Teaching Against Terrorism

BWW presentation class

Ferguson discussion

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Now that the grand jury in Staten Island has desecrated Eric Garner’s dying breath and re-confirmed fascism in the U.S. what Black person has confidence in the justice system? What descendent of slaves has “faith” that speechifying, praying, and pleading for the system to recognize Black life will have any demonstrable impact on the United Terrorists of America? Who believes that the rule of law means anything other than a jack boot and a lynch rope around the neck of African-descent people who built this country brick by brick?

As progressive educators many of us enter the classroom every day with fierce expectations of change and redress. Working against textbooks that obliterate poor and working class people of color, we teach our students about social history to enlighten, inspire, transform and enable them to think critically about the similarities and differences between past and present. Even among those of us who push back against grand narratives that pimp the obscenity of Western exceptionalism there is an implicit assumption about progress; a secular faith in “advancement” despite the face of insidious institutional racism.

Today, we go into the classroom with that secular faith blown to bits yet again. Today, some of us will tell our students that the Garner decision makes it important to amplify that people of color have always fought terrorism on this soil. Some of us will say that the U.S. has a history of using the Orwellian language of freedom and justice to vilify the non-Western other while waging terrorist war against its own. During World War II black activists fought the hypocrisy of the U.S.’ campaign against fascism in Europe. These interventions were the legacy of 18th century revolutionary war era protests and legal resistance that free and enslaved Africans mounted against the tyranny of “democratic” empire. Social justice pedagogy is designed to empower young people to critique, question and ultimately organize against these contradictions. When we teach we try and lift up these brutal contradictions and show how they inform the present. In an age of wall-to-wall corporate media it’s one of the last bastions of decolonization for youth of color who are told that race is no barrier but see white supremacy at work every day. But in the cold light of unrelenting state criminality and savage indifference to black life it’s difficult to remain hopeful.

Discussing racism and discrimination with South Los Angeles students in a new multiracial leadership group before the Ferguson decision, some were initially hesitant to unpack their experiences. Yet in the same school students reported that some teachers divide their classrooms by seating “smart” Latino students on one side and “underachieving” African American students on the other. In the same school black boys are led away in handcuffs by school police every week. In the same school “out of control” students of all genders are physically restrained. In the same school, and in schools just like it across the district, black students are grossly under-represented in Advanced Placement and Honors classes but pack special education classes and detention halls. Unlike the murder of Eric Garner, these are the routine, everyday acts of state violence that are never captured on videotape but also signal that breathing while black remains a punishable, lethal offense. Our challenge as activist teachers and mentors is to keep pushing students to see that the system doesn’t want them to see these terrorist violations as the same.

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…]

#solidarityisforwhitewomen? Calling on atheist orgs to Support Marissa Alexander

marissa alexander

By Sikivu Hutchinson

What happens when an African American female intimate partner violence victim attempts to defend herself after years of domestic terror?  She gets slapped with a mandatory minimum 20 years in prison for aggravated assault.  Such was the case for Marissa Alexander, a 32 year-old Florida mother of three with no prior criminal record who fired a warning shot in her home after a dispute with her chronically abusive spouse in 2010.  No one was injured in the incident.  Alexander’s attorneys attempted to invoke Florida’s notorious stand your ground law as a defense but prosecutor Angela Corey, lead prosecutor on the George Zimmerman murder trial, ruled that it was unjustified.  For the past year, national outrage over Alexander’s 20 year sentence has been mounting as comparisons between her case and Zimmerman’s abound.  However, Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury that was already conditioned to see him as a victim and Trayvon Martin as a criminal.  And unlike white female defendants with no prior records, black female defendants with no prior records have no wage of whiteness to insulate them from harsh sentences that are more suitable for career criminals.  Commenting on the Alexander case in the Daily Beast, Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against  Domestic Violence argues “When a woman or minority is claiming they are defending themselves, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt…Most battered women who kill in self-defense end up in prison. There is a well-documented bias against women [in these cases].” Yet the reality is that black women are three times more likely than white women to be tried, convicted and incarcerated for felony offenses.  One in 19 black women will be incarcerated during their lifetimes versus one in 100 white women.  Ultimately, black defendants receive longer and harsher sentences than white defendants and are more likely to be given mandatory minimum sentences.

Alexander’s case highlights how expectations of innocence are rarely if ever accorded black female abuse victims in the dominant culture.  When it comes to cultural judgments about justifiable defense, stereotypes of violent breeder black women (In 2010, Alexander gave birth to a premature baby after being beaten by her spouse) eclipse any presumption of innocence or reasonableness on the part of the victim.  Even in the face of extreme violence, national narratives of proper female victimhood are never extended to black women, and the Lifetime cable channel—reigning Middle American pop culture fount of white woman pathos—never comes knocking.

Because mass incarceration and criminalization do not directly affect their largely white constituencies, humanist/secular/atheist organizations are silent on this human rights atrocity in their own backyard. The Black Skeptics Group calls on progressive atheist organizations to support the Free Marissa Alexander campaign.  Information on the campaign, volunteer opportunities and upcoming protest actions on September 14th can be found at http://www.justice4marissa.com or https://www.facebook.com/events/382954828472984. To officially support her campaign go to http://www.surveymoz.com/s/85959VBKQX

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Prayer Warriors and Freethinkers (on the Texas Freethought Con)

 

by Sikivu Hutchinson

Excerpt From: The New Humanism

The prayer warriors have descended on the Crenshaw parking lot in South L.A.
The first sentry, a slight man in athletic shorts, weaves through the parked
cars on an old Schwinn. He flags down the driver of a T-Bird. They exchange
quick greetings then bow their heads and join hands, oblivious, for the moment,
to the crash of street traffic, the manic dance for parking spots, the rustle of
grocery bags and runaway shopping carts. On this hallowed plot of blacktop time
is suspended and God vibrates through the chassis of each parked car, as the men
bond in the simple bliss of scripture.

I caught the parking lot prayer warriors a week before I was scheduled to
speak at the Texas Freethought Convention, an annual October gathering of non-believers in
Houston. It was an ironic send-off for my pending trip, reminder of the visceral
grip of everyday Jesus and the unique challenges of black secularism. Five years
ago, two men holding hands in this particular lot might have elicited homophobic
double takes or a beat down. But now, the public performance of prayer, street
preaching and proselytizing in urban communities of color is back with a
revivalist vengeance borne of the vicious arc of recession.

Long before it became fashionable to lament the demise of the American dream,
joblessness, foreclosure and homelessness were a fact of life for many in
predominantly black and Latino South Los Angeles. Indeed, it has been said that
when America catches a cold black America gets the flu. The titanic wealth gap
between white and black America means that fewer young African Americans will be
able to meet much less exceed the standard of living enjoyed by their parents.
Over the past decade, socioeconomic mobility for black college graduates has
actually declined. At 8.7% of L.A. County’s population, African Americans are
50% of its homeless and 40% of its prison population. MORE@ http://thenewhumanism.org/authors/sikivu-hutchinson/articles/prayer-warriors-and-freethinkers

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.

What If…


By Shawn Brown

Black atheist! Do these words mean anything? Certainly not if such a person does not exist.

Everyone knows that black people love Jesus. With tears in our eyes and a bittersweet joy in our hearts, we marvel at the wonder of the divine. With hands raised high we sway to our own celestial rhythm. With a look of transcendent torment upon our faces, we sing His praises. Don’t we love Jesus? Don’t we all love Jesus?

I’ve heard it said that black people have a “Jesus fixation”, a single minded focus on God. From our earliest days we are taught that there is a mysterious and powerful man in the heavens above- enthroned some place between time and space. Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient- He is God-the-Father. The ethereal embodiment, if you will allow, of benevolence and love. We are taught by parents, grandparents and the preacher that “God is good!”

But, as the lesson of God’s goodness is taught with one breath, we are taught that God is awful with the next. He knows our thoughts, He knows our feelings, He knows what we will do next, and He knows our secrets and the hour of our deaths. This God is not to be trifled with. What fool would question Him- even in the quiet of one’s own mind?

Respecting the God that black Christians serve means not speaking doubt or even thinking it. How could there ever be such a thing as a black Atheist?

You serve the Lord with fear and trembling. You serve Him in perfect submission. You must love Him always. You must never think ill of Him. He is without fault. He is responsible for everything good in your life- not you. You are responsible for everything bad in your life- not Him. Praise the Lord when things go right; beg His forgiveness when they go wrong.

Now, how did we end up with this particular religious system? Well, that’s simple: Slavery. One of the original justifications for slavery was to bring the “heathen” African into contact with Christianity. The earliest enslaved Africans were converted by force before even leaving the slave castles of western Africa. They were now Christian by virtue of the slave trader’s power.

As time passed, many slaveholders ceased to rely on this pre-textual justification for slavery. After all, if you do not free the enslaved once they have become Christians, then providing them salvation seems a flimsy rationale. Continuing to parrot the old justification of Christianizing the African would be too absurd even for a slaveholder. However, Christianity was still useful to them. Logically, the slaveholder continued to teach Christianity in a way beneficial to their more genuine economic motives. From Ephesians they likely taught “slaves obey your masters here on Earth…” From Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.” From Matthew 18:4 “[w]hoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The slaveholders’ true intention was not to save souls, but to create a docile workforce. Unfortunately, this strategic impartation of Christianity began to take root.

As time passed, African-Americans began to replicate these religious norms independently. With each passing year our addiction to religion grew more complete, until finally Christianity became synonymous with blackness. The imposing nexus of historical indoctrination and present day hardship conspire to keep African-Americans chained to religion. Christian faith and hardship stand in equipoise within the black community- and understandably so. When people are oppressed there is a hunger for hope that can never fully be satisfied so long as the unjust conditions persist. The desire for justice is transferred to hope for happiness in a time yet to come.

This is why we love the Lord. This is why there are no black atheists. This is why we all love Jesus.

But, what happens if you do not? What happens if you began to doubt Jesus when you stopped believing in Santa Clause? What if you realized early on that there are two creation stories in Genesis, and that they are not the same? What if you realized that no god could be simple minded enough to use either method to create the universe? What if you believe that culture and isolation explain linguistic differences, and not the Tower of Babel? What if you believe it wrong to stone children- even when they disobey? What if you believe that eating an apple, which God intentionally put within Eve’s grasp, is not a just reason to thrust the world into suffering? What if you do not believe that a person could survive three days in the belly of a whale? What if you think it silly for an all knowing god to create his own nemesis? What if you think it odd for God to send Himself, to save us- from Himself? Would not it have been easier to simply forgive our sins without the blood soaked spectacle of Calvary? What if you find it inconceivable for an all-loving god to create an unimaginable hell for His own children? What if…

What if we stopped waiting on Jesus and started planning? What if we realized that deferring justice until the next life meant deferring it forever? What if we understood that following a religion which too often perpetuates patriarchy has a chilling effect on the development of millions of our potential leaders? What if we knew that our gay brothers and sisters had just as much right to exist as the rest of us (something that would be obvious to a historically oppressed people but for religious influence)? What if we could drop the inaction of religion, for the urgency that comes with knowing that it is up to us? What if we could drop the divisiveness of faith for the loving kindness of humanism? What if…

Of course this could never happen, not if you are black. No! You see, being a good Christian is never to question aloud. Being a good Christian is never to allow a question to linger in your mind. Being a good Christian means to turn off your rational mind when it becomes bothersome to your faith. Unfortunately, black people are good Christians.

If you are the type of person who believes that love began with Jesus, that morality was created by God, that mercy and justice are religious concepts, then you find my words striking. However, if you have dared to think beyond what you were told, if you prefer enlightenment to conditioning, then you may just see it differently. You will have realized that love, courage, empathy and kindness are all human inventions-not the altruistic inventions of a cosmic overlord. You will have realized that we are not abject by birth, but just as valuable as our ancestors have made us.

If you believe these things as I do, then you know that the justice we have long been denied is within our grasp. We can believe in our own virtue, instead of dismissing any notion of our own human goodness. We can accept the challenges of the present and master them completely. If we are courageous enough to examine our beliefs, we can break the chains placed on our minds so long ago. In so doing, we can, for once, live in a world of our choosing – but only if there exists such a thing as a black atheist.

Shawn Brown is an attorney who has studied law both in the United States and England. He has been a freethinker for several years and currently resides in the southwestern United States.