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Monday, December 30, 2013

Hollywood’s Tea Party


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Ah the splendor of black music. What would white supremacist civilization do without it? Homegrown, soulful, it is the forbidden spice in a thousand scenes of white folk romancing, cutting loose, getting it on and minding the empire’s business. Black dynamism has always been a wellspring for white theft. For many people of color, going to 21st century movies is a soul-sucking exercise in being trained to see power through white eyes, often with the strategic pomp of a black soundtrack. Death by trailer, it is the masochistic pleasure of being bludgeoned into mental submission by the narrative of white heroism (in the form of Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon and George Clooney), white hetero-normative romance (in the form of faceless anorexic white girls and boys slobbering over and devouring each other) and white domesticity in white picket fence communities.

Generations after psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1947 doll test experiment on racial identification (which has been updated several times over the past decade with similar results), children’s images of whiteness remain rigidly framed through the lens of humanity, civilization, ingenuity, genius, beauty and morality. When children of color see themselves at all in American film it is as ethnic exotica, sidekicks for the enterprising white boy/girl protagonist or fly-in-the-buttermilk diversity mascots fleshing out a classroom scene. According to a 2012 study by the USC Annenberg School, 76.3% of all speaking characters in American film were white while whites comprise 56% of U.S. ticket buyers. By contrast, Latinos comprise 26% of ticket buyers and 17% of the U.S. population, yet account for only 4.3% of speaking roles in film.

In 2013, the American film industry raked in over 10 billion in profits, plowing over people of color who now comprise the majority of California’s population. In the new film American Hustle blacks, Latinos and Arabs are the colorful backdrop to the ribald shenanigans of a cunning yet endearing white couple cruising toward redemption and nuclear family-hood in New Jersey. Based on the so-called “Abscam” sting of 1982, which brought down several East Coast politicos, the film is studded with people of color props while white lady privilege—in the form of actress Amy Adams’ ingenious temptress schemer—wins the day. The film’s straight white protagonists plot and cavort to R&B music by African American artists; they court and lust to classy-white-people staple Duke Ellington and sneer when a Mexican American FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik meekly protests that the term Abscam (a mangled combination of Arab and scam) is racist. With its blast from a comfortable past twist on illicit white suburbia Hustle has racked up accolades and even been hailed as “filmmaking at its best.” Safely scrubbed of black and brown voices in speaking roles Hustle approximates the pending orgy of awards shows which will toss a little red meat to a few black tokens (e.g., 12 Years a Slave and the Nelson Mandela biopic) then bask in the congratulatory glow of whiteness.

Last year, the L.A. Times published an in-depth analysis of the race and gender demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s members. The Academy Awards generate millions of dollars for an industry that remains one of the most stubbornly Jim Crow corporate bastions in the world. Not surprisingly 94% of Academy members are older, white and male. The majority of Southern California members live in some of the most segregated enclaves in Los Angeles, safely tucked away from the black and Latino hordes in their super elite lily white Beverly Hills, West L.A. and Santa Monica neighborhoods. Even though the array of generous tax incentives offered in other states have displaced Los Angeles as the center of American film production the city still profits hugely from the industry and cheap non-living wage labor. In July, African American marketing executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected Academy president. Despite this nod to “diversity”, the Academy’s Tea Party demographics speak to the greater issue of film representation in front of and behind the camera. According to Annenberg only 8% of directors, 13.6% of writers and 19.1% of producers were female, while the numbers were even more abysmal for people of color. Commenting on this regime acclaimed writer-director Ava DuVernay (the first black woman to win a Sundance Film festival Best Director award) quipped that, "I pretty much know us all personally."

Seeking to redress these disparities, DuVernay spearheaded the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) in 2011. But the gross disparities in film industry hiring, casting, promotion and “greenlighting” are also buttressed by the complicity of print media. Despite their waning status as media leaders, the executive and editorial staff of the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal play an important role in upholding the film industry’s corporate pigmentocracy. Thus, while there have been numerous articles in these corporate newspapers hailing the increase in strong complex roles for white women in TV and film there has been no recognition of the continuing dearth of artistic opportunities for women of color. Indeed, the L.A. Times entertainment section only deigned to identify one or two (non-musician) people of color in its 2014 “Faces to Watch” pictorials.

The global implications of this corporate media white-out are reflected in my students. In classroom discussions many of them cannot name a role model of color (aside from rappers, singers, Oprah and MLK) or identify substantive portrayals of women of color in film and TV. Even though alternative filmmaking mediums on the Internet and elsewhere have exploded over the past decade few if any express the desire to be writers, directors, cinematographers or producers. Despite the reign of digital media, streaming and You Tube, youth of color are big moviegoers. Yet, targeted by the barrage of demonizing portrayals of their communities, they dismiss filmmaking as an impractical white medium that’s only accessible to an elite few. But the crafting of screen images is a major aspect of cultural propaganda, identity formation and nation building. And the battle for the psyches of children of color continues to occur in the dark, at the multiplex, where segregated Middle America still sees itself validated as the center of the universe.

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


Monday, December 9, 2013

The Souls of Black Boys



By Sikivu Hutchinson

"No one ever discussed Trayvon Martin with us in class," said Sydney, an introspective 9th grader, wistfully. Sydney is a participant in my Young Male Scholars pilot at Gardena High School in South Los Angeles. He and a dozen other 9th and 10th graders are having a spirited discussion about the impact of Martin’s murder on the criminal justice system in Gardena’s college center. According to the school’s college counselor black boys are a “rarity” in the center and our small meeting is the largest number that he has ever seen here. On a campus where black students are the second largest ethnic group next to Latinos, black males are either pounced on by military recruiters or left to fend for themselves, implicitly branded as troublemakers and potential dropouts.

The college counselor’s observation was the impetus for my starting the pilot in collaboration with Brandon Bell, a young, South L.A. community activist alum of King Drew Medical Magnet and Princeton University. In an educational climate where there were only forty eight black male students in the freshman class of internationally prestigious UCLA, the pilot is specifically designed to pipeline black males into college through targeted intervention. But it is also geared toward politicizing young men of color by providing them with the historical consciousness and space to become an activist generation of organizers, scholars and intellectuals.

Our discussion about the political implications of Martin’s murder took place a day before the death of Nelson Mandela. As the world mourns Mandela and president Obama touts an eleventh hour focus on “income inequality” neo-apartheid conditions in American education continue to fester. Last week was bookended by two powerful education reports which indirectly indicted the myth of American exceptionalism. The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that American students remained static in reading and science and were well below average in math, falling from 29th to 31st in global rankings. The Campaign for College Opportunity’s "The State of Blacks in Higher Education: The Persistent Opportunity Gap" illustrates the devastating impact of California’s anti-affirmative action policy.

The Campaign for College Opportunity report concluded “that gaps between Blacks and other ethnic groups in college-going and attainment have remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade, and in some cases, have worsened.” Despite claims of increased college opportunities for millennials, “A smaller share of today’s California Black young adult population holds postsecondary degrees than that of Blacks between the ages of 35 and 64.” Put bluntly, in an era in which affirmative action has been viciously discredited and all but gutted by both the Right and neo-liberal “left”, young African Americans are less educated than older African Americans. African American students attend community and for-profit colleges in higher numbers than other groups and have the highest student loan debt and default rates. In addition, black youth still have the lowest graduation rates in California.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the class of 2017 (this year’s 9th graders) will be required to have college prep classes in order to graduate. They must earn a C or better to do so. They will have to achieve this feat despite the Obama administration’s Race to the Top emphasis on high stakes tests that narrow the curriculum, undermine critical thinking and force teachers to be glorified proctors. Nationwide, black students are the least prepared for college, have the lowest enrollment in honors and college prep classes and the highest drop-out or push-out rates. The LAUSD requirement is set against the backdrop of deepening unemployment, prison pipelining and black male homicide rates. According to the Education Trust, “If current trends continue only one in twenty African American students will go on to a four year college or university.” The forty eight black males in UCLA’s incoming class are swimming in a sea of over 5000 new students. Enraged by these stats, black male UCLA students recently released an activist video critique which went viral. But despite renewed attention to racial disparities in college access there is no federal, state or local policy or call to action that specifically addresses the fact that young African American male high school students are routinely dismissed as not being college material.

As the Martin case demonstrated yet again, the dominant culture does not associate young black men and boys with tenderness, caring, sensitivity, and compassion, much less intellectualism. Since white supremacist culture can never see black youth as victims they can only be predators and aggressors. The visceral fear that adults have of so-called black male criminality is one of the primary reasons why black boys are suspended and expelled at higher rates for lesser offenses than are white students.
Youth of color, like white kids, are trained to see explicit acts of individual prejudice as the only standard for racism rather than institutional racism and white supremacy. So when Brandon and I discussed how mass incarceration was devastating our school-communities some of the boys in the group said that “bad environments” and “bad choices” simply lead black youth to commit more crime. But after examining disproportionate crack cocaine use amongst white males and unpacking how legacy admissions policies allow mediocre white students like George W. Bush get into Ivy Leagues the students’ consciousness began to shift. Not seeing themselves in the curriculum, public education socializes them to believe that disproportionate numbers of their brothers and sisters are in prison due to bad choices while college is the reward for the elite few who make good ones. Teaching them to see the connection between the racial politics of college access and the invisibility of Martin’s murder in their high school curriculum is a step toward defying this criminal mis-education.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women's Leadership Project and the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Secularism and Social Justice: Interview at Psychology Today



By David Niose:
From Psychology Today

A generation ago a typical humanist group might be little more than a few older, white men meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church, arguing points of philosophy that have little relevance in the real world. That has changed, as atheist and humanist groups have sprung up in a much wider range of settings, from schools to pubs to workplaces, and as young people, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and others have helped the notion of personal secularity gain traction in the wider population.

But still, despite this expansion, many would like to see the secular movement experience faster and broader growth in African-American and Latino communities. Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, a Los Angeles author and secular activist, is one of those working to expand the movement in communities of color. With the authority of churches in those communities very strong, she argues that the secular movement is unlikely to challenge that authority unless it firmly addresses issues of social and economic justice. This message resonates with many—especially among those humanists who see such traditionally liberal issues as being central to humanist ethics—but not with everyone. Some would prefer that the movement focus exclusively on church-state separation and other so-called "culture war" issues, for example, while some atheists even describe themselves as conservative. Below, I chat with Hutchinson about her views on this ongoing discussion...More @ http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201311/secularism-and-social-justice

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Cold Blood: The Murder of Renisha McBride


By Sikivu Hutchinson

A white family grieves in outrage after their teenage daughter has been gunned down by a black homeowner in an African American neighborhood. In this parallel universe the killer walks free, enjoying the benefit of being viewed as having defended his home from a violent intruder, while the big city D.A. decides whether or not to charge him.

It is no revelation to many black women in neo-apartheid Americana that being white and female pays deep dividends in everyday life. Among these dividends is the ability to be seen as an innocent victim under dire circumstances and to have the weight of the American criminal justice system behind you upholding that perception. Another is the advantage of secure access to elite suburban enclaves without fear of criminalization. Stranded in the early morning hours after a car crash in a predominantly white suburb outside of Detroit, nineteen year-old Renisha McBride had no such benefits. A recent high school graduate, McBride had just gotten a job at the Ford Motor Company when she was brutally shot in the face by a white male resident after seeking help from the crash. Her family described her as warm and loving. As of this writing her killer has not been apprehended nor charged.

McBride’s killing is part of a long legacy of black female murder victims who have been devalued in a misogynist apartheid system of state-sanctioned violence that thrives on the urban/suburban racial divide. In 2010, seven year-old Aiyanna Jones was murdered by a Detroit police officer in her own home during a botched police raid. In 1999, a homeless fifty four year-old 5 foot black woman named Margaret Mitchell was killed by LAPD officers in an affluent Los Angeles retail district after a dispute over a shopping cart. The officers in the Mitchell case were not charged. The officer in the Jones case was recently granted a retrial after the jury in his initial involuntary manslaughter trial deadlocked. Civil rights activists and community protestors have compared McBride’s killing to that of Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till, Oscar Grant and Amadou Diallo, globally known black male lynching victims whose white killers never saw jail time. But the problem with these comparisons is that they unintentionally minimize lesser known black female victims of white supremacist violence such as Mitchell, Jones, Eulia Love, Eleanor Bumpurs, Alesia Thomas and Mitrice Richardson. Although the circumstances of these women’s deaths were quite different, the lack of sustained national and global attention (relative to black men who have been murdered under similar circumstances) unites them. National civil rights activists and feminist organizations must ask themselves why these names have not become as prominent or high profile in national activism. Mainstream civil rights organizations have long had a sexist, patriarchal blind spot when it comes to critical consciousness about the specific gendered and racialized ways in which black women are demonized, sexualized and criminalized in the U.S. Historically, much of the language around black civil rights uplift has been oriented toward redeeming black men and pathologized black masculinity. In K-12 education, students are typically taught about American history in general and the modern civil rights movement in particular as though they were merely a procession of events spearheaded by Great white men, a few exceptional men of color and Rosa Parks. From MLK to the Black Panthers, black women’s self-determination was never part of the mainstream civil rights’ social justice calculus or platform. Thus redressing the epidemic of intimate partner violence and sexual assault in African American communities has never been a major part of African American civil rights organizing. Nor has the skyrocketing number of black women in prison and the ways in which this regime has led to the exponential increase of black children that are homeless or in foster care.

McBride’s murder underscores how gender, race and segregation intersect in the everyday experiences of black women as policed female bodies. Black women, unlike white women, do not have the social privilege and advantage of the dominant culture’s belief in their feminine “innocence”, “fragility”, gentility or right to be protected from men of another race. But in the justifiable national focus on the criminalization of black men, black women’s daily criminalization—on the highway, in stores, in schools and in the workplace—is minimized. Next to black boys, black girls are the most suspended and expelled student group in the nation. They are typically charged with posing a “threat” or exhibiting “willful defiance”. Black students receive harsher punishments for non-violent offenses than do whites who commit identical or even more serious offenses such as theft or assault. This disparity is a linchpin of the school-to-prison pipeline. Consequently, one of every nineteen black women will be imprisoned during their lives; an atrocity that has had a devastating impact on black families and communities.

The national groundswell of support for Marissa Alexander, a young African American woman who, despite invoking Florida’s stand your ground defense, was sentenced to twenty years in prison after attempting to protect herself against an abusive spouse—has shed a long overdue spotlight on the specific ways in which black female victims of violence are criminalized. Alexander’s well-documented history of spousal abuse didn’t prevent her from being slapped with a mandatory minimum sentence. Conversely, McBride’s killer is still walking free as the Wayne County D.A. “assesses” and “investigates” whether he should even be charged.

McBride was buried this weekend, violently branded as guilty until proven innocent.



Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sisterhood Ain't Powerful: White Women's Rights


By Sikivu Hutchinson

When reality TV fixture Omarosa Manigault claimed on the Bethenny Frankel show that white women could “walk around” being mediocre and still get rewarded with opportunities—while Black women had to be exceptional—the predominantly white female studio audience gasped, outraged by her “heresy”. Omarosa’s baggage as a tabloid lightening rod notwithstanding, her charge resonated deeply with many Black women. As a Black female Ph.D., much of my professional life has involved navigating and pushing back against a very specific, insidious brand of white female racism and paternalism. In the workplace and academia, this brand has consisted of the delicate nuances of power masquerading as benevolence, the kind that grins in one's face, understanding, sympathetic, worshipping at the cult of the legendarily “strong” Negress; appropriating blackness and using it as a weapon when real world decisions about hiring, promotion, and visibility are at stake. Over the years this display has come in various guises. The white master’s thesis advisor who said my writing was not “graduate school caliber”, then “retracted” her statement two years later when my thesis was given a departmental award. The white dissertation advisor who vehemently opposed my being given a “with distinction” commendation after my successful dissertation defense. The under-qualified white career bureaucrat/manager, armed with an undergraduate degree, who lied about my job performance on my annual evaluation. The white MIA coworker who breezed into the office whenever she felt like it, never published anything, never ran a consistent program yet got a promotion and wound up supervising me. The white British "I feel your pain" department chair at a prestigious private arts college who hired me to teach two token semesters of Women of Color in the U.S. classes then stood idly by while students of color were academically marginalized and shut out of financial aid.

In her article “Job Discrimination Lives On,” Margaret Kimberly writes “Even at the supervisory level apartheid is the order of the day. Black men and women are rarely hired to supervise white people. Black men supervise black men, black women supervise black women, and white men are in positions to manage everyone else.” The majority of my supervisorial “gatekeepers” have been white women. And since its inception, white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Yet there are very few white feminist political commentators, activists, academics or pundits who vigorously champion affirmative action or make it an explicit focus of their public advocacy. According to the U.S. Labor Department “Six million women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies.” Of course, this isn't counting the “unofficial” legacy of white affirmative action which undergirds generations of white wealth accumulation, white residential segregation and white upward mobility in higher education. When Tea Party fascists to "moderate" whites, and even some "liberal" ones, savage affirmative action and lazy shiftless pathological Blacks the “unearned” advantages white women reap are never part of the diatribe. As has been well documented, white families and communities actively benefit from the job opportunities, business loans, government contracts, increased wages and private sector access that affirmative action has conferred onto white women. In her article “The Death of Affirmative Action,” University of Minnesota law professor Michele Goodwin notes that, “White women benefit significantly from state and federal affirmative-action programs in the private sector with hiring… and recent efforts to diversify boards of Fortune 500 companies…Prior to revamped admissions practices in direct response to civil-rights laws, women had much less possibility of success in suing a university to admit them.” In an article on the new Jim Crow of administrative hiring at Ivy League campuses, The Chronicle of Higher Education maintained that the number of (white) women in upper management has increased but representation of people of color remains stagnant.

As bell hooks argues in a recent critique of the Cheryl Sandberg Lean in phenomenon, Black feminists are especially rankled by white women’s shopworn white supremacist resistance to even identifying themselves as white. In corporate hyper-segregated sectors like the film industry, behind the camera stasis (vis-à-vis directing, casting, technical and production jobs) or in front of the camera “progress” for white women is routinely framed by white women entertainment journalists as a step back or a triumph for all women. It has only been recently that some white feminists, spurred by feminist of color criticism and high profile Twitter campaigns like that of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, have begun to own their privilege, if not the considerable capital that white femininity carries with it in the workplace, residential communities, the criminal justice system, and education.

Last month, when a white female student (the first ever) began participating in our Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) sessions, “Rene”, a Latina student, objected to her inclusion in a space for women of color. Without consulting my students beforehand, I had personally invited the white student to come to our meeting after she’d made insightful anti-racist comments about gender, sexuality and discrimination in a Teen Health workshop I was teaching. But Rene was right—WLP is supposed to be a safe space for women of color, a rare commodity even in schools that are predominantly African American and Latino. By unconsciously assuming “sisterhood”, and not consulting with students about the inclusion of a potential white “ally” in our group, I had failed to absorb the lessons of my own lived experience. In my rush to be inclusive I’d been exclusive, forgetting the very basis for the organization in a culture where white girls will never have to worry about being affirmed, reinforced and humanized on a playing field with the dark other.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blacks in STEM: Stereotype Busting & College Pipelining

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Who fits the stereotype of scientific or mathematical genius? Traditionally, racial and gender stereotypes influence who "conforms" to mainstream society's image of scientific proficiency and intellectualism. Although one of the most well known contemporary scientists in the world is African American physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the dominant culture still portrays science and math as disciplines that only white and Asian males can master.

At 12% of the U.S. population, African Americans are severely under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor's degrees, 4 percent of master's degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs." Indeed, "in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics." This disparity is informed by the egregiously low number of black students taking college preparation, honors and Advanced Placement classes and tests. For African American students, the absence of quality college prep instruction at the middle and high school levels is often one of the most significant roadblocks to college access. For example, at Gardena High School in South Los Angeles African American students are 27% of the population but only 4% are enrolled in AP classes.

In a recent New York Times article entitled "Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?" Author Eileen Pollack reflected on attending a Yale University event where five female physics majors talked about their academic challenges. She noted that one "young black woman told me she did her undergraduate work at a historically black college, then entered a master’s program designed to help minority students develop the research skills and one-on-one mentoring relationships that would help them make the transition to a Ph.D. program. Her first year at Yale was rough, but her mentors helped her through."

Finding mentors, navigating the complexities of subject requirements and keeping afloat academically are a natural part of being in college. But these challenges are often even more daunting for African American students in STEM departments where there are few African American faculty and administrators. For many black students, the absence of tenured black STEM professors exacerbates the racist and sexist low expectations that they confront in the classroom and on campus.

On Thursday, November 14th at Gardena High at 11:00, Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the Women's Leadership Project will sponsor a seminar that examines these issues with a panel of talented young Black STEM professionals from South Los Angeles. Seminar participants will discuss college preparation, admission, mentoring, retention, confronting discrimination and their path to graduation.

Brandon Bell is a 2007 graduate of King-Drew Medical Magnet and a 2011 graduate of Princeton University where he majored in molecular biology. He's the founder of an activist organization called Wisdom From The Field and has dedicated himself to the empowerment of his community

Garaudy Etienne graduated from King-Drew Medical Magnet in 2011. He is currently an aerospace engineer at Northrop Grumman. He received his B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University in 2011

Dr. Paul Robinson is an associate professor of Geographic Information Systems at Drew University and the Geffen School of Medicine. He received a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Southern California (2001), a Masters in geography from the University of South Florida (1993) and Bachelors in geography from Virginia Tech (1989).

Devin Waller is Exhibit Project Manager at the California Science Center. She received her B.S. in astrophysics from UCLA and her M.S. in Geological Sciences from Arizona State University.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Secular Woman of the Year


I'm honored to be recognized as the Secular Woman of the Year by Secular Woman,an organization dedicated to "amplifying the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women":

http://secularwoman.org/sw_awards_2013

"Sikivu Hutchinson was chosen as Woman of the Year due to her being a radical humanist activist, educator, and writer who advocates for social justice within academic and atheist movement circles, while putting her theories into practice in her own community of Los Angeles. She is a beacon for secular women throughout the world. In 2013 she released her latest book: Godless Americana: Race & Religious Rebels.

She is an editor at blackfemlens.org and freethoughtblogs.com/blackskeptics.org. She can also be found through her own website www.sikivuhutchinson.com and through the organization www.blackskepticsla.org. Also, be sure to check out her previous book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Sikivu is also involved in the Women’s Leadership Project which is is a feminist service learning program designed to educate and train young middle and high school age women in South Los Angeles to take ownership of their school-communities."

Monday, October 7, 2013

On Valentine Road, Race and the Murder of Lawrence King



By Sikivu Hutchinson

It isn’t until the end of the new HBO documentary film Valentine Road, the gut-wrenching chronicle of the 2008 classroom murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King, a homeless gay youth of color, that the viewer learns the significance of the film’s name. Valentine Road is the location of King’s Oxnard, California grave, the final resting place of a caring, intelligent child whose death became a lightning rod for a racist homophobic heterosexist nation ill-equipped to see much less affirm King's personhood. Place is a central character in this film, which dubiously frames King and white working class “boy next door” murderer Brandon McInerney as bookends in an American tragedy set in multicultural Oxnard. The film opens with a slowly unfolding collage of the moments leading up to King’s execution in a classroom at E.O. Green Middle School. We are treated to the sterile interior of the school, the gray tyranny of the computer lab where King was shot at point blank range, the blood-soaked floor that cradled King's head after the shooting. Throughout the film King is represented in still photos, in the blurred fleeting footage of a campus security camera, in whimsical stylized animation that attempts to capture King's transition from Larry to Lakisha/Latonya(which friends say was her preferred identity before her death). The recollections of schoolmates, teachers, social workers and a foster parent touch on her fragility and kind-heartedness, yet in many of these testimonies her emerging identity is reduced to the “ungainly” performance of “cross-dressing”, crudely applied makeup, and awkward high heel boots. It is clear that King’s “inappropriate” gender expression was construed by the school as an embarrassment, a behavior problem that school administrators sought to contain with vapid compliance memos which downplayed the culture of structural violence against LGBTQ youth.

While King’s narrative plays out in fragments, the narrative of 14 year-old McInerney is vividly nuanced. The product of a violent home, McInerney’s drug-addicted mother and homicidal gun-toting father appear as deeply flawed yet loving. When he is cross-examined after the murder by a police detective he is treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity. When his case is taken up by two “juvenile justice” advocate attorneys enraged that he may be tried as an adult, the female half of the duo expresses her devotion and undying love for his so-called beautiful spirit.

In this regard Valentine Road ably, perhaps inadvertently, captures how the criminalization of people of color shapes American presumptions of white innocence. Despite McInerney’s apparent fondness for Nazi paraphernalia and use of racial slurs to refer to black classmates, prosecutors dropped a hate crime charge against him. His defense team trotted out the repugnant “gay panic” defense (which was prohibited for use in criminal trials under a 2006 California law named after Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen brutally murdered in 2002) egregiously portraying McInerney as a victim of King’s unrelenting sexual harassment. Unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the jury in McInerney’s first trial deadlocked. Some of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter and others for first-degree or second-degree murder. After the mistrial, the filmmakers shot telling footage of white female jurors expressing sympathy for McInerney over pastries in a spacious suburban kitchen. In their minds King was clearly the aggressor; the dark sexual predator whose moral deviance sent the troubled young white boy into a (justifiably) murderous tailspin. Indeed, at least one of the jurors mailed prosecutors Religious Right propaganda excoriating the “abomination” of King’s sexuality and the injustice of “poor Brandon’s” plight. And in a show of motherly solidarity, the white female jurors even display “justice for Brandon” slogans.

In order for white hetero-normativity and heterosexism to flourish, violent masculinity must be fiercely protected by white women. The recurring theme of straight white innocence is one of the film’s most powerful subtexts. At every turn McInerney is humanized and contextualized; redemptively positioned as a son, boyfriend, brother, lost boy, conflicted student and victim of abject circumstances that were beyond his control. As per the national narratives of so many young white high profile murderers—from the Columbine shooters to Newtown killer Adam Lanza—we are carefully guided through McInerney’s world and made to “understand” his emotional turmoil and “damaged” psyche. While McInerney’s family members testify to his horrible upbringing the filmmakers do not include interviews (save for one that was conducted with a short term foster parent) with King’s family members, guardians or adoptive parents, Gregory and Dawn King. The film never attempts to place King’s homelessness, her foster care status, biracial cultural background and history of sexual abuse in the broader context of systemic disenfranchisement of queer and trans youth of color. We learn from a classmate’s passing reference that King was “part-black” and that she strongly identified with and perhaps saw herself as an African American girl. Yet the implications of her biracial ancestry are never seriously explored with respect to the jury’s biases.

Aside from Dawn Boldrin, the instructor (who was subsequently terminated) who attempted to counsel and mentor King through her transition, many of the adults at the school policed and pathologized her behavior. Throughout the film, King’s queer and trans Latino classmates comment on the impact of her murder and how it influenced their own courageous struggles for empowerment. In one of the film’s most glaring oversights, it is unclear what, if anything, the school and district did in the aftermath of King’s murder to address the culture of institutionalized racism, homophobia and transphobia that contributed to her death.

After the outrage of the mistrial, McInerney eventually received a 21 year sentence for murdering King. He will be released at the age of 39. One of the final scenes shows him rejoicing in juvenile detention with his family after receiving his high school diploma—a beneficiary of the criminal justice system’s devaluation of black queer and transgender lives. Despite the advocacy of King’s friends there is still no monument to or recognition of her at E.O. Green Middle School.

Valentine Road begins airing tonight on HBO.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Trouble with Those Atheists


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Until it was revived by the activist-minded Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP was widely viewed as a staid throwback coasting on the glory of the civil rights movement. Under Jealous’ leadership, the organization set out to demonstrate its political relevance, ramping up campaigns around mass incarceration, the death penalty, voter suppression and marriage equality. Predictably, these initiatives often drew on its strong ties to the African American faith community. A few months ago, I attended a local NAACP community service awards lunch where these ties were on vivid display. My mother, activist educator Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, was among the recipients. The honorees read like a roll call of educated, accomplished black America—a pioneering judge who is the granddaughter of slaves, an esteemed choreographer who’d been turned down for admission to UCLA, an activist teacher whose groundbreaking pedagogy challenged institutional racism and discrimination in Los Angeles public schools. Most of the women who spoke at the event offered moving counter-narratives to the marginalization of the “everyday/ordinary” activism of women of color. Each told tales of low expectations fiercely debunked. Coming on the heels of a Women’s History seminar I’d conducted with my students, the lunch was a welcome antidote to mainstream fixation on Rosa Parks as the only example of black feminist activism. Nonetheless, my mother appeared to be the only humanist being honored, as many recipients gushed about god and “his” guidance. Some elicited rapturous call and response “amens” and “that’s rights” with every reference to the Lord’s supposedly divine inspiration. Several of the women’s biographies cited deep involvement in their churches. A recurring theme was the paramount importance of education. Through their church leadership these primarily Baby Boomer generation women supported youth groups, spotlighted juvenile justice issues, provided scholarship assistance, spearheaded tutoring programs, developed college financial aid resources, mentored foster care youth and gave legal aid counseling. The performance of religious fervor reconfirmed what I’d already known about black women’s organizing—namely, that social justice through faith-based communities was still the foundation for not just activism, but identity, self-affirmation and self-determination.

In an article on black non-believers in Orlando, Florida, the white head of an atheist organization expressed surprise that black atheists didn’t embrace his organization with open arms. For white folk, centuries of racial apartheid, de facto segregation, and white supremacy in education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system are a source of “invisible” power, privilege, advantage and identity. Nonetheless, many white atheists believe non-believers of color should just be able to roll in any environment, regardless of whether the local research university employs more black service workers than it enrolls black students or whether white families have fled public schools for elite charters and private academies. The pervasiveness of white supremacy in every institution of American economic and social organization is a blind spot for white organizations precisely because they rely on this regime of power and control for the illusion of universality. As Toni Morrison remarked in her book Whiteness and the Literary Imagination “Statements insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity are themselves full of meaning. The world does not become raceless or…unracialized by assertion.” Similarly, white claims about embracing colorblindness or believing “everyone should be equal” in the face of the New Jim Crow of “invisible” segregation does not translate into atheist or humanist solidarity. As I argue in my books Moral Combat and Godless Americana, the ardent expressions of religious allegiance that I observed at the NAACP lunch are a byproduct of structural racism. Ultimately, they exemplify the supreme value of heritage in the face of apartheid conditions in which the racial wealth gap translates into real benefits for whites; especially in the field of education.

For example, although many white atheists profess a commitment to "science and reason" there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color. In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, white atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia. In my article "The War on Black Children", I detail how the lack of access to Advanced Placement classes (through unofficial tracking policies, racial stereotyping and unavailable courses) undermines African American college preparedness in STEM fields. Contrary to popular belief, many black religious organizations and churches support higher education initiatives such as STEM pipelining and scholarship programs. In collaboration with other community-based organizations, large congregations may provide mentoring programs and college travel funds while actively recruiting African American youth for college enrichment programs.

But rather than coalition build with STEM organizations and activists of color to seriously address the race/gender "opportunity gap" in the STEM fields atheist organizations are content to posture about the need for "science and reason" to elite white audiences. Recognizing the dire need for STEM pipelining instead of prison pipelining, the Women's Leadership Project, Black Skeptics Los Angeles and Wisdom from the Field are partnering with African American STEM professionals at the California Science Center and Drew University for a series of South L.A. high school panels on debunking STEM stereotypes, STEM mentoring, college preparation, and navigating racism, sexism and homophobia in STEM academia. For further information, contact blackskeptics@gmail.com.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Public Enemy or Talented Tenth? The War Against Black Children



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In a predominantly Black South Los Angeles continuation school class packed with eleventh and twelfth grade girls, only half want to go to college, few can name role models of color and virtually none have been exposed to literature by women of color. Demonized as the most expendable of the expendable, Black continuation school students are routinely branded as too "at risk", "challenged" and "deficit-laden" to be "college material". Coming from backgrounds of abuse, incarceration, foster care and homelessness, these youth are already written off as budding welfare queens and baby mamas. They are at the epicenter of the war against Black children.

State-sanctioned terrorism against Black children is commonly understood as murder, harassment, and racial profiling--overt acts of violence which elicit marches, pickets, mass resistance and moral outrage. Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike fell all over themselves to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic murder of four African American girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Such overt acts of organized white supremacist terrorism against Black children have largely receded. Instead, they have been replaced by the socially acceptable state violence of school-to-prison pipelining, racist low expectations and the illusion of equal educational opportunity in the “post Jim Crow” era of re-segregated schools.

Last spring, in an offensive commencement speech to Morehouse College graduates, President Obama launched into his standard refrain about personal responsibility, sagging pants and absent fathers. Checking shiftless Black youth has long been one of his favorite presidential past-times. As progressive Black pundits have noted, this narrative not only plays well in Peoria, but on the global stage. For a nation brainwashed into believing the U.S. is an exceptionalist beacon, the underachievement of black students has become both shorthand for and explanation of its low standing in academic rankings. According to this view, the achievement gap between (lazy) Black and (enterprising) white and Asian students “drags” down the U.S.’ global academic standing. Steeped in a culture of pathology, native-born African American youth “squander” the opportunities seized upon by newly arrived immigrant students of color.

As a 2013 high school graduate and first generation college student of mixed heritage, Ashley Jones is well acquainted with toxic anti-black propaganda. She says, “Being Black and Thai...if I do well on a test or in class, then some people will comment, ‘that’s your Asian side.’” Jones comes from a South L.A. school where it is not uncommon for teachers to reflexively track students into college prep, honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes according to race and ethnicity. She comments, “If you were to ask these same people about race, they would tell you we are all equal and anyone can achieve anything they set their mind to, but when you listen to them talk at nutrition and lunch, you hear Blackness constantly associated with violence, ‘being ghetto’, and a lack of intellectual abilities.” A recent L.A. Times article about Kashawn Campbell, a high-achieving African American graduate of South L.A.’s Jefferson High School who struggled to get C’s and D’s at UC Berkeley, exemplifies these sentiments. The over 700 responses on the article’s comment thread were relentless: the young man’s plight was due to inflated expectations, laziness, outright sloth, and the natural intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Even the National Review picked up the piece and dubbed it an example of a “Devastating Affirmative Action Failure.” Why, many commenters howled contemptuously, didn’t Campbell's slot go to a “real” achiever, i.e., a hardworking Asian or white student who genuinely deserved it? Missing from the near universal condemnations of affirmative action was the fact that Campbell’s freshman performance at UC Berkeley reflects the deficits of a neo-liberal public education system in which even high achieving students of color may be grossly underprepared for college work. High stakes tests, unqualified teachers, culturally un-responsive curricula, overcrowded classrooms, long term subs, high student-to-college counselor ratios and school climates that over-suspend, criminalize and push-out Black and Latino youth all influence whether a student thrives or languishes in a rigorous college environment. According to the Education Trust West, “Only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university if (these) current trends continue.”

Yet the myth of the lazy Black student, mascot of a shiftless pathological culture, remains a powerful theme in anti-public education and anti-affirmative action propaganda. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) entered into an agreement with several Alabama school districts to redress the under-representation of African American students in advanced, honors and AP course enrollment (as well as test-taking). The OCR found that advanced math was offered in the seventh grade at white middle schools, but wasn't offered at predominantly African American middle schools. High school AP courses are gatekeepers to top colleges and universities. A high score on an AP test allows a student to receive college course credit. Nationwide, African American students are less likely to be enrolled in AP classes, especially the “elite” math and science courses that are virtually required for admission to top STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. At 14% of the U.S. student population Black students comprise only 3% of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams. According to the College Board, “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.” Persistently racist attitudes about the academic and intellectual capacity of Black students are a major barrier to their placement in AP and college prep courses. In schools with diverse multicultural populations Black students are still routinely consigned to less challenging courses (even if they have high GPAs) and stereotyped as not being as capable as other students of color.

As one private college counselor argues, “With competition for college admission increasing every year, many students fear they won’t be accepted without five or six AP courses, and when it comes to the most selective colleges, they are probably right.” Eighty three percent of colleges ranked grades in college prep courses as the single most important factor in their admissions decisions. According to the OCR, “enrollment in middle school advanced math courses – and, in particular, in 8th grade Algebra—sets students on the path for completion of the District’s highest level course offerings in math and science, including AP courses.”

Nationwide, African American students struggle with and are underrepresented in eighth grade Algebra courses. In Silicon Valley, fount of American technological innovation, fewer than 25% of black and Latino students successfully complete Algebra. Moreover, only 20% of Latinos and 22% of African-Americans “graduate with passing grades in the courses that are required” for admission to UC and Cal State universities. Ultimately, the predominantly white and Asian make-up of Silicon Valley companies reflects the insidious ramifications of these disparities. Passing Algebra is a major predictor of later success in college. But if students of color don’t have access to college prep math in middle school (and then transition to high school taking less rigorous courses), gaining admission to and staying in college, much less graduating from college, will never be a viable option.

Despite the mainstreaming of discourse about “diversity” and culturally responsive teaching, there is little focus on the unrelenting violence anti-black racism inflicts upon even high-achieving Black students. The vitriol expressed toward UC Berkeley student Kashawn Campbell reflects the rawness of mainstream views about the moral failings of all Black students. Here, “even” high-achieving Black students are presumed to be “guilty” representatives of communities that reject presumably accepted “American” standards for academic success and personal uplift. Exceptional Black folk may delude themselves into believing that they can successfully manipulate this equation in their favor. But Obama's destructive Talented Tenth palliatives merely reflect this nation’s deep investment in violence against Black children.

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Godless Americana: Provocative, Infuriating Feminist View of Humanism



From The Humanist Magazine

By Norm Allen, Jr:

"Godless Americana is an incredibly provocative book, containing something to infuriate practically anyone who reads it. And I suspect that the author wouldn’t have it any other way."

Sikivu Hutchinson is an author and activist who promotes a progressive—and aggressive—conception of humanism that is at once feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-classist, and anti-imperialist. She has no patience for nontheists who focus primarily on church/state separation, evolution, and other issues that, in her view, are being promoted particularly by white males within the secular movement. In response, Hutchinson asserts that humanism will only appeal to the masses of “people of color,” women, LGBT individuals, and other historically oppressed groups if it addresses structural and systemic causes of poverty and oppression.

Godless Americana is an impressively researched book that deals with a number of subjects that most nontheists rarely, if ever, discuss at their gatherings or in their literature. For instance, the book makes the case that many white humanists tend to blindly, even proudly, embrace scientism. While noting the importance of science, Hutchinson calls attention to the fact that racism exists in science and in medicine. Moreover, she challenges the notion that black girls aren’t interested in science due to hyper-religiosity. Rather, she states that the contributions of scientists of color are simply not touted in textbooks and lesson plans.

In her hometown of Los Angeles, Hutchinson acknowledges the lack of Advanced Placement (AP) courses for black and Latino high school students. However, students taking these courses are much more likely to earn degrees in hard sciences and engineering. Hutchinson writes:

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.

In a related story from Bartow, Florida, sixteen-year-old student Kiera Wilmot mixed together toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a science experiment at her school earlier this year. As a result, there was an explosion. The Bartow Police Department, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and Bartow High School pressed two felony charges against her. Feminists and civil rights activists protested vehemently, claiming it was just another example of the cradle-to-prison pipeline that exists for African Americans and society’s failure to encourage black girls to pursue science...More @ The Humanist Magazine

Friday, August 9, 2013

ANOTHER WHITE WOMAN HAS GONE MISSING

By Sikivu Hutchinson

A few nights ago around 11:00 p.m., virtually everyone in the state of California was abruptly jolted into consciousness by a shrill cell phone blasted Amber alert about the abduction of a teenage white girl by a 40 year-old male. Privileged victim Hannah Anderson (who the media obsessively tell us is blond and blue-eyed) now joins the lily white ranks of “all-American” girls whose fate is an urgent issue of national security. Breathless, obsessive, round the clock updates and international coverage have been given to this unfolding drama. This is what I wrote about the phenomenon in 2005 and not a damn thing has changed:

When the news broke earlier this summer about the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba, I braced myself for yet another tide of hysterical media coverage about the uncertain fate of a young suburban white woman. I was not disappointed. Consumers of network, cable, and Internet news were treated to a steady stream of obsessive details about Holloway's life, the last hours she was seen, her family and home community, echoing a pattern that has increasingly come to resemble a by the numbers formula for conferring national heft to the lives of formerly obscure white women.

Back then, criticism from media watchdogs and families of abduction victims of color resulted in an NBC Dateline segment on racial disparities in network news treatment of missing persons' stories. The bias charges elicited the usual head-scratching deflection and outright denial from news executives. Some of those who were willing to go on the record countered that abduction stories that become national news are generated by momentum from local affiliates. Naturally most network execs see little bias in their coverage because whiteness represents the norm in American culture. White lives, white families, white communities, and the world views of white pundits are sold and reproduced in the mainstream media as the normative "unraced" ideal that underlies "our" sense of national identity. Disproportionate coverage of whites in a society that pimps a colorblind, democratic ideal on the global stage not only naturalizes the invisibility of people of color, but implies that white suburban lives are the ones that are ultimately most worth caring about. This explains why only a third of whites believed that George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin was unjust.

The role that femininity plays in the portrayal of these two Americas is critical. It's no surprise that white female victimhood is all the rage in the 24-7 news media for images of imperiled white femininity have historically been the currency of cultural narratives of ethnic and racial hysteria, manifest destiny, and national identity. One of the most influential early examples of media and cinematic propaganda to exploit this theme was D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The moral compass of Griffith's film was the threat that the rape of white women by black men posed to the racial purity, national stability, and socioeconomic development of post- Civil War America. Rape and miscegenation were portrayed as the endgame of Reconstruction, a mortal threat to white control of the Union and justification for the lynching of black men. While the savage racial terrorism of Birth is considered "primitive" to twenty first mainstream America, it provided a media template for the association of white femininity with purity, innocence, and victimhood.

The underside of the idealization of white femininity is the projection of immoral hypersexuality onto black women in particular and women of color in general. Stereotypes of sexually loose, "ghetto" black women, hot-blooded Latinas, and Lotus Blossom Asian fetish objects cast women of color as the antithesis of normative white femininity. It is little wonder then that female victims of color never score on the national radar. Stories on missing women such as LaToyia Figueroa, Ardena Carter, Mitrice Richardson and Myra Howard don't generate tabloid heat because there is no corresponding association of feminine innocence or normative cultural values with the lives of urban black or Latino women. Narratives of the imperiled white female highlight the suburban virtues of white Middle America and not so subtlely evoke the social pathologies of the so-called inner city. Indeed, the increasingly intimate spectacles of grief, mourning, and community outrage that we see on CNN and FOX not only program viewers to identify with the injustice that has been done to the victim and her family, but to her community. In the world of 24-7 tabloid media these victims become our girls, our daughters; and if this horror could happen in these ostensibly crime-free normal white suburban communities it could very well happen to us.

Yet the white "us" will never make a connection between the massive expenditure of media time and resources on the investigation of say, the sham 2005 abduction of disgraced "runaway bride" Jennifer Wilbanks (who was savvy enough to finger a Latino man as one of her alleged abductors), and the fact that fifty years after The March on Washington and forty years after the passage (and now gutting) of the Voting Rights Act America is even more segregated, polarized and steeped in a culture of white entitlement that calls itself colorblind.

For more information on the organized movement to promote the stories of missing children of color contact the Black and Missing Foundation or the Missing Children of Color Foundation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sikivu on the Exhale Show




Exhale show: Aspire Network

Wednesday, July 31st 8/7CT:

Faith & Religion
Season 1 Episode 5


The women of Exhale are having some spirited conversation with Columbia Pictures Executive and Author of Produced By Faith Devon Franklin, R&B Artist Kelly Price, Pastor Beverly Bam Crawford and atheist and Author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and The Values Wars Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson. They'll talk about getting through trials that put our faith to the test, religion and homosexuality, the role of women in the Church and the increasing number of African Americans who don't believe – black atheists.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Shadow of the Plantation: Statement in Solidarity with Stop Patriarchy’s Abortion Freedom Rides



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker writes, “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? Our great-grandmothers’ day? Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer’s lash? 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?”

Some of us are here because our foremothers were enslaved, raped and forced to bear children they didn’t want. Some of us are here because our foremothers did everything possible to salvage their lives and self-dignity with alternative medicine and often dangerous aborting devices. In a culture in which women of color are expected to sacrifice, total self-determination has always been a revolutionary act. The current climate of Christian fascist anti-abortion terrorism is a mortal threat to communities of color and all working class people nationwide. It is an affront to the valiant activism of scores of anonymous women who died in back alleys from “illegal” abortions rather than be shackled to the dehumanizing gender hierarchies of the state, patriarchy and the church. The brutal crackdown on reproductive health care, abortion providers and clinics in Texas, the Midwest and throughout the Deep South is a reminder of the blood price women of color and working class women must pay to be free, to even be considered human in this so-called post-feminist society. It is important that the reproductive justice movement not allow the pro-death, anti-abortion, anti-family values fascists of the right drive their biblical stake through women’s bodies again by pimping the language of “protection” and “pro-life”. Over the past few years Christian fascists have labored fiercely to create conditions in which universal health care is deemed to be anti-American and Black and Latina women are criminalized as “dangerous” wombs; mere breeders with no basic human rights. Outlandishly, they have gone so far as to compare fetuses to slaves, and, by implication, women of color to slave owners, stamping the “Scarlet I” of immorality on our bodies. These rich white male guardians of death are in league with a regime which is the most prolific jailer and executioner of Black people in the capitalist world. They care nothing about the scores of children of color in foster care, on the streets, and in prisons. For them, children of color are only useful as political pawns in the anti-welfare state public policy and propaganda war; demonized as collateral damage, welfare queens, savages, and criminals a la Trayvon Martin, a beautiful Black boy lynched twice by the criminal justice system. In Texas, disproportionate numbers of Latinas rely on Medicaid, which is under attack by the Perry administration. And in Mississippi, disproportionate numbers of poor and working class African American women rely on the imperiled family planning clinic that currently hangs by a legal thread.

Decades after the end of Jim Crow, white people have over twenty times the wealth of Blacks and Latinos and the myth of the accessible American dream has turned into even more of a nightmare for people of color besotted with the delusion of democracy. The assault on women’s abortion rights is yet another assault on economic and social justice and a betrayal of the foremothers who sacrificed so we would never know the shadow of the plantation.

The Abortion Freedom Rides will kick off July 23rd in New York and San Francisco and end August 17th with in a Day of Action in Jackson, Mississippi. For more information contact the Stop Patriarchy coalition, stoppatriarchy@gmail.com.
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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Trayvon's Class of 2013



By Sikivu Hutchinson

Yesterday, at Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ scholarship ceremony, my colleagues and I had the honor of awarding scholarships to five brilliant youth of color who are first generation college students. They are 17 and 18 year-olds who have known more struggle and sacrifice than many adults have known in their entire lives. They have each battled the dominant culture’s view that they are not white, male, straight, wealthy or smart enough to be genuine college material. They have all seen their neighborhoods—South L.A. communities powered by hard working people, students, activists, educators from all walks of life—portrayed as ghetto cesspit jungles where violent savages roam, welfare queens breed, and drive-bys rule. They have all mourned the absence of young friends and relatives who did not live to see their high school, much less college, graduation ceremonies. Looking around the room at their bright young faces, surrounded by proud family members, teachers, and mentors, the collective sense of duty and obligation everyone felt toward this next generation of intellectuals, activists and scholars was evident.

Because the ceremony occurred in the midst of national anxiety over the murder trial of George Zimmerman it was both a celebration of promise and a bittersweet paean to the burning loss and betrayal communities of color routinely experience in this racist apartheid nation. Trayvon Martin would’ve been 18 this year, a graduate of the class of 2013. He might have been college-bound, anxious, bracing against the fear of the unknown, heady with anticipation about the future. He might have been mindful of the psychological and emotional miles he’d have to travel to be freed from the prison of society’s demonizing assumptions. He might have experienced all of these feelings while grieving the untimely deaths of his own friends and being told that young black lives don’t matter.

Zimmerman’s acquittal for his cold-blooded murder is a turning point and baptism by fire in the cultural politics of colorblindness. It is a turning point for every middle class child of color who believes their class status exempts or insulates them from criminalization. It is a turning point for every suburban white child whose lifeblood is the comfort and privilege of presumed innocence. It is a turning point for every Talented Tenth parent of color who has deluded themselves about the corrupt creed of Americana justice. And it is a turning point for a collective historical amnesia in which race and racism are soft-pedaled through imperialist narratives of progress, enlightenment and transcendence.

For black people who have had faith in the criminal justice system and due process it is no longer possible to pretend that black life is worth more than that of a dog killed in broad daylight on a city street. People who kill dogs—or those who run vicious dog-fighting rings like NFL football player Michael Vick—receive longer prison sentences than do law enforcement officials (or their surrogates) who kill black people. For a predominantly white female jury that did not see the crushing loss in the murder of a young man pursued by a predator who was expressly told not to leave his vehicle by law enforcement; the life of a dog was apparently more valuable.

This is one of the indelible lessons in “democracy” and American exceptionalism that Trayvon’s class will take with them to college and hopefully spend their lives fighting to upend.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Creepy Crackers n' Shucking Toms



By Sikivu Hutchinson

Pity poor Uncle Tom. When angry white male atheists start trotting him out as a cover for their racist circle jerk you know you've got a postmodern moment with a cherry on top. Although it’s never stopped being open season on black folk in America the Beautiful, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, its partial smackdown of affirmative action and the happy times for George Zimmerman defense trial signal that the gloves are off again. So now it seems the wages of whiteness atheist privilege brigade has come full circle from American Atheists’ 2012 naked shackled black slave billboard to Cult of Dusty's viral “Black Christians=Uncle Toms” You Tube tirade. According to creepy-cracker-white-man’s-burden-Dusty all black folk who subscribe to Christianity are not only domesticated dupes but neo-slave House Negro Stephens (in reference to Quentin Tarantino’s wet dream of buck-dancing black male cunning) shucking and jiving in our own 21st century version of Django Unchained. But this racist ignoramus is no latter day John Brown dropping knowledge on us docile backward noble savages cowering under the yoke of dis here Good Book blessed by Massa’s benevolence.

Conveniently omitted from this and umpteen other white atheist paeans to enlightening the dark hordes of ghetto superstition is any analysis of the white supremacist brutality of exalted secularist icons like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other revolutionary war patriots who built American empire on the backs of slave labor and through the propaganda of democratic citizenship. Missing from this equation is a takedown of the proto-capitalist engine of black exploitation under slavery, its echoes in 20th century Jim Crow public policy and the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration that fuels the criminal wealth gap between whites and people of color. As Toni Morrison so sagely put it, slavery and freedom existed side by side, for “nothing highlighted freedom if it did not in fact create it, like slavery. Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities for in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free…but the not-me.” Then, as now, freedom, individualism and universal citizenship (the ostensible ideological impetus for the Revolutionary War) were based on white supremacy and racialized notions of nationhood. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 white working class laborers were conferred with citizenship privileges—i.e., the right to bear arms, assemble, hold property and move around freely—entitlements that no black person slave or free could ever enjoy. After the gradual institutionalization of racial slavery in the 1640s the categories slave and black became synonymous as did the categories white and free. There was no loophole for any enlightened black non-theists that might have been running around. There was no honorary black slave status (with the advantages of beatings, rapes, lifelong enslavement and dehumanization) granted pesky white atheists and anti-clericalists. And the very secular American Constitution branded black slaves as 3/5s of a man in order to ensure that slave states had equal representation in Congress.

Racial slavery was driven by economic conditions and the proto-capitalist rise of American empire. It provided an insurance policy against white working class resistance against the white aristocracy (from Jefferson the rapist slaver to the Koch brothers) by giving poor white folk access to the wages of whiteness. As Theodore Allen writes in the Invention of the White Race, “At every turn, from the late 17th to the early 18th century, underclass whites were granted more and more rights and privileges: ‘The white-skin privileges of the poor free whites were simply reflexes of the disabilities imposed on the Negro slave: to move about freely without a pass; to marry without any upper-class consent; to change employment; to vote in elections in accordance with the laws on qualifications; to acquire property; and last, but not least, in this partial list, the right of self-defense.’”

Christianity did indeed buttress the regime of racial slavery and white supremacy, but, contrary to the delusions of some atheists, no mass secular/atheist/humanist uprising led to its dismantling—just as there has been no mass secular/atheist/humanist uprising against the mass incarceration of millions of African Americans in the world's "greatest" democracy.

African American Christian theology, critique, organizing and oratory were powerful tools for revolutionary black abolitionist and black feminist resistance. Revolutionaries like Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart (a black feminist forerunner and the first American woman to address a mixed audience), Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Henry Highland Garnett forged a global religious and anti-clericalist movement against slavery along with scores of unsung activist whites and people of color. This legacy of black resistance informs a 21st century context of anti-racist struggle in which African Americans are confronted by more insidious residential segregation, long term unemployment and barriers to upward mobility than during the Jim Crow era. But white atheists who spew the Uncle Tom charge won't be down with that analysis, because white supremacy means having the privilege to demean and school the ignorant backward Other while profiting from interlocking systems of race, class, gender and capitalist exploitation that keep white America safe and secure in its segregated neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, grocery stores, retail centers, churches, university science programs, hedge funds and think tanks.

Lawdy! Massa cracker don didn't tell us dat though.

On its Wednesday show the Black Freethinkers network, hosted by founder Kimberly Veal, will break down the video controversy as well as the historical context of slavery, Uncle Tom and the political subtext of black caricatures. For more information contact: blackfreethinkers@gmail.com.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Walking on the "Wild Side": “20 Feet From Stardom” & the Black Female Gaze


By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1972 song “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” Lou Reed evokes the paternalistic image of “colored girls” cooing in the background to a hipster tale of New York debauchery. Using Reed’s homage as its introduction, white director Morgan Neville’s bittersweet documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” attempts to bring black female back-up singers into the foreground with both moving and problematic effect.

From the 1950’s to the present, white America “walked on the wild side” via the dulcet tones and searing power of black women’s voices. Then as now, black R& B music was often the "colorful" backdrop to lily white pop culture scenes of “all-American” revelry, romance, and heroism. For the white consumer of the postwar Jim Crow era, the commercial rise of rock and R&B transformed racial otherness into a more mainstream adventure; a resort vacation to unexplored vistas of self-discovery that anyone with a radio or a few cents for a 45 record could take. As the world's most rabid consumers of black culture, white folks' imperialist yearnings to be “black” (from Jack Kerouac to Norman Mailer to Sandra Bernhard) emerge from this grand obsession with the supposed wild, raw, unfettered, close-to-the-bone emotion and physicality of the Black woman belting out soulful paeans to life and love. Minus the racial terrorism, segregation and ghettoization, blackness has always been a sexy place for whites "eating the other".
Black women’s back-up singing was crucial to the evolution of modern rock and R&B, buttressing songs as disparate as the Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel” and the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” by turning them into richly textured classics. “20 Feet” captures the deep travesty of obscurity, marginalization and, often, poverty, that these pioneering artists faced. Spotlighting multi-generational artists such as Merry Clayton (who did the powerhouse vocal on Gimme Shelter), Darlene Love, the Waters family, Tata Vega, Lisa Fisher and Judith Hill, the film’s broad historical sweep shows both how much and how little has changed. Women of color back-up singers are still treated like expendable objects, eye candy and soulful exotics while fighting tooth and nail for recognition and a shot at center stage.

The trajectory of the fiercely talented Darlene Love is the movie’s template and touchstone. Royally swindled by famed producer and (now) incarcerated killer Phil Spector, Love was the voice of many of the sixties most hummable R&B classics. While her vocals on the smash hit "He's a Rebel" made her a sought after studio singer, she was cheated out of the opportunity to appear in public singing her own work. Love describes the indignity of seeing the Crystals become the public face of her song; lip synching to a number one record while she battled Spector for her just due. As has been well-documented, exploitation of black artists was institutionalized in the music industry. Elvis Presley and scores of “trailblazing” white artists and producers built their careers, empires and international stardom on the backs of uncompensated and un-credited black artists. Nonetheless, the film is largely silent about the mammoth battles black artists waged for recognition and royalties. Love’s decades-long fight with Spector is its only nod to the insidious racial and gender politics that drove capitalist exploitation in the industry.

Similarly, there is only fleeting critical commentary on the sexist objectification of black women vocalists and the way in which this ultimately stunted their careers. Footage of the Ike and Tina Turner revue is used to highlight stereotypes of feral black female hypersexuality, underscoring the bind that women who wanted to be successful in the industry faced. Singer Claudia Lennear, a former “Ikette” and Rolling Stones back-up, comments on the requirement that the Turners’ back-up vocalists be scantily clad. She then limply deflects questions about her own decision to pose for Playboy. Unfortunately, the film never deepens its appraisal of sexism (especially its implications for the modern day “video ho” phenomenon, an image of black women that is one of rap and hip hop’s most enduring and degrading global exports). Reflecting on Turner and her rise to fame in her piece “Selling Hot Pussy,” bell hooks wrote “The black female body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability; when it is sexually deviant…Turner’s singing career has been based on the construction of the image of black female sexuality that is made synonymous with wild animalistic lust…Ike’s decision to create the wild black woman was perfectly compatible with prevailing representations of black female sexuality in a white supremacist society .” Hooks’ perspective would have been a welcome antidote to the ribald lip-smacking ignorance of USC professor Todd Boyd who comments that Ike played the role of the “pimp” to his stable of “hos” (i.e., Tina and the Ikettes). As if to confirm this, the camera cuts to a shot of Turner, Lennear and the Ikettes gyrating and bending over suggestively in micro minis and high heels at a raucous outdoor concert.

Hooks notes that Tina Turner’s image was shaped by Ike’s “pornographic misogynist imagination” and his obsession with jungle films. The subtext of the film is black women’s resistance to this brand of sexualization and the regime of the male gaze (corporate, white, ageist, mainstream). It is a narrative that develops despite the political limitations of the white director who is clearly enthralled with the “mystique” of black soul. This tension is reflected early on in the dichotomy the film constructs between mainstream cultural norms of white feminine respectability and “authentic” black femininity. Commenting on the origins of the back-up singer tradition, the narrator contrasts the restrained primness of white female vocalists with the “raw” abandon of the mostly gospel trained black female vocalists. “We called them ‘readers,’’ Darlene Love says, referencing the white mainstream method of simply singing the notes on the page without injecting passion and spontaneity into the delivery. Reinforcing the stereotype of “natural” “God-given” black soul singing talent, the film does not explore the musical training and vocal instruction some of these black women artists undoubtedly received. Nonetheless, the sheer discipline and tenacity of the back-up singers is conveyed by their testimony about marathon all-night recording sessions, demanding concert tours and exploitative conditions.

While the commentary each singer provides is illuminating, it would be inconceivable for a retrospective on white male singers to feature virtually all black women musicians, historians, technicians and producers as subject experts on their careers. However, this is the “benign” structure that “20 Feet” sets up. For nearly two hours the women appear through the eyes of their mostly white male employers— rock and pop superstars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Chris Botti—and assorted white male subject experts. Presumably hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose and scores of other black feminist scholars and music historians were unavailable to critically contextualize these women’s experiences. This gross deficit makes “20 Feet From Stardom” a meta-reflection of the constant struggle women of color must wage for political visibility, historical validation and culturally responsive scholarship. Attempting to evoke the social upheaval of the sixties, the film trots out stock images of the Black Panthers as well as Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ iconic raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics to evoke black consciousness. We catch a fleeting glimpse of Kathleen Cleaver but no other black women figures or activists are evoked. It would have been powerful to hear what Cleaver, an esteemed legal scholar and feminist critic, would have had to say about Merry Clayton’s decision to sing back-up on the Lynrd Skynyrd’s 1974 song “Sweet Home Alabama,” a racist homage to Dixie. Clayton ruefully critiques “Alabama” and describes the force she put into her vocals as an act of resistance, reflecting the contradictions of an era in which black women artists felt they had to conform to visions of white supremacy in order to survive. But apparently giving this narrative a critical, scholarly black feminist voice would have been too much of a walk on the “wild side”.


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