Wednesday, March 27, 2013
By Sikivu Hutchinson
As Prop 8’s lead attorney trotted out the standard Christian fascist “marriage is only for procreation” party line before the Supreme Court yesterday, I was reminded of a 2012 Los Angeles Times story about the changing demographics of California families. The article leads with an idyllic portrait of a white lesbian-headed family whose daughter is asked “on a leafy drive…at a newly renovated home with cathedral ceilings and a backyard pool” why she has three mommies. According to the U.S. Census, families are becoming less nuclear, headed up by more single parents, childless couples and LGBT couples with children. Yet family diversity is only a revelation in the mainstream media, which continue to promote the model of nuclear family-hood, even if it is provisionally represented by elite white gay “The Kids Are Alright-style” yuppie throwbacks with photogenic children. Historically, families of color have always been diverse by culture, economic necessity and social obligation. Extended African American family networks of adult caregivers, gay and straight, related and un-related, have always contributed to childrearing. When racist/sexist criminal sentencing policies, joblessness and inequitable access to housing loosened or precluded “traditional” family ties, multi-generational family networks were the glue. As the recession intensifies these stressors, grandparents, aunts, adoptive parents, foster parents and “play cousins” from all walks of life increasingly become frontline providers for African American children. Thus, the Times’ snapshot of affluent comfort contrasts with the realities of many LGBT families of color who struggle to stay above the poverty line. Further, the depiction of white childrearing and parenting as the de facto norm contributes to the national narrative that non-traditional families of color can never represent an authentic model of family.
In reality, the numbers of same-sex families of color are increasing, especially in traditionally conservative Bible Belt regions in the South. African American strongholds like Atlanta have seen a new black “re-migration” driven by the ripple effect of high unemployment, foreclosures, and gentrification in northern urban black communities. According to Family Equality, LGBT families are “more racially and ethnically diverse than families headed by married heterosexual couples. Of same-sex couples with children, 41% are people of color, compared to 34% of married different-sex couples with children.” Impacted by racism, sexism, heterosexism, and segregation, same-sex families of color are also more likely to be near the poverty line and hence more reliant on public social welfare and health care assistance. Nonetheless, when textbooks, TV shows, and Hollywood films envision culturally “diverse” LGBT families it is through the lens of privileged white middle class folk who have “benevolently” decided to adopt a child of color (ala the white gay couple on the sitcom “Modern Family”) or used expensive reproductive technology to have children. In this context, marriage equality merely secures white wealth and white patriarchy, as white gay families also benefit from segregated neighborhoods, schools, tax credits for middle class homeowners, and higher-paying jobs. Complex families of color that are either headed by single gay or straight parents are marginalized as inherently dysfunctional, welfare-dependent and socially borderline. Loving gay partners of color with children are nonexistent.
This media white-out has insidious implications for both straight and gay children of color. If gay children of color don’t see loving adult gay and lesbian caregivers then they will continue to internalize their own dehumanization. If straight children of color don’t see loving representations of LGBT parents and families of color, gayness will still be viewed as a lifestyle choice, a sin in the eyes of God and “white” deviance. In 2011, the California State Assembly passed a bill requiring that the contributions of LGBT communities and historical figures be taught in K-12 classrooms. There is little evidence that this well-intentioned law has any teeth, as Ellen DeGeneres is the only prominent lesbian most high school students seem to know and most dialogue on homophobia never progresses beyond a token lesson on bullying. In my gender justice work with high school students, I’ve used films and texts such as That’s a Family, Straightlaced, Rethinking Schools and Christine Sleeter’s “Turning on Learning” guidebook. Yet there are virtually no secondary school resources that address the racialization of gender and sexuality. Curricula and pedagogy that deal with the particular way hetero-normativity plays out for youth of color in a white supremacist culture where black and Latino sexuality is already demonized as savage and pathological, are few and far between.
Moreover, the absence of public conversation around the role religious bigotry plays in the epidemic of homelessness amongst African American youth is a critical blind spot. Despite all the hype around gay-friendly congregations (as well as recent data suggesting black gays and lesbians are just as invested in religious communities as straights), cultural messages about the sin of homosexuality as an affront to masculinity and the “ideal” of strong black families headed by good black patriarchs are still widespread in black communities. Nationwide, increasing numbers of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning) youth of color are becoming homeless due to overt anti-gay harassment, emotional/physical abuse and lack of social acceptance by their families and communities. LGBTQ black and Latino youth are also more likely to be suspended and expelled than are white LGBTQ youth. With African American children comprising nearly 40% of the nation’s foster care and homeless youth populations, culturally responsive feminist approaches to caregiving and family sustainability are crucial. Living in a culture in which they are reminded daily of their non-existence by a white supremacist heterosexist nation that deifies straight white beauty ideals and views affordable housing as a privilege, some LGBT homeless youth of color resort to destructive behaviors like survival sex and drug abuse. Demographic patterns have long shifted to make whites a minority in the U.S. Yet mainstream media is still in the segregationist Ozzie and Harriet era when it comes to the realities of families of color, buttressing bankrupt social welfare policies that expose the Christian fascist sham of American “family” values.
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.
Monday, March 11, 2013
By Sikivu Hutchinson
At an early age, black girls are branded as public menaces. They are suspended and expelled for “defiance” at greater rates than white boys who commit actual felony offenses. They pack the juvenile halls and adult prisons of the most prolific “first world” jailer on the planet. In textbook history, their connection to radical social change begins and ends with a saintly defanged Rosa Parks, while white women assume center stage in the women’s movement. There is little mainstream feminist discourse linking black women’s historical erasure with their criminalization; no women’s rights outrage over how the disfigurement of black women’s image buttresses mass incarceration.
In their landmark 1982 anthology on black feminism, Gloria Hull, Barbara Smith and Patricia Bell Scott proclaimed that “all the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave.” Perhaps no other early twentieth century feminist embodied the spirit of this sentiment more fiercely than anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. A giant of the independent black press, and an early media literacy educator, Wells’ leadership and uncompromising vision continue to reverberate for black women. In an era in which International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month inspires only token attention — and then mostly to heroic white women – in American public education, her visionary organizing has been criminally marginalized. Long before daycare and leave time, Wells, like scores of other “faceless” activist black women, was a caregiver navigating the divide between her domestic responsibilities and her life’s work as the most militant media watchdog of her time.
Accused of not knowing her place because she challenged the vacuum in male leadership around lynching, Wells struggled for recognition and compensation for her work. The constant juggling of her roles as writer, activist, orator and mother loomed large in both her public and private stance on women’s rights. Wells once boasted that she was perhaps the only nursing mother to travel nationwide to give political addresses. After the birth of her second child she announced that she was retiring from public activism to devote all her energies to motherhood. Three months later she came blazing back onto the national stage in protest of the lynching of a black postmaster and his family.
In her fearless defense of lynching victims and African Americans’ right to due process, Wells often bucked the backward conventional wisdom of the era. When she began her campaign against lynching in the late 19th century there wasn’t consensus among African Americans that lynching was worthy of a national social justice movement, nor was there agreement about the terroristic sexual politics that motivated white lynch mobs. Wells was perhaps the first journalist to speak out on the racist and sexist implications of lynching. In her editorials she consistently blasted the hypocrisy of white savagery against black men accused of raping white women and exposed the long history of black female sexual exploitation by white men. Catapulted into twenty first century America, Wells might not be surprised at the power that this legacy has had on contemporary media images of black femininity. She might not be surprised that reconciling black liberation struggle with feminism is still dicey. As an outspoken suffragist and defender of the black female image she would have choice words for the young woman who told me recently that it’s ok when she’s addressed as a bitch or a ho because “I know I’m not one.” As a Chicago organizer ever skeptical of black politicians, she might have initially celebrated the election of Barack Obama then used her bully pulpit to separate the rhetoric of post-racial inclusion from the reality of racial apartheid. And as an early critic of western gunboat diplomacy she would have seen a clear connection between the U.S. government’s interventionist policies and its imperial relationship with over-incarcerated black communities.
Despite her challenges to the American criminal justice system, her long record of publication at home and abroad, and her influence on Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois (both of whom were ambivalent if not threatened by her single-mindedness), Wells’ legacy remains undervalued. Eclipsed by the cult of charismatic masculinity that privileged the contributions of male leaders like Douglas and DuBois, her relative obscurity parallels her conflicts with a black political establishment that deemed her too radical for her gender. Remarking that “the people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press,” Wells remains a beacon of justice and a testament to the radical power of black feminist media literacy.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
By Sikivu Hutchinson
“If you’ve seen a black or Latino person portrayed as a criminal on TV within the past twenty-four hours stand up. If you’ve seen a black or Latino person portrayed as a professional on TV recently stand up.” These were the two powerful icebreaker questions my students asked the audience in a room packed with 9-12th graders during a recent Youth of Color college panel at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. Virtually everyone in the room stood up for the first question. Six people stood up for the second. One student wanted clarification on what a professional was.
According to the Education Trust-West, only “20 percent of African-American ninth-graders who graduate from high school four years later do so having completed the A-G coursework needed for admission to the University of California or California State University”. The report estimates that "if current trends continue” only one in twenty black students in Los Angeles county will go on to a four year college or university. Massive sequestration-generated cuts to early childhood education and K-16 will only deepen these disparities.
At the college panel, young African American and Latino first-generation graduates of Princeton, UCLA, UC San Diego and the California Institute of the Arts spoke candidly about the high stakes climate students of color face in higher education. A decade of racist anti-affirmative action propaganda has sanitized public discussions about racial politics in higher ed. Indeed, many education activists predict that the ultra-conservatives on the Supreme Court will strike down affirmative action policy in a landmark case involving the University of Texas. But, for many student activists, pretending like the racial playing field is level, and that white college students face the same conditions as students of color, is no longer an option. Skyrocketing unemployment amongst African American college graduates has permanently stymied upward mobility for many working class blacks struggling to "make it" into the middle class. According to a 2005 Princeton University study, even white former felons got offered jobs at slightly greater rates than did black job applicants with no criminal records.* The cultual presumption of white innocence (despite a criminal past), coupled with the stereotype of black incompetence/untrustworthiness, is still deep and intractable.
During the forum, Princeton University graduate and community organizer Brandon Bell talked about the assumption some white biochemistry instructors had that he wouldn’t be able to cut the rigorous coursework. Coming from the highly-regarded King Drew Medical Magnet in Compton, he was saddled with the perception of being an affirmative action admission (while his white legacy peers skated by with their meritocratic silver spoons in their mouths). Undocumented youth activist Edna Monroy spoke of being one of only three Latinas in her graduating class to go to UCLA. California’s draconian Proposition 209 prohibited affirmative action at public colleges and universities and dramatically reduced black and Latino admissions to elite UCs. Even though she’d been a straight-A student in high school, Edna struggled during her first year at UCLA because she hadn’t had college caliber coursework before. Graduate student Diane Arellano spoke of being viewed as less than competent because she was the only Latina in the photography department at prestigious Cal Arts; where high profile disciplines like directing and animation (fount of the Pixar empire) were almost exclusively white male. Brandon and Edna’s experiences highlight the institutional challenges that often prevent students of color from even getting to college—i.e., inadequate preparation at the middle and high school level, overcrowded classrooms, low caliber teachers, and racist/sexist stereotypes that translate into low academic expectations. The Ed Trust report criticizes racially disparate suspension policies that disproportionately “pipeline” black students to juvenile detention. Coupled with federal policy (such as the Obama administration’s Race to the Top “accountability” initiative) that mandates high stakes tests and relentlessly promotes charter schools, the over-suspension of black students is a national travesty.
Following a national trend, billionaire outsiders like Michael Bloomberg, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation have poured millions into Los Angeles charter schools. Charter privatization is a major driver of school re-segregation. Charter re-segregation buttresses disparities in home buying, homeownership, and employment amongst African Americans of all class backgrounds. A recent Brandeis University report concluded that the wealth gap between blacks and whites has increased dramatically from 1984 to 2009. White wealth derives from greater home equity, investments, and inheritances from family. By contrast, the bulk of black and Latino wealth comes from one place—homeownership. Because whites of all classes live in higher income neighborhoods than do African Americans (and have benefited from lower interest rates, longer term homeownership, greater access to social amenities, living wage job centers and better-resourced schools), white privilege continues to be the engine for white upward mobility.
But there is no federal policy that specifically addresses these disparities. The Obama administration’s “colorblind” remedies for the mortgage meltdown have been piecemeal, fragmented, and grossly inadequate for the economic crisis of communities of color. Even as President Obama forges ahead with a more “liberal” second term agenda, the administration’s robber baron race-to-the-bottom corporate education policy and its indifference to the scourge of mass incarceration underscore the lie of the American dream. It means that students like Brandon, Edna, and Diane know that they will have to work ten times as hard as their white counterparts who can still bank on earning a nice wage of whiteness in a “post-racial” age.
*The study was based on testers (some posing as ex-offenders) applying to nearly 1500 job openings in New York city and concludes that, “Black job seekers fare no better than whites just released from prison.”
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, due March 30th.