Third-rail politics: Analysis at the intersection of gender, health and race.
After Hillary Clinton announced earlier this week that she will seek the Democratic nomination for president, an image that’s periodically made the rounds in recent years resurfaced. It’s a photo, perhaps PhotoShopped, of Clinton engaged in what appears to be a good-natured laugh while a little black girl standing next to her gives the pol a perfected side eye. One friend, a black woman, texted me the image—no words, just the image—Monday morning. A Facebook friend, also a black woman, made it her profile picture soon after the announcement.
The deep cynicism and obvious exasperation of the little girl, or of whoever thought to create this now-viral mash up, speaks volumes about a hurdle Clinton will need to clear as she courts black voters—particularly black women voters—this election cycle. As I’ve noted before, black women are often called the most reliable progressive voting bloc, with their participation in 2012 contributing to a higher turnout rate for black voters than for those who are white for the first time ever. If Clinton’s efforts at a more family- and woman-friendly campaign fall on deaf ears in black communities, that spells trouble for her.
Clinton has a history of using dog-whistle politics when it suits her, and it’s painful to remember the ways that she wielded her whiteness as a weapon during the 2008 primaries. There was that interview with USA Today when she, in an effort to explain why she still expected to win the nomination despite recent defeats in Indiana and North Carolina, said the following:
“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she said in the interview, citing an article by The Associated Press. It “found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.… There’s a pattern emerging here,” she said.
The audio from that interview was especially upsetting, because of the way it sounded as if Clinton were saying that “hard-working Americans” and “white Americans” are synonymous. That earlier slip makes it easy to meet her current repeated promise to champion the interests of “everyday Americans” with one of those side eyes. Who does she mean this time around? On Sunday, the multiracially cast video that Team Clinton released to announce her candidacy hits a lot of the right notes in terms of communicating inclusivity. There’s the glowing black couple preparing for the birth of their son, the adorable black child talking about dressing up as a fish for an upcoming play. But beyond the symbols, Clinton will need to make sure she avoids galling missteps this time around.
I’m thinking also of her insistence during one 2008 debate that Obama reject—not “denounce” but “reject,” she was adamant about the language—any forthcoming support from the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. Sure, it’s understandable that Clinton would scramble for whatever points this might win her from a segment of the American public, those “hard-working Americans” she would later claim to have in the bag. But by acting as if the Nation of Islam were the one-dimensional bogeyman it’s made out to be in the mainstream, as opposed to a more complex purveyor of a brand of black self-reliance that’s an indisputable part of this country’s history, Clinton showed she was willing to stoke irrational fears. At that time, the Clinton Foundation office had chosen 125th St. in Harlem as its home and was situated not even a block from a street named after Malcolm X. But Obama had to not just denounce but reject the Nation, or else risk his blackness becoming even more of a liability? Yes, because it could have been a way for Clinton to get the edge she so desperately needed.
These are just two examples of Clinton hitting a sour note when it comes to communicating—even subtly and inadvertently—with the black electorate as a presidential candidate. The policy positions she’s taken over the course of her career have been outlined at length elsewhere. To some, progressives’ ability to influence policy in a Clinton administration and how much is at stake in the upcoming election far outweigh rhetorical choices Clinton made when her back was against the wall in a tough primary. But those small choices go a long way toward helping us understand why some black voters feel alienated, why dog-whistle politics are never a good idea and why that image of the side eye has gone viral.
Read Next: Dani McClain on what can stop the ongoing assault on black families
Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has been a home for writers instigating, reporting on and arguing about struggles for social and economic justice. We have held fast to our “Nation Ideals”— from racial justice to feminism, from a fair economy to civil liberties, from environmental sustainability to peace and disarmament—throughout our 150-year history. During our anniversary year, TheNation.com will highlight one Nation Ideal every month or two. We’ll celebrate by asking prominent contemporary Nation voices to read and respond to important pieces from our archive. Below, Dani McClain reflects on a 1989 Nation special issue on “Scapegoating the Black Family.” Learn more about our 150th anniversary events and special content here.
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In February, Jeb Bush’s all-but-declared presidential campaign hit a minor speed bump. His chief technology officer, Ethan Czahor, was fired after Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post brought to light offensive comments and tweets the tech whiz had made over the years, mostly as a college student. Most were nonsensical musings, including advice to rappers to pull up their pants and present themselves more like Martin Luther King Jr. The news item was just what you’d expect as campaign season heats up and candidates scour opposition staffers’ backgrounds for anything that could offend the typical voter. But one item on the list of Czahor’s offenses stood out. As a college radio host in 2008, HuffPost reported, he’d said that “black parents need to get their s@#t together,” arguing that “the majority of newborn black babies belong to single-parent households.”
That this sentiment was cited as a reason the Bush campaign ousted Czahor surprised me. After all, there’s not much controversial about attacking the structure of black families, of which 30 percent are headed by unmarried women, compared to 13 percent of American households overall. Bush and others in the Republican field will likely make similar comments during the primary season, even if more subtly; maybe they’ll take a page from Mitt Romney, who in 2012 said promoting two-parent families could counteract gun violence. Democratic candidates will probably do the same, though they tend to be better at finessing the message. On Father’s Day in 2008, candidate Obama reminded a primarily black congregation in Chicago about the importance of having a father in the home. “Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison,” he said, suggesting that two-parent families are a kind of talisman capable of protecting children from tough lives.
One problem with such claims—from Czahor’s to Romney’s to Obama’s—is a stubborn and unsubstantiated insistence that what’s at play is causation rather than correlation. The assumption is that fatherlessness causes a host of problems, but the reality is much more complex. Research shows that it’s primarily well-educated, financially secure individuals who choose to marry in the first place these days. (And surprise! They tend to marry each other, so class jumping via partnership isn’t much of an option here.) So is it marriage or money that improves quality of life? In 2011, Pew found that 64 percent of Americans with a college degree were married, but fewer than 48 percent of people who’d had some college or less had tied the knot. This class gap didn’t exist in 1960, when 72 percent of US households were headed by a married couple, a historic high. Unfortunately, mainstream discussion of the issue is stuck in that decade. Locating the causes of poverty, low educational attainment and criminal behavior in black families’ inherent dysfunction has been the norm across party lines since Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his 1965 Department of Labor report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” characterizing the black family as exhibiting a “tangle of pathology.” Through a shared desire to balance a critique of structural racism with a call for personal responsibility, liberals and conservatives have been united in looking with exasperation at the black family, which dares to persist even where male breadwinners and wedding vows are in short supply.
Another problem with these adamant claims about what black families need to do to better themselves is that they’re mostly made by men. In the summer of 1989,The Nation tried to interrupt this pattern by turning over the reins to a team of black women for a special issue called Scapegoating the Black Family. The previous year, Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) had been tweaked to emphasize work requirements for those receiving aid, a major step along the path to Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare “reforms” of 1996. The Cosby Show was in its fifth season of showing viewers that enviable two-parent wealthy black families exist, and Kate & Allie was ending its five-year run convincing Americans that straight white divorcees with kids were nothing to fear. But no similar cultural effort had humanized or demystified the black single mother. She continued to live in the public imagination primarily as the welfare queen, the scheming and immoral woman who couldn’t keep her legs closed or her hands out of the public coffers.
Part of the reason why representations of the black family were so limited and so negative, the guest editors of that issue argued, is that discussions on the topic were dominated by people who had never been in one, whatever its configuration. In fact, wrote Jewell Handy Gresham in her essay “The Politics of Family in America,” white men were overwhelmingly seen as the experts—from Moynihan, who’d written his report while an official in LBJ’s Labor Department, to Bill Moyers, whose sensational 1986 prime-time CBS Special Report, “The Vanishing Black Family—Crisis in Black America,” took viewers inside a Newark, New Jersey, housing project and was seen by many as a definitive portrait of black life, eventually winning a DuPont Award for excellence in broadcast journalism.
White male social scientists and commentators, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s W. Bradford Wilcox and New York Times columnist Russ Douthat, continue to dominate the public dialogue about marriage and family. Today, they often seem to be trying to figure out how what was once a decidedly black problem—low marriage rates and a prevalence of female-headed households–has come to plague the country as a whole. A June 2013 daylong conversation on family hosted by the New American Foundation is just one example of present day agenda-setting gatherings where black perspectives are nowhere to be found. A panel titled “Will single motherhood become the norm?” lacked any black or non-white representation, and writer Katie Roiphe, a white single mother, provided the sole voice of reason amidst claims that children want and need a father in the home. “We’re bringing some Eisenhower-era assumptions to the table here,” Roiphe told her fellow panelists, a staff writer for the Times and a senior writer with Pew. “What I think children want is to live in a secure environment in which they are loved.”
In the 1989 special issue of The Nation, it was Dorothy Height, longtime leader of the National Council of Negro Women, who drove home this point and situated it in a specifically black understanding of family, writing:
Some social analysts…define a “family” as a social/economic/political unit with a man at its head, and they continue to insist on this definition even at a time when divorce rates and serial marriages, resulting in merged families and increasing numbers of female-headed households, reveal how archaic it is. For black people, this definition has never applied.… Blacks have never said to a child, “Unless you have a mother, father, sister, brother, you don’t have a family.” I think that the wrongheaded emphasis on the nuclear family has led to the demoralization of young people, both white and black. Because of it, a child who is not part of a nuclear family–or whose family does not behave in the manner of the model—may well say, “I’m nobody.”
Until today’s shapers of policy and culture make serious efforts to change the narrative, the moralizing about family structure that’s aimed particularly at black and low-income families will continue as it has for decades. Already we’ve seen President Obama bring ideas he hinted at in that Father’s Day speech into the implementation of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is focused on the advancement of boys and men of color—in part, to make them more marriageable. Elite think tanks and publications will continue to report data on marriage and parenting in a way that supports their particular ideological bent. It can get boring after a while, to be honest, particularly for someone like me who was raised in a so-called single-parent home, surrounded by loving, supportive family members. My lived experience tells me that it’s resources—relational and financial–not two parents that create stable, happy childhoods. Wilcox, Douthat and their ilk will never convince me otherwise.
But what does interest me as marriage rates plummet across racial groups, is who will have the platform to tell a broad audience what non-nuclear families look and feel like on the inside? Whose voices will be acknowledged and sought out to usher Americans’ collective understanding of family into the twenty-first century? There is certainly a place for the Katie Roiphes and the growing numbers of upwardly mobile, non-black American women having children on their own to tell their stories. But my hope is that their experiences, often framed in the media as courageous and proof that feminism has set us all free, don’t eclipse those of black and low-income women who have long been figuring out how to lead functional families, whatever their makeup.
Next, read Michelle Chen on the 1926 campaign for ”Wages for Wives.” And learn about the key moments in the fight for gender quality in our timeline: Radical Histories: Feminism, Sex & Gender. Learn more about all our 150th events and special content here.
Yesterday I talked to a group of college students about what I do for a living, why I do it and how. I always appreciate such an opportunity, particularly when there are young people of color in the room and I might help convince them to pursue journalism. There are so few of us, and the need is great—the percentage of journalists of color in newsrooms has been stuck at around just 12 percent for the past two decades. People who aren’t white make up about 39 percent of the US population.
I was especially glad to do so on the day that news of Dori Maynard’s passing hit many of us hard. Not only could I tell the students a bit about her legacy, but having Dori on my mind also helped focus the points I wanted to make about why it’s crucial that news organizations reflect the audiences they want to reach. That accurate reporting and storytelling depends on it is something to which many in the industry pay lip service, but that far fewer seem committed to addressing. Getting outlets to understand how vital integrated, representative newsrooms are was Dori Maynard’s life work.
Because I live in Oakland, Dori’s hometown and home base for her nationwide efforts, I had the chance to spend time with her on a few occasions. Each time I did, I knew that I was in the presence of someone great—kind and funny, too, and eager to connect with younger journalists. I also felt sure that I had only ever worked for metro daily papers such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Miami Herald because she and people like her had demanded that I be allowed in and that I be taken seriously once there.
I was also aware of the weight that Dori’s family name carried. Her father, Robert C. Maynard, had been editor and publisher of The Oakland Tribune, and owned a controlling interest in the paper that held the distinction of being the country’s first black-owned major metro daily until it was sold in the early ’90s. Her father was also a co-founder of the Institute for Journalism Education, which helped “integrate newsrooms nationwide by recruiting, training and placing African-Americans, Asians and Latinos in reporting, editing and management jobs,” according to Wayne Dawkins’ book Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim in the Mainstream.
That what little diversity we have in media today is the result of organizing and pipeline development rather than benevolent action on the part of newsrooms is an important point, and one I emphasized yesterday when talking with students. When mainstream metropolitan dailies started hiring people of color—specifically black reporters—in the late ’60s, it was because they finally recognized that news events demanded it. As uprisings took over American cities, many of these newspapers were simply unable to tell an accurate story. Black Power sentiments had, in many places, overtaken the integrationist ideals of the earlier civil-rights movement, and some of the most important sources simply would not speak—or at least would not speak freely—with white reporters. As Dori herself wrote about this history:
“It was white journalists who reported on the civil rights movement (except for those reporters from the black press), while it was mainly black reporters who covered this other era—Black Power, black consciousness, and the black revolution. In fact, this became the only time that mainstream media put an important story entirely in the hands of black reporters. That was a decision borne from necessity. With cries of ‘white reporter out,’ black journalists were the only ones who were able to get the story.”
It’s fair to argue that we’re at a similar moment now, with today’s net-neutrality win ensuring that the many online voices breaking and interpreting news and demanding more of mainstream news accounts will continue to flourish. This is critical, but it doesn’t take the place of trained reporters rooted in a place and committed to local coverage, or else with the budgets to travel and see what’s actually happening. Dori Maynard tried to ensure that such news gathering was done by as an inclusive group as possible. She made great strides. There’s still much work to do.
Read Next: Dani McClain on the brutal targeting of trans women
This week, writer and MSNBC host Janet Mock noted on her blog that at least six trans women have been killed in the United States since the start of 2015. The magnitude of the violence is astounding, as is its pace: By this time last year, no homicides of trans women had been reported.
Of the women killed these past seven weeks, five were trans women of color. On her blog, Mock offered her take on why violence against this community is pervasive and why there’s so much confusion around how to best confront it: “Trans women are targeted because we exist at vulnerable intersections of race, gender and class. My sisters are vulnerable because no one movement has ever centered the bodies, lives and experiences of these women, except for the severely underfunded, largely volunteer-staffed work of organizations run by and for our communities.… Trans women of color dangerously fall in between the cracks of racial justice, feminist and LGbt [sic] movements.”
A new collaboration between the national, California-based Transgender Law Center (TLC) and the grassroots LGBTQ organization Southerners on New Ground (SONG) has the potential to help bridge these movement gaps, and in a region that needs the added support. Nearly a third of LGBTQ people in the United States live in the South, and of the six trans women killed this year, three lived in Southern states—Texas, Louisiana and Virginia. SONG focuses on anti-criminalization and safety within the South’s LGBTQ communities, what its co-director Caitlin Breedlove calls “life and death issues.” I spoke with Breedlove last week to learn more about the partnership, TLC@SONG, which will place two new TLC hires with a legal and policy focus alongside SONG staffers in Atlanta. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
DMcC: What’s an example of something that’s come up for a SONG member that might be handled differently once the partnership with TLC is launched?
CB: There is nothing comparable to the kind of basic Know Your Rights information that TLC provides to trans and gender non-conforming people in California. So we’re going to start providing resources through all of our networks.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a black trans man was stopped and harassed severely by police because he was afraid when he was first asked for his license. He hesitated because he knew the gender on his ID didn’t match how he was being perceived. In his hesitation, [police] assumed bad intent, made him get out of the car, humiliated him. And that’s exactly the kind of case where the police have no right to be doing that to people because they are black and trans. If and when we have legal and policy capacity, we can give our members a choice to say, “Would you like to actually fight this to the full extent of law?”
DMcC: So TLC staffers will provide legal services to people in your network throughout the South? Will you also be crafting policy and working to get it passed?
CB: The depth of need is so profound that if we open a direct-service law-center clinic, we won’t be to meet all of the needs. One of the biggest things that we still have to consider is how do we fight back with impact litigation and how do we set precedent?
In the South, we don’t really have a shot at [passing] statewide policy, but can we win different municipal protections for trans people that could provide a different level of community safety? If we could, we could teach other people to win in different places. As we know from the right wing, sometimes when you win something in enough cities or towns, you can win statewide.
DMcC: What types of policy wins do you plan to go after?
CB: There are huge opportunities to think about things like driver’s licenses, making it easy for trans people to change their driver’s license or municipal ID. Think about healthcare, places where trans people are being deprived of their human rights because of systems that don’t make room for them and are hostile to them. Our incredible colleagues in New York, like Reina Gossett who works at Sylvia Rivera Law Project, worked for years on New York Medicaid expansion to include trans people. Kris Hayashi [TLC’s director] and I said to each other the other day, “Well, we need to speak with Reina.”
Daily violence, deep job discrimination, healthcare are all things that we don’t have to do any study [on] to know how completely horrible the conditions are around these three things for trans people.
DMcC: What do you plan to do to help interrupt the pattern of killings targeting trans women?
CB: We’re going to try to understand strategies that are working from local groups on the ground. There has to be a set of combined strategies because there’s no silver bullet, and that has to be informed by people whose voices have been shut out of organizing processes, which particularly is going to be trans people.
There’s a deep need to develop trans people of color to be organizers, and the way to train them is through organizing. So we’re going to be involving a particular emphasis on leadership development for trans women and campaigns that are anti–police brutality, anti-profiling, et cetera.
There are many trans leaders young and old in the South who have been doing that basic work of taking care of each other, organizing themselves in communities, creating services for each other, and just being a support network. While we’re focused on all of the trans people of color who have died and are suffering violence, we also need to look at how trans people autonomously have been protecting and defending themselves. The worst kind of assumption would be that there’s no trans leadership in the South. We know that’s not true.
DMcC: You’ve said that SONG’s work is focused squarely on “life and death issues.” What does that mean?
CB: We’ve never opposed gay marriage. The question we always ask is, “If so much of our [movement’s] money had not gone into gay marriage, how many people would be alive right now who we’ve lost in the past ten to fifteen years?” That is the difference between life and death issues and quality of life issues. That’s why we will fight as hard as we possibly can about life and death issues, because every single person we’ve lost was too many. Does gay marriage matter to our people or not? That’s not a real debate in my opinion, of course it matters.
But just like a Not One More [immigrants rights campaign challenging deportations] organizer said when asked about Ferguson: “We have to fight like we mean Not One More Mike Brown.” So how do we fight like we mean Not One More Lamar Edwards [a 20-year-old black gay man killed in January in Louisville, Kentucky]? Not One More Ty Underwood [a 24-year-old black trans woman killed in January in North Tyler, Texas], all of these people we’ve lost in the past six weeks? That’s a question SONG is eager to help answer and can’t answer alone, for sure.
Pregnant women and those who have just had babies in New York state prisons are shackled—despite a 2009 state law that prohibits the use of restraints during labor, delivery and recovery. Women who are not pregnant use newspaper and magazines while on their periods because they are not provided an adequate number of pads. Others face weeks- or months-long delays to see medical providers, and so sexually transmitted infections worsen or cancerous cells spread past the point of being treatable. Others are rushed through appointments and deemed “problem patients” if they ask too many questions, or else forced to discuss the intimate details of a health issue through the door of a solitary confinement cell. Incarceration violates women’s reproductive rights—to say nothing of their dignity and humanity—at every turn. These are among the findings of a report on the state of reproductive health care for women in New York state prisons released this week.
The Correctional Association of New York, an organization that’s monitored conditions in the state’s prisons since 1846 and which produced the report “Reproductive Injustice,” calls it the most extensive study of reproductive health care in a state prison system to date. It’s the product of five years’ worth of investigation into New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which provides reproductive healthcare to 4,000 women per year, according to the report. Women make up just 4 percent of DOCCS’s prison population, but because of the upward national trend in incarcerating women—the women’s prison population increased in the US by nearly 900 percent between 1977 and 2013—the study offers a look at the inhumane conditions faced by a growing number of women, the majority of whom are poor and of color.
The report attempts to tell us who women incarcerated in New York are. Seventy percent are mothers. Just over half have a serious or chronic illness. Ninety percent have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, and 80 percent were severely abused as children. Three-fourths of the women have survived violence at the hands of their intimate partners. These harrowing statistics help us understand why one of the report’s recommendations is that the state prison system train its medical staff in how to provide trauma-informed care, meaning that staff should learn how abuse continues to affect the women they’re caring for and tailor their approach accordingly. For example, a number of women interviewed said they preferred to be examined by a woman gynecologist, but were given little or no choice in the matter. This despite quotes like this, from the report: “I’ve been raped numerous times, so any type of contact down there makes me feel messed up, but I know I need to be checked.” Among other findings:
—54 percent of survey respondents said they did not get enough sanitary napkins each month, while 68 percent said they did not get enough toilet paper.
—44 percent of respondents who saw a male gynecologist said it made them feel uncomfortable talking about their needs.
—13 percent of women who were pregnant and entered the system during the legal time frame to get an abortion said someone talked to them about their reproductive options.
—85 percent of women who gave birth between 2009, when the law was passed, and 2013, were shackled at least once, in violation of the law.
The challenges faced by the women interviewed are the same challenges faced by women incarcerated nationwide, said Tamar Kraft-Stolar, who directs the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association and wrote the report. “This fundamental conflict between reproductive justice and mass incarceration is not something that’s unique to New York,” she said. “We’re hoping that this report contributes to the national conversation that’s happening right now about over-incarceration.”
This broader critique of incarceration is clear throughout the study, which at one point boldly states, “The best solution to the problems outlined in this report is to keep women, especially pregnant women and women with small children, out of prison in the first place.” Instead, the state should look to community-based alternatives to incarceration, the Correctional Association argues, perhaps through policy initiatives similar to what voters in California approved just months ago. In California, shoplifting, drug possession, and four other felony crimes have been reclassified as misdemeanors, meaning less jail time for women convicted of them.
In the meantime, the report is part of an ongoing effort to bring about reforms and improve conditions in New York’s prisons. The Correctional Association is part of a statewide coalition for women’s prisoners that includes more than 100 organizations advocating for policy change. Recent victories include that 2009 anti-shackling law, which the campaign wants to not only see enforced but also expanded to outlaw the use of shackles on women throughout all stages of their pregnancies.
“What was deeply disturbing was the magnitude of violations of reproductive rights that women are going through,” Kraft-Stolar said of producing the report. “It’s really racism and gender oppression that drive society’s tolerance of this extraordinary level of human suffering that happens behind prison walls.”
In a video from a Baltimore middle school released last week, a girl is summoned down a flight of stairs by a school police officer. After what appears, from the video, to be no more than a few seconds, she descends the steps but walks quickly past the cop, apparently ignoring a demand that she stop. The officer pins her against a wall, and soon the girl’s sister and later a third black girl—their cousin—rush in to intervene, crowding in and trying to get the officer to loosen her grip. The officer, a woman, runs after the cousin and hits her at least twice with a baton, bloodying that girl’s head so badly she will later need stitches. The officer, unprovoked and apparently angered by their refusal to accept her authority, then sprays the other two girls in the eyes with pepper spray.
Following the events on the video, the three girls were rushed to the hospital for treatment and then taken by police to Baltimore’s juvenile justice center, where they were charged with assaulting the officer. Those charges were dropped once the prosecutor viewed the video, but the girls were all suspended. The officer was reassigned to administrative duty.
According to a report released Wednesday, incidents such as these in which black girls are subject to harsh, apparently unwarranted school discipline and end up in the juvenile justice system are much more likely than the existing research and public conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline suggest. Concern and interventions focus largely on boys of color, particularly black boys. But according to the report, titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” black girls are also disciplined at disproportionately high rates compared to white girls and, as a result, are excluded from opportunities to learn. Black boys are suspended more than three times as often as white boys, and often that statistic is held up as sole proof of a problem. But if black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls, which data analysis in this new report finds, then why and what can be done to reduce that disparity?
The report, authored by the African American Policy Forum in collaboration with Columbia Law School, looked at 2011–12 school year data collected by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and found:
—Twelve percent of all black girls in school were suspended, while two percent of white girls were subjected to that form of discipline.
—In New York City’s public schools, black students made up 28 percent of the student body and white students were 14 percent. But black girls were 90 percent of all girls expelled, and no white girls were expelled that school year.
—In Boston’s public schools, black students made up 35 percent of the student body and white students were 14 percent. Black girls were 63 percent of all girls expelled, and no white girls were expelled that school year.
The report goes beyond simply reporting the problem and recommends solutions, such as training teachers how to work with students traumatized by violence and sexual assault and recognizing that girls have needs that can differ from boys’ and so demand specially tailored solutions. “This cannot be a trickle-down affair,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar and one of the report’s authors, said Wednesday on a call to announce its release.
As for the problems girls face at school, some of these were explored in depth in a New York Times article late last year that examined the same Office of Civil Rights data for insight into race, gender and school discipline. According to that story, intraracial disparities exist as well. “Researchers say that within minority groups, darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones,” Tanzina Vega reported. Vega focused on a district in Georgia where a 12-year-old black girl was accused of criminal trespassing after writing graffiti in a school bathroom. The girl’s friend, who was also involved and is white, faced no such charges because her family was able to pay $100 in restitution.
But the difference in how white and black girls are disciplined often isn’t just about who has the money to buy their way out of harsh punishment and who doesn’t. Making a decision about whether and how to discipline a student is subjective, so biases around race and gender creep into calls educators have to make every day. According to the African American Policy Forum report, the girls interviewed in focus groups believed their teachers and school counselors often perceived them as “loud and rowdy, ghetto,” and so relied on harsh discipline practices as a way to counteract and try to root out those behaviors.
Last fall, I interviewed educator and scholar Monique Morris for a story I was reporting about how teachers can address behavior problems without turning to suspensions or otherwise pushing students out of the classroom. Morris, who’s working on a book on the criminalization of black girls in schools, has conducted interviews and run focus groups across the San Francisco Bay Area and in Boston, New Orleans and Chicago with students who have struggled in or been ousted from the traditional school system. She said sometimes teachers and administrators think they’re doing something innocuous by teaching girls to be ladylike or to meet some other standard of femininity—by sending a girl wearing short shorts home or requiring that she stay in the office, for example—when in reality they’re doing harm.
“They try to police girls’ sexuality in ways that really just marginalize them from the school environment,” Morris said. “In an attempt to try to show love and maybe even engage with the young women, they end up pushing them away and criminalizing their behavior in ways that are unnecessary.” Instead, these are moments when educators should focus on boys’ inappropriate behavior rather than solely blaming that behavior on the way a girl dresses, she said.
As for solutions, Morris said the girls she’s interviewed are longing for dependable, caring relationships with teachers who believe in their promise.“The girls who have the best relationships with teachers are the ones who do the best in school,” she said.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center have organized a congressional briefing on improving educational outcomes for black girls, including how to reform zero-tolerance discipline policies to avoid school pushout. The event is February 11 in Washington, DC, and open to the public.
This week’s New York Times Magazine features a fascinating article about two teenagers’ worlds colliding on a city bus in Oakland, California. In the fall of 2013, the skirt of an 18-year-old gender-nonconforming person named Sasha Fleischman was set on fire while Sasha napped during a bus ride home from school. Richard Thomas, a 16-year-old boy whose life differed from Sasha’s in a number of ways, had just left his own high school and was on the same bus. Egged on by two friends, Richard, who is black, set Sasha, who is white, on fire. Richard, whose East Oakland neighborhood is plagued by poverty, faced the possibility of life in prison, while Sasha, who is from Oakland’s wealthier foothills, was treated for second- and third-degree burns in the wake of the incident. Richard, who at one point begged to be let into an intervention program for chronically absent students, is now in the midst of a seven-year sentence and could be transferred to an adult prison after turning 18. Sasha, who decided at 16 that identifying as one gender didn’t feel quite right, is now a student at MIT.
The article is captivating storytelling that explores gender expression, how baffled parents struggle to make sense of their children’s choices, and how we decide what constitutes a hate crime. This could have been yet another article that depicts black teenagers as brutal and amoral and encourages readers to identify with victims hell-bent on the harshest punishment possible, but it’s not. Instead, pretty much everyone involved bucks some stereotype.
Some examples of how the story confounds readers expectations: Richard comes across as a confused kid swayed by peer pressure. He tells police when he’s brought in for questioning, “I wouldn’t say that I hate gay people, but I’m very homophobic.” (Perhaps he was being precise in his use of the word, admitting a fear rather than hatred?) He later wrote Sasha a letter that reads in part, “I had a nightmare last night and I woke up sweating and apologizing. I really hope you get back to the way you were. I went to court yesterday and there [sic] still making me seem like a monster, but I’m not.” Sasha’s parents didn’t want Richard tried as an adult and, according to the article, “consistently cautioned against leaping to conclusions about Richard’s motivation.” The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center asked the district attorney not to charge Richard as an adult.
But there’s one stereotype the story does risk enforcing. By focusing on Sasha Fleischman to tell a 4,500-word story about crimes against gender-nonconforming people, a reader could believe that victims in such situations are overwhelmingly white, preyed upon by black or Latino boys and men. In fact, that’s not the case. According to an Anti-Violence Project report, LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color were 1.7 times more likely than white people similarly classified to be injured and two times more likely to require medical attention as a result of hate violence in 2013. They were 1.4 times more likely to experience violence in the street or a public area. Of the hate-motivated homicides of LGBT people that year, two-thirds of the victims were transgender women of color.
Trying to make sense of these stats, a writer at Jacobin reflected on the names read during an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil, names of people killed because of their gender expression in the preceding year. She explained:
Why am I not on the list? I’m white, which exempts me from many forms of violence and discrimination. I’m employed full-time in a safe profession, so I can afford housing. I have trans-inclusive health insurance, which allows me to pay the medical expenses associated with my transition. I pass, which means that most people can’t tell that I’m transgender by sight. In a group of people who feel perpetually unsafe, I’m as safe as I can possibly be.
Sasha identifies as agender, not transgender. And neither whiteness nor access to housing or other markings of financial security kept Sasha safe on the bus that day. But these stats and the struggles of gender-nonconforming people of color to have crimes targeting them recognized and stopped are worth remembering. They offer important context to the already intricate story of Sasha, Richard and their families.
Read Next: Dani McClain on the way we talk about abortion rights
Last summer, The New York Times ran a story that claimed the term “pro-choice” had fallen out of favor among abortion rights advocates. Instead, the article explained, because younger people eschew political labels, movement leaders had taken to using different language—talking about “women’s health” beyond just abortion, talking about how “economic security” is impacted by access to reproductive health care—to discuss issues like access to abortion and contraception.
But there was a problem. The movement leaders and elected officials the reporter spoke to were all white women. In a story that posited that millennials—the most racially diverse generation the United States has seen—were upending how we talk about abortion, there was no analysis of whether race may play a role in changing political tastes. There was no mention, for example, of messaging black women developed to combat race-baiting, anti-choice billboards that cropped up nationwide a few years back, or of how young women of color in Albuquerque had successfully convinced voters to reject a proposed twenty-week abortion ban. These oversights amplified an idea that has long plagued the abortion rights movement—that the contributions and leadership of women of color are ignored or co-opted—and kicked off a vibrant conversation within the movement about whose work gets attention and why. The episode got some reproductive justice organizations—groups that could have offered the race and class analysis the Times article lacked—thinking about how to avoid being left out of the story next time. Part of the problem, they figured, was that the reporter had relied on a homogenous list of sources they just weren’t on.
So a group of reproductive justice organizations, including Forward Together, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, set to work on a guide for media reporting on abortion—released recently in advance of today’s forty-second anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling—that they hope will have ripple effects. If journalists start to understand what the reproductive justice movement is fighting for and why, then the public’s understanding of what’s truly at stake and who’s offering solutions will start to shift as well.
Kalpana Krishnamurthy, the primary researcher on the guide and policy director at Forward Together, said it’s a way for the movement to get out ahead of stories, so the groups she works with can get out of the habit of doing damage control after an incomplete or inaccurate story—any that relies on traditional experts to the exclusion of people disproportionately impacted by policies, for example—comes out. “This is a proactive way to say to media, ‘there’s a story here and we think you can do an amazing job of covering it and we’ve got some tips and tricks for you,’” she said.
It’s the kind of work GLAAD has been doing for years, producing its own style guide that’s helped eliminate phrases like “homosexual lifestyle” and other off-key or defamatory language from mainstream news reports. Some suggestions in the guide are easy to imagine using and it’s clear that their purpose is to neutralize the political charge some language carries. For example, writing that the Hyde Amendment “denies Medicaid coverage of abortion” rather than that it bans “taxpayer funding of abortion.” Other suggestions come off as clunky. I may find it concise to write that today marks the forty-second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. But according to the guide, that’s not exactly right. Instead, I should note that Roe v. Wade “granted the right to legal abortion before viability, though Congress and state legislators have been allowed to restrict access to the procedure, disproportionately affecting people of color or those who are living in rural areas.”
That’s a mouthful, and I may have lost you somewhere around “viability,” but according to the authors, the specifics are critical. By wrapping who’s left out or disproportionately affected into the very definition of a word or idea we take for granted, we change the story entirely. And changing old narratives around abortion by adding dimensions of race, class, geography, sexual orientation is at the core of the reproductive justice movement’s work. This isn’t just nitpicking or overcomplicating, the guide’s authors argue, it’s about accuracy and telling the whole truth.
Sure, I and other journalists may bristle at the idea of advocates telling us how to do our jobs. But the truth is, language matters and the words we choose are often a reflection of our own biases, experiences, what we hear from the people we surround ourselves with, whether we’re reporters or outside the media. On the night of the midterm elections, writers Imani Gandy and Andrea Grimes called out reporting that claimed Wendy Davis’s opponent in Texas’ gubernatorial race had carried “women,” when upon closer examination it was clear that black and Latina women had voted overwhelmingly for Davis. This is the kind of framing that lacks nuance and, as a result, is just wrong. Hopefully this guide and the reproductive justice movement’s broader effort to declare its place at the table helps more people get it right.
The new documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which chronicles the movement for women’s rights in the sixties and early seventies, is nothing if not timely. It’s touring the country just as the concept of the grassroots movement as the spark for social change is having a moment. Thanks to the incredible film Selma, which puts movement strategy and ferocious hope on equal footing with personality and electoral power, and in large part because of #BlackLivesMatter organizing, the American public is grappling with the question of how change happens. They’re wondering aloud what would make a person go back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge—as hundreds of civil rights activists do in Selma—after whip lashes and clubs rained down on them the last time they tried it. A person who typically doesn’t give mass movement a second thought—the type who was confused by the “community organizer” part of Obama’s résumé—may be infuriated or dismissive if #BlackBrunch shows up in their neighborhood cafe, but they’re talking about the tactic just the same. That counts for something.
Simply getting people talking was a goal then as now, and late in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry historian and feminist Ruth Rosen recounts a series of events that proved how dangerous even that can be. The women’s movement had become such a successful, persistent presence—shutting down all-male congressional hearings on birth control safety, for example—that J. Edgar Hoover feels it’s a destabilizing threat. The Bureau discriminates just like most employers, and so doesn’t hire women as agents. But it sends a team of informants to spy on consciousness-raising groups. Soon the infiltrators are bored. They report back that these women are just talking about their husbands’ refusal to help out around the house and how subsidized childcare really would be a nice thing. There’s nothing revolutionary happening at these meetings, the spies say; attending them is a waste of time. But Hoover is adamant that his informants stay the course, calling feminist organizers a national security threat.
Hoover was right in a way. Once people start talking, they understand that what they’ve always thought of as source of personal humiliation—being repeatedly harassed by police without cause, for example, or having your boss chase you around his desk every chance he gets—is something more. It’s not the result of your own failings; it’s a social sickness. “Once you stop blaming yourself for all of this, it was like somebody had lifted a rock off of you,” activist and academic Carol Giardina says in the film. “And then here were women all around you who were ready to go out there and do something about it.”
The film takes as its focus the protests, campaigns, confrontations and provocations—as often outlandish as earnest—the movement instigated, and it mixes the history you know and expect, like the burning of bras at the Miss America pageant in ’68, with lesser-known stories, like the role women in the Young Lords played in exposing forced sterilization in Puerto Rico and New York City. This documentary doesn’t pretend there weren’t elbows thrown, disagreements over leadership styles, or divergent agendas. The film has no narrator, and so the women who made up the movement—those who learned to provide safe, if not legal, abortions as part of the Jane Collective, those who didn’t identify with the movement’s focus on white women’s concerns and so formed Black Sisters United, those who ran street patrols when a string of Boston murders targeting women hit the headlines—speak for themselves. There’s no objective voice to guide the story. Instead, director Mary Dore offers what feels like an unvarnished telling, trustworthy in part because these women were dealing with many of the same messes and contradictions we still struggle with today, particularly the fractures within movements.
In one scene, archival footage shows activist Marilyn Webb attempting to address a crowd at an anti-war demonstration and being shouted down by men—her New Left comrades, mind you—who demand that someone “fuck her down a dark alley” rather than allow her to continue talking. “I didn’t expect movement men to behave like that, and I was shocked,” she recalls. Now such threats happen mostly anonymously on the Internet, but their hate-filled nastiness is just as shocking. Black women in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968 because their male counterparts had a hard time seeing their own sexism. As activist and writer Fran Beal puts it looking back, “We’re talking about liberation and freedom half the night on the racial side, and then all of a sudden men are going to turn around and talk about putting you in your place? That was the contradiction in terms that we were no longer prepared to put up with.” The film also dissects the movement’s tendency to ostracize leaders who attracted too much attention, and women recount how they were thrown out of groups they helped start. “People had read about me, so I was like this mini-celebrity,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remembers. “In Cell 16, they said that I was oppressing them…. ‘I feel oppressed just by the fact that you exist.’ OK. You want me to stop existing?’”
There are plenty of similarities between then and now, but the differences are even more interesting. I came away from the film thinking that the goals of that era’s women’s movement had been loftier. After all, organizers had nearly been successful in getting Congress to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a bill that would have created sliding-scale early-education and after-school programs nationwide. Nixon vetoed it, positioning himself as the sole voice of reason standing between American women and a kind of Soviet obliteration of true motherhood. But Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes is featured in the documentary, recalling what that historic fight for childcare felt like from an activist’s perspective. There’s also a vigorous conversation about marriage that feels eons away from the current largely uncritical approach to the institution. “If women are to be married, women should receive pensions,” activist Jacqui Ceballos, who was active in NOW, is seen telling a crowd in the film. Today we’re bombarded almost daily by sky-is-falling propaganda about the social ills associated with singledom and single parenthood, and few major feminist organizations mount serious counter-arguments.
“Unlike now, we didn’t want a piece of the pie,” activist and lawyer Alice Wolfson says in the film, summing up some of this gap between what was and what is. “We wanted to change the pie.”
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is screening in theaters nationwide now.
Read Next: Dani McClain on police brutality
On Tuesday, the day the new Congress was sworn in, House Republicans introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. The measure seeks to undermine Roe v. Wade and depends on medically unsound claims about a fetus’s ability to feel pain at that time. It’s an early indication that the GOP-controlled Senate could allow the wave of abortion restrictions that has hit state legislatures in recent years—231 enacted by states since 2010—to find new footing in federal law.
Tuesday’s salvo is a depressing reminder of what the midterm elections may mean for abortion rights, but it’s also an opportunity to think about where the reproductive health, rights and justice movements have maintained or gained ground in recent years. State legislatures are the place to find these victories as well, according to a report released late last month by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Its roundup of proactive policy solutions is a helpful reminder of what’s possible as lawmakers return to state capitals early this year.
Some of the solutions have been around for a while. There is mention of states using their own funds to provide Medicaid coverage of abortion, thus bypassing the decades-old restriction imposed by the Hyde Amendment. States that provide family leave coverage beyond the federal standard are applauded. But innovations and new experiments are lifted up in the report as well.
Pregnant and parenting teens in New Mexico have a new shot at successfully completing high school, thanks to an excused absence policy adopted by the state’s schools in 2013. The new law reframes the long-vilified pregnant teen as a young person who is trying to raise a child while getting an education. The law acknowledges that doctor’s appointments, morning sickness, and caring for a sick child are legitimate reasons for missing school, not absences that should count against a teenage parent.
Legislators in Rhode Island and Washington want to make contraception more affordable and accessible by allowing women to fill a one-year prescription of birth control. A 365-day supply can bring down the cost of co-pay and has proven effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies. According to a University of California, San Francisco, study, when low-income women who rely on public coverage of contraception received a one-year supply of birth control pills rather than a one- or three-month supply, the pregnancy rate decreased by nearly a third and the abortion rate by 46 percent. A bill governing such prescriptions was introduced in Rhode Island last year and another has passed in Washington.
California has been a leader in acknowledging that medical professionals other than doctors can safely provide critical reproductive health services. In 2013, the state passed a law allowing trained nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to provide first-trimester abortions. Because thirty-eight states have laws requiring that only physicians can be abortion providers, developments in California—and in Connecticut and Washington where non-physician clinicians can provide medication abortions—offer a model to other states.
State lawmakers have also voted to stop shackling women who give birth while incarcerated and convened maternal mortality review committees charged with examining why black women are four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. The Center for Reproductive Rights report offers insights from the policy advocates and grassroots activists who worked with their legislators to make these victories possible. It offers a glimmer of hope at a moment when, after the GOP came out swinging this week, the federal landscape on reproductive rights can feel bleak.