Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Black Girls and the Police State Menace

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Whenever there’s a black girl on a school campus wielding a dangerous weapon like a cell phone, white macho can always be counted on to come to civilization’s rescue with the full force of fascist violence. These days, unarmed black children rank higher than mass murderers with semi-automatic weapons as public enemy number one on American school campuses.  Shortly after the videotaped assault of a cell phone wielding sixteen year-old Spring Valley High School student in Richland, South Carolina by a white male school resource officer went viral, a New York Times letter writer naively asked—“Why are children not treated like children when they do silly things?” 

Why? Because black children have never been children in the eyes of the police state and its proxy, American public education.  Nor do they qualify as victims within the lens of a corporate media regime hell bent on exploiting black pain, à la  news outlets like CNN.  Zealously milking the moment for maximum reality TV effect, CNN correspondents played and replayed the brutal image; first, as the silent backdrop to an interview with a Richland school board representative, then as a frame-by-frame analysis to evaluate the girl’s “responsibility”.  In their "analysis", the upraised arm of the girl being dragged from her desk was transformed into a strike against the officer.  Her flailing legs were parsed as a potential “assault” on his person.  Claiming “she had no respect for the school or her teacher”, CNN commentator Harry Houck deemed the assault to be justified, conjuring racist-sexist stereotypes of black girls as violent, lawless Jezebels.  As Color of Change activists have argued, this shameless victim blaming is itself a form of emotional and psychological trauma that would never be inflicted on a white girl.

The criminalization and policing of black girls on school campuses has been well-documented by the U.S. Department of Education and the African American Policy Forum, headed by esteemed activist law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. Black girls are suspended more than any other group besides black boys.  They have higher suspension rates vis-à-vis white girls than do black boys in comparison to white boys. One of the most insidious aspects of race/gender disproportionality in school discipline is the double standard of conduct—when black girls “act out”, talk back, wear “inappropriate” clothing or use restricted personal items like cell phones in classrooms they’re disciplined more harshly than whites who commit serious offenses such as assault.  The Indiana Education Policy Center’s 2000 “Color of Discipline” report concluded that black students were more likely to be referred out of class for lower level infractions such as excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and “threat.” Hearkening back to its Jim Crow legacy of anti-black terrorism, black children in the South are more likely to receive corporal punishment than are students in other regions. 
So while white children are given the social and cultural space to “just be kids”—acting out, talking back, playing with gadgets and clothing styles—black children must always toe the line of respectability or risk detention, assault and/or death.  And while white children of all class backgrounds have greater access to college preparation curricula and college resources, many black students have greater “access” to school police than a college counselor. 

From high-achieving older students to the tiniest students just starting out, black girls are criminalized at every step of their school careers. In a widely publicized 2013 case, sixteen year-old chemistry student Kiera Wilmot was arrested, led away in handcuffs, and expelled from Bartow High School in Florida for a science experiment gone awry.  In 2012, the handcuffing of black female preschoolers and kindergartners in Georgia elicited a groundswell of activism around the egregious numbers of very young black children who are suspended and expelled. Despite being only 18% of the preschool population, black preschool students receive 48% of school suspensions. By contrast, white students comprise 43% of all preschoolers and 26% of those suspended.  Responding to these horrendous demographics, school-community activists of color have pushed for restorative justice programs, fewer police, and less paramilitary weaponry on campuses.

In Richland, black students are 59% of the student population and 77% of those suspended.  The Richland Two Black Parents Association has been working with the national Dignity in Schools campaign to get the district to implement a culturally responsive discipline code “that clearly spells out that peaceful students will not be dealt with by law enforcement, but by school officials.” Addressing the epidemic of school push-out and prison pipelining that targets students of color, Dignity in Schools has advocated for a human rights-based discipline model which would replace school resource officers with community intervention workers trained to do mentoring, conflict resolution and peace-building in heavily criminalized schools.  Changing the paramilitary climate of schools of color would remove the real menace to the mental health, wellbeing and academic success of African American youth who are bearing the brunt of the U.S.’ mass incarceration cancer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hillary Clinton and the Problem of White Feminism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton rode a wave of feminist zeal.  Touted by Gloria Steinem and other marquee white feminists as the antidote to “the patriarchy”, Clinton strode onto the national stage with her women’ s rights bona fides largely unquestioned.    Flash forward and the adulation has waned.  As evidenced by last night’s debate, Bernie Sanders’ left flank challenge has exposed Clinton’s corporate/centrist/imperialist underbelly and made her scramble for the populist street cred she lacks.  Cautiously rebranding herself as a “practical” progressive, Clinton touted family friendly policies, an end to mass incarceration (motivated by the challenge she’s gotten from Black Lives Matters activists), subsidized college tuition, universal pre-K and defense of women’s health as bread and butter issues she’d fight for.  In a nod to her traditional base, she attacked the GOP theocracy’s cowardly assault on Planned Parenthood. 

Yet, as the economic climate worsens for communities of color, generalized white feminist shibboleths on women’s rights won’t cut it for women of color.  For example, the Democrats’ narrow focus on income inequality and equal pay for equal work (a half step that would exclude women who work in low-paid historically female jobs) ignores the massive race/gender wealth gap which separates white women and women of color.  While Clinton and Sanders blasted the big banks and the disaster of deregulation, there was no mention of the devastating impact of predatory and subprime lending on communities of color—policies that disproportionately affected black women and have decimated black wealth.

Over the past decade, the wealth gap between black women and virtually everyone else in the U.S. has widened to epic levels.  According to the NAACP, in 2012, “Wealth for black women under age 65 was $100, amounting to a penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by single black men and a fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single white women or men.” Because African American women bear a greater child care burden, this disparity is not mitigated by the larger numbers of women of color in higher education relative to men (a factor which conservatives and others cite as an example of how sexist discrimination is nonexistent).  As Nia Hamm writes about a recent Congressional Black Caucus economic report, “When African-American mothers — more than half of whom are raising their children on their own — can’t financially support their families, the consequences often have long-lasting and devastating implications for their communities.” Further, women of color are less likely to work in jobs that have wealth-generating fringe benefits such as defined benefit retirement plans or paid sick leave.  

The nexus between poverty, wealth and opportunity is also reflected in the criminalization of black girls and women.  Nationwide, African American girls are 14% of the youth population but constitute 34% of the juvenile incarcerated population.  When white girls attend America’s schools they don’t have to fear being pounced on by school police or local law enforcement for not conforming to gender norms.  As the African American Policy Institute has noted, black girls are subject to pernicious double standards about their race/gender identities.  And they are systematically funneled through what the Human Rights for Girls organization identifies as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”.  While prison pipelining ensnares youth of color of all genders, girls of color who are sexually abused are more likely to wind up in juvenile jails and experience a cycle of re-victimization that may result in commercial sexual exploitation.   Nationwide, black girls have some of the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization. 

But when it comes to the status of black women in the U.S., the intersection of sexual violence, economic inequality and mass incarceration is seldom addressed in national policy forums.  From the wealth gap to sex abuse prison pipelining, white women and girls actively benefit from black female criminalization. When white girls are perceived as brainy and/or non-threatening in schools with zero tolerance policies they automatically benefit from the wages of whiteness.   When campaigns against sex trafficking minimize or don’t focus on the epidemic of sexualized violence against black girls and women, white girls and women are the default victims of choice.

Both Clinton and her right wing evil twin Carly Fiorina illustrate the perils of white role model feminism and the optics of empowerment.  Rounding out her self-portrait in last night’s closing statements, Clinton extolled her “blessed” status as one who came from a humble background yet was able to seize the rugged individualist promise of American capitalist opportunity.  Missing was a nod to the civil rights and social justice legacies—most notably affirmative action, which white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of—that facilitated her success and helped consolidate white middle class postwar wealth.  But of course, Clinton’s narratives of progressive sisterhood only extend so far.