Third-rail politics: Analysis at the intersection of gender, health and race.
Just before 2 AM on an August morning in 2006, seven gay black women were harassed as they walked down a street in New York City's West Village. A man seated on a fire hydrant outside a movie theater called them "dyke bitches," according to one of the women. He told them, "I'll fuck you straight." Dissatisfied by their response, he spit at them and threw a cigarette.
What happened next, a confrontation which led to four of the women being convicted on felony charges and spending years in prison, is the subject of Out in the Night, a documentary streaming online until July 23 and which premiered on PBS and Logo TV last week.
In short, the man—who was discovered to have commented online that "women should welcome your advances because that's how the race should propagate itself" and that "80 percent of serial killers are homosexual"—sustained stab wounds after one of the women pulled a knife in the midst of the melee that followed. The women, who had travelled to the Village from New Jersey that night, suffered among them a bruised eye and busted lip, a fistful of dreadlocks pulled from the scalp, and choke marks on the neck among other injuries. The women maintain that their harasser swung first, and that his aggression eventually drew the attention and involvement of onlookers.
But in the eyes of many of the corporate media outlets that reported on the incident, the women were the savage and bloodthirsty aggressors. A New York Post headline called the incident "Attack of the Killer Lesbians." Other headlines read: "The Case of the Lesbian Beatdown," "Gal's Growl: Hear me Roar," and "Girls Gone Wilding." Even the staid New York Times ran a headline that implied that a benign encounter had gone wrong because some woman couldn't lighten up: "Man is stabbed in attack after admiring a stranger."
It wasn't just the media that treated the women harshly, the criminal justice system did as well, the film argues. They faced felony charges, including gang assault (simply on account of the size of their group), attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Three of them were, as an attorney interviewed puts it, "coerced by circumstance" and pled guilty. Presumably the risk of doing serious time behind bars was too much. The women who went to trial—Venice Brown, Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, and Terrain Dandridge—became known as the New Jersey Four.
In the June issue of the The Journal of American History, University of Texas at Austin professor Kali Nicole Gross offers context that helps explain why those dehumanizing headlines made it past New York City's copy desks and why the courts handled the incident as a gang case. In an essay about the historical experiences of black women and incarceration, she writes of late nineteenth and early twentieth century architects of criminology: "Criminal anthropologists assessed female deviance, in part, by subjects’ proximity to, or distance from, Western ideals of femininity, morality, and virtue—standards against which black women failed to measure up. Proponents . . . masculinized black women, claiming that their physical 'correspondence with the male is very strong'—an aberration reputedly indicative of congenital criminality."
But, of course, it wasn't just their gender and race that brought the hammer of public opinion down hard on the New Jersey Four. It was their sexuality and the challenge that some of the women's appearance posed to traditional gender norms. In the film, Terrain Dandridge's mother says she was apprehensive going into the trial, given what her daughter and her friends would represent to the judge and jury: "Of course you being a woman, then being black, and then the nerve of you to be gay."
The film also explores the question of black people's—particularly black women's—right to self defense. It's a topic that's received necessary attention in recent years, particularly as a common thread between the cases of Marissa Alexander, CeCe McDonald, and the one profiled in Out in the Night. In an interview in the film, Patreese Johnson—who wielded the knife and served more than seven years of her 11-year sentence before having it reduced on appeal—says, "Yes, I did pull my knife out and I did because…" She takes a deep breath before continuing, "You couldn't tell me my best friend wasn't about to die."
Again, Gross's recent essay is helpful, as it points out that long before Alexander, McDonald, and the New Jersey Four, many black women felt that staying safe was squarely their own responsibility. Gross writes: "Exclusionary notions of protection have created a need for black women to trade in extralegal violence for personal security. Historical accounts are replete with examples of otherwise-law-abiding black women found carrying small knives and other weapons to guard against daily assaults and violations at home and in the workplace—behaviors gesturing toward their often-overlooked vulnerability."
Out in the Night is critical viewing, especially in the wake of May's #SayHerName protests, and at a moment when groundbreaking reports on prison conditions and visionary policy change are drawing attention to the lives of women in the criminal justice system. The second half of the film focuses on the women's experiences in prison and immediately after—the hallucinations while inside that eventually result in a PTSD diagnosis, the twists and turns of the appeals process, the fight to regain custody of a child after years locked away. In telling the stories, the film puts a face on issues that are too often talked about in the abstract.
It helped make another issue less abstract for me as well, one that had been nagging me ever since Friday's historic Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. I had mostly skipped over any celebration and gone straight to reading up on the critical fights LGBTQ organizers can focus on in the wake of this victory, particularly efforts to end discrimination in housing and employment. I had been thinking about the rampant street violence and street harassment that LGBTQ people, particularly those who are black and brown, still face daily. I had been nodding along with arguments about marriage being a fundamentally conservative institution, and about how exclusionary and melodramatic the last paragraph of Kennedy's opinion is. (No union is more profound than marriage? Those who don't marry are "condemned to live in loneliness"? No.)
But the cynic in me was stopped cold by Renata Hill's words near the end of this film, after she's served more than two years in prison and been freed through a retrial, after she's regained custody of her son and fallen in love with a woman named Marilyn. "We're building a family together, working on a home," Hill tells the filmmaker, pride and hopefulness clear in her voice. "And one day, I'm going to ask her to marry me."
Before opening fire in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last night, Dylann Storm Roof reportedly sat for an hour alongside those whose lives he would soon snuff out. News reports haven’t gone into great depth about what happened in the church prior to the shooting, but imagine the scene: smiles and nods in his direction from the older black women, Bibles in their laps. Picture those gathered accepting this young white man into their midst and offering commonly uttered phrases like, “Welcome, brother” and “Glad you can be with us tonight.” According to NBC News, Roof told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.” It seems the man who would soon kill nine people was accepted without fanfare as just another person called to pray on a Wednesday night.
So how abruptly the mood in that sanctuary must have changed when 21-year-old Roof told those who had assumed best intentions, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you are taking over our country.” How many of them blamed themselves while pleading for their lives (they had time to—the gunman is reported to have reloaded his clip five times)? How many of them reflected on whether they could have anticipated such hatred, whether they should have been more skeptical of this young man who turned out to be eaten up by white supremacy and delusion?
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church victims were mowed down in part because they allowed any boundary surrounding their place of worship to be porous. They trusted Roof to be respectful and humane. (Compare this with the McKinney, Texas, residents who were so intent on keeping presumed Section 8 dwellers away from their neighborhood that they involved police in an adolescent pool party.) The parishioners who were terrorized last night were not naive in their willingness to sit alongside the man who would soon kill six women and three men. Instead, they were engaged in a survival tactic as old as the black American experience: a refusal to let one’s heart harden or one’s joy fade in the face of the irrational, deadly actions that white supremacy can generate. Neither the daily reports of black people all over the country experiencing violence and discrimination at the hands of white authority figures nor whatever attacks these individuals had personally sustained kept them from welcoming a young white man into a church with deep roots in the black community generally and the black liberation project specifically.
Unfortunately, this orientation toward accepting at face value those who are in fact duplicitous is getting black folks in trouble these days. This past week, as the Rachel Dolezal story unfolded (and unfolded… and unfolded…) several observers pointed out that the Washington woman had taken advantage of an open-door policy to blackness ensured by the enduring relevance of the ‘one-drop rule.’ Dolezal was able to carry out her deception in part because black Americans aren’t typically in the business of policing others’ racial identity. If someone says they’re black, they’re black, and to push too hard for proof is a sign of not understanding how race has historically worked in this country. One drop of “black blood”—the kind spilled in that Charleston church, presumably—a black person made under the logic of slavery and Jim Crow. That logic continues in many communities today.
My inclination with the Dolezal story was to turn away from the spectacle and maybe send her some information on John Brown, Viola Liuzzo, Jack Greenberg, and other white Americans throughout history who committed themselves to black liberation without feeling the need to create a ridiculous persona to carry it out. But news of the Charleston shootings has made me take a second look at that recent flashpoint in ongoing conversations about blackness and its meanings. Many black Americans—the kind who welcomed both Roof and Dolezal into their midst—maintain a commitment, even unconsciously, to assuming best intentions and refusing to let bitterness and cynicism get the best of them.
It’s a shame that these recent betrayals, from yesterday’s attack on black lives to the relatively insignificant sham exposed last week, have taken advantage of those who see the benefit in welcoming strangers, valuing inclusion and accepting people on the basis of who they say they are.
With two news events occurring within days of each other, Texas is showing the rest of the country what happens when unchecked state power tramples the bodies of women and girls. Both those committed to preserving access to legal abortion and those committed to eradicating police abuse have their eyes trained on the state.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court upheld part of House Bill 2, a 2013 state law that requires abortion clinics to conform to hospital-like standards that providers and advocates say are costly and unnecessary. In the wake of the ruling, only eight clinics will remain open, with people in the western half of the state forced to travel long distances to access services. Prior to the passage of HB 2, Texas had 40 operating licensed clinics. The closures mean that hundreds of thousands of women of reproductive age now live more than 200 miles away from an abortion provider. Prior to the law’s passage, no Texan lived outside that range.
As a concession to the needs of communities in south Texas, the court ruling will allow the last clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, which does not meet these ambulatory surgical center (ASC) standards, to remain open for the time being. According to a statement from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, this is an outcome “offering limited consolation to women struggling to access care.” The statement continues: “While we are proud of the role our testimony played in keeping the McAllen clinic open for now, the overall impact of HB 2 will be devastating for Texas Latinas.”
The Texas state legislature, through its passage of HB 2 and other attacks on reproductive health services, is steadily dismantling the ability of women and girls to control and feel safe in their own bodies. This week we’ve seen what this abuse of power looks like on a smaller scale. By now everyone with access to a screen (and the ability to bear witness) has seen video of Officer Eric Casebolt throwing 15-year-old Dajerria Becton onto the ground following a pool party in a Dallas suburb. Observers have analyzed the vitriolic language and extreme physical force he uses while pushing her face into the ground and kneeling on her back. Casebolt can be seen doing other inexcusable and confounding things in the video, such as waving his gun at unarmed onlookers. But the most disturbing part of the encounter is the officer’s handling of the bikini-clad teenage girl, the way he yanks her braids and twists her arm behind her back, the way he leans his weight into her body as she cries and asks someone, anyone, to call her mother.
Seeing an adult man—a white police officer at that—overpower a young black girl a fraction of his size causes a visceral response in many of us, especially those of us who have tracked the many instances of police abuse of black Americans that have garnered national attention in the past year. Casebolt’s attack highlights the vulnerability too many black women and girls experience at the hands of police—even when they’re doing something as innocuous as enjoying themselves at a pool party. That outrage may build upon hearing that this same officer has been accused of racially profiling a black driver and probing the man’s “private areas” in public view during a roadside search in 2007. And frustration over this latest incident remains for many, even though Casebolt has resigned from the McKinney Police Department. He has yet to be charged with a crime.
For women and girls in Texas—especially for those who are black, Latina or poor—it must feel like the power of the state is rarely on your side these days. In McKinney, we saw a representative of the state show complete disregard for a black girl’s right to bodily integrity. It’s less of an immediate, dramatic blow, but HB 2 reflects a similar disregard. With both the McKinney pool fiasco and the unrelenting attack on access to abortion, the state has overstepped its bounds. As a result, women and girls are less safe.
Fifty years ago, as Nina Simone put it, everybody knew about Mississippi, Goddam. Now it seems Texas is the place to watch with righteous indignation and a heavy heart.
Women in Texas—including many older women well past reproductive age—just fell victim to anti-choice legislators’ obsession with restricting access to abortion. Last week, lawmakers there passed a budget that excludes the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics from providing screenings for breast and cervical cancer. The logic of the budget provision’s supporters goes something like this: One of the things Planned Parenthood does is help people terminate unwanted pregnancies. Terminating unwanted pregnancies is bad. Therefore, Planned Parenthood should be financially strangled and denied state funds that allow it to provide a range of other women’s healthcare services.
It’s simple: “Don’t perform abortions and you get the money,” state Senator Jane Nelson, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, has said about the plan.
The Texas legislature applied this same reasoning back in 2011, when it excluded Planned Parenthood from taking part as a qualified family planning provider under the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. Back then, the state showed that it was willing to give up $36 million in matching federal funds (and serve 30,000 fewer women) in order to maintain its commitment to reactionary reproductive-health policy. But this time around, the attack on Planned Parenthood isn’t even related to birth control or treating sexually transmitted infections. Instead, it’s an attack on Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide mammograms, pap tests, and biopsies. It’s an attack on Planned Parenthood as the place where an uninsured woman can turn when she feels a lump in her breast or has abnormal bleeding but hasn’t seen a doctor in years.
Texans are at especially high risk of developing certain reproductive cancers, according to a report from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) and the Center for Reproductive Rights. The incidence of cervical cancer there is 17 percent higher than the national average, according to the report. Latinas in Texas are the most likely to be diagnosed with it, and Latinas living along the border are 31 percent more likely to die of cervical cancer, compared to women living in non-border communities, Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, Texas policy director of NLIRH, told me. These high mortality rates are associated with the difficulty immigrant women face in getting regular screenings—exactly what Planned Parenthood has been able to offer as a provider through its participation in the Breast and Cervical Cancer Services (BCCS) program. According to news reports, last year the screening program served 33,599 Texans, 57 percent of whom were Latina.
Under the current BCCS program, Planned Parenthood provides 10 percent of screenings statewide. Proponents of the budget change argue that women who need screenings will simply need to look to other clinics in the program. But Rodriguez DeFrates of NLIRH, who testified before the state Senate budget committee on the issue, said that’s not so easy. “Latinas we talk to view Planned Parenthood as a trusted provider,” Rodriguez DeFrates said. It’s a hard-won trust the organization has gained over time, in part by employing promotoras, health workers focused on the kind of community outreach that builds lasting relationships. “To have that provider eliminated from a program that is designed to address the disproportionate deaths from very preventable forms of cancer that occur in black and brown communities.… It’s mind boggling.”
Tanene Allison, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes’ communications director, emphasized the importance of name recognition. She said she hears a similar story from many low-income and uninsured women who have had life saving interventions due to early cancer detection at one of Planned Parenthood’s health centers: They find a lump. They agonize over where to turn, since they don’t have a regular healthcare provider. Finally, someone they know says, ‘What about Planned Parenthood?’
“Once they remember Planned Parenthood, it’s an entry point to the BCCS program. These women likely don’t know BCCS as a program. They are not able to research providers in a program they’ve never heard of,” Allison said. “It’s hard to gauge how challenging it will now be for these women to figure out where to go.”
If the 2011 attack on Planned Parenthood is any indication, many women will just go without care, Rodriguez DeFrates of NLIRH said. She pointed me to a clinic in the Rio Grande Valley that’s now called Access Esperanza. It used to be a Planned Parenthood, but was forced to disaffiliate and change its name in order to survive those earlier funding cuts. When that clinic reopened its doors, it was clear that families in the community hadn’t gone elsewhere for services. According to a letter from the CEO on the clinic’s website:
When we reopened our clinic doors in Mission last September, we learned how much our patients relied on us for basic health care. Within the first eight weeks of reopening, we saw many more people with serious health problems, including cancers, as we usually treated in a year the closure. Patient after patient said that when our clinic closed, they could not find affordable care elsewhere and had received no medical care since the closure.
More than 15,000 Texans signed onto a petition urging the legislature to reject the provision, to no avail. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, could use his line-item-veto power in the coming weeks, though no one expects that he will. In the absence of additional challenges, Planned Parenthood will be able to continue providing cancer screenings through September. Then Texans will have to brainstorm harder and research longer when they find themselves in the midst of a health scare.
“The legislature is literally gambling with women’s lives,” Rodriguez DeFrates said. “It’s just infuriating.”
A new front in #BlackLivesMatter organizing is advancing today as concerned people nationwide gather to draw attention to black women and girls harmed or killed by police violence. According to organizers with Black Youth Project 100, rallies and vigils in more than 20 cities—including Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles—will demand that onlookers, the media, and the public at large #SayHerName. Participants argue that a truly inclusive movement challenging police misconduct and state violence would make sure the names Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseax, and Tarika Wilson—all black women killed by police—are remembered and used as motivating rallying cries alongside the names of their male counterparts.
Black boys and men are victimized by police violence more often than the girls and women in their communities. But a report out this week that offers the stories of girls and women—both cis- and transgender—whose names are not as well known in the mainstream argues that fewer numbers is no excuse for erasure. According to “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women”: “The erasure of Black women is not purely a matter of missing facts. Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media and advocates to exclude them.” Disproportionate police contact puts black women at risk for violence, and the researchers point out that in New York City—a site of ongoing organizing against stop and frisk policies—black men and women make up the lion’s share of those targeted. In 2013, black men made up 55.7 percent of all men stopped by NYPD, while black women made up 53.4 percent of all women stopped. Yet stop-and-frisk and “driving while black” are consistently framed as male problems.
In an effort to explain why it’s so easy for black women to go missing from the narrative, Tamara Winfrey Harris explained the historical roots of the problem earlier this month: “Black women were believed unbreakable long before Kimmy Schmidt came along. Our assumed lack of fragility made our enslavement, overwork, torture and sexual exploitation conscionable in an era when ‘real’ (read: white, middle-class) women were thought in need of white men’s protection.”
The “Say Her Name” report indicates that many of these same perceptions are at work today among law enforcement. For example, no period of time confers on women a kind of protected status more than pregnancy and motherhood, but the report highlights the cases of half a dozen pregnant women and women with children present who were killed or subjected to excessive force by police. There’s Rosan Miller, the Brooklyn woman who, at 7 months pregnant, was put into what appeared to be a prohibited chokehold by NYPD after an officer approached her for grilling on a public sidewalk. There’s also the case of Danette Daniels, a 31-year-old pregnant woman who was fatally shot in the head by a Newark, New Jersey, police officer in 1997. The officer was later cleared of criminal charges. To be fair, hundreds of people marched to protest the shooting at the time. But Daniels’s name is rarely if ever heard among those of others brutalized or killed by police during that same time period, such as Anthony Baez, Abner Louima, and Amadou Diallo.
Recent events in Baltimore have also drawn attention to incidents of pregnant black women’s abuse at the hands of police. Last year’s Baltimore Sun investigation, “Undue Force,” about more than 100 city residents who won judgments or settlements related to police brutality, highlighted the case of Starr Brown. Brown, who in 2009 witnessed a fight in her neighborhood, was detained by police after she encouraged them to pursue the fleeing attackers. According to the Sun, when an officer lunged at her, “She said she screamed that she was pregnant, but Galletti responded, ‘[We] hear it all the time.’… ‘They slammed me down on my face,’ Brown added, her voice cracking. ‘The skin was gone on my face.… I was tossed like a rag doll. He had his knee on my back and neck. She [the other officer] had her knee on my back trying to put handcuffs on me.’” Brown eventually delivered a healthy baby and was acquitted of all charges, including obstruction, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. She won a settlement from the city of $125,000.
Pregnancy is no shield against police violence, and neither is motherhood or childhood, according to the “Say Her Name” report. It tells the story of Tarika Wilson, a 26-year-old Ohio resident killed by police when they raided her house in search of her boyfriend, who was allegedly involved in the drug trade. In the process, they killed Wilson, who wasn’t a suspect, and injured her 14-month-old son. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old girl in Detroit, was killed under similar circumstances in 2010. The officer who fatally shot her during a raid on her grandmother’s home has been cleared of all charges.
Miriam Carey. Meagan Hockaday. Sonji Taylor. Denise Stewart. These are the names of other women who, like Tarika Wilson, were killed or abused by law enforcement in the presence of their children. For those who concern themselves with reproductive health, rights, and justice, it’s especially important to learn their stories and say their names.
Read Next: Dani McClain on Tennessee’s abstinence-based sex-ed law
Memphis, Tennessee, leads the nation in rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea infection. But as another academic year draws to a close, the schools in Tennessee’s most populous city aren’t doing anything to teach sexually active students how to be safe. Three years ago, state legislators passed a sex-education policy that doubles down on the requirement that teachers stress abstinence until marriage and allows lawsuits to be brought against teachers who distribute contraception or do anything that could be perceived as encouraging experimentation. At the time, there was a national outcry, with critics demanding to know what was meant by the “gateway sexual activity” legislators had decided couldn’t be mentioned in the classroom.
A new report from the Memphis-based reproductive justice organization SisterReach argues that Tennessee’s sex-ed policy is particularly damaging to black youth. In Memphis, 71 percent of children are black, and girls of all races between the ages of 15 and 19 experience the highest rates of chlamydia in the county. Black residents make up more than 90 percent of Shelby County’s reported cases of chlamydia and 95 percent of gonorrhea cases. But if a student in recently consolidated Shelby County schools is depending on adults at school to teach them how to stay healthy, they’re out of luck. According to small focus groups of black teens, parents, and teachers convened by SisterReach—the first effort in Tennessee to gather and the views of people of color on comprehensive sex education—more than 90 percent of the youth interviewed said they weren’t given adequate information to fully understand their bodies or how to make the right decisions about sex.
Despite the common argument from proponents of abstinence-based sex ed that additional learning should take place at home, parents interviewed said they’re not able to make up for the incomplete and misleading content their young people get in the classroom. Just 30 percent of parents said they felt comfortable talking about sex with their children, and more than 70 percent of them said they didn’t feel well informed about their own sexual health. Given that Tennessee is one of 37 states that don’t require that sex-ed curriculum be deemed accurate by medical or sexual health organizations, students there face obstacle after obstacle when it comes to learning how to negotiate contraception, prevent infection, or avoid abusive relationships.
Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, said the report tells a necessary story not only about Tennessee but also about the region as a whole. “This is the Deep South where we talk about ‘fornication,’ but we won’t talk about healthy relationships,” Scott said. “Folks don’t want to talk about sex because this is the Bible Belt.”
Even beyond the religiosity of the region, other factors put low-income black youth’s health at risk. Scott points out that at pharmacies in communities of color in Memphis, getting access to contraception is especially tough. Condoms are locked up, requiring that a young person ask for assistance if they want to make a purchase, and options are limited. “There are no female condoms,” Scott said. “You have to go into different areas that have a higher income.”
She said her organization is using the report to start a conversation with the Shelby County school board. Scott’s hope is that the board will join SisterReach and other concerned Tennesseans in lobbying the state legislature to change the law during the next legislative session.
“On the local level, they’ve got to say, ‘This isn’t working,’” she said.
Read Next: Dani McClain on why there aren’t more black female union bosses
A new report out today asks why black women—who are overrepresented in low-wage sectors of the economy that have produced recent organizing successes, including in retail and fast food—aren’t a stronger presence in labor movement leadership. The report, called “And Still I Rise” and published by the Institute for Policy Studies, asks what it will take for these women to lead the movement and change the public perception of who a union boss is.
There’s a reason black women, who lead all women in labor force participation, readily join unions, the report argues. They face significant discrimination and wage inequality in the workplace, earning 64 cents on a white man’s dollar. They’re also three times more likely than white women to be single heads of households with children, so when it comes to finding good work and getting paid what they deserve, the stakes are even higher.
“You have this perfect storm of conditions that make black women particularly receptive to organizing,” Kimberly Freeman Brown, one of the report’s authors told me. That they are receptive is born out by data that looks more broadly at non-white women. When women of color make up the majority of the workplace, and they’re being organized by women of color, the union election win rate is 90 percent—the highest for any group.
“When women of color are organized by other women of color, we win,” Brown said. The problem is getting these women—and as “And Still I Rise” argues, specifically black women—into that role of organizer or more senior positions in general, so that they can help shape the direction of the movement. Right now, the numbers don’t look good. The report includes findings from a national survey of more than 450 black women who are rank-and-file union members, organizers and worker’s rights activists. According to the survey:
• 65 percent said they aspire to become a union leader
• Less than 3 percent reported having held elected positions, and less than 5 percent had served as president of a union or labor organization
• Less than 20 percent reported having held senior staff positions at director level or higher
• 70 percent said unions had invested in their leadership development, but almost 50 percent said that they felt impeded in using their leadership potential because of a glass ceiling
“And Still I Rise,” which borrows its title from the refrain of a Maya Angelou poem, goes beyond the numbers and includes rich narratives drawn from interviews with more than two dozen black women active in organizing for workers’ rights. Their stories point a way toward the answers to the questions that the survey data raise.
Once women are engaged in the movement and want to advance, mentorship is key, several of the women interviewed report. “It was always men who helped to mentor me from one spot to the next,” Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute—a wing of the AFL-CIO focused on racial justice—tells the interviewers. “And in the beginning it was mostly white men in trade union organizations who came from similar family backgrounds as mine.”
The report’s authors say they hope that stories such as Brown’s will help leaders in the labor movement and the broader progressive community learn how to replicate models that have worked in cultivating leadership.
Something’s working in Los Angeles, where the staff of the Black Workers Center is predominately made up of women and chaired by Lola Smallwood Cuevas. She’s one of the 27 women whose narratives and beautifully photographed portraits are included in the report.
To her, there’s nothing new about black women’s leadership, especially when she looks at the history of worker mobilization in Los Angeles. There, vibrant organizing among home care and hospital workers are often associated with non-black immigrant communities. Smallwood Cuevas points to black women such as Ophelia McFadden who helped pave the way.
“When you see the early photographs, they were black women,” Smallwood Cuevas said of the roots of these more recent efforts. “The idea that these could be good jobs started in the souls of black women.”
Freeman Brown said the labor movement can make sure histories like these aren’t lost by consistently lifting up the women featured in the report as spokespeople and acknowledging them as the key strategists they are. The report should also be used to stimulate conversation between labor and women’s rights movement organizations, she said, so they can jointly decide “what a women’s economic agenda looks like that’s fashioned through not just gender but also race.”
Read Next: Dani McClain on black women and police violence
Last week, The New York Times published a much-discussed analysis of Census data under a headline claiming that 1.5 million black men are “missing” from daily life in America. Because of punitive and racially targeted criminal justice policies and factors leading to premature death (including declining but high homicide rates), huge swaths of black men are tucked away in prison cells or early graves. The study found that for every 100 black women in the United States who are not in jail, there are 83 black men in the same category. Among white Americans there’s barely a gap, with just one missing man for every 100 women.
The Times’ graphics and reporting are fascinating, but analysis veered off into shallow and well-trod territory, concluding that a primary outcome of these “disappeared” men is that black families are set up for dysfunction because too few men are around to be husbands and fathers. Through this lens, the systemic assault on black lives hurts black women because they’re left alone in to raise families on their own.
Last Monday, we got a glimpse of why a focus on black women as secondary casualties of policies and practices that fuel the mass disappearance is short-sighted. That’s the day a Cook County judge dismissed the charges facing the Chicago officer who, while off-duty, killed an unarmed 22-year-old black woman named Rekia Boyd in 2012. The reasoning the judge gave for the acquittal is particularly galling: The killing was obviously intentional, so only a murder charge — as opposed to the lesser involuntary manslaughter charges the DA brought—could have stuck, the judge said. The officer killed Boyd after he approached a group of people she was standing with because they were talking too loud for his taste. He maintains that killing her was an accident.
Boyd is one of few black women whose names are sometimes listed alongside other recent victims of police use of excessive force. But mobilization in the wake of her killing hasn’t measured up to public responses after black men die at the hands of police, argued writer and activist Darnell Moore last week. According to Moore:
…Most people don’t know Boyd’s name. They don’t know names like Shantel Davis (killed at age 23), Aiyana Stanley-Jones (killed at age 7) and Kendra James (killed at 21), either. When black men are killed, slogans like “hands up, don’t shoot” or “I can’t breathe” echo across the country. When black girls and women like Boyd are killed, there is comparative silence.
Yes, black men are more often the victims in these cases of police abuse. But that doesn’t explain why the outrage tends to be less loud when a black woman or girl is killed. About 30 protesters gathered Monday after the acquittal was announced, according to news reports out of Chicago. One report on a New York City rally held in Boyd’s memory this week lamented the size of the crowd that showed up, which was made up of fewer than 100 people.
It’s against this backdrop that the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) continues to host gatherings across the country to give black women and girls an opportunity to speak for themselves about the challenges they face. The town-hall meetings began last year in Los Angeles as part of an effort to influence the national conversation around President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to improve the lives of boys of color. AAPF held a similar gathering in New York City to inform the debate around Mayor Bill de Blasio’s local initiative, which has the same focus as the president’s. Last week, the organization hosted a meeting in Washington DC, where the implementation of a $20 million plan to improve test scores and graduation rates for black and Latino boys is underway. Critics, including AAPF, argue that such plans play into the misguided belief that from the classroom to the street corner, boys of color are struggling, while the girls who are their peers are generally fine.
“Pretty much across the board, black girls are doing just as bad as black boys,” Rachel Gilmer, AAPF’s associate director told me. She points to a recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research report that finds that much of the data used in making a case for My Brother’s Keeper—78 percent of statements in a recent MBK interim report issued by the administration, for example—refers to the dire situation of youth of color in general, not specifically boys and young men.
But why keep waging this battle when it seems the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and those modeled after it at the local level are already being adopted, and when headlines like the one in the Times this week seem to confirm what many people already believe? “Some of it’s a rhetorical fight,” Gilmer told me. “We have to push back on patriarchy we’ve seen in racial justice organizing for a long time.”
The relative quiet in response to the acquittal in the Boyd case speaks to much of what AAPF has been trying to bring to light over the course of the past year. When it comes to getting black women and girls included in the developing narrative about a general disregard for black lives, they continue to have their work cut out for them. AAPF plans to host additional town hall meetings in Philadelphia and Miami.
Read Next: Dani McClain on what Hillary Clinton should remember as she courts black voters
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.