The “Return” of the Welfare Queens: Feminism, Secularism, and Anti-Racism
September 14, 2012
In the American imagination, black women are the poster children for disreputable, irresponsible motherhood and Latina “illegals” are 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 “boycott” of feature stories on black women, the Los Angeles Times recently served up some red meat for welfare queen watchers. The front page featured an extensive profile of twenty-seven-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 Cole turned seventeen she was already raising two children. Now she can’t be bothered to create 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 own Oxygen, TLC, or Lifetime reality show à la GOP teen mom Bristol Palin any time soon.
For me, the article was especially timely, tragic, and enraging because I recently found out that one of my most inquisitive students is pregnant at sixteen. Several of my Women’s Leadership Project alum, who worked incredibly hard to become the first in their families to go to college, speak of friends who 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 storefront 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 percent 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.
So what does the intersection of nontheism and feminism mean within the context of the New Jim Crow? And what might secularist feminism mean for women of color when the vast majority of them still view feminism as a “white” thing, chronically disengaged from critical issues of economic justice? These were some of the issues I cared about coming into the first-ever Women in Secularism conference put on by the Center for Inquiry and held in Washington, DC, this past May. The event was organized by DC CFI director Melody Hensley, who did an excellent job of bringing together a cross-section of writers, activists, and academics to discuss the politics of sexism, theocracy, women’s rights, and secular organizing. I was pleased to finally meet atheist feminists like novelist/blogger Alyson Miers (Charlinder’s Walk), Atlanta radio host Charone Pagett, and writer Soraya Chemaly in person. Nonetheless, the overwhelmingly white (and female) audience highlighted the quantum leap that remains in making humanism, secularism, and atheism culturally relevant to communities of color.
One of the highlights of the conference was hearing Wafa Sultan, a physician, internationally renowned activist, and Los Angeles resident. Sultan spoke movingly about her experiences with misogynist violence and repression in Syria, detailing her niece’s tragic suicide after enduring an abusive forced marriage. As in the Bible, woman-hating is embedded in the very language and doctrine of the Koran (she alluded to most of the occupants of Islamic hell as being female). Sultan insisted that if Americans can lob bombs and send drones to Middle Eastern countries, they should certainly be allowed to develop secular schools there; an item that is clearly not high on America’s militarist agenda. While powerfully condemning Islam, she sidestepped the issue of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. There was no mention of how Western occupation has historically aggravated Muslim fundamentalism rather than spur secular movements and women’s rights in countries like Iran and Iraq. She poignantly compared living under Islam to hell, then proceeded to criticize American women for “complaining” about their civil rights (and ostensibly cozier existences). Her dismissal was jarring in a nation in the throes of white Christian fascist/Tea Party/American Taliban backlash—which apes the very fundamentalist traditions white nationalists demonize in the “primitive” Middle East—against women’s rights, LGBT equality, undocumented immigrant rights, and economic justice. Perhaps sensing the cognitive dissonance her scold elicited, she circled back and expressed solidarity with American women at the end of her talk…