Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Bernie and the White Savior Shuffle

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Walk on water? Perform the miracle of five loaves and two fish?

To hear rhapsodic left-progressive Sanders’ acolytes tell it, these are just two of his many gifts as a beacon of social justice. It wasn't always so.  Over the past two years, Sanders has been challenged by Black Lives Matter and Black Alliance for Just Immigration activists, as well as African American commentators, about his mantra that remedying economic inequality is the only antidote to racial inequity.  Flash forward to the 2016 presidential campaign and the #FeeltheBern magic has captivated many African American and people of color progressives critical of Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal complicity in building the carceral state. Forced into a swift baptism, Sanders has become a regular civil rights evangelist, condemning the evils of racial discrimination and mass incarceration during high profile campaign appearances that have made him the darling of celebrity black intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornell West as well as filmmaker Spike Lee.

Yet, Sanders’ dubious record on racial justice in his own state appears not to have presented a meaningful hurdle for his most fervent black supporters.  Although African Americans are 1.2% of Vermont’s population, their small numbers only partly explain Sanders’ well-documented disdain of intersectional analyses of race, poverty and economic inequality. 

A recent article in the Daily Beast outlined his rocky relationship with leaders in Vermont’s African American community. “Feeling the Bern” in another way, black leaders in Vermont have long criticized Sanders’ paternalism on race and racism. In a 2014 NPR interview about his presidential aspirations, Sanders was asked about racial disparities in job access and income.  He dismissed the question, implying that it was short-sighted if not petty; briskly pivoting to the more pressing issue of the Democrats’ failure to court white working class voters.   According to Curtiss Reed, head of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Sanders constantly deflected on providing solutions to institutional racism with platitudes about addressing income inequality “overall”.  As one African American leader from Vermont contended, “voters of color are simply not on his radar” and are treated with “disdain”. One activist dubbed Sanders as MIA on issues of racial profiling, black mass incarceration and maintaining the state’s charter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. So while Sanders’ newfound fiery rhetoric on the New Jim Crow has elicited black adoration, according to The Sentencing Project, African Americans “are sentenced to prison in Vermont at 12-and-a-half times the rate for whites. The percentage of blacks in Vermont prisons is nearly twenty times greater than the percentage in the general population.” Blacks account for over 10% of the state’s prison population and are incarcerated at greater rates than in lockdown champions Wisconsin, Texas and Louisiana.  In addition to its appalling incarceration numbers, Vermont’s African American students are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

Sanders’ reductive stance is a familiar one in the racially polarized history of left-radical alliances. In the early twentieth century, African American involvement in interracial communist-socialist organizing and coalition-building was undermined both by overt white racism and the white socialist thesis that capitalism alone posed the gravest threat to disenfranchised people of color (see for example Earl O. Hutchinson’s Blacks and Reds, Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe and Jeffrey Perry’s Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism).  White segregationists, often driven by white immigrant animus toward black workers, played a key role in early twentieth century socialist organizing. Socialist icon and four-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs once commented that we “have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”  This stance elicited scorching criticism from prominent socialist-aligned African American leaders like radical black freethinkers Hubert Harrison and A. Philip Randolph.

Until his Road to Damascus awakening, Sanders, like Clinton, said nary a word about the role white supremacy plays in black folks’ struggle for jobs, housing, equitable education and redress of the pervasive institutional violence against black women. Nonetheless, on the other end of the spectrum, African American leaders in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) rallied around Clinton and openly disdained Sanders’ oft-trotted out reference to his civil rights involvement back in the 60s.  This was no surprise given the CBC’s lockstep march with the Clinton regime and the Obama administration.  In a recent column in The Nation, New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander argued that Clinton was “not deserving” of black votes yet dismissed the prospect of a viable Bernie-led revolution within the confines of the Wall Street-aligned Democratic Party.

As Alexander contends, “Even if Bernie’s racial-justice views evolve, I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”  And if Sanders’ tenure with black folk in Vermont is any indication, he’s hewing to the Democratic Party playbook—ignore black voters until you have to go south of the Mason-Dixon or Black History Month rolls around, then “freedom fight”, and photo op, like hell.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Who Speaks for Black Girls on CSEC?

By Sikivu Hutchinson*
On Tuesday, February 9th, the LAUSD will vote on a resolution to address commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in Los Angeles school-communities. 
Although this resolution makes a general reference to the disproportionate number of African American children affected by the nexus of criminalization and sexual abuse; the resolution is lacking in its failure to identify culturally responsive prevention and intervention initiatives that would specifically address the disproportionate rates of victimization of black girls.  As founder of the Women’s Leadership Project feminist advocacy and mentoring program in South Los Angeles I work daily with young black girls who silently cope with the trauma and PTSD of sexual and physical violence in their school communities.  Inundated with cultural messages that demean and marginalize black girls and women, many of my students have grown up with the pervasive message that violence against black women and girls is normal, natural, and justifiable.  According to the Department of Justice nearly 40% of young black women have experienced sexual assault by the age of 18.  In L.A. County, black girls have the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization and are more likely to be arrested and jailed for prostitution than non-black women and girls. Black girls accounted for 92% of individuals arrested for prostitution in 2010.  Indeed, “the decision to arrest and detain girls in these cases has been shown often to be based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma”.
According to the 2015 Human Rights for Girls’ report, girls of color are at the epicenter of the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”.[i] And exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.”[ii]  African American girls in particular are more likely than their non-black peers to be re-victimized by sexual abuse in and trafficking through the foster care system. In the District, these trends are exacerbated by high push-out, policing and criminalization rates driven in part by low academic expectations, scant college preparation resources, high student-to-counselor ratios and limited health education curricula. These dynamics are especially acute in the South L.A. high schools I work with.  And while there is the perception that only black boys are heavily impacted by high rates of suspension and expulsion, black girls are also victimized by racially disproportionate discipline.

Targeted culturally responsive training, outreach and youth leadership development that addresses not just the victims and survivors of CSEC—but the educational, health and socioeconomic factors that allow sex trafficking to thrive—are urgently needed.  In order for these measures to truly impact CSEC youth the District must make an investment in partnering with community resource providers and advocates who are already working with vulnerable youth in the LGBTQ and gender non-conforming, juvenile offender, undocumented, homeless/foster and disabled communities.  These initiatives must encompass targeting social media; identifying cultures of abuse, predation and recruitment that exist on popular youth social media sites; incorporating boys into CSEC prevention and intervention education; as well as reinforcing mentoring programs, restorative and social justice leadership initiatives that provide healthy alternatives for youth in heavily impacted school-communities in South Los Angeles. 
Finally, it’s important to recognize that sex trafficking does not arise in a vacuum. It’s not only intimately connected with poverty in our communities and the normalization of sexual violence against women and girls, but with the perception—deeply ingrained in a District where black boys and girls are disproportionately suspended and shut out of college access—that certain youth are disposable. The District has an obligation to do more than draft feel good platitudes but to push for equity with real teeth and sustainability.

*Remarks to LAUSD school board

[i] Human Rights for Girls, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” Georgetown University Center for Poverty and Inequality, 2015, pp. 7-15
[ii] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

#AtheismSoWhite: Atheists of Color Rock Social Justice

SSJcon 2016 beyond #atheismsowhite

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Back in the day, supergroups ruled rock’s largely white, largely male landscape.  Megaliths like my boys Cream, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young bestrode the earth in all their swaggering testosterone-oozing alpha glory.  They dominated the music charts and arenas with power chord chestnuts which legitimized the careers of gatekeeping white music critics and fueled a multi-billion dollar recording industry fattened by the unsung influence of black rock trailblazers like Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.  Outmoded, the supergroups of the 60s and 70s eventually crashed and burned, victim to the ravages of time, drugs, egos, corporate bloat, and the encroachments of Disco and punk.

The recent merger of the secular organization Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDF) has been dubbed atheism’s supergroup moment.  Acknowledging the two organizations’ outsized presence in the atheist world, Religion News Service acidly declared it a “royal wedding”.   The partnership, which gives Richard Dawkins a seat on the CFI board, smacks of a vindication of Dawkins’ toxic brand of damn-all-them-culturally-backward-Western-values-hating- Muslims New Atheism.  As one of the most prominent global secular organizations, CFI’s all-white board looks right at home with RDF’s lily white board and staff.

Meanwhile, atheists and humanists of color have been going against the white grain to address issues that much of organized atheism and humanism are resistant if not outright hostile to.  Last week, the Black Non-Believers organization, the largest network of African American atheists in the country, celebrated its five-year anniversary in Atlanta, Georgia.  Founded by activist Mandisa Thomas, the network is an antidote to the ostracism black atheists in the Bible Belt and beyond experience, especially in the absence of supportive secular institutions. 

The intersection of racial segregation, economic inequality and cultural identity is the reason why religious traditions predominate in black communities.  When African Americans across the economic spectrum look to social welfare, educational and civic organizations they are more often than not tapping into those either provided by or connected to faith-based institutions.  For example, at a recent Drew University conference (named after pioneering African American physician and scientist Charles Drew) I attended on resiliency and African American men, faith was often cited as key to motivating young black men to pursue community leadership and academics.  High school students spoke of getting mentoring and college readiness resources from their congregations.  In South Los Angeles, reentry programs that provide jobs for formerly incarcerated black workers meet in and partner with churches.  In the absence of community, job and recreation centers, churches offer stable physical space which simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in most poor and working class communities of color. Simply put, churches—for good or ill—are a political and social platform for people of color in the absence of the kind of secular institutions that provide white people with political leverage, visibility, and validation.  Atheists who bash religion but aren’t about the business of building social justice institutions that provide alternatives to religious ones are just making noise.
The need for secular reentry initiatives is one issue that will be taken up at this week’s Secular Social Justice conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  Featuring atheist and humanist activists, educators and writers of color, the event is the only secular conference to focus exclusively on racial, gender and economic justice in communities of color without apology or accommodation to white folks’ let’s-ghettoize-this-into-a-diversity-panel reflex. From the cultural relevance of feminism, to the impact of mass incarceration, the intersectional activism of queer atheists of color and the neoliberal re-segregation of public schools, progressive folk of color who also identify as atheist and/or humanist are broadening the scope of atheist activism beyond merely challenging religious prejudice.

LGBTQ queer Black atheists on Social Justice

But, typically, mainstream media can’t seem to see atheists or atheist “activism” unless it’s Dawkins or Sam Harris going on yet another Islamophobic atheist rock star rant. Last year’s CNN show featuring the white atheist elite—the most privileged among an already economically and racially privileged class—reinforced the reductive anti-religious focus of mainstream atheism.  Having the ability to claim the space of atheism unabashedly, while being viewed as a secular authority, has everything to do with race, gender, class, and sexual privilege.  It is precisely because Dawkins and company are not criminalized, protected from the brunt of state violence due to their inhabitance of white male cis bodies, that they’ve gained global credence as atheist paragons of science and reason.  Of course, mainstream media will never be ready for the intersectional atheist organizing represented by non-believers of color who’ve pushed the movement to go beyond the safe platitudes of church state separation.  That would involve confronting the “revelation” that a humanistic atheism demands more than simply non-belief, but a radical dismantling of the same old social norms that center whiteness, maleness, straightness and private enterprise as “secular” God substitutes.