In Cold Blood: The Murder of Renisha McBride

Renisha McBride

By Sikivu Hutchinson

A white family grieves in outrage after their teenage daughter has been gunned down by a black homeowner in an African American neighborhood. In this parallel universe the killer walks free, enjoying the benefit of being viewed as having defended his home from a violent intruder, while the big city D.A. decides whether or not to charge him.

It is no revelation to many black women in neo-apartheid Americana that being white and female pays deep dividends in everyday life.  Among these dividends is the ability to be seen as an innocent victim under dire circumstances and to have the weight of the American criminal justice system behind you upholding that perception.  Another is the advantage of secure access to elite suburban enclaves without fear of criminalization. Stranded in the early morning hours after a car crash in a predominantly white suburb outside of Detroit, nineteen year-old Renisha McBride had no such benefits.  A recent high school graduate, McBride had just gotten a job at the Ford Motor Company when she was brutally shot in the face by a white male resident after seeking help from the crash. Her family described her as warm and loving. As of this writing her killer has not been apprehended nor charged.

McBride’s killing is part of a long legacy of black female murder victims who have been devalued in a misogynist apartheid system of state-sanctioned violence that thrives on the urban/suburban racial divide. In 2010, seven year-old Aiyanna Jones was murdered by a Detroit police officer in her own home during a botched police raid. In 1999, a homeless fifty four year-old 5 feet tall black woman named Margaret Mitchell was killed by LAPD officers in an affluent Los Angeles retail district after a dispute over a shopping cart. The officers in the Mitchell case were not charged. The officer in the Jones case was recently granted a retrial after the jury in his initial involuntary manslaughter trial deadlocked.  Civil rights activists and community protestors have compared McBride’s killing to that of Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till, Oscar Grant and Amadou Diallo, globally known black male lynching victims whose white killers never saw jail time.  But the problem with these comparisons is that they unintentionally minimize lesser known black female victims of white supremacist violence such as Mitchell, Jones, Eulia Love, Eleanor Bumpurs, Alesia Thomas and Mitrice Richardson. Although the circumstances of these women’s deaths were quite different, the lack of sustained national and global attention (relative to black men who have been murdered under similar circumstances) unites them.   National civil rights activists and feminist organizations must ask themselves why these names have not become as prominent or high profile in national activism.  Mainstream civil rights organizations have long had a sexist, patriarchal blind spot when it comes to critical consciousness about the specific gendered and racialized ways in which black women are demonized, sexualized and criminalized in the U.S.  Historically, much of the language around black civil rights uplift has been oriented toward redeeming black men and pathologized black masculinity.  In K-12 education, students are typically taught about American history in general and the modern civil rights movement in particular as though they were merely a procession of events spearheaded by Great white men, a few exceptional men of color and Rosa Parks.  From MLK to the Black Panthers, black women’s self-determination was never part of the mainstream civil rights’ social justice calculus or platform.  Thus redressing the epidemic of intimate partner violence and sexual assault in African American communities has never been a major part of African American civil rights organizing.  Nor has the skyrocketing number of black women in prison and the ways in which this regime has led to the exponential increase of black children that are homeless or in foster care. [Read more...]

The War Against Black Children

 kingdrew boys

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In a predominantly Black South L.A. continuation school class packed with eleventh and twelfth grade girls, only half want to go to college, few can name role models of color and virtually none have been exposed to literature by women of color.  Demonized as the most expendable of the expendable, Black continuation school students are routinely branded as too “at risk”, “challenged” and “deficit-laden” to be “college material”.  Coming from backgrounds of abuse, incarceration, foster care and homelessness, these youth are already written off as budding welfare queens and baby mamas.  They are at the epicenter of the war against Black children. 

State-sanctioned terrorism against Black children is commonly understood as murder, harassment, and racial profiling–overt acts of violence which elicit marches, pickets, mass resistance and moral outrage.  Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike fell all over themselves to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic murder of four African American girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.  Such overt acts of organized white supremacist terrorism against Black children have largely receded.  Instead, they have been replaced by the socially acceptable state violence of school-to-prison pipelining, racist low expectations and the illusion of equal educational opportunity in the “post Jim Crow” era of re-segregated schools.

 Last spring, in an offensive commencement speech to Morehouse College graduates, President Obama launched into his standard refrain about personal responsibility, sagging pants and absent fathers.  Checking shiftless Black youth has long been one of his favorite presidential past-times.  As progressive Black pundits have noted, this narrative not only plays well in Peoria, but on the global stage.  For a nation brainwashed into believing the U.S. is an exceptionalist beacon, the underachievement of black students has become both shorthand for and explanation of its low standing in academic rankings.  According to this view, the achievement gap between (lazy) Black and (enterprising) white and Asian students “drags” down the U.S.’ global academic standing.  Steeped in a culture of pathology, native-born African American youth “squander” the opportunities seized upon by newly arrived immigrant students of color.

 As a 2013 high school graduate and first generation college student of mixed heritage, Ashley Jones is well acquainted with toxic anti-black propaganda.  She says, “Being Black and Thai…if I do well on a test or in class, then some people will comment, ‘that’s your Asian side.’”  Jones comes from a South L.A. school where it is not uncommon for teachers to reflexively track students into college prep, honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes according to race and ethnicity.  She comments, “If you were to ask these same people about race, they would tell you we are all equal and anyone can achieve anything they set their mind to, but when you listen to them talk at nutrition and lunch, you hear Blackness constantly associated with violence,  ‘being ghetto’, and a lack of intellectual abilities.” A recent L.A. Times article about Kashawn Campbell, a high-achieving African American graduate of South L.A.’s Jefferson High School who struggled to get C’s and D’s at UC Berkeley, exemplifies these sentiments.  The over 700 responses on the article’s comment thread were relentless: the young man’s plight was due to inflated expectations, laziness, outright sloth, and the natural intellectual inferiority of African Americans.  Even the National Review picked up the piece and dubbed it an example of a “Devastating Affirmative Action Failure.” Why, many commenters howled contemptuously, didn’t Campbell’s slot go to a “real” achiever, i.e., a hardworking Asian or white student who genuinely deserved it? Missing from the near universal condemnations of affirmative action was the fact that Campbell’s freshman performance at UC Berkeley reflects the deficits of a neo-liberal public education system in which even high achieving students of color may be grossly under-prepared [Read more...]

Creepy Crackers n’ Shucking Toms

django uncle tom & little eva

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Pity poor Uncle Tom.  When angry white male atheists start trotting him out as a cover for their racist circle jerk you know you’ve got a postmodern moment with a cherry on top.  Although it’s never stopped being open season on black folk in America the Beautiful, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, its partial smackdown of affirmative action and the happy times for George Zimmerman defense trial signal that the gloves are off again.  So now it seems the wages of whiteness atheist privilege brigade has come full circle from American Atheists’ 2012 naked shackled black slave billboard to Cult of Dusty’s viral “Black Christians=Uncle Toms” You Tube tirade.  According to creepy-cracker-white-man’s-burden-Dusty all black folk who subscribe to Christianity are not only domesticated dupes but neo-slave House Negro Stephens (in reference to Quentin Tarantino’s wet dream of buck-dancing black male cunning) shucking and jiving in our own 21st century version of Django Unchained.  But this racist ignoramus is no latter day John Brown dropping knowledge on us docile backward noble savages cowering under the yoke of dis here Good Book blessed by da Massa’s benevolence.

Conveniently omitted from this and umpteen other white atheist paeans to enlightening the dark hordes of ghetto superstition is any analysis of the white supremacist brutality of exalted secularist icons like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other revolutionary war patriots who built American empire on the backs of slave labor and through the propaganda of democratic citizenship.  Missing from this equation is a takedown of the proto-capitalist engine of black exploitation under slavery, its echoes in 20th century Jim Crow public policy and the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration that fuels the criminal wealth gap between whites and people of color.  As Toni Morrison so sagely put it, slavery and freedom existed side by side, for “nothing highlighted freedom if it did not in fact create it, like slavery.  Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities for in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free…but the not-me.”  Then, as now, freedom, individualism and universal citizenship (the ostensible ideological impetus for the Revolutionary War) were based on white supremacy and racialized notions of nationhood.  In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 white working class laborers were conferred with citizenship privileges—i.e., the right to bear arms, assemble, hold property and move around freely—entitlements that no black person, slave or free, could ever enjoy.  After the gradual institutionalization of racial slavery in the 1640s the categories slave and black became synonymous as did the categories white and free.  There was no loophole for any enlightened black non-theists that might have been running around.  There was no honorary black slave status (with the advantages of beatings, rapes, lifelong enslavement and dehumanization) granted pesky white atheists and anti-clericalists.  And the very secular American Constitution branded black slaves as 3/5s of a man in order to ensure that slave states had equal representation in Congress.

Racial slavery was driven by economic conditions and the proto-capitalist rise of American empire.  It provided an insurance policy against white working class resistance against the white aristocracy (from Jefferson the rapist slaver to the Koch brothers) by giving poor white folk access to the wages of whiteness. [Read more...]

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels NOW AVAILABLE

Godless_cover (2) 

Over the past several years, the Right has spun the fantasy of colorblind, post-racial, post-feminist American exceptionalism. This Orwellian narrative anchors the most blistering conservative assault on secularism, civil rights, and public education in the post-Vietnam War era. It is no accident that this assault has occurred in an era in which whites have over twenty times the wealth of African Americans. For many communities of color, victimized by a rabidly Religious Right, neo-liberal agenda, the American dream has never been more of a nightmare than it is now. Godless Americana is a radical humanist analysis of this climate. It provides a vision of secular social justice that challenges Eurocentric traditions of race, gender, and class-neutral secularism. For a small but growing number of non-believers of color, humanism and secularism are inextricably linked to the broader struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, economic injustice, and global imperialism. Godless Americana critiques these titanic rifts and the role white Christian nationalism plays in the demonization of urban communities of color.

 
Godless Americana is a MUST READ!” Kimberly Veal, Black Non-Believers of Chicago (GOODREADS REVIEW)

 

 “Hutchinson notes that being an atheist is not enough to affect any real change. One can be an atheist in isolation simply by not believing in God. Becoming a humanist, by contrast, entails working for social justice. For blacks to make atheism relevant to the larger African American community they cannot simply emphasize science and critical thinking but must instead help feed people, train them for jobs, and offer assistance to prisoners trying to reenter society, among other issues.” Chris Cameron, University of North Carolina
 
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Return of the Welfare Queens: Feminism, Secularism, Anti-Racism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The percentage of white feminists who are concerned about racism is still a minority of the movement, and even within this minority those who are personally sensitive and completely serious about formulating an activist challenge to racism are fewer still.  Barbara Smith, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology

In the American imagination, Black women are the poster children for disreputable irresponsible motherhood and Latina “illegals” a close second.  From birth to adolescence every girl of color must navigate a political climate in which Ronald Reagan’s racist welfare queen caricature casts long shadows.  Ending its noble boycott of covering black women, the L.A. Times recently served up some red meat for welfare queen watchers.  The front page featured an extensive profile of 27 year-old Natalie Cole, a jobless unmarried unskilled black mother with four kids.  Entitled “Caught in the Cycle of Poverty” the article trots out an expert from Harvard who sagely proclaims that “poverty is bad for kids”; offering no further analysis on how the richest most militarized nation on the planet pimps out its children.  Instead, we are regaled with Cole’s hot mess of personal failure and pathology.  Coming from a long line of young single mothers, by the time she was 17 she was raising two children.  She can’t be bothered to do a résumé or use birth control to avoid having a fifth child.  The prayer “God in heaven, hear my prayer keep me in thy loving care” is taped to her bedroom wall.  Needless to say she will not be getting her Oxygen, TLC or Lifetime reality show any time soon.

The article was especially timely, tragic, and enraging because I recently found out that one of my most inquisitive students is pregnant at 16.  Several of my Women’s Leadership Project alums, who worked their asses off to become the first in their families to go to college, speak of friends that have had children shortly after graduating from high school.  As budding feminists they are overly familiar with the “validation” pregnancy supposedly provides working class young women of color inundated with media propaganda that hyper-sexualizes black and Latina bodies and demonizes abortion.

In this South Los Angeles school-community only a small fraction of the student body goes on to college and many youth are in foster care, often having to raise themselves.  Small evangelical store front churches grossly outnumber living wage job centers, God and Jesus are touted as some of the biggest “cultural” influences, and high teen pregnancy rates are a symptom of the expendability of “other people’s children” (to quote education activist Lisa Delpit).  Thirty years ago scoring a living wage job with benefits was still a possibility for a South L.A. teenager with only a high school diploma.  Now, having a college degree is the bare minimum for getting a decent paying job.  However the regime of mass incarceration has made the barriers to college-going even higher for youth of color.  One in six black men has been incarcerated and in some instances whites with criminal records elicit more favorable responses from employers than do black or Latino applicants with no records.  Mainstream media focus on the staggering unemployment rates of men of color has eclipsed attention to the economic downturn’s equally devastating impact on black women.  Deepening segregation, diminishing job prospects due to the gutting of public sector employment (23% of black women are employed in public sector jobs) and mental health crises have pushed more women of color into the church pews, or, alternative spirituality, with a vengeance. [Read more...]

Standing with Troy Davis as a Non-Believer

By Sikivu Hutchinson

This is a day of outrage for all who believe in justice and morality. The pending execution of Georgia Death Row inmate Troy Davis is an egregious reminder of the vicious cycle of immoral lynch mob justice that masquerades as due process in the United States, the exceptionalist “Christian Nation.” With 25% of the world’s prison population, the U.S. has devolved into the largest penitentiary on the planet. For poor people of color, the revolving door of incarceration often starts in K-12 schools that disproportionately suspend, transfer and expel black and Latino youth. But the media framing of black youth as violent lawless criminals influences their sense of self-image much earlier. When it comes to black youth, mainstream images of urban communities as crime-ridden cesspits with dysfunctional families shape the cultural perceptions of teachers, administrators, policymakers and law enforcement. These images disfigure the psyches of very young black children who see white lives humanized, prized and valued in the white supremacist American TV and film industries. Clearly, If Davis had been a white defendant the international outcry over his death sentence would have led to clemency. But in a nation in which African Americans are presumed guilty until proven innocent, the recanted testimony of seven witnesses is not enough to spare the life of an innocent black man.

Over the past several weeks, many prayers have been offered for Davis, his family and other Death Row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted. Certainly humanist atheists like me believe that the atrocity of Davis’ pending execution is yet another example of Epicurus’ caveat about the impotence of “God.” But the national visibility and leadership of the faith community around this issue highlights the need to develop explicitly secular humanist culturally responsive traditions for coping with death, mourning and grief in communities of color. It also highlights the continued need for the so-called secular movement to speak out on state-sanctioned human rights abuses perpetrated upon communities of color right here in the U.S.

At 9% of the Los Angeles Unified School District student population, black children are over 30% of those suspended. At 9% of the L.A. County population, black children and adults are nearly 40% of the County’s incarcerated population. In the final analysis, segregation, white supremacy and economic disenfranchisement—as well as heterosexism and patriarchy—keep many blacks and Latinos beholden to the faith community and faith traditions. Secularists who can’t wrap their mind around that, and continue to bemoan the lack of “diversity” in the movement, are a waste of crucial time and energy.

As activists across the globe stand for Davis against the all-American death machine, it should be clear that true justice has no faith and no religion.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.