Tuesday, August 13, 2019

From Brexit to El Paso: The Geopolitics of White Hate

By Sikivu Hutchinson
On the bustling streets of Kensington in London last week, one of the Black women I asked to comment on the recent election of Boris Johnson (who has been branded as Donald Trump’s British mini-me) vehemently declined. “I wouldn’t be able to without cussing,” she said, her response encapsulating the rage and distress Johnson’s election has elicited for progressive people of color.
The backlash to Johnson’s ascent after the resignation of Tory Prime Minister Theresa May is reminiscent of Trumpian political turbulence. Johnson’s hard-line call for a “no deal” Brexit, or withdrawal from the European Union (EU), would further undermine social and economic justice in working class communities of color that are already suffering from massive unemployment rates, a grossly unaffordable housing market, educational disparities, and a criminalizing police presence.
Like Trump, Johnson sees himself as a redemptive figure for a first-world empire under siege. He has rightfully been branded a racist for famously ridiculing Black folks as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and likening Muslim women who wear burkas to letterboxes. Just as Trump has whipped up white supremacist, nativist, and nationalist sentiment in the US, so too has Johnson aroused Britain’s isolationist, hard-right conservatives who see “their” country being overrun by brown and black immigrants milking a welfare state steeped in a threatening multiculturalism. According to the Counter Extremism Project, “These far-right political parties have been able to unite ethno-nationalism with populism by propagating the notion that ethno-nationalism serves the average hardworking individual and the broader national identity.” In this narrative, the EU is the scourge of white nationalist independence and self-determination, sucking the economies of Britain, Italy, and Germany dry.
The young white male shooter who murdered twenty-two people and injured dozens more at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart on August 3 also vilified “race mixing,” Latinx immigrants, and white America’s inability to defend itself from the dark hordes. Indeed, the upsurge in American white nationalism is part of a larger global trend that has also gripped Europe and Canada. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper notes,
The targets of deadly attacks have included Muslim worshippers at mosques in Canada, Britain and New Zealand; black Americans…at a historic black church in South Carolina; Jewish Americans in synagogues across the United States; and leftwing politicians and activists in the US, UK, Greece and Norway.
In June of 2016, a week before the Brexit referendum passed, British MP and Brexit opponent Jo Cox was murdered by a white terrorist who screamed “This is for Britain!” and “Britain first!”
After Brexit passed, rising hate crimes and Islamophobia ripped open what writer Habiba Katsha characterizes as the myth that Black folks have it “easier” in the UK. In this distorted view, British institutional racism is supposedly less insidious than in the United States. Yet for so-called Brexiteers, leaving the EU has been fetishized as a swashbuckling panacea to European domination and control, Britain’s twenty-first-century version of Confederate secession. “Britain First,” like “America First,” has become a clarion call for white resistance. Not surprisingly, Brexit support is most robust in rural and small cities where white voters feel most imperiled by immigration. Opposition to Brexit is strongest in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London. Anti-Brexiteers believe the move will gut trade because the majority of Britain’s exports and foreign investment comes from Europe. Economic analysts predict that the pound will fall, trade at the Irish border will cease, and inflation will skyrocket. In anticipation of the withdrawal, major corporations like Airbus have threatened to leave Britain.
Blasting Johnson on the floor of Parliament, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that a no-deal Brexit was the “height of economic lunacy” and would lead to job cuts, decreased workers’ rights, and fewer environmental protections. “I note the climate change-denying [US] president has already dubbed him ‘Britain Trump’ and welcomed his plea to work with fascist, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage,” Corbyn observed, warning this “would make us a vassal state of Trump’s America.” Suggesting the disastrous impact leaving the EU will have on working-class people, one commentator likened it to a Ponzi scheme—a massive swindle promising unlimited returns based on lies and subterfuge. That the majority of white working-class Labour Party members voted to leave the EU highlights how race solidarity always eclipses class solidarity in nations like Britain and the US, where the wages of whiteness are key to national identity, economic stability, and community.
The Black and South Asian women I spoke to were infuriated by the British media’s soft-pedaling of Johnson as a “charming eccentric.” Londoner and world traveler Muksa railed against the normalization of Trump’s hate speech and its effect on Britain’s political climate, noting that “the outside world rarely hears from British people of color,” which leads to the false assumption that folks are complacent and invisible. In her view, this presumed invisibility is strongly connected to hate attacks against Muslim and ethnic communities. Sadia Hameed, a feminist activist, atheist, socialist, and member of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, predicted that, “The poor will most certainly get poorer and, just as austerity impacted people of color in the worst way (women of color worst of all), in the same manner, Brexit will hit people of color doubly hard, harder than their white working-class counterparts.” Commenting on Johnson’s strategy, filmmaker Maria Ivienagbor of South London said, “I don’t think he has Black British folks in mind, and Brexit will probably be an ‘experiment’ on us. I’m worried for the future.”
This future is further clouded by the burgeoning global industry of hate fueled by a vast European infrastructure (anchored by training camps, social media, job networks, lecture circuits, and publication platforms) that attracts recruits from around the world to places like Russia and the UK for induction. Under the Trump administration, domestic terrorism efforts targeting white supremacist and nationalist groups have been squelched and funding gutted. With both the US and Britain hanging in the balance, mobilizing progressive communities for the 2020 election will be critical to ensuring that the destructive blight of global Trumpism doesn’t become a permanent human rights “experiment.”

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Liberatory Power of Toni Morrison's Pen

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Excerpted from The North Star

The universe that we’ve inherited from Toni Morrison is:
The pell mell swoon of Jazz and its , mysterious crazy in  love triangle set against the backdrop of the Great Migration of African Americans to NYC, caught up in its  golden glow and cruel tease; the Blue-eyed devastation of Pecola, dreaming her truth, against incest, in the grinding poverty of segregationist Ohio; The twisted bond and  ride or die Sula-passion between two dramatically different black women; one fuck-you mad, one respectable and maybe veering towards madness; The elusive thrum of Paradise in an all-black town pulsing in the terror of the Middle Passage where black women’s fight for self-determination, bodily autonomy, and the Beloved blasted the white gaze to bits.

On my desk, I have a picture of Morrison with one of her most famous quotes: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ...More @ The North Star    

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Black LGBTQI Family Support and Advocacy Group

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In Los Angeles school-communities, resources, support, and advocacy for families, parents, and caregivers of LGBTQI and Non-Binary K-12 youth are scant to nonexistent. Further, when the LAUSD deigns to address LGBTQI youth issues in its school-communities, African descent youth and families are seldom prioritized or represented in these discussions. Many queer Black youth report that there are no visible role models, curricula or cultural engagement that speaks to their lived experiences and GSAs (Gender and Sexuality Network Alliances) are MIA on predominantly Black campuses. 

A major 2019 report from the Human Rights Campaign found that: 
  • More than three-fourths of Black and African American LGBTQ youth who responded to the survey have heard family members say negative things about LGBTQ people, and nearly half have been taunted or mocked by family for being LGBTQ
  • More than three-fourths of Black and African American LGBTQ youth who responded to the survey have heard family members say negative things about LGBTQ people, and nearly half have been taunted or mocked by family for being LGBTQ.
  • Eighty percent “usually” feel depressed, down, worried, nervous or panicked. Nearly half feel critical of their LGBTQ identities.

On August 29th, a meeting of Black LGBTQI family, caregivers, and community will be held in the Crenshaw District at the offices of APLA Health for an introductory dialogue and strategy session on providing culturally responsive resources, support and advocacy for queer youth. The meeting is organized through a partnership with APLA Health, Colors LGBT Youth Counseling Services and the Women's Leadership Project.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Still, We Rise: The First Women of Color Beyond Belief Conference

Donald Trump’s recent racist, sexist, nativist tirade against congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)—telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”—underscores how fraught and dangerous conditions continue to be for women of color in the United States. Last year the four women (three of whom were born in the US and all American citizens) made history in a game-changing election that was a virtual rebuke of Trump’s fascist agenda. A year after the landmark political season, in which more women of color assumed national office than ever before, this October’s Women of Color Beyond Belief conference marks an important transition for secular women of color. Rep. Omar countered Trump supporters’ ugly chant of “Send her back!” with Maya Angelou’s line “Still, like air, I’ll rise.” The fearless example of Omar and “The Squad” is an inspiration for progressive women of color who are pushing for greater political visibility in the secular movement.
The Women of Color Beyond Belief conference, which will be held in Chicago from October 4-6, is being sponsored by Black Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Women’s Leadership Project. It was partly inspired by the July/August 2018 cover story of the Humanist magazine, “Five Fierce Humanists: Unapologetically Black Women Beyond Belief” that highlighted Black women atheist humanist activists (the “secular squad” if you will) who have championed social and gender justice in the secular movement: Bridgett Crutchfield, Candace Gorham, Liz Ross, Mandisa Thomas, and myself.
In addition to the women profiled in the original article, the conference will feature such generationally and culturally diverse speakers as Deanna Adams, Lilandra Ra, Rajani Gudlavalleti, Mashariki Lawson, Hypatia Alexander, and Cecilia Pagan. Among the topics the conference will address are: racial justice politics and intersectional organizing, secular parenting, criminal justice reform, and secular art and film.
As the Trump administration, the GOP, and the religious right ramp up their attacks on secularization, reproductive justice, women’s self-determination, and the human rights of queer LGBTQI communities, the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference couldn’t be more timely. As I argued in a recent piece for the Humanist, Black, Latinx, and indigenous women are the most imperiled by the recent wave of anti-abortion policies spearheaded by conservative legislators in Southern and Midwestern states. Queer, transgender, and non-binary communities of color are also in the crosshairs of the Department of Justice’s rollback of Obama-era protections for LGBTQI individuals in schools and the workplace. Not only are African-American folks more likely to identify as queer, but they are also more likely to have children and be at or above the poverty line, amplifying the grave implications that these policies have for communities of color as a whole.
The conference’s explicitly feminist emphasis is also a first for an event focused on secular women of color. Indeed, most feminist, humanist, and atheist discourse comes from a white, European-American perspective (case in point is the Wikipedia entry on “atheism and feminism,” which begins with a profile highlighting Jewish-American feminist, suffragist, and abolitionist Ernestine Rose, a forerunning atheist thinker). Although atheist, humanist, and feminist social thought and praxis would seem like a natural fit, the intersection of the three is still controversial, even in progressive feminist circles. Moreover, the association of mainstream atheism with vociferous white, male antitheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens is problematic for feminists who push back on their Eurocentric, sexist, and Islamophobic views. Further, sexual harassment and abuse allegations against prominent male atheists and skeptics are another deterrent for progressive feminists. The movement’s longstanding dearth of women of color in leadership roles has led to the erasure of gender and racial justice issues that are most pressing for segregated communities of color.
Ex-Muslim feminists Sadia Hameed and Heina Dadabhoy will be speaking at the WoC conference about women’s rights and visibility for persecuted ex-Muslim women who face misogynist violence, harassment, and community ostracism because of their apostasy. Other presentations include a solo performance by singer-musician Sandra Booker entitled “Confessions of an Atheist Black Woman,” along with panels on culturally relevant humanist practices, #MeToo and resisting the normalization of sexual violence, ally-building, and self-care for organizers. I will also be screening my film shortWhite Nights, Black Paradise, on Black women, Peoples Temple, and the Jonestown massacre.
Child care will be provided by Camp Quest and all genders are welcome to participate and volunteer. Early bird registration ends this month.

Monday, June 17, 2019

LAUSD School Board: Vote Yes to End Random Searches and Boost LGBTQI Rights

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On Tuesday, the LAUSD School Board will vote on a resolution to end the random search policy at all district schools and a resolution to strengthen protections for LGBTQI and nonbinary students.  The random search resolution is the product of years student and community activism by the Students Not Suspects and Students Deserve coalition against racist over-policing in the second largest district in the nation. It would sunset random searches by July 2020, prohibit the re-institution of non-individualized searches, and prohibit an increase in police presence at LAUSD campuses.  Since it was implemented twenty-six years ago, this insidious policy has wreaked havoc on student morale and trust.  It has disproportionately targeted Black, Latinx, and Muslim students, further criminalized them, and siphoned off valuable class time in schools that are already over-policed and under-resourced. Instead of yielding weapons or “dangerous objects”, random searches gave overzealous adults license to harass students and confiscate personal items such as feminine hygiene products, sharpies, and other benign miscellany. To counter this climate, the resolution directs the district to promote Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support initiatives based on restorative justice methodology. 

That said, the majority of the district’s high schools do not have restorative justice counselors. And the overall LAUSD budget for restorative justice was around $10.8 million in 2016.  By contrast, the district has allocated millions more to school police, weaponry and surveillance systems. In 2016, the school board approved a 14% increase in funding for police, bringing its pot to over $67 million.  It is currently the fifth largest police department in L.A. According to the L.A. School Report, the increases were due to “salary, healthcare benefits and pension payments”. Nonetheless, the district claims to be dedicated to a full rollout of restorative justice programming by the 2019-2020 school year.

Ending random searches is a monumental shift toward improving the mental health, wellbeing, and self-determination of LAUSD students. Nationwide, queer, nonbinary, and trans students of color are also disproportionately targeted by these harsh discipline policies.

Another resolution before the board (authored by board members Kelly Gonez, Monica Garcia and Nick Melvoin) would boost resources and support for LGBQI students. One key provision ensures that all-gender restrooms would be available on every LAUSD campus (as opposed to just high school campuses) to accommodate nonbinary and transgender students and preempt transphobic harassment. The resolution would also provide professional development training for faculty, staff, and administrators on LGBTQI youth empowerment and support. Despite the significant increase in youth between the ages of 8 and 18 who identify as nonbinary, most LAUSD K-8 schools lack curricula, support resources, and targeted outreach for queer students.  A GLSEN survey my students and I conducted at one LAUSD South L.A. school found that a majority of youth had not seen positive images of LGBTQI figures in their textbooks (despite California’s forerunning efforts to embed LGBTQI social history into school curricula), were not familiar with adult allies who were supportive of LGBTQI youth on campus, and were unaware of student groups like the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA). Moreover, according to a Human Rights Campaign survey, 77% of African American queer youth heard negative statements about their identities from family, while only 19% said they could be themselves at home, and only 26% had an “ally” family member. In an era where LGBTQI families are increasingly under fire by the Trump administration’s repeal of Obama-era non-discrimination protections on health care, gender identification, and transgender military enlistment, actively pro-LGBTQI school-based policies and resolutions are critical, but they’re merely the first step toward visibility and agency.  Tuesday’s resolution proposes the creation of Anti-Bullying Awareness Program pilots with a specific emphasis on culturally responsive support resources for queer, transgender, and nonbinary youth. To urge school board members to vote for the pending resolutions or to get involved with the pilot program contact the LAUSD School Board @ https://boe.lausd.net/contacts

Friday, May 17, 2019

Keep "God" and Christian Fascist Theocrats Out of Our Wombs

By Sikivu Hutchinson
Atrocities like the Alabama abortion bill are one of the reasons why I’m an atheist. Barefoot, pregnant, and bombed back to the Stone Age continues to be the clarion call for dominionist lawmakers who are bound and determined to hijack women’s rights.

It was no surprise that twenty-five Republican white men (one of whom is Dr. Larry Stutts, a freshman senator and OB-GYN who was dubbed Alabama’s 2015 “Scumbag of the Year” for seeking to repeal a law named after a patient who died in his care shortly after giving birth) in the Alabama state legislature were the linchpin for passing the most draconian anti-abortion bill in the nation and shepherding it to the desk of Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who dutifully signed it into law. These are the same kind of men who queue up in front of abortion clinics to hound and demonize pregnant women. They are the same kind who lock and load at the mere mention of “abortionists” and think chastity belts are long overdue for a revival. The same kind who howl, piss, and moan about their immoral “God and Country” and foment Christian fascism based on a deeply misogynist fear of women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproductive autonomy. They are also the same kind of men whose protected white families systematically benefit from Black, Latinx and Indigenous peoples’ poverty, segregation, and criminalization by gutting social welfare funding and anything that supposedly “reeks” of wealth redistribution. As it stands, the Alabama “Heartbeat” bill—which was preceded by similar bills in Georgia, Mississippi and Ohio—has been framed as one of the most potent threats to Roe vs. Wade. But it should be also be viewed as a bellwether of economic injustice. Far too often, the focus on abortion rights, rather than on reproductive justice, does not adequately address how abortion is a powerful force for women’s economic liberation.

As other abortion rights’ advocates have pointed out, these bills are most prevalent in states that have some of the worst health and poverty indices for women of color and children in the nation.  Georgia has the second highest black maternal mortality rate in the country (According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black women died at a rate over three times as high as white women during childbirth)Alabama ranks 49th in infant outcomes due to poor scores in infant mortality, low birthweight, neonatal mortality, and preterm birth. Poor and rural women constantly struggle to find adequate maternal care providers in these states, further belying the claim that Heartbeat laws “protect” children.  Alabama also has the sixth highest poverty rate in the U.S. with over 17% of Alabamians living below the federal poverty line. 250,000 Alabama children live below the poverty line and the state’s child food insecurity rate is 22.5%, well over the national average of 17.5%. Predominantly African American counties in Alabama have the highest poverty rates in the state. Despite all their claims of Christian charity, poverty, child care and social welfare have never been of concern to the Religious Right theocrats who passed this law on the backs of women of color.

The South and the Midwest’s anti-abortion assault fundamentally undermines women’s right to self-determination by jeopardizing their earning potential, job mobility, and ability to access child care. Nationwide, communities of color disproportionately rely on family planning providers like Planned Parenthood for counseling, screenings, contraception, and abortion care. The closure of family planning clinics across the South and Midwest has forced women to travel hundreds of miles for care; further endangering their lives, families, and incomes. The Alabama bill stipulates that doctors who perform abortions could be charged with up to 99 years in prison, a provision that criminalizes health care practitioners and lays the foundation for a dangerous pre-Roe era underground abortion economy. The bill’s prohibition on abortions for rape and incest victims would also heavily impact Black and Indigenous sexual assault victims (who have some of the highest rates of sexual assault and rape in the U.S.), condemning them to relive the trauma of their assault through forced pregnancy and government invasion—a prospect that hearkens back to the sexual terrorism of slavery and colonial occupation of Native land.

The white fundamentalist Christian stranglehold on Southern and Midwestern legislatures has proven to be a national cancer which further exposes the dangerous lie of a God-based, biblical morality. The Alabama bill is yet another wake-up call for why theocracy, and all its amoral patriarchs, must be aborted.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

On May Day, Combahee’s Legacy for Black Women Workers

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Over forty years ago, the 1977 Black feminist Combahee River Collective statement laid out a bold platform for anti-capitalist change. Black lesbian activist Barbara Smith and her co-authors argued “that all Black people’s oppression was rooted deeply in capitalism” and that it was important to use a “Marxist analysis…and an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force.” Staking out a socialist position, the Combahee Collective noted that, “Work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources… A socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will not guarantee our liberation.

As workers around the world observe May Day, Combahee’s vision still resonates for Black women workers facing a bleak economic landscape. Black women have the lowest proportion of household wealth in the U.S., possessing only pennies to the dollar of white families.  In a 2017 Forbes magazine article entitled “Black, Female and Broke”, Maya Rockeymoore noted, “Single Black women, for example, own only $200 in median wealth compared to $15,640 for single white women. Those with children have a median wealth of $0 compared to $14,600 for single white women.” Even more damningly, although Black women have the highest workforce participation and college-going rates among women in the U.S., these factors have not contributed to commensurate increases in wealth.  For example, according to a 2017 study by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center, “Single white women without a degree have $3000 more in wealth than single Black women with a degree”.  Single white women with bachelor’s degrees have seven times the wealth of single Black women with bachelor’s degrees.  Not surprisingly, these disparities increase with marriage.  Married Black women with bachelor’s degrees have five times less wealth than married white women with bachelor’s degrees.  And although Black women are more likely to start small businesses than Black men and women of other ethnicities (in 2018, the number of Black women-owned businesses grew by a whopping 164%), they are typically shut out of lending, mentoring and pipelining opportunities that help small businesses get a foothold in their industries.

Thus, on every demographic indicator, Black women fare significantly worse than white women in wealth accumulation.  Age, educational level, and marital status did not equalize their access to wealth relative to white women.  Wealth accumulation is strongly influenced by residential and housing patterns.  Because Black women of all classes live in disproportionately segregated communities with high levels of poverty and transience they have less access to the home equity that constitutes the primary source of American wealth.  As a result, white women’s across the board advantages vis-à-vis Black women is rooted in the intersectional privilege of race and class.  White women have historically had the advantage of “intergenerational transfers like financing a college education, providing help with the down payment on a house and other gifts to seed asset accumulation (that) are central sources of wealth building.” 
Compounding these issues is the impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling on the Janus vs. AFSCME case, which undermined public sector unions’ ability to collect dues and organize workers. Janus is especially harmful for Black women workers due to their greater levels of public sector union involvement and reliance upon the ever-shrinking defined benefit plans provided by government employers. 
All of this comes as there is a supposed “reckoning” with the failures of capitalism among the robber baron one percent, who whine about their concern for income inequality in think pieces and conferences for the mega-rich.  At the same time, mainstream outlets like MSNBC lament Americans’ notoriously low savings rates (the “average” household has approximately $12k in savings) but omit the racial and gender disparities that give white households a significant generational advantage in wealth accumulation. Doubling down on white supremacist patriarchy, Stephen Moore, the Trump administration’s pick for Federal Reserve chief, recently remarked that men’s declining salaries should be the primary concern for U.S. economic growth. Moore’s sexist claims were similar to other comments he’s made promoting gender discrimination in sports. But they are also symptomatic of the widespread view that women’s wages matter less to families, communities, and the American workforce than men’s do.

In addition, national assessments about the graying of the American workforce typically marginalize the staggering impact aging has on the livelihood of women of color workers. According to the AARP, age discrimination-related EEO complaints filed by African Americans have dramatically increased since the 1990s.  Once Black women hit their fifties, they are at greater risk for job insecurity, career stagnation, unemployment, health challenges, bankruptcy, eviction, and homelessness. Older Black women who have spent most of their lives as sole or primary breadwinners (an estimated 80% according to the Economic Policy Institute) are also more likely to be saddled with caring for multiple generations, making retirement an elusive fantasy.

At recent presidential candidate forums for women of color voters and labor activists, some Democratic hopefuls outlined economic reform agendas advocating for more affordable and supportive housing, public sector union protection from pernicious Right to Work laws, Medicare expansion, universal child care, and reparations.  The social democratic agendas of Bernie Sanders (who was jeered at the recent She the People voter forum over his failure to articulate specific proposals for Black women) and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have forced these candidates to step up their rhetoric on incorporating racial and gender justice into their platforms.  But for Black women workers, campaign promises trumpeting a laundry list of “reforms” will not redress the fundamental wealth divide that informs white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.  Lasting systemic change must include increasing taxes on corporations and the super elite, boosting capital investment in large scale supportive, subsidized housing that’s connected to wraparound mental health, wellness and educational services, daycare, and after school programming, instituting a guaranteed living wage as well as Swedish-style paid family leave. The gauntlet that Combahee threw down is still a revolutionary promise for Black women in an apartheid economy. As radical-progressive voices continue to hold corporate Democrats’ feet to the fire, Black women workers will be critical to turning the neo-fascist tide.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Who Killed Hannah Bell?

By Sikivu Hutchinson

There are few accessible youth community centers in the over half-mile stretch where fifteen year-old Hannah Bell was killed in April 2018 in front of a South L.A. hamburger stand on Western and 78th Street.  Out for a bite to eat, Bell and her mom, Samantha Mays, were engaging in a familiar weekend ritual that should have been one of ordinary, average mother-daughter togetherness.  Instead, she became one of the scores of African American youth slain on Los Angeles streets with no leads on their killers. At a spring 2018 press conference and vigil organized to commemorate Hannah and call for the apprehension of her killer, her family and friends highlighted the irony of national focus on the Parkland, Florida mass shootings when gun violence disproportionately impacts working class African American communities.  Bell’s brother commented that, “If we’re supposed to be this great ‘sanctuary state’ we need to make sure it’s a safe place for our kids.”  Hannah had “great, positive role models. They were all headed to college, they were all learning. She was a great person.”
Nearly a year later, Bell’s murder remains unsolved, the City’s offer of a $50,000 reward for information on her killing is still in play, and the corner where she was slain bustles with “normal” activity.

It is not normal for a child to be killed at virtually point blank range on a busy street at nighttime. Hannah, like seven year-old Jazmine Barnes, whose recent murder in Houston, Texas elicited national outrage when it was reported that she was potentially targeted by a white killer, was more than likely killed by someone from the community. By a person who knew that targeting a black girl from the neighborhood would probably not elicit national attention.

A student at nearby LAUSD Santee High School, Hannah lived in an area that is notoriously bereft of safe, culturally responsive spaces for young people.  Though violent homicides have purportedly declined in Los Angeles, Black women and girls remain disproportionately vulnerable to gun violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence in greater numbers.  The nexus of these issues makes basic safety in school communities and neighborhoods a pressing Black feminist concern.  Being deprived of the right to patronize local businesses safely is not an issue that white students have to contend with in L.A.’s Westside and Valley neighborhoods. This, and the constant specter of an early death, or sexual violence victimization, are not issues that define the mental health and wellness of white children. Yet, Black girls must navigate these traumas in their everyday lives while they are still expected to be high-functioning, mega-strong caregivers conditioned to meet the needs of others before themselves.

During a recent feminist of color mental health institute for Black and Latinx girls from three South L.A. high schools, students identified stress from caregiving, violence, and harassment (at school and online) as being the most pressing issues they confront on a daily basis. In intergenerational workshops with Shaunelle Curry, founder of Media Done Responsibly, and storyteller/poet Jaden Fields, they discussed self-care and community empowerment strategies, and explored the power of creative writing as healing and resistance, drawing upon Black lesbian poet Audre Lourde’s maxim about self-care as a political act. Fittingly, newly appointed Black female California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris has identified preventing and addressing toxic stress among children as one of her highest priority agenda items. She notes that, far too often, “mental trauma is considered unrelated to medical care”.  This perception only reinforces the systemic denial of mental health care to Black girls.

Bell was killed a stone’s throw away from where LAPD officers gunned down 18 year-old Carnell Snell in the Westmont community near Washington Prep High School in 2017. The corridor is still dominated by fast food joints, storefront churches, 99 cent stores, and beauty salons. Pushing back against the absence of culturally responsive spaces for youth of color in Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) and other activist groups pressed for the passage of a Youth Reinvestment Act in the California Legislature. The 2019 Youth Reinvestment Grant fund provides $37.3 million to fund “diversion programs & community-based services for youth at risk of system involvement”. While the fund is a good start, it’s still a drop in the bucket, which is why the National Center for Youth Law is asking that the fund be boosted by another $100 million.  It is precisely because of the lack of educational, job training and therapeutic facilities in communities like South L.A. that Black and Latinx youth are at “greater risk” for becoming victims of violence and system-involved.  After a long battle with city and county government, YJC was recently victorious in its efforts to get an abandoned South L.A. jail facility converted to a new youth center for its community offices.  But, in most neighborhoods of color, the lack of access to designated youth spaces, coupled with high rates of criminalization and police suppression, make Black girls especially vulnerable to street violence, sexual violence, and domestic and intimate partner violence.

Speaking on the tragedy of Hannah’s killing last year, Rashad Mays pleaded, “Imagine if it was your daughter that was taken.  I’m asking the community to come forward and help us out.”  We owe it to Hannah and all the other victims of “normalized” gun violence right here in our communities to make their lives visible.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Southern Baptist Convention's Gospel of Rape and Redemption

By Sikivu Hutchinson
“Won’t people get mad if we criticize religion in our presentation?” My student asked. She was referring to the prevalence of sexual abuse allegations against religious leaders and my recommendation that we talk about them in our Women’s Leadership Project sexual violence prevention trainings at her high school. When it comes to reckoning with sexual violence in the #MeToo movement era, the veil of silence around the faith community remains a toxic deterrent that destroys lives. Recently, the Houston Chronicle reported on decades of abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches in a three part series (the SBC is the largest Baptist denomination in the country). The report was an important first step toward holding the evangelical Christian community accountable for the same kind of institutionalized sexual abuse that has rocked the Catholic Church.
The unseen, everyday atrocity of sexual violence is amplified in the insular culture of American evangelical churches. For this reason, it’s important to reiterate what invisible Christian privilege and supremacy look like.
All Christian religious institutions enjoy tax-exempt status, granting them fundraising clout and political influence held tenuously in check by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and by the Johnson Amendment to the US Tax Code. These institutions are bolstered by a dominant, hyper-religious culture where it’s still considered dangerous for a politician (especially one of color) in national office to identify as an atheist. They are automatically granted the presumption of innocence in matters of morality relative to atheists and humanists. Despite the Bible’s endorsement of rape, murder, misogyny, and other acts of violence, Christian religious institutions are routinely allowed to explain away duplicitous acts by Christians leaders as not representative of “true” Christ-like principles. They benefit from a culture where virtually anyone can throw up a shingle or set up on a sidewalk, deem themselves a Christian house of worship, and enjoy some measure of social respectability. They are given the unquestioned license to act as arbiters policing the bodies, sexuality, and reproductive rights of women and girls. And they wield outsized influence in school curricula and school policy, meddling in science, health education, American history, and the treatment of LGBTQI students across the nation through coordinated policy campaigns like “Project Blitz.” Thus, although the United States was not founded as a “Christian nation,” it effectively functions like one. These factors allow Christian churches to operate as though they are above the law.
The aforementioned Houston Chronicle series exposes the SBC for hiring sexual predators(offenders Timothy Reddin, Charles Adcock and Doug Meyers are all named). It also documents how SBC officials covered up their abuse by either denying it outright, blaming the victims, or allowing predator pastors, volunteers, and rank-and-file employees to transfer to other churches (such as former missionary Mark Aderholt, charged with assaulting victim Anne Marie Miller).
At the same time church leaders were cosigning sexual abuse, they were persecuting LGBTQ pastors and parishioners for their supposed sins against God. The Chronicle notes that SBC governing documents outlaw homosexuality but not sex offenders. These practices are hardly surprising given the SBC’s history of opposing same-sex marriage and prohibiting women from entering the clergy.
The notoriously conservative denomination emerged as a nineteenth century pro-slavery organization that endorsed Jim Crow and continues to entrust ordination to local churches rather than a national governing body.  As African-American pastor Lawrence Ware noted in a 2017 New York Times op-ed regarding his break from the church, the SBC “was founded in 1845 because white Southern Baptists disagreed with the antislavery attitudes and abolitionist activities of Northern Baptists.” Ware also contends that with the rise of Trump, “They hesitated to adopt a resolution that condemned white supremacy, (but) did not hesitate to throw out activists who tried to raise awareness about the ways in which the convention fails its LGBTQ members.”
The breadth and depth of SBC officials’ crimes illustrate how the structure of organized religion encourages predation. In interviews with Chronicle investigators, some of the predators commented on how easy it was to reel in victims under the guise of Christian moral authority (the reporters solicited written responses from convicted felons and conducted oral interviews with them). The church provided unlimited access to victims, allowing predators to hide in plain sight. As one survivor maintained, “It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister.” Of course, the con artist/predator wielding unchecked power and authority is at play in high profile cases outside the church, with power broker victimizers like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby. Yet, although con artists thrive in many contexts, religious institutions hold a special appeal precisely due to the cult of patriarchal authority “sanctioned” by a fictitious God. Because of this propaganda, many adult victims reported seeking out church predators for guidance, while child victims were lured or left in the care of predators.
The toxically familiar pattern of indoctrination and betrayal extends from the Catholic Church to contemporary black churches that demand blind faith as a bulwark against corrupting outsiders while they rape, steal, extort, intimidate, and annihilate with impunity. Nobody will love/validate/purify/redeem you the way we do, they all say to the so-called sinner in true pimp-pusher mode. And hour after hour, day after day, week after week, decade after decade, millions more get fatally addicted to their insidious propaganda.
Even after victims pressed charges and implored the SBC to adopt comprehensive standards for rooting out abusers, the church refused. It kept abusers in power, cosigned the abortions of victims who’d been raped, and drove some victims to suicide. The SBC case isn’t just a religious crisis but a humanist crisis. Institutionalized sexual violence against women and girls continues to be the most normalized health epidemic in the world, cutting across class, ethnicity, and nationhood. Sexual violence against men and boys is also a growing epidemic—vastly underreported, if not normalized through rape culture.
As activism spotlighting the devastating social, cultural, and economic impact of institutionalized sexual violence increases, radical humanist practice can play an important role in changing public policy, school cultures, workplace practice, and social attitudes. There is a growing need for professional development that actively challenges the way heteronormative gender roles influence violence and harassment in K-12 schools, workplaces, and religious institutions. There is a growing need for programs that redress the harm done by religious institutions and religious dogmas that prop up binary gender roles. And, as per the Catholic Church indictments and R. Kelly’s recent indictment as a result of author-activist Dream Hampton’s documentary, there is growing consciousness about the pernicious role of enablers. The predators that thrive in secular and religious institutions do so because the cultural norms of these institutions encourage it. This culture of violence ends when silence and complicity are no longer a shield for enablers.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Black Teachers Buck Beutner’s Billionaire Boys Club

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

While thousands of L.A. teachers, students, parents, caregivers and supporters took to the rain-soaked streets to strike and fight for the life of public education this week, LAUSD’s one-percenter superintendent Austin Beutner took to the op-ed pages of oligarch mouthpiece the Wall Street Journal to scold UTLA for bad math skills. The union’s challenge to Beutner’s privatization regime has been a national lightning rod for a revitalized resistance movement. 

Black teachers have consistently been on the frontlines of this resistance. A recent study on Black student achievement found that Black students who had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to go to college. Those who had two Black teachers were 32% more likely. Overall, having a Black teacher made students more likely to “ask questions and talk about school subjects out of class”. This is not rocket science for those of us who were fortunate enough to have gotten a solid foundation of Afrocentric pedagogy growing up or to have been raised in a community of conscious Black teachers who challenged us to think critically. Yet, many Black students aren’t exposed to Black teachers at an early age because of the overwhelming whiteness of the profession and racist, sexist barriers to Black recruitment and retention.

African American teachers are approximately 8-9% of the LAUSD’s teacher population. They are in the trenches of a district that has become a national symbol for the crippling effect urban apartheid, neoliberal control, and disinvestment have had on historically Black public schools and neighborhoods. This week, Black teachers walked the line and spoke, chanted and testified their truths on street corners and in traffic, driving one of the biggest public employee union uprisings of the decade.  As Dorsey High School English teacher Ashunda Norris commented, “We know that systematically, across the country, large numbers of Black students are not being adequately served in the public school setting. When the demands of this strike are met, it means a great amount of Afro American children will receive resources in their school communities that are, quite frankly, long overdue. In the spirit of Black educators such as Lucy Laney and Ida B Wells, we're simply demanding what rightfully belongs to our students: free and stellar educational opportunities.

At Seventy Fourth Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, fifth grade teacher Dr. Tammara Lewis slammed the pro-charter school board majority for taking a 174% salary increase (bringing their salaries to $200,000 a year) on the backs of children of color.  Students at her high-achieving school have reported seeing ants coming out of the classroom faucets, nurses are only on site once a week, and dated textbooks extol the conquests of heroic white historical figures in narratives spiced up with the occasional appearance of Black, Asian or Indigenous “mascots”.  As one of the few predominantly Black gifted magnets in the LAUSD, Seventy Fourth has an over 80% African American, majority female faculty. This week, the school had 100% faculty participation on the picket line. On the line, teachers spoke about providing their own funds for supplies, pushing for culturally relevant textbooks, STEM and music education, and fighting for more nutritious student food. 

Mr. Garrett Lee @ GHS
Walking the line at Gardena High School in South L.A., Restorative Justice and special education teacher Garrett Lee discussed the importance of mental health services for students of color coming from communities where there are few services, high rates of trauma and violence, and strong cultural stigmas around therapy. Nationwide, Black male teachers account for only 2% of the teaching population.  And Lee’s position is one of the scores of vital support jobs jeopardized by the district’s multi-billion-dollar police state apparatus. The district’s quiet push to phase out its already piddling restorative justice programming and ramp up funding for school police and surveillance would have the most harmful impact on Black students. As an adviser to the school’s Black Student Union and mentor to Black male students, Lee sees the strike as a continuation of the legacy of the civil rights movement and a platform for Black student organizing.  He noted that “It’s critical for Black students in particular to see this example from Black teachers and to know that their voices can be heard.” Across the district, African American students, who comprise 8.2% of LAUSD’s students, are the least likely to go on to four year colleges after graduation, the least likely to have access to rigorous A-G coursework, and the least likely to be placed in gifted and talented (or GATE) classes. Conversely, they are more likely to be “randomly” searched by school officials, suspended, expelled and permanently pushed out of school.

Walking the line at Seventy Fourth Street, fourth grade teacher Ms. Frierson stressed the need for a visible Black teacher presence to combat Black erasure: “How do we bring our best and brightest to the profession when teachers are constantly being marginalized, constantly being told ‘oh you’re just a teacher’ and constantly being forced to spend our own money just to ensure our students’ needs are met? For Black students to come to school and not see folks who look like them is problematic.  Why would they want to be a teacher if they don’t see people who look like them?”
Dr. Tammara Lewis @ 74th Street
Echoing Ms. Frierson, first year King Drew Magnet History teacher Brooke Moore-White said, “This strike is such a tiered issue for me. As a young black educator, I see few black peers in my credentialing classes. I see how hard it is for me to stay in the profession due to the low pay. I see how many students could benefit greatly from smaller classes. And I see a district that won't invest 
Ms. Frierson @ 74th Street ES

the resources it has, I think this strike is step one towards the changes that need to occur to save the district and possibly public education. Let's increase pay to make the job more attractive to qualified, culturally responsive individuals. Let's limit charter growth that has siphoned students and resources that desperately need to be reinvested in the district.” 

On her fourth strike day, Dr. Lewis, a former charter school principal, assailed Beutner's kleptocracy class agenda: “Our superintendent comes to work in a limo while students are catching buses to school. He has a strong friendship with billionaire Education Secretary Betsey DeVos. The district is trying to privatize education just like they did prisons. Board members have funneled money out of the district into charters and now their agenda is being exposed. Would this ever happen in Beverly Hills or Calabasas?” 

As the teachers go back into the streets for a fifth strike day a Change.org petition demanding that Beutner resign has already collected over 15,000 signatures.

Twitter @sikivuhutch

*Permission to use photos for reprint granted by author