population.
Due to competition from other medical magnet schools, on the eastside and in the valley, our once widely diverse population has diminished since its creation twenty-nine years ago as the first medical magnet high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Conceived by a group of African American community activists and parents, it has long been a haven for high achieving students of color and those who want to pursue careers in medicine and science. The student body is mostly African American (58%) and Latino (40%) with a small percentage of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern students. Only one-third of the population of 1500 students is male.

Reuniting with the Gentlemen Scholars
When I was invited to become a member of the English Language Learner Inquiry Leadership Team under the aegis of the UCLA Writing Project, I decided to focus on speakers of Black English, the African American Vernacular (AAV). My Gentlemen Scholars, the young men I had taught the last year before I retired in 2009, immediately came to mind. From the first day that they entered my class as ninth graders, I addressed them as “Gentlemen Scholars.” In his book Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males, educator Alfred Tatum discusses Black male literacy development in the context of “the turmoil milieu.” He underscores the importance of considering the environment of poverty, family problems, crime, gangbanging, police brutality, and racism, and “its implications for literacy among black males who attend school in America’s economically starved urban centers.” Vershawn Ashanti Young,  an African American assistant professor at the University of Iowa, emphasizes that being scholarly or acting like a “nerd” is viewed in “the hood” as unmanly or “acting white.”

I set out to counteract these negative perceptions and encouraged my freshmen to act like “schoolboys” instead of “homeboys.  Homeboys,” I had been informed by one of my male students long ago, “did not carry books; that’s for schoolboys.” Because I had continued to visit my school since retirement, I knew that my former “schoolboys” were now seniors and that about half of them had remained in the All-male Academy for the entire four years.

As a past department chair and mentor to a few of the younger teachers at King/Drew, I had maintained my relationship with my ex colleagues. Consequently, I had no qualms about approaching  Ms. Code,*  the current teacher of my former all male class with a proposal to “borrow” the gentlemen back for a short time to do my study. She had guided the young men through the eleventh grade  American Literature/Contemporary Composition class. She was in  the midst of  teaching the first semester of  their senior World Literature/Expository Composition class.  When I asked to take over the class second semester, she graciously assented. 

That Is the Question
Both Ms. Code and I recognized that the chief characteristic of the class as a whole was their garrulousness. They reveled in talk. Their conversations were rousing (and sometimes rowdy) and usually dominated by a few, highly articulate members of the class, mostly Black students. Geneva Smitherman refers to “the natural talent for oratory prevalent among African Americans.  The man of words—be he preacher, poet, philosopher, huckster or rap song creator—receives the highest form of respect in the black community.  The verbal adroitness, the cogent and quick wit, the brilliant use of metaphorical language, the facility in rhythm and rhyme evident in the language of . . . many black students, may all be drawn upon to facilitate learning.”  As I reflected on my interactions with my former Gentlemen Scholars, Smitherman’s words resonated loudly.  I wanted to maintain that level of involvement and encourage all students toward oratory, or in our case, academic discourse. While I am aware of the educational trend toward focusing on black students who speak the so-called African American Vernacular(AAV), or Black English (Ebonics), and encouraging  “code switching,” in their written and spoken discourse, I did not choose to employ this approach. Code switching involves teaching speakers of AAV to learn and use so-called standard English** in formal and academic settings. They then “switch back” to Black English during informal or personal encounters with other African Americans. During my observations, modifying the students’ use of language did not strike me as imperative.  I have noted that the more well-read students are, the more conversant they are with “standard English.” Avid readers become steeped in language, unconsciously absorbing vocabulary and syntax.

Hence, I decided to explore the question: Which research-based strategies will prove most effective in enhancing the reading, writing, and thinking skills of the African Americans in my all male Senior World Literature/Expository Composition class?
Since the course was devoted to World Literature and expository composition, the class had already read widely in the literary canon: Oedipus, Hamlet, Beowulf, Things Fall Apart. Their activities included Socratic Seminars, small group and whole class discussions, graphic representations, written responses to open-ended questions about the literature, the production of individual and group performances enhanced by media and technology, and composing essays. They had reflected on many ideas, values, and issues of universal concern, especially those of relevance to them. One of their favorite topics was the nature of manhood. They pondered such questions as What makes a man a man? What is a real man? What does it take to become a man?

Tatum emphasizes, “Texts connected to larger academic, cultural, economic, political, social, and personal aims help …young [African American] males define who they are and what they can become; help them become resilient and move them to engage positively with others for their own benefit and that of the larger society.” With his admonition in mind, I set out to explore their notions of manhood more deeply. I had chosen two novels that met Tatum’s criteria, Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley, an African American author and gods go begging by Alfredo Vea, a Mexican American author. However, I could only teach one novel during the ten to twelve weeks of my guest teaching. Admittedly, my focus was on African American students, but my class also included young men of Latino descent. I needed to choose a text that would resonate with them as well. Meanwhile, I was very much interested in how the young men responded to the “Big Idea”—the nature of manhood—that had occupied them the first semester.

* Pseudonym
**Some scholars refer to it as “the language of the wider culture” or “the language of power.”

Yvonne Divans-Hutchinson is a veteran English teacher of forty-three years in LAUSD.  She has taught at Markham Junior High/Middle School and King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science. She is a National Board Certified teacher, a member of the UCLA California Writing Project, and an instructor in Teach LA/Teach Compton Teacher Intern Program for UCLA Extension

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sikivu's "Savvy Sister of the Week" Interview

This week I'm profiled as Savvy Sister of the Week by My Savvy Sisters Editor
Te-Erika Patterson:

MSS: Being Black, feminist and atheist sounds like a triple punch in the face to the "Miss Manners" generation. Can you remember what it was like to form these feminist and atheist views?

Sikivu: I grew up in a secular household, so I had a leg up on skepticism, freethought and intellectual curiosity. Both my parents were what I would call “activist scholars.” Some of my earliest memories coming of age in South L.A. in the 70s and 80s were of going to demonstrations, public forums and meetings on social justice issues relevant to the black community, particularly around the pervasiveness of police terrorism and police misconduct during that era. I was also exposed to authors, intellectuals and historical figures of African descent (many of whom embraced freethought) very early on, so this became my moral foundation. My parents ensured that I had literature from black women thinkers and writers. My father gave me my first anthology (by Mari Evans) on black women writers in high school and my mother was a nationally esteemed English teacher heavily into forerunning womanist/feminist writers like Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. These were my values. Consequently, Christianity, supernaturalism and belief in God really had no bearing on my sense of ethics, justice, fairness and identity.

MSS: Outing yourself as an atheist in this society could be painful and scary. Why is it important to you to share your views on spirituality or the lack thereof?

Sikivu: My world view as a non-believer and a humanist goes beyond the question of spirituality. There have always been black free thinkers and secular humanists who have challenged the ways in which Western notions of personhood, public morality and Manifest Destiny-style justice pivot on racial/sexual otherness and the imperialist dehumanization of people of color. The dominant culture simply doesn’t acknowledge these traditions as being a legitimate and culturally relevant part of black intellectual history and social thought. For example, mainstream discourse fetishizes black religiosity and deifies MLK as a strictly religious figure and thinker without reference to the humanist underpinnings of black liberation struggle. So my charge is to bring secular humanist traditions to the fore and contextualize them in terms of the human rights struggles that people of African descent are still waging in this so-called era of American exceptionalism, post-racialism and post-feminism.

MSS: Is Feminism an anti-man movement? In your eyes, what is it?

Sikivu: The idea that feminism is “anti-man” is an absurd caricature. In its most radical humanistic form, feminism is a movement for the recognition of the absolute human rights of women, their families and communities. It seeks to break down heterosexist and patriarchal models of masculine and feminine that straightjacket all genders into binary oppositional roles. Patriarchy and sexism...More @

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Christian Fascists' Personhood Campaign

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Taking its “life begins at conception” assault from State Legislature to State legislature, one of the most dangerous political forces in the U.S. is stepping up its crusade for the “rights” of the unborn. Backed by an organization called Personhood USA, the latest offensive by anti-choice Christian fascists involves a renewed movement to amend state constitutions to establish human rights and personhood status for fertilized eggs. On November 8th, Mississippi voters will decide the fate of Initiative 26, a personhood amendment that could precipitate the dismantling of Roe vs. Wade.

Ever immune to morality, reason, church-state separation precedents and an understanding of the basic laws of biology, the most flat earth reactionary segment of the pro-death anti-choice movement wants to circumvent constitutional protections for abortion by conferring personhood on fertilized eggs. This would eviscerate the premise that women have a sovereign and singular right to control their bodies by designating rights before implantation and a clinically viable pregnancy has been determined. For those who have any elementary grasp of the human reproductive process, conception does not automatically result in pregnancy and the vast majority of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. Yet if the egg crusade zealots have their way this new initiative would potentially criminalize any woman attempting to use birth control pills or IUDs, and jeopardize in vitro fertilization procedures and stem cell research.

We’ve been down this road before. In 2009, the egg crusaders were able to convince the North Dakota House of Representatives to pass a constitutional amendment on personhood. It was later vetoed by the State Senate. Colorado voters also rejected a similar ballot initiative 73% to 27%. New initiatives are being slated for Wisconsin, Florida and other states.

One of the most reprehensible arguments that the personhood campaign makes to bolster its cause is a comparison between egg rights and the movement to abolish slavery. The California campaign’s website cites Joshua Giddings, a 19th century American anti-slavery legislator who held that “God” as “author” of all life grants the inalienable right to life to every being. Following this argument it is unclear who is exactly “enslaving” pre-implanted fertilized eggs. Is it potential mothers who arrogantly lay claim to their own bodies? Is it the state for failing to protect the right of pre-implanted fertilized eggs to implantation? By cloaking its propaganda in the rhetoric of civil and human rights the movement avoids delineation of the real life consequences for women, once again reducing them to vessels with no agency, right to privacy or control over their own bodies.

This imagery draws from the same demonizing language evoked in the recent anti-abortion Radiance Foundation campaign targeting the “dangerous wombs” of women of color. The parenthood website does not specify what rights un-implanted eggs would be conferred with other than, presumably, the right to progress to the implantation stage, fetal development and then birth. There are no details about who or what could act on the behalf of the un-implanted egg as person if the host carrier (formerly known as mother) of the egg were to determine that she should receive medical treatment. There was no information on who would legally be empowered to intervene or act on behalf of the un-implanted egg as person (the state perhaps?) to object to any stance that the mother might take. It stands to reason that if contraception were used to prevent the inalienable right of the egg as “person” to implant then host carriers who did so would be criminalized and prosecuted for murder. As a preventive measure, potentially offending host carriers could perhaps be fitted with special ankle bracelets or encoded with state monitored electronic microchips to preclude violations.

The Catholic and fundamentalist Christian activists at the forefront of the egg crusade are curiously silent on these small details. In true schizoid fashion they push for special faith-based government entitlements and yet scream about government interference, rallying big government to run roughshod over women’s fundamental right to privacy through a new regime of policing. And indeed, their own “family planning” policies have proven an abysmal failure, as evidenced by the exploding teen birth rates in Bible Belt states like Alabama and Mississippi, in comparison to lower rates in the relatively godless Northeast and Northwest (abstinence-only sex education programs and fundamentalist Christian propaganda against fornication outside marriage would seem to be a source of cognitive dissonance for Southern teens).

The anti-human rights egg crusade would take this national obscenity one step further by deepening the region’s poverty and straining its already overburdened, family-averse social welfare net. Fortunately, Initiative 26 has elicited grassroots activism and backlash from groups as diverse as fertility rights organizations to Mississippians for Healthy Families to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. The fervor of this “new” brand of anti-abortion activism only underscores the need for a vigorous secular defense against the continued incursions of the Religious Right. It’s either that or get ready for the ankle bracelets.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stop, Stop & Frisk Racist Police Procedures

From “Up Against the Wall” to

Up In Their Faces


On October 21st at 1 pm be at the State Office Building in Harlem as:

Cornel West, Professor, Author, Public Intellectual

Carl Dix, Revolutionary Communist Party

Rev. Stephen Phelps, Interim Senior Minister of Riverside Church

Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, Rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church

Debra Sweet, National Director of World Can't Wait

Rev. Omar Wilks, Union Pentecostal Church

Prof. Jim Vrettos, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Elaine Brower, Military Mom and World Can't Wait

Commit Non-Violent Civil Disobedience to STOP “Stop & Frisk”

The New York Police Department is on pace to “Stop & Frisk” over 700,000 people in 2011! That's more than 1,900 people each day. More than 85% of those stopped are Black or Latino, many are as young as 11 or 12, and more than 90% of them were doing nothing wrong when the police stopped, humiliated, brutalized them or worse.

Everyone knows it is wrong. It is illegal, racist, unconstitutional and intolerable! But THIS FRIDAY people are putting themselves on the line to STOP IT. This is the beginning; this is serious; we won't stop until Stop & Frisk is ended.

Join the non-violent civil disobedience – OR – BE THERE TO BEAR WITNESS & SUPPORT!


Friday, October 21

1pm Rally at Harlem State Office Building

1:30 March to NYPD 28th Precinct at West 123rd and Frederick Douglass Boulevard

Endorsed by: Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist; Herb Boyd, journalist, author, Harlem NY; Efia Nwangaza, Malcolm X Center, Greenville, SC; Nicholas Heyward, Father of Nicholas Heyward, Jr. who was killed by police; Rev. Luis Barrios, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Lawrence Lucas, Our Lady of Lourdes RC Church; Brian Figueroux, Esq.; Sunsara Taylor, writer Revolution Newspaper and World Can't Wait Advisory Board

The Stop Mass Incarceration Network: PO Box 941, New York, NY 10002 * 973.756.7666 *

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Teenaged Nightmare: Violent Masculinity and Young Women of Color

By Sikivu Hutchinson

They were carefree and besotted, joined at the hip, the epitome of a young couple steeped in the insular world of teen obsession. To some, 17 year-old Cindi Santana, and 18 year-old Abraham Lopez, the estranged boyfriend who beat and murdered her on the campus of South East High school in Los Angeles last week, were a perfect match. To others, Lopez was jealous and possessive, having been arrested in late September for threatening Santana. Santana’s murder highlights the deep and abiding threat that violent relationships have for young women. Although many LAUSD Health classes incorporate anti-violence education into their curricula, there is little emphasis on the roots of violence vis-à-vis dominant models of masculinity and femininity. According to a study conducted by Casa de Esperanza, Latinas often suffer silently from intimate partner violence due to religious, cultural and gender role socialization. A study by researchers from the Children’s Hospital in San Diego determined that 82% of Mexican-American women experienced “psychological aggression” during their lifetimes. The dominant culture’s glorification of violent masculinity in mainstream America, coupled with the emphasis on the Latino machista figure, and the Buena Mujer, or good woman, in many Latino cultures, strongly influence the self-image of Latino youth. Anti-feminist messages that a girl or woman is “nothing” without a man still pervade mainstream American culture with particularly insidious effect on teen girls of color. Tragically, the nexus of high intimate partner violence, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS contraction rates amongst black and Latino young women is a direct result of these anti-feminist messages. High poverty rates and racist social welfare policies that limit intimate partner violence resources and devalue or criminalize women of color victims also play a profound role. Latina undocumented immigrant victims may fear deportation if they utilize community victim services or seek refuge in shelters.

After making violent threats against Santana, Lopez was briefly arrested then released. Investigators from the L.A. District Attorney’s office failed to act on harassing texts Lopez sent, contending that the threats were not “imminent” and that the “victim took 18 hours” to report them. According to the L.A. Times, Santana’s mother informed the school principal about the threats.

Many in the South East High school-community have rightly faulted law enforcement for failing to notify the school about Lopez‘s arrest status. Yet the horrific beating and murder of this young woman demands that we ask what other preventive measures are being taken on the campus and in the District around anti-violence youth education and leadership for boys as well as girls. Violent boys see violence against women valorized at home, on TV, on the Internet, in video games, on their school campuses and in their social cliques. In the absence of countervailing messages, male violence becomes normalized.

As a former teenage victim of intimate partner violence myself, what little I know of Santana’s story is heartbreakingly familiar. At 17 I was beaten by a jealous boyfriend in broad daylight on a city street, although, in my case, onlookers stood by and did nothing. The deep shame and fragile self-esteem I felt prevented me from telling anyone. For many straight young women, having a boyfriend or a clinging admirer(s) is a game changer. In a culture in which most women’s film and TV roles still revolve around that of sex object/wife/mother, male attention is supposed to translate into female self-worth and legitimization. Boys who act the part of the jealous possessive male are simply aping the model of competitive ego-driven masculinity that all males are supposed to aspire to.

I mourn Santana’s death, both for what she had yet to become and for the young life her friends, family and community have insensibly lost. Her murder is another tragic reminder that the culture of violence against women will only be transformed through a humanist moral revolution that dismantles deadly gender norms.

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist mentoring program based in South L.A. and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame: A View from the Classroom

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As an assistant principal with 29 years of experience in South L.A. schools, John Alvarez* knows the drill. Amongst some teachers and administrators in the LAUSD there is a clear ethnic pecking order based on “good minority versus bad minority demonization.” He says, “In the world of schools Latinos are (regarded as) the quiet ones, they don’t speak the language so you can bamboozle them with worksheets. Black students demand more from their teachers. I’ve heard over and over again, ‘give me all Latino students’ from the weaker teachers. They seem to harbor that racist mentality.” The racist mentality that Alvarez refers to goes directly to the issue of racial disproportionality in suspensions. In a District which is facing one of its worst fiscal and moral crises in decades, suspension disproportionality underscores the relationship between school cultures that program black students to fail and the apartheid criminalization of black youth. Nonetheless, discussing the micro-politics of race in the classroom is a third rail taboo to school bureaucrats long accustomed to lumping black and brown students together in one dysfunctional pot.

The neoliberal charter school juggernaut, the high stakes testing regime, declining black enrollment, bulging juvenile detention centers and a negligible black presence on the Los Angeles school board have essentially marginalized a black agenda in the LAUSD. This deficit is set against the backdrop of national data that is crystal clear: black kids spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity transferred to other campuses and more time in and out of juvenile detention facilities; regardless of whether they come from “Leave it to Beaver” homes, foster care or homeless shelters.

Reflecting on her tenure at South L.A. and South Bay schools, Linda Watts, a retired LAUSD administrator, remarked that black students were routinely sent to the office for “defiance.” On balance, “African Americans go to the dean’s office for less serious offenses than do Latinos and whites. Whites and Latinos will get counseled and sent back to the classroom. It seems to me that it’s a step to get them out of the classrooms.” The push-out that Watts sees in the District at large is exemplified by schools like Fairfax High. With its polyglot racial makeup Fairfax High has historically had a reputation as one of the more culturally eclectic “artsy” schools. It has a predominantly Latino population and a multiracial mix of black, white, and Asian Pacific Islander students. Yet African Americans at Fairfax were suspended nearly 2 ½ times their number in the general school population. According to one former Fairfax teacher, “If you were to happen onto the sporty side of campus during the after-lunch class periods, you would think Fairfax was a 95% African-American school given all the students ‘hanging out’ over there...not the athletes, as I assume that they were off exercising somewhere, but their ‘friends’ who just don’t go to 5th and/or 6th period classes... it was quite the shocking thing for me to observe...they are ‘hiding in plain sight.’”

What is it about the culture of a school with an 18% African American population that makes it acceptable for black students to ‘hide in plain sight’? Drawing from her observations about other campuses, Watts emphasized the negative expectations that constantly shape perceptions of black students in the District. She notes, “I’ve had meetings with teachers in some of the most heinous circumstances and they would go off about ‘these black kids’ and what are you going to do with these black kids because I can’t teach in my classroom with these black kids going out of control. Kids would tell me that nothing was expected of them. They weren’t even expected to show up.” Low expectations for black students is a familiar theme. Esteemed progressive education activists and scholars like Lisa Delpit, Pedro Noguera and Gloria Ladson-Billings have written extensively about how the culture of low expectations ensnares black students. What is perhaps most egregious about LAUSD is how even high performing black students who consistently defy low expectations are treated. As an award-winning teacher and 43 year veteran of Markham Middle School and King-Drew Medical Magnet, my mother Yvonne Divans Hutchinson contends that “there is often a tendency to award higher grades in higher proportions to Latino students.” In one glaring instance, a black female student at Markham who should have been valedictorian was denied the award in favor of a Latina. The black student later went on to Harvard.

The District’s Response
Weighing in on the suspension crisis, LAUSD Senior Deputy Superintendent Michelle King spoke of a renewed urgency on the part of District head John Deasy to address the issue. The District’s School Wide Positive Behavior Support System (SWPBS) is the linchpin of this strategy. Central to SWPBS is a data tracking system for referrals which allegedly forces school administrators to be “accountable” for the kind of disparate treatment that fuels skyrocketing black suspensions. Instead of the traditional format of written referrals, teachers now submit referrals electronically, using drop-down menus to choose the “offense” of students they are sending out of the classroom. The referral is then sent to the dean’s office as an email. King says that this represents the District’s effort to “embed a culture of data analysis” into schools. However, collecting data is one thing; evaluating and developing culturally responsive strategies to redress the disparities presented in the data is another.

According to Maisie Chin, executive director of CADRE, a community-based organization comprised of parents, students and legal advocates, “If everyone were to do SWPBS to the letter of LAUSD policy, it would be undergirded by key best practices: Behavior intervention, parent engagement and database decision-making. Parent engagement would involve school-based teams with multiple stakeholders, data evaluation and campus support.” Spotty implementation and the belief of some faculty that data collection could lead to targeted intervention (and ultimately removal) have hindered the system’s roll-out. William Vanderberg, a history teacher at Foshay Learning Center, and formerly of Crenshaw High School, noted that some teachers “feared that it would identify those who had classroom management problems and be used punitively.” He believes that the data tracking system merely exacerbates the fact that “teachers aren’t equipped to deal with discipline as professionals.”

In theory, SWPBS provides counseling and intervention for teachers who generate a disproportionate number of suspensions. In reality, few of the veteran teachers and administrators I spoke to were aware of any of their colleagues receiving training or intervention. Alvarez noted that professional development training for “repeat offenders” was minimal. And it is not clear that there are any real consequences for principals who don’t meet SWPBS benchmarks. Chin stressed that the SWPBS template is “not culturally competent in and of itself.” As a teacher trainer I’ve experienced firsthand administrator and faculty resistance to culturally responsive professional development. In some quarters, training that challenges faculty to delve into how systemic social injustice, cultural difference and racial perceptions inform the classroom is caricatured as the either too militant or “Kumbaya” touchy feely. School administrators may slot culturally responsive trainings for an obligatory two hours for the entire year then move on to more “pressing” district mandates. If there is no leadership around integrating cultural responsiveness into the school and classroom culture, then teachers can easily blow off these sessions, using the time to catch up on grading papers, lesson plans or reading the newspaper. Many secondary school educators say that this kind of training has generally gone the way of the dodo bird. Lamenting the flavor of the month inconsistency of the District, Alvarez points out that, “there used to be a big cottage industry for culturally relevant instruction and now it’s been reduced to just a whisper.”

King acknowledges that there is greater emphasis on cultural responsiveness at the elementary school level as opposed to the middle and high school levels. But if teachers are fundamentally ignorant of African American cultural contexts they will be more inclined to exhibit hostility toward black students who don’t sit in quiet regimented conformity in a traditional classroom where the teacher lectures to students, engages the “brightest” students in Q&A, gives an assignment and fields discipline problems. As King contends, “if you have a more verbal, expressive student and you’re not understanding the (cultural) difference in affect it will disadvantage the student. Defiance could mean anything.” Hutchinson concurs, stressing that “there is a tendency to visit the deficiencies of the adult onto the student. If the teacher expects students to learn…and communicates caring and passion for the whole process and involves the students in their learning interactively, then that’s going to be a fairly orderly classroom. This kind of teacher has a sense of her students as a people—instead of harboring notions like ‘oh this disorderly black student’ needs to be taken out of the classroom.”

Internalized Racism and Black Faculty
Racial disproportionality in suspensions could be redressed with training on culturally competent classroom management. Yet there is no indication that the District has a serious commitment to it. And if the community doesn’t demand it, the push-out regime will persist. Throughout her career, Watts implemented a form of peer mediation called Counsel that develops classroom culture based on critical engagement with and respect for cultural differences. For Watts even “mentioning race in the LAUSD was encoded so as not to offend white teachers.” King Drew Medical Magnet coordinator Tabitha Thigpen argues that “when you ask people to unmask things like race it makes them uncomfortable because it’s looking at the politics of the District and what drives what we do.” But the prejudices of white and other non-black teachers are not the only factor driving disproportionate black suspensions. South L.A. schools with significant or majority black faculty and administrators are just as culpable. One black parent I spoke to at Westchester High believes that there is a deep class schism between black faculty and administrators and black students. This may lead them to crack the whip with “defiant” black youth. It’s a pattern that was of deep concern to former school board member and activist Genethia Hudley Hayes. In the early 2000s Hayes mobilized the South L.A. community around the African American Learners Initiative, a comprehensive policy to redress disparities in black students’ education through culturally responsive instruction, teacher training, curriculum development and parent engagement. Disproportionality at predominantly black schools like Audubon Middle School, Washington Prep, and, to a lesser extent, Crenshaw High, illustrates that white supremacy, to paraphrase bell hooks, doesn’t need white people to perpetuate and validate it.

Chavonne Taylor, a former Washington Prep student, maintains, that “When you are black, people often assume you are angry and violent. I remember having to play down my anger a lot no matter how legitimate my feelings were because I knew that my being angry would get me in more trouble than the non-black kids. I've seen black students get harassed when they expressed outrage at the unfair treatment. The student was suspended for their reaction but (there was) no discussion of the unfair treatment. Black males got it the worst."

When it comes to discipline Watts believes that some black faculty and administrators have a bootstraps mentality informed by internalized racism. They may automatically “look at African American kids as doing all of the bad things…and they don’t want to be seen as giving these kids special treatment.”

During the 2009-2010 school year, Foshay, Drew and Gompers had the greatest number of disproportionate black suspensions amongst all middle schools in the District. Foshay’s Vanderberg pointed out that the school has weathered a turbulent two years. He attributes disproportionality to the myriad challenges the school has faced vis-à-vis a local charter’s siphoning of high performing students, the increasing demands of special needs and special education students, exploding class sizes and a glut of must-place teachers who bounce from campus to campus. Foshay is certainly not unique in this regard. Nonetheless, the data suggests that even when controlling for socioeconomic differences disproportionality still persists.

With black unemployment skyrocketing to record levels, South L.A. is reeling from the economic devastation of foreclosure, draconian cuts in K-12 and higher education and gutted social welfare services. Thus King-Drew’s Thigpen sees a broader context to the District’s criminalization of black students. Along with Westchester, Washington Prep, Crenshaw and Dorsey High Schools, King-Drew is one of the few remaining majority black high schools. Thigpen draws parallels between the civil unrest in Britain and the economic blight in communities of color. “We need to talk about slavery, we need to talk about race…you look at what’s going on in the country and there are sparks of unrest. When I drive around the community I see packs of boys roaming around doing nothing. There is no structure and no opportunity for them. We cannot sit in our ivory towers and think that it’s not going to impact us.”

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is a senior specialist with the L.A. County Human Relations Commission and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.

*Name Changed

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sikivu Hutchinson Book Tour & Appearances, Fall 2011-Summer 2012

October 7-8, Texas Freethought Convention, Houston, TX,

October 26, Center for Inquiry Los Angeles, 7:00 p.m.

January 22, Freethought of Arizona, 10:00 a.m.

February 1, Zion Hill Baptist Church w/Black Skeptics, Los Angeles, 6:30 p.m.

February 23rd, University of South Carolina, Secular Students' Alliance, Columbia, SC

March 3rd, Council for Secular Humanism Conference, Miami, FL, 9:30

March 22nd, Georgetown University Lannan Center, Washington D.C, 4:00 p.m.

May 3, DePaul University, Chicago, IL

May 18-20, Women in Secularism Conference, Center for Inquiry, Washington D.C.

June 7-8, 2012 American Humanist Association, New Orleans, LA,

Thursday, August 18, 2011

LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame (Part One), By Sikivu Hutchinson

Substitute teacher’s lesson plan found at Markham Middle School in South Los Angeles:

1. Vocabulary
2. Rap to kill time

Sitting in the sparsely filled auditorium of Gardena High School in Los Angeles at the beginning of an annual senior awards ceremony, I looked around, and wondered; where the hell are the black parents?? I was attending the ceremony to see students from my Women’s Leadership Project program, the majority of which are African American and en route to four year colleges, receive much-deserved awards for service and academic achievement. Although black students comprise around 32% of the school’s student body, the vast majority of the award recipients were Asian (5% of the population) and Latino (60% of the population). The underrepresentation of black student awardees is the flip side of a national crisis that has received exhaustive, hand-wringing coverage but elicited little activist groundswell or targeted outrage.

The apartheid culture of black suspensions which pervades urban school districts like Los Angeles Unified has become a ho-hum business-as-usual human rights violation. Data on disproportionate black suspension rates is an acknowledged part of national discourse on education “reform.” The subject made the news again recently with the release of yet another study by the Council of State Governments on suspensions in Texas schools. Attorney General Eric Holder even deigned to weigh in, calling the study’s findings a “wake-up call.” The study seemingly revived mainstream attention to the longstanding debate about racial disproportionality and school discipline. But to those who are critically conscious about the role disproportionate discipline plays in the school-to-prison pipeline, this latest report was no revelation. It concluded that black and Latino students were disciplined far more harshly than white students who’d committed similar offenses. Black students were more likely to get off site suspensions and transfers to alternative schools. White students were more likely to receive counseling and on-site suspension or detention. As a result, students of color were more likely to drop-out of school. The report suggested that disparate discipline was symptomatic of deeply entrenched negative teacher perceptions about black and brown students.

As progressive black educators have long maintained, the picture in the LAUSD is even more egregious. After a careful study of the data of middle schools and high schools across the District, black students were disproportionately suspended and OTed (“opportunity” transferred to other schools) regardless of the racial background of the faculty and administration or racial demographics and socioeconomic background of a given school.

In some schools the ratio is astounding, an open secret that reflects profoundly on the degree to which black students in “post-racial” America are stigmatized by deep intractable stereotypes about black criminality, pathology and dysfunction. From South L.A. to the Westside to the Valley the implication is the same—black students are natural hellions that need to be controlled, neutralized and heavily policed to maintain the institutional “sanity” of chaotic urban schools. In a recent discussion about adult perceptions one of my students noted that some teachers appear to be “scared” of their students. Being scared of students means that teachers have low expectations, are more inclined to be reactive in their response to disruption, assign busywork and execute hierarchical classroom management. Consequently, some teachers will let them sit in racially segregated cliques, talk, disrupt and generally do what they want; then refer only those that they feel most threatened by out of class.

National research, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2010 middle school study and Indiana University’s 2000 “The Color of Discipline” report, has consistently shown that black students do not, in fact, “offend” at higher rates than their white and Latino counterparts. Moreover, socioeconomic disparities, as it is often claimed, don’t explain racial disproportionalities because middle class African Americans in higher income schools are also disproportionately suspended. This implies that black students are perceived by adults as more viscerally threatening. Indeed, “The Color of Discipline” report found that black students were more likely to be referred out of class for excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and “threat.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report approximately 20% of the teachers were responsible for 80% of suspensions. Ultimately “race and gender disparities in suspension were due not to differences in administrative disposition but to differences in the rate of initial referral of black and white students.”

In the LAUSD the numbers for the 2009-2010 school year speak for themselves.* At Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles (with a predominantly black faculty) black and Latino students are almost equal in number yet black students account for 62% of those suspended. At Venice High School on the Westside black students represent 9.5% of the population and 25% of those suspended. At Hamilton High they represented over half of the opportunity transfers despite being only 28.5% of the population. In 2008-09 they were 57% of those suspended at Hamilton; in 2009-10 they were 51% of those suspended. At Fairfax High School black students were 18.3% of the population yet represented 43.5% of suspensions. With the exception of Washington Prep, all of these schools had majority Latino populations.

Things are even more heinous at the middle school level. Middle school has been characterized by some researchers as the gateway for student success. A 2003 Johns Hopkins University study by Robert Balfanz found that poor performance and low attendance in middle school were some of the most reliable predictors of incarceration rates and drop-out at the high school level. At Audubon Middle School, which has one of the last majority black populations in the district, the stats are off the charts. Black students are 64.9% of the population yet represent a whopping 85% of those suspended (total suspensions were 481). Latino students are at 33% yet constitute only 15% of suspensions. It should also be noted that Audubon has a black principal. At Drew Middle School (16% black) and Foshay (18% black) African Americans represent nearly half of those suspended while Latino students, who represent 83% and 80% of each respective school’s population, are grossly underrepresented in suspensions. At Mann Middle School African Americans and Latinos are equal in the population yet blacks represent 71% of those suspended and the majority of those OT-ed. At John Muir Middle School blacks are 23% of the population and 49% of the suspensions. At Peary Middle School in Gardena they are 28% of the population and 59% of those suspended.

Acknowledging the role suspensions played in the district’s skyrocketing drop-out rates, the LAUSD adopted its so-called School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) plan in 2007. The policy was designed to develop alternative “inclusionary” approaches to discipline by addressing the “environmental factors that trigger misbehavior.” After the implementation of the policy, some LAUSD schools did reduce suspension numbers from the 2008-2009 to the 2009-2010 school year. However, according to a 2010 report by CADRE (Community Asset Redevelopment Re-defining Education), a community-based organization comprised of parents, students and legal advocates, implementation of the new policy was sporadic. Schools that actually increased suspensions after the implementation of the plan included Gompers Middle School (with a whopping 960 suspensions and a 1467 student population), Gardena High School (531) and Jordan High School (423).

Grassroots activist organizations like the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) are intimately acquainted with the implications of these disparities. The organization runs Free L.A. high school, a partnership with John Muir Charter School that is specifically designed for formerly incarcerated 16-24 year old youth. YJC executive director Kim McGill notes that many of its students have been pushed out of several schools before they enroll at Free L.A.

Despite the District’s public relations emphasis on SWPBS, the CADRE report (which focused on Local District 7 in South L.A.) concluded that parents had not been meaningfully informed about the plan. The majority of parents surveyed expressed ignorance of it and had not received input from the District. Only a small minority of the schools surveyed actually bothered to include parents on their SWPBS implementation committees. CADRE found that the majority of the schools in the local district surveyed were somewhere between zero implementation and partial implementation.

Yet the other significant aspect of this data is that it starkly disrupts the oft-cited premise of black and Latino congruence when it comes to discipline. Currently the LAUSD is over 70% Latino and 11% African American. Due to such factors as black outmigration and black enrollment in charter and private schools, the number of black students in the District declines every year. Black students are targeted, penalized and pushed-out in dizzyingly obscene numbers that predict and mirror their disproportionate numbers in L.A. County juvenile detention centers and adult prisons. In L.A. there also appears to be a correlation between declining numbers of black students and grossly disproportionate black suspension rates. At South Los Angeles middle school campuses with smaller numbers of black students (such as Bethune, Carver, Drew and Foshay) black student suspensions were two or three times greater than the number of black students in the general school population.

Not surprisingly, recently appointed LAUSD superintendent John Deasy—lauded by some for his alleged transparency and “reformer’s” chops—declined to be interviewed for this article. In a district where black students are already presumed guilty until proven innocent, Gardena High School’s racially lopsided awards ceremony was not only criminal, it was yet another indication of how black students are still being systematically discarded, held hostage not only by blatant push-out strategies but by bogus reform that straightjackets children of color with one-size-fits-all bromides. Where is the outrage?

Next: Community Organizing, Teachers’ Perceptions and the District’s Response.

Sikivu Hutchinson is an educator, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, and author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011).
*Data compiled by author from

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dear God (I Say a Little Prayer to You Channeling ‘The Help’)

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Last we spoke, summer of 1980, all your apple-cheeked savior missionaries had been safely dispatched to the freshest nooks and crannies of the third world. Rumor had it amongst the cherubs that there weren’t enough of them to service this corner of the ghetto; that that old time inner city anthropology, with a special serving of gangsta, was a poor way station for the whorishly bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Belatedly then, I say a little prayer to you, in the hope that this time the bloody din of crickets won’t drown out my plea for my own private mammylicious Aryan nation refugee; a hair flipping no-drop anti-diva who’s wicked with a wooden spoon and the arcane funk of cooking oils, a maven empathetic who’s only got the fear of you, Crisco, sweaty make-the-blind-see tent revivals and wayward baby dust weevils plotting in the bottom of a mint julep glass.

Of course God, this prayer, this petition is only a humble salvo in support of the sistahood, the intimate ties that bind all women regardless of the long dusky shadows of Tara, the mutant bones of Monticello slave cabins, the phantom molecules of rape beds dancing on a feather quill, a pedestal. So it shouldn’t be too much to ask that your fair candidate be versed in forbearance, have a Ph.D. in the province of black pathos, be a Zen master in the fine art of dewy eyes cast heavenward after days of wiping butt cracks and burnishing dirty dishes to a radioactive gleam. Lawdy, give me an Aunt Missy Anne or Uncle Cracker Remus whose world turns on my every utterance and peccadillo, whose practiced snout can sniff out any hint of “man trouble”, whose spider sense tingles at the most abject of feminine woes and ample bosom heaves to harbor all God's chillun at their most trifling snotty-nosed and godforsaken. Send me some Coolade grinning zip a-dee-do-dah wand waver swaddled in a magical cashmere do rag who can conquer the deep dark wilderness of unbleached roots and lend a soft pale shoulder to slobber my hard luck on. A whole psychic friend network slick as moonshine in Mississippi starlight, sassy enough to anticipate my next petty grievance, my weepy unravelings months before with the mother wit necromancy of rolling pins crushing a hot O’Keefe and Merritt down to cornbread dregs, blessing them with the true grit of the buck dance and the inscrutable ways of white folk.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Queer Youth of Color Beyond Faith

From The New Humanism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

At LGBTQ youth conferences it is common to see sunny-faced volunteers from gay-friendly ministries and other faith organizations hovering by tables stocked with attractive promotional literature. Their message is simple: God is merciful, forgiving and accepting of difference. And it is important for queer youth to know that Jesus loves them too. Each ministry claims to offer sanctuary from the draconian storm of Christian fundamentalism. As a visible and vocal faction in the LGBTQ youth movement, these faith-based organizations fill a moral, cultural, and social void that Humanist organizations have yet to proactively address.

A recent summit on improving the visibility of LGBTQ issues in K-12 curricula, instruction, and faculty training within the Los Angeles Unified School District highlighted the gaping void in secular Humanist outreach. During the summit, the San Francisco-based Family Acceptance Project screened a film called "Always My Son" which chronicled a Latino family's journey to acceptance of their gay son. Finding a church that welcomed LGBTQ youth and families was critical to their transition. The boy's father spoke eloquently of how he struggled to come to terms with his own hyper-masculine identity as a tough ex-Marine. The relationships the family developed in their new gay-friendly church inspired them to open their home to other families with LGBTQ children looking for community support. In the summit's breakout sessions, representatives from the faith community touted ministries which were accepting of LGBTQ families and youth. They maintained that the model of an angry punitive god was inaccurate. Several condemned the Religious Right for perpetuating the view that being gay and Christian was incompatible. They stressed involvement opportunities for LGBTQ youth struggling to come out. They also spoke of providing a bridge for religious families seeking to reconcile their faith with the dominant culture's heterosexist notions of "morality."

In large predominantly black and Latino urban school districts like the LAUSD, Humanist voices are rarely included in these school-community dialogues for several reasons. First, for better or for worse, social acceptance of LGBTQ youth oftentimes begins with family, and a majority of the students in the LAUSD come from religious family backgrounds. Second, it is assumed that making organized religion kinder and gentler is the end goal for disenfranchised queer youth hungry for moral acceptance. Since faith is an important source of cultural identity in many families of color, it stands to reason that educators and resource providers working with gay youth develop culturally responsive approaches to engaging families around homophobia, LGBT identity, and religious belief. Third, and, perhaps, most importantly, Humanist organizations that do this kind of work are few and far between...

MORE @ Queer Youth of Color Beyond Faith

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bad Bitches, True Women: The New Cult of True Womanhood

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As Middle America shuffles out of its hangover from the Casey Anthony trial and into the debt ceiling morass, the war on women has been fueled by an insidious 21st century cult of true womanhood. Every month, more states are proposing craftier anti-abortion laws and provisions with blinding speed. Anti-abortion legislation, anti-abortion billboards, fetal homicide laws, restrictions on family planning access and the gutting of child welfare services have become the moral virus of American public policy, cutting a bloody swath through poor working class communities.

The violent moral policing of women’s bodies has always been crucial to American national identity. And the rising tide of public policy that is fundamentally anti-family and anti-woman is rooted in a very particular regime of gender, race and class. In the 19th century, when the U.S. was in its ascent as an imperial power, the Cult of True Womanhood was the standard for American femininity. Central to the Cult of True Womanhood was the ideal of white women as the moral protectors of home, hearth and family. As the model of purity, religious piety and supreme sacrifice, the “true woman” was the moral symbol of American nationhood reigning over the dark uncivilized Other of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The mainstream media’s slobbery obsession with the Casey Anthony trial underscores how deeply the ideal of white womanhood is steeped in reverence for white motherhood. As many cultural commentators have observed, Anthony was appealing because she was a perverse representation of the Middle American “us.” She epitomized the seductive quandary of how seemingly good middle class white girls, good white mothers, could go so colossally bad. The white masses were transfixed and outraged by the tawdry saga of innocent little Caylee Anthony’s disappearance because she was “every child,” thus putting the sanctity of white motherhood on trial.

Being marked as bad bitches already, women of color don’t have far to fall when it comes to the pathological mother immorality sweepstakes. To paraphrase Gil Scott Heron, the realities of neglectful mothers of color will not be televised. They will not be the object of round-the-clock cable news, Court TV or supermarket tabloid frenzy. They will not elicit thousands of dollars in donations to defray their legal expenses because the subtext of the bad black or Latino mother is the good white mother whose children are America’s children. For example, fetal homicide laws disproportionately criminalize poor pregnant women of color. Like decades-old legislation that has penalized generations of pregnant black women for crack cocaine use, fetal homicide laws are the new frontier in the anti-abortion backlash. One of the more egregious examples of this is the case of Rennie Gibbs. Gibbs is an African American Mississippi woman facing a life sentence for murder after giving birth to a stillborn baby in 2006 when she was 16-years old. The state of Mississippi has charged that Gibbs’ stillbirth was due to her alleged cocaine use. Although medical reports concluded that Gibbs’ cocaine was not a contributing factor in her child’s death, the case is nonetheless progressing in criminal court after five years.

In some states, fetal homicide language loosely defines a person as an “unborn child in utero at any stage of development regardless of viability.” And it is no accident that the majority of these laws have been enacted in the South and the Midwest, where unrestricted access to safe, legal abortion resources is rapidly disappearing.

In an amicus brief in defense of Gibbs, several Mississippi health providers argue that these policies further criminalize drug addiction and discourage women from seeking treatment. White women drug abusers are far more likely to receive counseling, treatment and other rehabilitative care than are black women. Consequently, racist drug enforcement and sentencing policies, coupled with mainstream assumptions of bad black motherhood, make fetal homicide policies far more insidious for black women. Currently black women constitute over 30% of the U.S. prison population. They are primarily incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses and a significant majority of them are mothers. As the proportion of incarcerated black women swells the right wing assault on child social welfare services will cause both the ranks of black children in the foster care system and amongst the homeless to grow. Dispossessing black women of their humanity, the new cult of true womanhood trains a bullseye squarely on communities of color.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Friday, June 24, 2011

American Family Values, Invisible Lives

By Sikivu Hutchinson

A recent Los Angeles Times story about the U.S. Census’ report on the changing demographics of California families opens with an idyllic portrait of a white lesbian-headed family whose daughter is asked “on a leafy drive…at a newly renovated home with cathedral ceilings and a backyard pool” why she has three mommies. According to the new data, families are increasingly becoming less nuclear, headed up by more single parents, childless couples and LGBT couples with children. Yet family diversity is only a revelation in the mainstream media, which continue to promote the model of nuclear family-hood, even if it is provisionally embodied by well-heeled white gay partners with photogenic children. Historically, families of color have always been diverse. Extended African American family networks of adult caregivers, gay and straight, related and un-related, have always contributed to childrearing. Extended family provided a bulwark against institutional racism and segregation. Thus, the Times’ snapshot of affluent comfort contrasts with the realities of many LGBT families of color who struggle to stay above the poverty line. Further, the depiction of white childrearing and parenting as the de facto norm contributes to the national narrative that non-traditional families of color can never represent an authentic model of family.

In reality, the numbers of LGBT families of color are increasing, especially in traditionally conservative regions like the South, which has seen a new black “re-migration” due to the massive ripple effect of job losses, foreclosures and gentrification in northern urban black communities. Nonetheless, when textbooks, TV shows, and Hollywood films envision culturally “diverse” LGBT families it is through the lens of privileged white middle class folk who have “benevolently” decided to adopt a child of color or used expensive reproductive technology to have children. Complex families of color that are either headed by single gay or straight parents are marginalized as inherently dysfunctional, welfare-dependent and socially borderline. Loving gay partners of color with children are virtually nonexistent.

This media white-out has insidious implications for both straight and gay children of color. If gay children of color don’t see loving adult gay and lesbian caregivers then they will continue to internalize their own dehumanization. If straight children of color don’t see loving representations of LGBT parents and families of color, gayness will still be equated with “white” deviance. Next week, the California State Assembly will vote on a bill requiring that the contributions of LGBT communities and historical figures be taught in K-12 classrooms. Clearly, the invisibility of LGBT families of color not only reinforces homophobic opposition to LBGT equality within African American communities, but validates the absence of public policy that specifically addresses LGBT youth of color issues.

For example, nationwide, increasing numbers of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning) youth of color are becoming homeless due to overt anti-gay harassment, emotional/physical abuse and lack of acceptance by their families and communities. In my work with LGBTQ homeless youth in Los Angeles, some recount being forced to leave home due to the kind of violent scenarios satirized in comedian Tracy Morgan’s now infamous homophobic rant. Morgan’s diatribe about the prospect of a son coming out as gay enacted a shopworn stereotype about straight male socialization. It is a given that no self-respecting father, particularly a black father, would want his son to be gay. It is a given that masculinity must be rigidly policed by the fraternity of men. Thus, the only reasonable response to a young black man coming out would be violence. Morgan’s vitriol illustrated how gender identity and sexuality are intertwined. But it also highlighted the deep connection between normative gender identities, race and family roles. Black heterosexism is reinforced by white supremacy. White supremacy establishes a hierarchy of men in which non-white men are either feminized or hyper-masculinized. The social capital of white men lies in being the universal ideal of humanity; requiring men of color to be the super-macho other. For men of color, violent hard masculinity is the only kind of masculinity that is validated by the dominant culture. As the national propaganda goes, caring, emotionally present black fathers—single or partnered—are an oxymoron. According to this mythology, all black boys take their cue from this deficit model and the hyper-masculine cycle of violence repeats itself in crime and illegitimacy.

With African American children comprising nearly 40% of the nation’s foster care and homeless youth populations, culturally responsive feminist approaches to caregiving and family sustainability are crucial. Living in a culture in which they are reminded daily of their non-existence by a white supremacist heterosexist nation that deifies straight white beauty ideals and views affordable housing as a privilege, some LGBT homeless youth of color resort to destructive behaviors like survival sex and drug abuse. Demographic patterns have long shifted to make whites a minority in the U.S. Yet mainstream media is still in the Ozzie and Harriet era when it comes to the realities of families of color, buttressing bankrupt social welfare policies that expose the sham of American family values.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dangerous Distortions: Anti-Abortion Fascists and Third World Allies

By Sikivu Hutchinson and Diane Arellano

On a recent Los Angeles talk radio show Louisiana state legislator John LaBruzzo lamented the “massacre” of millions of “baby women” by abortion. In this fascist’s warped mind abortion infringes on the civil rights of fetuses. LaBruzzo is the author of a bill that would abolish abortion on the grounds that denying fetuses civil rights is akin to the violent denial of black civil rights under slavery. According to male anti-abortion fascists like LaBruzzo, poor single women get abortions because they are forced to by predatory deadbeat dad boyfriends in training or by fathers who have committed incest. Hence, overturning Roe vs. Wade is consistent with gender equity and social justice.

As the national hijacking of women’s rights continues, the Right has become more and more skillful at manipulating pro-death anti-choice messages designed to make women believe that their interests are being served by powerful white conservative foundations and their “third world” allies. In Los Angeles, conservative Latino groups are now targeting Latino communities with a new wave of anti-abortion billboards similar to those aimed at African American women. The Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles is the architect of this latest assault on reproductive justice for women of color. As with the abortion-as-black-genocide billboards unleashed by the far right Radiance Foundation, the Latino billboards evoke reductive hyper-religious narratives of sinning promiscuous bad women and “breeder” good women.

The billboards claim that “the most dangerous place” for a Latino child is in the womb. Yet the reality of Latina fertility rates—three children are the national average for Latinas in their childbearing years—would seem to belie the need for this campaign. But of course reality in fascist propaganda is an oxymoron. Crafted as they are at the height of the recession, the economic subtext of these moral panic narratives must be exposed. The subtext of the campaign is that any form of access to abortion threatens the stability of patriarchal Latino families. Like black women, Latinas’ bodies are territory to be manipulated, controlled, and strictly policed vis-à-vis the regime of authentic Latino gender identities based on Catholic piety and female submission. As the most underrepresented and lowest paid group in the American economy, Latinas are especially vulnerable to socio-cultural narratives mandating that they stay barefoot, pregnant, and underemployed.

In the Latino community, the assault on women’s right to self-determination is also being spearheaded by former Latin American telenovela stars ready to lend their “expert” opinions on what Latinas in the US should and should not do with their bodies. The most vociferous of these is former boy band member and telenovela heartthrob Eduardo Verastegui. In 2008, Verastegui vied for the heart of the Religious Right with media appearances encouraging Spanish speaking Latino voters to vote yes on Proposition 8, California’s anti-same sex marriage initiative. He has returned to the spotlight as a founding member of Manto de Guadalupe, a nonprofit focused on “defending life from conception to natural death.”

On June 12th, Manto de Guadalupe sponsored a fundraising event in support of the development of the largest “pro-life” women’s clinic in the United States. This facility is slated to be built in South Los Angeles, which has one of the highest poverty rates in L.A. County. At the event, legendary Mexican telenovela star Veronica Castro introduced Texas governor and rumored presidential hopeful Rick Perry. Just a few days before the fundraiser, Perry introduced SB 9—sweeping legislation which would ban “sanctuary cities” or non-existent safe havens for undocumented immigrants—into the Texas Senate. SB 9 would further criminalize Texas Latinos by allowing law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of those arrested or legally detained. Still, at the fundraiser, the predominantly Spanish speaking immigrant crowd cheered wildly for Perry.

The connection between the right’s anti-immigrant and anti-choice agenda is no coincidence. Criminalizing choice and undocumented immigrants is part of a larger scheme in which big government eliminates the rights of the underclass and expands “social welfare” for corporations, the wealthy, and the military industrial complex. Thus, right wing propaganda in black and brown communities must be met head on. Access to safe and legal safe abortions is not only paramount to women’s health but to economic and social justice. Pro-choice politicians like President Obama who waffle on the morality and necessity of abortion (talking only of the need to “reduce” the number of abortions), further distort the connection between unrestricted access to abortion and human rights. Indeed, the Left’s marginal response to far right anti-abortion fascism has enabled a climate in which Planned Parenthood has now been defunded in three states. If the war on safe and legal access to abortion does not shift to a national movement centered on how family planning and abortion are a fundamental human right, then the lives of black and brown women will continue to be expendable. And if the right wing of all hues continues to be allowed to define the terms of human rights and “social justice” women of color will be on the frontlines reliving the horror of the back alley.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Diane Arellano is a photo documentarian and youth advocacy educator based in Los Angeles. Her work examines sociocultural instability and flexibility, the intersections of marginalized communities, race, class, and gender roles. Sikivu and Diane run the Women's Leadership Project, A South L.A.-based feminist mentoring program.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bronze Magazine: "Moral Combat Explored: A Chat with Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson"

She’s black; she’s a feminist; and she’s an atheist. Author and lecturer Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson makes no pretense about her progressive “non- beliefs.” In her book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Dr. Hutchinson reveals how atheists of color are challenging the whiteness of “New Atheism” and its singular emphasis on science at the expense of social and economic justice. The book also highlights the cultural influence of African American humanist and atheist social thought in America. Dr. Hutchinson spoke with us more about the foundation of her “non-beliefs” and how they influenced the writing of her book.

BM: Hello Sikivu, it is an honor to be able to speak with you today. Atheism is a term that is not usually acknowledged within the Black community. Can you tell us what it means (to you) to be an African American female atheist?

SH: It means being able to question the orthodoxies and conventions of mainstream African American experience, particularly when it comes to how black women are supposed to behave and what they are supposed to believe.

BM: When/how did atheism enter your life?

SH: I grew up in a secular household. My parents were progressive and politically conscious. They were both steeped in the radical activism and intellectual foment of the Sixties. My upbringing was very black-identified; black literature, black social history, black activism. There were no Bibles on our bookshelves Prayer and God talk was never a part of the home culture of my immediate family. Because there was no indoctrination into God belief I had no authentic emotional connection to this idea of a supernatural omnipotent being manning the universe’s puppet strings. Naturally though most of my extended family and friends were religious so my limited church connections came through them. In retrospect however, my parents were no doubt mindful of the stigma black communities attach to non-believers and non-belief. So although there was never any explicit talk about atheism in our household I began to self-identify as one after enduring the hostile cultural backwater of my Catholic high school, where writing Beatle lyrics on your paper (as I did in 9th grade) got you branded a reprobate. MORE@