Thursday, July 23, 2015

Driving While Black, Female and Fearless

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As a black woman motorist alone, Sandra Bland’s apprehension and subsequent death underscores the race and gender regime of mobility in the U.S.  For many white people, having the freedom to get behind the wheel of a car is a birthright as critical to American national identity as the delusion that the U.S. is the greatest country on the planet.  Historically, cars have been associated with masculine freedom, rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny, especially vis-à-vis highway development and the destruction of poor urban communities. 

Unlimited access to the open road was a white privilege symbolized by the U.S.’ massive investment in suburbia and interstate highways in the 1950s.  During the Jim Crow era, African Americans were supposed to yield to white drivers on the road.  Failure to do so could mean a traffic ticket, a beating or death.  As Stetson Kennedy stresses in the book Jim Crow Guide to the USA, for Southern black drivers, “When on wheels you were to do as on foot”.  Black drivers are routinely stopped and searched  at greater rates than are whites.  From the colonists to Kerouac, free, unlimited, boundary-free travel has always been a hallmark of white Americana.

Getting behind the wheel, Bland had three strikes against her.  She was black, female and fearless, a combination that is antithetical to white-centered narratives of driving and freedom in the U.S. She was perceived as criminal and unruly, a loud black “bitch” not worthy of the feminine privileges and niceties conferred to respectable white women.  Rightly challenging the actions of the officer who stopped her, she was an uppity harridan who clearly did not know her place.  Texas D.A. Elton Mathis’ comments that Bland was not a “model” person highlight the dominant perception of black women.  It is a perception that is always laced with sexual disruption and moral failing.  Black women’s bodies are always constructed as bodies out of place; uneasily positioned between the binary of masculine and feminine.

This is especially pronounced in public discourse on policing and criminalization in which black women’s experiences are still devalued by the mainstream.  In its new report, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women”, the African American Policy Forum notes that: “Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them. For example, although racial profiling data are rarely, if ever, disaggregated by gender and race, when race and gender are considered together, researchers find that ‘for both men and women there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ ethnicity.’”  Why do researchers and policy makers overlook this egregious dynamic and solely focus on African American males in public discourse?  The marginalization of black women in U.S. civil and human rights policy is a phenomenon that extends back to slavery.  As field laborers, mothers, breeders and domestics, black women fulfilled multiple roles that simultaneously reinforced and defied “normative” gender boundaries.  Black women were never centered as the primary victims of racist terrorism.  As feminist theorist and writer bell hooks argues, antebellum narratives of black brutalization often privileged black men, black patriarchy and black men’s stolen right to assume the normal role of patriarch under white supremacy.  One of the principal recommendations of the notorious 1965 Moynihan Report was that black men should be given the social capital to become responsible patriarchs.  Restoring hetero-normative nuclear black families would redeem, stabilize and correct “matriarchal” black families and chaotic black communities.
In many regards, failure to acknowledge, much less centralize, black women’s experiences with state violence is part of Moynihan’s racist/sexist/heterosexist legacy.  As the AAPF report notes, “both the incidents and consequences of state violence against Black women are often informed by their roles as primary caretakers of people of all ages in their communities. As a result, violence against them has ripple effects throughout families and neighborhoods. Black women are positioned at the center of the domestic sphere and of community life.”  In New York City, where African Americans are 27% of the population, black women were stopped 53.4% of the time and black men 55.7% of the time, a tiny difference in representation.   True to their long history of being victimized by state sanctioned sexual violence, black women are more likely to suffer sexualized violence during police encounters or in police custody.  Further, trans, lesbian and gender non-conforming black women are often subject to homophobic and transphobic language which officers use to call their gender identities and sexuality into question (e.g., “threats to ‘rape them straight’”).  Entrenched homophobia and transphobia among police mean that trans, lesbian and gender non-conforming black women are less likely to be viewed as “proper” victims and/or targets of violent crime.

This racist sexist theme of culpability—i.e., “the black bitch deserved it”—is a recurring one in mainstream perceptions of black women’s inability to be victims.  After the dashcam footage of Bland’s arrest was released thousands of online commenters rushed in to vilify her as a “thugette” who provoked the officer’s response and, presumably, her own death.  In a culture in which black female bodies are racialized and sexualized as out of place, black women are never granted the space of the open road, the freedom to be mobile, self-determined or fearless without permission.  Sandra Bland didn’t ask for it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why Prison Warden Scott Walker Must Be Stopped

By Sikivu Hutchinson
Twitter @Sikivuhutch

Here’s one more reason to rally against the candidacy of rabid Christian fundamentalist, college dropout and newly declared GOP presidential hopeful Governor Scott Walker—Wisconsin boasts the highest rates of suspension and incarceration for African Americans in the country.  As a union-busting darling, Walker has emerged as one of the key architects of the radical right’s “take back the nation” agenda of dismantling civil rights, workers’ rights, gay rights, women’s rights and abortion rights. But while Walker’s destructive right-to-work policies are widely known, Wisconsin’s status as a cynosure for black mass incarceration and racial achievement gaps is not.  Under Walker’s watch, Wisconsin, in which African Americans represent a mere 6.5% of the population, has over-disciplined and locked up more blacks than Southern states with two-three times the number of African Americans.  The state is at the epicenter of the national suspension epidemic in which black children are criminalized as early as pre-school.  Prison pipelining in K-12 is a precursor to school pushout, adult incarceration, homelessness and chronic unemployment.  Yet Walker’s policies have decimated what little remains of the social welfare safety net; denying formerly incarcerated African Americans the prisoner reentry resources they need to get jobs, vocational training and access to college.

Wisconsin’s draconian sentencing and zero tolerance discipline policies drive these gross disparities.  According to Gene Demby, “Wisconsin beats the state with the next-highest rate of imprisoned black men by nearly 3 percentage points—a gap bigger than the total distance between the second and tenth-place states.”  The majority of the state’s incarcerated African Americans are non-violent drug offenders who come from Milwaukee. The city has a 40% black population and is one of the most segregated in the nation.  While half of all 30-40 year old black Milwaukee men have been incarcerated nearly half of all black Milwaukee students have been suspended.  By contrast only 16% of white Milwaukee students were suspended.
As foes of “big government”, Walker and his states’ rights acolytes conjure up the usual scapegoats of broken black families, violent neighborhoods, criminal behavior and disrespect for authority.  But the criminal behavior and practices Walker won’t chest thump about are his administration’s responsibility for the state’s staggering racial achievement gap. Walker’s private school voucher program (which primarily goes to religious schools) has gutted Wisconsin’s public schools.  His newly signed budget would expand the voucher program, cut $250 million in funding to the state’s university system and slash school districts’ funding.  Currently the state is second only to D.C. in egregious disparities between black and white students in reading and math. High rates of suspension make black students more vulnerable to being pushed out of school permanently. And it’s no revelation that disproportionate suspension, expulsion and push-out correlate with low college preparation and college access rates among black youth.
Yet this is especially ironic given college dropout Walker’s bright future as one of the GOP’s leading “visionaries”. Walker’s white affirmative action ascent is a bird flip to people of color who don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting elected to higher public office without a college degree.  Indeed, black college graduates have higher rates of unemployment than white high school graduates.  Unlike Donald Trump, Walker is a clear and present danger to the future of social justice in America, a twenty-first century menace who would, without compromise, destroy every last vestige of the public sector and turn the U.S. into an even bigger prison than it is now.