Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nice White Boys Next Door

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Standing in line at the California Science Center the day of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary school, my students wondered aloud about the race of the shooter.  “More than likely he was white,” they agreed. As the only people of color waiting to be admitted to the exhibit, their open question about race elicited visible unease from a group of elderly white women across the line from us.
According to a Mother Jones timeline of mass shootings from the 1980s to the present, the majority of American mass murderers have been white males.  The most infamous young killers—the Columbine High shooters, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and now Adam Lanza—share a common cultural theme and national narrative. “Deranged” loners who came from lower to upper middle class nuclear families, their murder sprees forever shattered white suburbia’s veneer of normalcy.  Over the past decade, the post-mass murder mantra has been grindingly familiar—“this couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t happen HERE, in our idyllic (white) suburban community.”  Catastrophic violence is implicitly marked as the province of the other, the inner city, the cesspit jungle where poor children (of color), according to GOP sage Newt Gingrich, have no work ethic and thus no “habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.”
And yet, methodically plotted acts of epic violence committed by young white males with mini arsenals aping video game assassins are increasingly the hallmark of “HERE”.  So no doubt the elderly white women’s unease came from a sense of deep existential displacement.  When you’ve been suckled on Ozzie and Harriet, its “hard” to have your whiteness referenced as a source of violence; especially by people of color.
As the unraced universal subject, white people are simply unaccustomed to being explicitly identified as white.  For many, the tired colorblind party line of white privilege means that just talking about race is racist.  Universal means normal, and even the most heinous white criminals (Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer, and the list goes on) are humanized by a back story of psychoanalysis, cable TV biopics, books, and pop culture reportage.  The wages of whiteness means not having to know the classic people of color ritual—i.e., that when big crime news breaks its pro forma for many African Americans and Latinos to find out the race of the perpetrator and then those of the victims.  If the perpetrator is white there is a collective sigh of relief that Middle America won’t have another dark savage, immigrant or Muslim community to demonize.  If the victims are of color, there is a short window before the media’s attention fades (ala the August massacre of six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin) and shifts to more important matters like Lindsey Lohan or missing white girls.
Black and brown children learn very early on that perceptions of race and criminality are intimately connected.  In high school when my friends and I found ourselves at the business end of Inglewood PD officers’ rifles because someone in our car “looked” like a burglary suspect, it was a rite of passage initiation.  The killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin was a lightening rod because American youth of color saw the failure to bring his killer to justice as symptomatic of the devaluation of their lives.  Guilty until proven innocent, youth of color never have the privilege of being universally perceived as the “nice” boy (as Lanza has been described) or girl next door that wouldn’t hurt a fly.  
According to a 2010 Blair-Rockefeller survey, many whites in post-racial America believe that blacks and Latinos are more lazy, unintelligent, and untrustworthy than either whites or Asians. If white Middle America views people of color as not having “white” values and “white” aptitude levels, then it’s no mystery why mainstream media pathologize people of color as naturally criminal and violent.  Black criminality can be boiled down to a rancid stew of shiftlessness, absentee fatherhood, and irresponsible motherhood.  Latino criminality stems from too much babymaking and gangbanging.  But like the moribund immigrant urban jungle of 19th  social reformer Jacob Riis’ nightmares, it’s the “inner city” that’s the guilty co-defendant.  
Nonetheless, mass murder in an urban context is rare and mass shootings in schools of color are virtually unheard of.  Homicide is a leading cause of death for young African American men.  But contrary to the rap stereotype of Glock-toting men of color, an overwhelming majority of people of color are pro-gun control, while the majority of the white electorate is not.  The high school assailants in the Littleton, Colorado, the Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Santee, California shootings were steeped in a NRA besotted gun culture that fetishizes readily available firearms as the ultimate medium for violent white masculinity. 
However, these youth were instantly transformed into symbols of troubled, tragically “misunderstood” teens.  National conversations about the perils of bullying dominated the airwaves.  It was accepted that these tragic figures were “our boys,” our recklessly wasted youth.  It was conventional wisdom that preventive mental health resources could have minimized their inner turmoil.  As the bloggers Three Sonorans note in their piece, “White Privilege and Mass Murder in America,” “whenever white men commit mass murders it is just a freak isolated incident, but when we look at other crime statistics for minorities the reason given is that it is something innate to their culture, to their family.  It is those people.”
With Columbine there was tacit understanding that these boys’ acts were symptomatic of a potentially imperiled national heritage.  Conversely, any time violence erupts in a black or Latino context it’s a racial indictment, an indictment of a community, not a reflection on the rogue acts of lost boys from salt of the earth homes. 
As my students and I left the Science center, bracing for more news about the scope of the attack, it was clear that the tragedy would dominate the news for weeks to come.  The senseless slaughter of children from the “perfect” town may finally prompt serious bipartisan legislation to curb the barbaric gun lobby. But it will not prompt analysis of the violent masculinity at the heart of whiteness.  And if any of these nice white boy shooters had been black the national sentiment would have echoed the biting comment made by my student Jamion: “Send those niggers back to Africa.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Excerpted from The Feminist Wire

The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus. They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing. My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band. She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school. Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe only a small minority go on to four year colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual abuse scandals. The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). Italics added.”[i]

In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argued that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation. Harlem Renaissance-era writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers. Yet what few women’s freethought histories there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements. For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who touted the cultural and intellectual superiority of white women over immigrants and people of color in her vehement opposition to the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.

Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized sexual other. Their bodies were the backdrop to European American notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. Their labor was the raw material for European American intellectualism. European American freethought traditions were predicated on the enslavement of the racialized sexual other. Within the context of slavery and, later, Jim Crow, women like Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other first and second wave white feminist freethinkers would not have had the license to be secular were it not for the dialectic between the civilized white Western subject and the degraded amoral racialized sexual other. Alice Walker powerfully evokes this theme in her essayIn Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, which contemplates the contradictions of black female creativity and “genius” within the holocaust conditions of slavery. She asks:

Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer’s lash? Or was she required to bake biscuits for a lazy backwater tramp, when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasturelands? Or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)—eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children—when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?

Black working women were not supposed to be geniuses. In the West, genius and Godliness are intimately bound to each other. Black women’s lives were too “cluttered” with the debris of the everyday—the cooking, cleaning, minding, managing, and tending that comes with the earthly terrain of caregiving—to soar to the heavens with geniuses. Small wonder then that the spaces they did find themselves in, that were available to them, became wellsprings for expressions of Godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention. Hence, secularism was a dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where would black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral Children of Ham?

For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure as the driven snow self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore; the black, Asian, Latina or Native American woman whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” As writer Yasmin Davidds Garrido notes, “It often seemed to me that unless I behaved just like the Virgin Mary I wouldn’t be good enough to win God’s approval. In order to be considered a good girl, I had to be quiet, submissive, and obedient…This is one way Catholicism coerces young girls to mute their voices.”

This is the backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning. Responding to a survey I conducted on high school aged young women and faith, twelfth grader Vanessa Linares* agreed that African American and Latina women are packing the pews because many of them “believe that women of color need faith/religion to be moral.” Thus, popular reality shows like the Bad Girls Club and platinum-selling pop artists like wannabe Barbie doll rapper Nicki Minaj show young women of color that hyper-sexuality is a quick and dirty form of “validation” for a select few. These women may appear to be flouting conventional sexual mores with “fuck you” alpha female sexuality but they are still rigidly bound by them. And by the same token the goddess cult that so many women of color flock to is also a cul-de-sac. Goddesses, queens, princesses, and other icons of so-called spiritual authority are by definition floating above the “sorry” muck of mere mortals. As Women’s Leadership Project program coordinator Diane Arellano comments:

Somewhere in college, I felt the need to proactively counter the general assumption that as a Mexican woman, I must be a Catholic or Christian. This conscious shift in my identity was informed by my interests and participation in activism. When I searched for models of Latino activists, I was very disappointed to see or read about “seeking strength” from ‘La Virgen’ or claiming their work is the work of ‘God.’ I thought about how oppression functions in communities of color and asked myself, isn’t there a good argument that can be made about the Church’s role in institutionalizing the oppressive gender, race, class, and sexuality paradigms that these activists are fighting so hard against?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

2016: The Empire Strikes Back

By Sikivu Hutchinson

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Over the past four years President Obama has promoted Wall Street’s capitalist siege against working and middle class homeowners. He has sanctioned drone attacks on thousands of innocent Middle Eastern people. He has ignored the deepening crisis of African American unemployment, foreclosure, and mass-incarceration. He has presided over more deportations of undocumented immigrants than George W. Bush and literally excised the word “poor” out of his political vocabulary. The list of his concessions to militarist, corporatist, and faith-based public policies that undermine progressive social change is long. For much of his first term, Obama has indeed done a good job of consolidating empire. That said the defeat of Mitt Romney and smarmy Ayn Rand minion Paul Ryan should stand as a warning and “teachable moment” to the forces of bigotry, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia and Christian fascism that hate-mongering, race- and red-baiting are not enough. In the end, the so-called 53% that Romney cynically whipped up in lynch mob solidarity was not enough. Nor was the shrill coalition of older, white “government is the Anti-Christ” voters that have tried to demonize public employee unions and wipe out decades of civil rights gains for working people. Nor was the relentless propaganda for gutting health care for children, the mentally ill and the disabled. Nor were the welfare queen-mongers who wrapped themselves in the dirty flag of God and Country on the backs of “shiftless” black people and breeder “illegals”. These forces will destroy what remains of social welfare in the U.S. But the multiracial electorate of students and workers that organized to defeat Romney represents the true face of the nation. Some of my students were motivated to vote for Barack Obama out of the belief that a Romney presidency would have virtually guaranteed a new form of slavery —one in which women of color would be imprisoned by the backlash against reproductive rights, education, and workers’ rights. Four years ago so-called “personhood initiatives” were still largely unknown. Four years ago it was still possible to transfer from a community college in two years without system delays and financial aid had not yet become a fantasy. Four years ago the percentage of black homeless and foster care youth had not yet reached crisis proportions.

These are the realities that young people of color face in a state that is in the midst of its worst fiscal crisis in generations. If President Obama squanders the energy and direction of this newly galvanized constituency with more corporate toadyism and welfare for the super-rich 2012 will be the last gasp before 2016’s full court GOP insurgency with a “reformed” Ryan in sheep’s clothing and a kinder gentler brown surrogate to placate the “hordes.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Trailblazing Black Women Scientists: Carol Mae Jemison in L.A.!

Dr. Carol Mae Jemison

Devin Waller
My 4 year-old daughter wants to be an astronaut, but what images in the mainstream media does she see representing astrounauts and space explorers? Buzz Lightyear and the predominantly white male trailblazers who guided the Mars Curiosity Rover.  On Sunday, November 4th, trailblazer and inspiration Dr. Carol Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, will be in Los Angeles at the California Science Center and the California African American Museum (CAAM) to “give personal accounts of traveling on the Endeavour and life inspirations that led to her becoming a trailblazer.” Dr. Jemison has a B.A. in chemical engineering and an M.D. from Cornell University. In her autobiography Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life, Jemison reflected on how, after professing interest in being a scientist to one of her teachers, she was told to set her sights on being a nurse instead. As a sixteen year-old undergraduate at Stanford University, she was practically shunned by her physical science instructors.

Although her experiences occurred during the sixties and seventies, the dominant view of who is a proper scientist has not changed. Planetary geologist Devin Waller echoed Jemison’s experience recently when she spoke to Women’s Leadership Project students at Gardena and Washington Prep High Schools. Ms. Waller, who was just appointed Project Manager over Science Research and Artifacts at the California Science Center (where the Endeavour is now housed), related how she was treated like an oddball who clearly didn’t belong in upper division science courses by her predominantly white male classmates in the UCLA Physics department. Devin was the only African American woman at UCLA to receive a bachelor’s in Astrophysics in 2005. During her talk with WLP, she highlighted her early interest in science and her mother educator Linda Watts' efforts to expose her to science exploration despite there being no family members or role models who’d pursued science in her immediate community. She also reflected on her persistence at getting into the Geolophysics program at Arizona State University (again as the only black woman in her department), despite not having a background in geology.  During her tenure at ASU Devin worked on the predecessor to Curiosity and did well-received research on dust devils.

Dr. Jemison will be at CAAM at 2 pm.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Spectator Sport of Black Women Bashing

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1990s, The O.J. Simpson murder trial polarized America and highlighted domestic violence as a national cause célèbre.  At the center of the storm was Simpson’s wife, the blond Orange County-bred Nicole Brown Simpson, who’d suffered years of domestic abuse by an NFL legend deified as a pop culture god.  After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering Brown Simpson white America wanted his scalp. Nicole was the perfect victim, the beautiful tragic heroine who died too young at the hands of a savage.  The trial of the century hinged on redeeming a white woman’s honor and bringing her Negro killer to justice.  Brown Simpson was grieved globally, transformed into a symbol of the deadliness of intimate partner violence and martyr of a legal system—signified by the “dumb” "biased" black female jury that acquitted Simpson—run amok. 
The underside of the verdict and the relentless valorization of Nicole Brown Simpson was the disreputable black female abuse victim.  Each year thousands of black women are shot, stabbed, stalked, and brutalized in crimes that never make it on the national radar.  Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate of 35% higher than do white women.  Intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for black women, yet they are seldom viewed as proper victims and are rarely cast as total innocents.  This is the backdrop to the tale of a group of white high school students in New York who thought it would be cool to don blackface and reenact the 2009 beating of pop star Rihanna by Chris Brown at a pep rally.  Like the gleefully bloodthirsty white audiences that gathered to view 20th century lynchings, there has always been a robust market for white consumption of black pain.  A big part of the white audience’s glee came from not seeing Rihanna as a proper victim.  For white Middle America, intimate partner violence is only funny as spectator sport if the person being beat is viewed as other.  From the right wing’s Moynihan-esque propaganda on black welfare queen matriarchs to recent abortion-as-black-genocide messaging, black women’s bodies are fair game for institutionalized acts of violence, terrorism, and control.  So for a lily white school to find the brutal beating of a black woman hilarious is par for the course in a misogynist white supremacist culture that deems black women less than human. 
There is a deep connection between the current backlash against human rights for women and the white kids’ pep rally.  During the recent presidential debate, gender justice issues were reduced to hollow rhetoric about equal pay.  Mitt Romney prattled on about having “binders full of women” while President Obama tried to link the provisions of the Affordable Care Act with improving employment opportunities and equal pay for working women.  Although Obama rattled off a few vital health and family planning services provided by Planned Parenthood, the GOP assault on abortion rights went unmentioned.  Violence against women comes in many forms, and by ramming through law after law of draconian anti-abortion, fetal homicide, and “personhood” policies through state legislatures nationwide the GOP has become the foremost lynch mob of civil rights.  As the poorest, least compensated women in the workforce, women of color suffer disproportionately from the dismantling of reproductive health care.  But they are also brutalized by both parties’ promotion of corporate handouts, tax cuts for the wealthy, and denigration of social welfare programs that specifically target poor and low income families. 

Yet, violence against women of color is so far outside of the radar of social justice organizations, much less the context of mainstream politics, that it even elicits little outrage amongst many young women of color.  Over the past few years, whenever I have classroom discussions about the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident students roll their eyes and snort in exasperation.  Some girls dismiss the issue as an endless rehash.  More insidiously, others express the view that Rihanna was somehow complicit in her own beating.  She must have done something, she must have hit him first, she must have provoked it in some way with her mouth, attitude, body—is the typical blame-the-victim refrain.  

Not seeing themselves portrayed as worthy of human dignity, respect, and value has inured them to the unrelenting violence of explicitly anti-black anti-female media images.  According to a Pitzer College study, girls who are consistently exposed to “sexist violent rap videos were more accepting of teen dating violence.”  Training young women of color to come to voice, to identify the normalized violence that they experience on a daily basis, is one of the biggest challenges of feminist of color organizing.  Critiquing the pep rally incident, my Women’s Leadership Project students all agreed that the brutal beating of a Taylor Swift, a Britney Spears or even a Nicole Brown Simpson wouldn’t fly as spectator sport at a black high school.  The tragedy is that they all believed that Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna would.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Massa Mitt Does South of the Border

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Over the past few months, the GOP has proudly reveled in Ronald Reagan’s old chestnut that “facts are stupid things.” First, Anne Romney told us at the Republican National Convention that her bootstraps moxie enabled her to work hard enough to marry a multi-millionaire. Then Mother Jones story revealed that Massa Mitt rhapsodized at a private fundraiser in May about being Latino.   Romney mused about an alternative south of the border heritage shortly after he delivered his now infamous condemnation of 47% of the American people who suck up government handouts. He joked that “had he been born of Mexican parents (he) would have had a better shot of winning this” and that “it would be helpful to be Latino.”

Despite the mainstream media’s apoplexy, Romney’s sweeping dismissal of working class Americans—who, even though they pay payroll, property, and sales taxes, are still bonafide welfare queens—and his fantasy island paternalism should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the campaign.  His shucking and jiving about possible political gain from being Latino, while promoting nativist anti-undocumented immigrant policies that criminalize all Latinos regardless of citizenship status, attests to the business as usual racism of 21st century post-racial America. His suggestion that simply being of Mexican parentage would help him win the election is a racist insult to a Latino electorate which has consistently rejected the GOP’s divide and conquer platform. Exploiting the politics of white resentment, his entire campaign has been an affront to hardworking people of color who have higher poverty, unemployment, and foreclosure rates than whites with comparable income or education levels. Both Obama and Romney are delinquent when it comes to specific remedies for racial discrimination against African Americans and Latinos in hiring, lending, home ownership, and wealth generation. Yet, unlike Obama, Romney continues to shuttle around to select Latino business groups prattling about free enterprise, ignoring the fact that a majority of Latinos favor government social services and don’t view “free enterprise” and social welfare as mutually exclusive. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan saber rattle about entitlements for lazy tax-dodging Americans yet support ending capital gains and estate taxes while amassing millions through the plunder of tax shelters, loopholes and offshore accounts. Romney crows that small business entrepreneurialism is the key to American prosperity yet suggests that low-income college students stop whining and hit their parents up for a loan (like he did).

Not surprisingly, many of the white GOP voters who receive Social Security and Medicare aren’t bothered by Romney’s assault on lower income and middle class folks. They don’t view themselves as being the target of his diatribe because the perception is that white retirees who don’t pay income tax earned their benefits after a lifetime of hard work. Romney’s propaganda demonstrates yet again that race and class are inextricably linked—simply being white affords class status and “immunity” from the cultural perception that your poverty is destiny, rather than a special circumstance that free enterprise and a fair shake can cure. Tim Wise outlines the benefits of white class privilege succinctly in his article “Collateral Damage: Poor Whites and the Unintended Consequences of Racial Privilege.” Wise argues that poor whites are buttressed by social cues that they can succeed, that they are valued (i.e., that they are human and citizens), and that their poverty is circumstantial. Discussing the emergence of poverty narratives that centered on black pathology and welfare dependency in the 1960s and 1970s he notes:

Importantly, the white poor, despite their economic condition, generally escaped the full weight of this emerging invective and were not the ones typified as the harbingers of social pathology. Even though roughly 40 percent of the long-term poor and welfare dependent “underclass” is white, virtually all media stories discussing the underclass — inevitably in highly critical ways — have portrayed people of color, with few if any exceptions. The white poor, despite the growing backlash, have been able to remain the “salt of the earth” in the eyes of most, buffeted by circumstances not of their own making.

Because black poverty is the standard, white poverty is a virtual oxymoron. Poor white people are essentially invisible as poor people. When they do come into view they are proud victims of big government malfeasance who struggle to make it against the odds; not welfare recipients looking for the next handout. Poor white people just need an honest break to facilitate their bootstrapping ala the Joads of the Grapes of Wrath or environmental crusader Erin Brockovich. They are automatic beneficiaries of a narrative of heroism and rugged transcendence. With a substantial part of his base subsisting on government “handouts”, it is this narrative that Massa Mitt taps into, circle jerking with the super-rich about his Mexican parallel universe.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ann Romney: White Empress

By Sikivu Hutchinson While the mainstream media slobbers over breast cancer survivor Ann Romney’s ‘just folks’ performance at last night’s Republican Convention thousands of poor and working class women across the country won’t get breast cancer screening due to the GOP’s relentless war against Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act. It wasn’t surprising that Romney’s rich empress trumpeting of love for women, stand by your man true grit and bootstraps Americana went over like gangbusters with the nearly lily white GOP crowd. The fantasy that privileged political dynasty scion and hedge fund offshore account secreting multi-millionaire Mitt “made it on his own” is like crack for a GOP eager to trot out welfare queens at the eleventh hour to shore up its Timothy McVeigh base. But Ann Romney’s speech also evoked the contemptible travesty of all the patriarchy-besotted right wing women who are fighting tooth and nail to deny working and middle class women the right to control their own bodies, destinies and families through access to basic abortion, birth control, and health care services. With all of their fake soul love of ‘just folks’ moms who have to live off of tuna in basement apartments Romney and the GOP lynch mob’s message to American women who will have to travel one-hundred miles to find a healthcare provider because their local Planned Parenthood office has been gutted: just charter a Gulfstream.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Trailer Trash Fantasy League

By Sikivu Hutchinson It’s always been the secret wish of people of color to play down home Deliverance-style crackers in a special trailer trash fantasy league like those Civil War enactment confabs where white men get off on pretending Dixie never died. Better still, it’s always been my personal ambition to enact a trailer trash fantasy league at a public school as an official observation of authentic white culture. Weeks after Anaheim—home to Disneyland, i.e., the “happiest place on earth”— was still reeling from a series of police shootings in the Latino community, the city’s predominantly white Canyon Hills High celebrated its fourth annual “Seniores and Senioritas” day for graduating seniors. The day featured white kids sporting sombreros, sagging pants, gang paraphernalia, ICE and Border Patrol gear, as well as girls with fake pregnant bellies pushing baby strollers. The racist display was only shut down due to the activism of 19 year-old Jared Garcia-Kessler, a former student who was told to “get a sense of humor” when he initially complained to a school official. Anaheim and Orange County (the “O.C.”) have long registered in the American popular imagination as sun-kissed playgrounds for white Middle America. Despite having a predominantly Latino and highly diverse Asian community the O.C. is widely perceived as one giant tanning bed for spoiled rich white trust fund babies and their gated community sequestered parents. This perception is part and parcel of the media whiteout of Latinos, who, despite being 45% of California’s population, are grossly under-represented in West Coast-centric film and TV productions. Mainstream representation of Latinos is little more than a goulash of illegal alien, gang banging, spicy Latina broken English spewing stereotypes. A recent New York Times article focused on the TV industry’s attempts to court growing Latino audiences with the same old stale racist themes about breeder Latino families, border jumping and criminality. The 85% white faculty at Canyon Hills High mirrors the faculty composition of UC San Diego; which elicited a firestorm in 2010 when white UCSD fraternities staged a Black History Month “Compton Cookout” in which participants were asked to wear gold teeth, cheap clothes, FUBU attire, etc. The Compton Cookout inspired massive protests, renewing discussion about admission, retention and graduation rates for black students and the miniscule number of tenured black faculty. Given the fever pitch xenophobia, nativism and anti-undocumented immigrant hysteria in the U.S. it is no surprise that the Seniores event was allowed to roll on for three years with virtually no incident or protest. Garcia-Kessler’s intervention is a commendable strike against the business as usual apartheid that defines K-12 schools.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Beyond Starship Enterprise: Racism, Sexism & the Science Pipeline

By Sikivu Hutchinson Decked out in a white lab coat straight from central casting, the African American science teacher featured in Target’s latest “Back to School” commercial is a cartoonish reminder of the dearth of images of black scientists in American popular culture. Riffing about school supplies to the tune of Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science,” the teacher declares, “Parents, this year I’m going to teach your kids that magic does exist. It’s called science,” as he makes the rounds in a magical classroom filled with mostly white students. When youth of color see scientists in mainstream film, TV or advertising it’s usually the lone wolf, trailblazing bullet proof-Einstein white male (or the sexualized white female variant, typically buried behind thick attitude glasses ready to be whipped off before a sex scene) peering through a microscope with furrowed brow. Mainstream representation codes heroism, scientific discovery, scientific genius, and rationality as white. Recent media coverage of the Mars Curiosity rover’s ecstatic predominantly white Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) crew was yet another affirmation of this link. As an aspiring oncologist enrolled at a South Los Angeles high school not far from JPL, college-bound twelfth grader Karly Jeter’s role model is African American surgeon Ben Carson. He is the only person of color in the medical science field that she looks up to. She says that this is partly because he “made it on his own” and partly because she doesn’t know of any other examples. Karly’s desire to be an oncologist stems from being a cancer survivor herself. She describes finding a cure for cancer as her biggest passion. On the other end of the college spectrum, planetary geologist Devin Waller has a Bachelor’s in Astrophysics from UCLA and a Master’s in Geoscience from Arizona State University. As a graduate student her concentration was in planetary remote sensing on Mars. At ASU she was also a research analyst for projects involving the predecessors to Curiosity. Although they are at two different stages in the science education pipeline, these young women both represent the challenges that confront African American women in science and technology. In her book Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, Sandra Hanson explodes the myth that black girls are somehow disinterested in science due to hyper-religiosity or “culture.” Hanson found that, despite significant institutional and societal barriers, there is greater interest in science among African American girls than in other student populations. She frames this seeming paradox in historical context, stressing that “Early ideologies about natural inequalities by race influenced the work of scientists and scholars as well as the treatment of minorities in the science domain. Racism is a key feature of science in the United States and elsewhere. This has a large impact on the potential for success among minority students. Early work on science as fair has not been supported.” Hanson outlines some of the obstacles that confront budding African American women scientists from elementary school to the postgraduate level. Stereotypes about girls of color lacking proficiency in science, the absence of nurturing mentors, the dearth of education about people of color who have contributed to science research (i.e., culturally responsive science instruction), and academic isolation often deter youth who would like to pursue science careers. Science researcher Diann Jordan, author of Sisters in Science, notes that her study of black women scientists helped her combat the sense of isolation she felt in a field where she was often perceived as an interloper. Nonetheless, Jordan, Hanson, and other researchers have found that “African American girls in particular are very positive about science.” Stem cell scientist Valerie Johnson McCullar stresses that black girls begin with high interest in math and science in elementary school then begin to lose interest in quantitative subjects because “if there is not someone around you to constantly show you the beauty in certain things you get channeled in certain ways.” Hanson notes that black girls, as opposed to white girls, are actually more inclined to stay engaged with science throughout their K-12 careers. In elementary and middle school girls tend to outperform males in math and science. However the “trend tends to reverse itself in the white but not the African American communities as the young people enter high school.” Indeed, “African American girls have been found…to be in more advanced math classes, to get better science grades, and to participate more in science than their male counterparts.” But Hanson emphasizes that greater participation amongst African American girls does not necessarily translate into high achievement. Academic outcomes for students of color still lag behind their white counterparts. Indeed, the presumption of underachievement that dogs even the “best and brightest” science students underscores the depth of educational apartheid in the U.S. Karly Jeter’s desire to be an oncologist developed in spite of the culture of her school. Similar to the magical Target classroom Karly is typically only one of two or three black students in her Advanced Placement classes. Reflecting back on her junior year, she bitterly recounted when her AP English teacher excluded her from a list of students (all Asian and Latino) he predicted would pass the mock AP exam. When she was one of the few who passed he accused her of cheating. In her chemistry class she and other African American students were routinely criticized by their black teacher as having no other ambition in life besides playing sports. Although there have been small gains, the abysmal number of African American students who successfully pursue college degrees and careers in science is a national disgrace. From K-12 to college, African American youth who are passionate about science education often face an uphill battle. President Obama’s recently announced Master Teacher STEM initiative is ostensibly designed to address these disparities. It would develop a core of fifty educators to assume leadership in instruction, training, curriculum development, and mentorship in their school communities. Though the unveiling of the new plan provided a nice photo-op, Obama’s vision doesn’t address the culture of institutional racism that defines under-resourced schools. As Hanson argues, “research on African American women’s experiences in the science education system shows the critical role of teachers. Unfortunately, African American women are often marginalized because of their race and gender. Science teachers tend to overlook these young women as a source of science talent…Textbooks and teachers focus mainly on science knowledge and inventions created by white scientists. Hence (students) are seldom made aware of the contributions of African Americans (much less African American women) in science.” Karly’s experiences illustrate how the nexus of low expectations, as well as college preparation and course programming hurdles can combine to derail the most motivated science students. She describes battling with her school counselor to be programmed into the elite AP Biology and Physics courses that have become virtual gatekeepers for future college science majors. She remarks that “some counselors believe that you might not succeed. They say maybe it might be a little too hard for you.” In many instances parental intervention is mandatory for black science students at every step of the way. Although conventional wisdom holds that class status and income dictate interest and academic success in science, Hanson concluded that social capital by way of family support and investment in the community were the most compelling factors. Girls whose parents (regardless of income levels, education and family composition) were supportive and engaged in their educations were more likely to pursue science. In addition, girls who had higher levels of community involvement, volunteerism and participation in religious activities were also more likely to pursue a science major and have high achievement in science. The absence of quality college prep instruction at the high school level is often one of the most significant roadblocks to college access. Initiatives like the Latino and African American High School Internship Program for students in South and East Los Angeles highlight how low expectations can deter youth of color from careers in science and technology. Based at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles the program recruits high school seniors from “underrepresented” schools. According to an article in the L.A. Times the program has struggled to attract African Americans because: Some area schools are not receptive and fail to see the potential in their students [the program’s founder said]. ‘I get responses like, ‘You know, the type of students you’re looking for, we just don't have…That is just not right.’ Chuck Uzoegwu, 19, participated in the program in 2010 and is now studying business and is pre-med at USC. He first noticed a slow attrition of fellow African American classmates when attending King Drew Medical Magnet High School. In the summer program, he was one of only a few African American students. He returned to the hospital this summer to volunteer in the lab and said he has yet to meet a role model there who looks like him. ‘It disturbs me. It’s nice to come into a place and see other people that are like you,’ he said. ‘It definitely feels like the higher up you go in education, the higher up you go in any organization, the less African American males you see. Uzoegwu’s experiences reflect the hard reality of many high schools where the number of African American students who are encouraged to pursue science is criminally low. At the elite level of enrollment in Physics and Advanced Placement (AP) science courses the numbers thin out even more. Nationwide, African American students are underrepresented in AP course enrollment and exam taking. At 14% of the U.S. student population they comprise only 3% of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams. Native American students are also underrepresented. With the exception of a few states like Hawaii and South Dakota, there has been greater success in closing the AP gap for Latino students than Black or Native American students. In addition, some schools don’t even have AP courses, placing students who want to go to college at a significant disadvantage. According to the Harvard Education Press, “students who took AP math or science exams were more likely than non-AP students to earn degrees in particular physical science, engineering and life science disciplines.” Jacqueline Hernandez, a Watts resident enrolled in the Children’s Hospital internship program, decries the lack of AP classes at her school. Hernandez once feared her college dreams would be derailed by teenage pregnancy like those of her three sisters. In 1999 students from the Inglewood Unified School District in Los Angeles successfully sued to get more AP courses at their schools. The suit charged that Black and Latino students were systematically denied access to college preparation courses that were standard fare at white schools in Los Angeles County. When AP courses are provided in so-called inner city schools, part of the enrollment gap comes down to inveterately low expectations for African American students. Most national studies on student performance confirm that teacher quality is perhaps the single greatest factor in student achievement and that teacher expectations are of paramount importance. In her book Culturally Relevant Teaching educator Geneva Gay argues that “positive and negative teacher attitudes and expectations have profound effects on student achievement.” Often African American students are perceived as defiant, unwilling to learn, criminals in training, saddled with dysfunctional family and cultural backgrounds that make them “bad” candidates for accelerated, gifted or college prep classes. According to the College Board report, “The vast majority of Black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.” “Left out” is a euphemism for being viewed as underachieving, a theme that is consistent with my experience as a student in L.A. Unified during the late ‘80s. In my senior year I was one of a small handful of black students in AP English and AP Biology classes. There were few black males in these classes. The ones that were enrolled were frequently marginalized, targeted for goofing off and bounced out of class (while the white students who engaged in similar behavior got warnings). As the most disproportionately suspended, expelled and special education assigned group in the nation black males have targets on their backs. Numerous studies have shown that high rates of suspension and expulsion often lead to drop-out and incarceration. In this regime youth like Jarmaine Ollivierre have already been criminalized as expendable. In the 1990s, Ollivierre, a NASA aerospace engineer and former special education student from Philadelphia, participated in a tailored college preparation program that was designed to redress the 26% college-going rate at his high school. He went on to receive degrees in physics and aeronautical engineering. Unlike most special ed youth he had the benefit of strong mentors who saw his promise and provided him with resources and reinforcement. While rigorous yet nurturing teacher-mentors of any kind are pivotal, the small number of African American science instructors is another factor in the marginalization of black science students. Unless Karly Jeter goes to a historically black college or university she will have few African American science professors as mentors. According to the National Science Foundation, “Black faculty with SEH (Science, Engineering and Health) doctorates differ from most other racial/ethnic groups in that a lower percentage were employed in RUVH (Research Universities with Very High research activity) institutions and a higher percentage were employed in master's-granting institutions.” In 2008, African Americans who’d received Science and Engineering doctorates were only 4% of the faculty at U.S. colleges and universities. At Cal Tech, one of the leading science and technology institutions in the country, African Americans are less than 1% of the faculty. They are 4% of the faculty at MIT. In her report “Barriers for Black Scientists” chemistry professor Donna Nelson found that, “Blacks represented 8.8 percent of chemistry B.S. recipients in 2004 and 1.3 percent of all chemistry professors at the FY2005 “top 50” chemistry departments. The ratio 8.8 percent to 1.3 percent—versus a corresponding ratio of 37.7 percent to 77.5 percent for white males—indicates that black chemistry majors do not enjoy the supply of same-race faculty role models and mentors that majority chemistry majors do.” Conservatives who disdain “liberal multiculturalism” in higher education dismiss such concerns about diversity in hiring as handwringing. According to this view there is only one standard academia should use; objective and unbiased, untainted by affirmative action. Yet white students are beneficiaries of cradle to grave affirmative action. White students grow up seeing the dominant image of rational, trailblazing scientific discovery (from films like Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters to The Right Stuff, etc.) as spearheaded by courageous rugged individualist white males. They are socialized to believe in a template of “purely” meritocratic success and individual achievement. Meritocracy becomes gospel and lucre. They can take it to the bank and use it to repel the less qualified savages. Racial or gender others who make it into science’s inner sanctum are either interlopers scrounging for handouts or shining exceptions bootstrapping up from the inner city wilds. At the insular level of college Physics and Engineering white male dominance is perpetuated by "boy's club" peer groups, networks, faculty and administrative support systems that facilitate access for the racial majority. While she was at UCLA Devin Waller was the only African American woman in the Astrophysics department. On the first day of her upper division classes she recalls being asked by male students befuddled by her presence whether or not they “were in the right class.” Since peer networking and study groups in some science departments are largely white and male, white academic success and scholarly legitimacy in science become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For black women in white male dominated professions, showing vulnerability and having any kind of public failure are simply not options. Like many women of color Devin’s approach was that “You kind of go in there and set a precedent. Everything you do is watched. You have to establish yourself as intelligent. There were no black women in my classes. No one who looked like me.” Not having anyone who looks like them as a faculty member, administrator and/or mentor influences the sense of isolation, anxiety, and burnout that students of color often experience in science disciplines. As an Electrical Engineering major Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, a nonprofit dedicated to developing African American girls as computer programmers, also found herself “feeling culturally isolated” during college. On her website she argues that the “dearth of African-American women in science, technology, engineering and math professions…cannot be explained by, say, a lack of interest in these fields. Lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits.” In her autobiography Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life, Mae Carol Jemison (the first black woman astronaut and first woman of color in space) reflects on how, after professing interest in being a scientist to one of her teachers, she was told to set her sights on being a nurse instead. As a sixteen year old undergraduate at Stanford University, Jemison was practically shunned by her physical science instructors. Although her experiences occurred during the sixties and seventies, the dominant view of who is a proper scientist has not changed and nursing is still a more acceptable aspiration for black women who are culturally expected to be self-sacrificing caregivers for everyone in the universe. Ironically, a major inspiration for Jemison was Nichelle Nichols’ character Uhura from Star Trek, the first black woman astronaut ever portrayed on TV. Decades later Jemison’s experiences are still being played out in science classrooms across the so-called post-racial U.S., where the contributions, struggles and visions of scientists of color continue to be as “exotic” as the Starship Enterprise. Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Romney Chronicles: Partying Like It's 1865

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In an effort to clarify his racist comments about backward Palestinians and prosperous Israel Romney let loose with more exceptionalist flatulence at the National Review: “But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom.”

The American dream, and the manifest destiny notion—held by believers and non-believers alike—that the U.S. is the greatest, most just, most civilized, exceptional, culturally and technologically advanced nation on the planet, has always been the genius milk of Magnesia myth in the midst of terrorism. Suckle the masses on the belief that having a choice of one hundred pair of Nike shoes is democracy and you’ll have them for a penny or a trashy reality show. Snooker them with the bootstraps ethos that anybody—not just privileged white male Harvard dropouts blessed with the advantage of generations of discriminatory entitlement programs—can be Mark Zuckerberg and you’ve manufactured a nation of blissful historical amnesiacs. Since the election of Barack Obama the robotic bleat of American exceptionalism has become legion amongst white conservatives for whom Israel’s apartheid regime is sweet freedom. Opining on Israel’s cultural superiority Romney also declared that, “America’s culture enabled the nation to become the most powerful and beneficent country in the history of humankind.” In the white imagination this coupling of power and beneficence is critically important. First, it obscures the tradition of European American social welfare, principally, how whites have systematically benefited from affirmative action policies that built white wealth, institutionalized segregated residential patterns that stubbornly persist today, and rendered black and Latino capital a virtual oxymoron. Second, it suggests that the pursuit of power at the expense of the Other is not just good for the powerful but is good for the Other as well. So what if the taxes of people of color fund sub-standard schools and housing and breaks for robber barons like Romney and the Koch brothers?

Central to Romney’s message is that American power is fundamentally moral. There was a moral reason why white progress and upward mobility were brokered through New Deal entitlement institutions like the FHA, GI Bill, and Social Security; entities which excluded African Americans for decades and are now savaged as evil big government by the white nationalist right. In Romney’s world the Darwinian influence of American culture fueled suburban manifest destiny for whites, enabling them safe passage and escape from urban ghettoes. People of color who were able to assimilate to Anglo American values took advantage of equal opportunity and prospered; those that weren’t were simply mired in backward ancestral traditions. As Glen Ford notes in his piece “Romney and the Culture of White Supremacy”:

"White U.S. southerners also insisted, during slavery and Jim Crow, that “their” Negroes were the best off in the world because of their exposure to white folks’ religion and way of life. Left to their own devices, however, Black folks’ innate cultural inferiority – i.e., depravity – would do them in…White liberals also believed in the Culture Demon. In the 1950s and early 60s, it was considered politically correct to describe African Americans as “culturally deprived” – meaning, Blacks are disadvantaged by lack of exposure to white culture. Power has nothing to do with it."

Comparing African American wealth to that of the Palestinians Ford argues, “The 20 to 1 disparity between Israeli and Palestinian per capita income matches the wealth gap between American Blacks and whites (app. $5,000 vs. $100,000 for median Black and white households). The fact that such numbers do not provoke general shock and calls for reparations is proof enough that most whites view the disparity as more a natural phenomenon than evidence of cumulative injustice. Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke for white folks of the past, present and future when he posited, in 1965, that a Black ‘culture of poverty’ is what keeps Black people poor – not pervasive white racism.” Moynihan, author of the infamous 1965 Johnson administration report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” is a fitting reference given the blizzard of exceptionalist propaganda fueling the 2012 election. With his nod to manifest destiny and cultural imperialism Romney is set to party like its 1965, or 1865.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Homophobe Black Pastors Brand Obama Judas

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Proving that there’s no fool like a God-fearing fool, William Owens, founder of the Coalition of African American Pastors, recently announced the launch of a national campaign against President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage. Speaking at a press conference Owens condemned Obama’s “Judas” like ways for “bowing to homosexual money,” blustering that he didn’t march “one foot or one yard” in the civil rights movement “for a man to marry a man.” Owens’ posse brings to mind a similar campaign waged against gay rights advocate Reverend Eric Lee in 2009 at the height of the Prop 8 debate. During Lee’s tenure as head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he was threatened with removal because of his outspoken support of same sex marriage. Then as now, conservative black pastors argued that support for same sex marriage was contrary to civil rights. But Owens has ramped up the invective with the suggestion that same sex marriage breeds child molestation. According to Owens, “If you watch the men who have been caught having sex with little boys, you will note that all of them will say that they were molested as a child.”

Straights are always fond of playing the gay predator card, ignoring evidence that most child molesters are heterosexual men. Heterosexist fixation on gay "pedophiles" (the term pedophilia refers to attraction to children and not to behaviors of sexual abuse) further marginalizes the epidemic of sexual violence against women and girls; violence that is often perpetuated within the sanctity of straight marriage in all the good straight Christian families that Owens wants to save. The tired debate over whether LGBT liberation is a civil rights issue hinges on proprietary claims to a legacy of struggle that presumably only straight black folk are entitled to. Thus, not only do Deuteronomy and Leviticus say gays are aberrant—but white gays speciously ride on the coattails of self-proclaimed “movement” blacks like Owens. According to this logic, equality for gays and lesbians isn’t a civil right because there were no state sanctioned segregation laws barring gays and lesbians from employment, schools or housing—an argument which is just as absurd as asserting that gender equity is not a civil rights issue because there were no poll taxes, grandfather clauses, or literacy tests for white women at the voting booth before 1920. In this reductive universe all women are white and all gays are white. The notion that systematized oppression, as well as systematized privilege and entitlement, intersect via multiple identities is unheard of. Yet black gay and lesbian slaves worked the plantation alongside straights while having their lives, identities and right to love tacitly if not violently suppressed by a regime that brutally exploited black bodies and black reproduction. Black gay and lesbian youth sit in classrooms where they are ritualistically called out of their names, dehumanized and rendered invisible by cultural norms that equate attractiveness, social acceptance and authentic masculinity and femininity with being heterosexual. And black gay and lesbian partners live in segregated neighborhoods, struggle with inequitable access to health care, jobs, and housing while being denied the privilege of marital benefits that provide straight families economic stability.

Owens is a consultant to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an outfit that has schemed to make same-sex marriage a “wedge issue” between gays and African Americans. The pastors’ campaign is timed to undermine black support for Obama in the 2012 election. Fingering Obama as a Judas to black religious interests Owens will find plenty of common ground with fellow Christian fascists in the Tea Party. They have a nice ropes course to guide him through. In the meantime let’s keep the family safe for hetero predators—the one’s protected and sanctioned by the Bible.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wages of White Affirmative Action: Predatory Lending & The Ghetto

By Sikivu Hutchinson 

White people have started to return to South Los Angeles.  They can be seen watering lawns, walking dogs, and frequenting local restaurants.  Legend has it that there are a few white families that never left during the postwar mass exodus that magically transformed what was once Southwest L.A. into “South Central”—that internationally notorious, mythic den of drugs, drive-bys and destruction that launched a thousand gangsta rap careers and corporate parasites rolling to the bank on the backs of “bitches” and “hos.”   

Back in the day all of the “bad” black and brown schools in Compton, Watts, and Inglewood were teeming with whites.  Americana Leave it to Beaver mom icon Barbara Billingsley even graduated from a local ‘hood school in the 1930s.  But these new white transplants are merely symbols of the turbulent real estate market, not inner city missionaries slumming for an ethnographic high.  They’re canaries in the coalmine of negative equity. Priced out of the “better” (read white) areas of the city some white homebuyers have been forced to venture back into the hood.  Snapping up Spanish or Craftsman-style bungalows in savvy short sales they’re rediscovering the “quaintness” of Black neighborhoods that their forebears escaped decades ago courtesy of government programs like the GI Bill and FHA mortgage lending.  Touring the streets wide-eyed with their travelogues some register surprise at the area’s suburban aura, the “tidiness” of the homes, the “unexpected” pride in ownership that the natives demonstrate. But having the luxury to move back to the “ghetto” they built through generations of apartheid housing policies is part of whites’ democratic birthright. 

White American democracy has always meant the bliss of segregation and the willful ignorance of the bodies that get displaced.  It’s ladled out in cultural initiations like being warned to keep the car windows up when driving through Black areas or having a nifty cell phone app nicknamed “Avoid Ghetto.”  Even in the era of rampant “Main Street” foreclosure and negative equity white American democracy still means the privilege of mobility.  When whites move into neighborhoods that residents of color have been forced to leave due to plummeting home values and high unemployment it’s called gentrification.  It is only cause for national political action and reform when white middle class homeowners are impacted by imploding housing bubbles.  Bipartisan political rhetoric that fixates on the “middle class” (as the default category), while marginalizing disproportionately asset poor working class people of color, merely reinforces a colorblind class myth where struggling white people have it “just as bad” as people of color. 

This is true, because, for the party of the Religious Right, poor people don’t work and they don’t pay taxes.  God’s pecking order does not favor being on the dole and accepting handouts.  American exceptionalism is validated by the specter of the Black ghetto as den of immorality.  According to this narrative African Americans have squandered the advantages of living in a democratic society in which everyone has an equal chance at economic mobility.  Black poverty is only immoral insofar as it reflects a certain cultural indolence and pathology on the part of shiftless blacks.  While “cultures of poverty” corrupt, cultures of success, based on capitalism, free enterprise, and hard work, uplift and moralize.  Systemic discrimination has never been deemed immoral in the American mainstream.  For the Right, systemic discrimination is a quaint oxymoron, vestige of a primitive era when the U.S. was presumably less evolved.  The moral universe consists of getting ahead through a mish mash of Darwinian manifest destiny; the way God wanted it, free of the fetters of restrictive public policy that rewards the sloth of homeowners of color. 

In 2011 former mortgage giant Countrywide was found guilty of engaging in predatory lending which targeted Black and Latino homebuyers.  Last week lending titan Wells Fargo settled a lawsuit after it was accused of steering over 30,000 Black and Latino homebuyers to subprime loans.  The class action stemmed from a Baltimore city lawsuit in which former employees alleged that Wells Fargo “loan officers referred to minority borrowers as ‘mud people’ and called subprime mortgages ‘ghetto loans.’”  During the lending boom Wells Fargo officials regularly conducted “wealth building” seminars in communities of color, (often headlined by talk show host Tavis Smiley) where reps secretly peddled subprime loans.   

So while homebuyers of color were essentially taxed for being black or brown; white homebuyers “bootstrapped” their way to the American dream with lower interest rates and better terms handed to them by the big banks.  “Homebuying while white,” many of them had the same credit scores and incomes as applicants of color.  What they didn’t have was the same capital and asset holdings. Not only is Black and Latino wealth a fraction of white wealth but the vast majority of it is based on home equity; home equity that has been pillaged by Wells Fargo, Countrywide, Bank of America and other lenders.  As Yuan Miu of the Washington Post argues, the housing bust has “left a scar on the finances of black America…(it) has not only wiped out a generation of economic progress but could leave them at financial disadvantage for generations to come.” 

Yet mainstream narratives on the housing meltdown tend to revolve around irresponsible homebuyers lapping up variable mortgages they couldn’t pay off or vulnerable homebuyers sacrificed on the altar of Wall Street’s credit default swap morass.  After President Obama finished bailing out the big Wall Street banks his rhetoric turned to shoring up Main Street.  To hear Obama tell it, the brunt of the crisis was squarely centered in Middle America.  Urban neighborhoods devastated by the TKO of predatory lending, foreclosure, job discrimination, and mass incarceration barely registered on the radar of the administration or the mainstream media.  There was little mass outrage over the immoral systematic disenfranchisement of Black and Latino homebuyers by the banking crooks.  Neither GOP lawmakers, nor prominent Democrats, other than a few in the Congressional Black Caucus, rushed to criticize the lending industry’s white affirmative action. Nor did they condemn the racist practices of bankruptcy attorneys who refer debt-ridden Black consumers to more costly Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings. 

Being against “big government” or social welfare for working class communities of color has always been about morality.  It is reflected in right wing venom against public employee unions and health care reform which are both overwhelmingly supported by people of color.  It is amplified in racist discourse around illegal immigration, spearheaded by Christian fascist states in the Bible Belt and the Southwest.  As the white population and white births continue to decline nativist propaganda against racial, social, and gender justice has become more unabashedly Christian fascist.  It’s the wages of white affirmative action that have always defined American democracy—model for the civilized world.    

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Massa Mitt Pisses and Calls it Rain

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Massa “I'll piss on you Negroes from a great height and call it rain” Mitt shoulda been run out on a rail instead of booed at the recent NAACP convention. After slobbering over the stereotypically devout Black audience with all God’s chilluns got wings bromides he went on to tell them he would repeal the Affordable Care Act because, don’t you know, none of us should rely on big govt unless we’re helming a hedge fund and wanking Big Brother. Yes, he shoulda been run out on a rail and forced to do Mormon last rites at his multi-million dollar New Hampshire compound for the scores of black HIV/AIDS patients dropping dead every day. Or provide long term coverage to the homeless student of mine (unable to find a job due to her felony conviction) who racked up thousands in emergency room costs for an ulcer. Or play Florence Nightingale to the cousin who landed at the County hospital after suffering a gunshot wound; homicide and AIDS being leading causes of death for young black men. But Massa Mitt was in good company today as the House voted to repeal ACA and release the pressure valve on two years of pent up white nationalist sound and fury over government handouts to poor folk only a fraction of whom will be covered by the ACA due to Red State refusals to expand Medicaid.

Of course, by buckling on single payer the Obama administration has been no friend to African Americans who have the highest unemployment rates (over 14% nationally), lowest life expectancy, and greatest residential segregation of any group in the country. Back in 2009 when Obama was still fine-tuning his tough love message scolding Black America about sagging pants and deadbeat dads, African Americans were told that a rising tide lifts all boats. There was no need for targeted government programs for jobless homeless African Americans because mainstream social welfare policies would benefit them equally. Obama’s stance has always been disingenous given that the wealth gap between blacks and whites is staggering and even affluent blacks generally live in poorer neighborhoods than do lower-income whites. As Margaret Kimberly of Black Agenda Report contends “Of course this black man is president in large part because he doesn’t identify with the political aspirations of black people. He famously said there is no black America or white America, and the degree to which he was embraced by millions of black people only adds to the denial of the severity of our situation.” Romney’s NAACP sideshow only obscures how miserably the Obama administration has failed African American communities in a GOP wet dream of post-racialism.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)*: In Memory of Alfee Enciso

S.Segal, J.Woods, Y.D. Hutchinson, T.Thigpen & Alfee
at Ms. Hutchinson's retirement from King-Drew HS, 2009

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Bob Dylan, barnstorming wordsmith and one of Alfee Enciso’s favorite artists, once said that “he not busy being born is busy dying.”  Alfee was always in the process of being born; as a teacher, writer, friend, athlete, public intellectual, and skeptic par excellence who never took anything on faith, abhorred dogma, and rammed his finger in the face of complacency every chance he got.  One of my most vivid early memories of him was when he strutted around our living room in high dudgeon after he and my mother Yvonne Divans Hutchinson had weathered another long day at Markham Middle School.  A student had stolen $50 (big big money in 1984) from his desk and he was royally pissed, railing against the injustice of it, jabbing a broomstick in the air for dramatic emphasis.  After one too many jabs the broomstick hit the ceiling, sending plaster raining down on the floor.  Sheepishly, Alfee dissolved into his trademark Cheshire cat grin, muttering forgiveness of the culprit who “probably needed the money more than I did.”

And that was Alfee; empathic satirist, eternal student.  As one of my master teacher mother’s first Markham mentees he internalized her lessons about teaching as radical humanist art and ethics.  Over the years I had the chance to see this wild man mix of swagger and sweetness in action with his students, young and old, from Dorsey and Washington Prep High Schools to L.A. County’s annual teacher conference.  He roved and ruled his classrooms like a prize fighter, inspiring all who entered to think critically about the sociopolitical condition of their communities in a global context.  At Dorsey he presided over classes of often brilliant but disaffected students who, like many in the LAUSD, had had it drilled into their heads that youth of color were incapable of intellectualism or scholarship.  Having learned from my mother’s rigorous example Alfee’s approach was to bring it on—lavishing his students with both multicultural and canonical “Great White Men” literature, steeping them in the poetry of black and Latino culture, schooling them in how institutional racism was at play from everything to the fast food that they ate, the crappy chronically late public buses they had to ride traveling through South L.A., and the draconian prison system that ensnared their friends and family at an early age.  Alf-Dog, as my mother affectionately called him, embodied all that was right about Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—he ate, slept, and breathed teaching as life’s art and work; recognizing no dividing line between being literate about books, being literate about the world and being literate about the bitter paradox of America’s sham “democracy.”

In an era where many young men of color are socialized to believe that being hard and swaggering is the currency of real manhood, Alfee wasn’t afraid to show compassion and emotion to his students.  Once, when I was observing him at Dorsey while working for the LAUSD school board he broke down out of frustration with the sullen self-hating disdain they expressed during our discussion about black/brown tension at the school.  The kids shifted in their seats mockingly, unsettled by the “heresy” of seeing a grown man and an authority figure cry.  The boys in that room who called Mr. Enciso soft were just trotting out the patriarchal script they’d learned about men’s proper roles.  But, like many of us who teach, Alfee’s tears sprung from rage and profound impatience with American public education: impatience with the glacial pace of progress in so-called inner city schools, impatience with the sloth and corruption that deifies professional mediocrity, and impatience with how little time his students had to get out alive and punch through to freedom.  And this is what I will miss the most about him; the critical consciousness, ferocity, and courage that he brought to the classroom of life, blazing into it with a 100 mph sense of mission; knowing that if you weren’t busy being born every day you were busy dying.

*Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

                                    --Bob Dylan, 1965