Marissa Alexander is a 33-year-old African-American woman who stands accused of three counts of aggravated assault with a firearm after firing a warning shot to ward off a violent husband whom she believed was attempting to kill her. The shooting occurred after her husband assaulted her multiple times—once landing her in the hospital with head injuries—and after he made credible threats to kill her. Nevertheless, a Florida state court rejected her self-defense argument, specifically the “Stand Your Ground” defense. Angela Corey, the same state prosecutor who unsuccessfully prosecuted the killers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis for murder, is now seeking to imprison Alexander for up to 60 years, effectively placing a life sentence around a Black woman who—unlike George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn–had every reason to believe her life was in danger.
Alexander’s case has drawn national attention as a case that demonstrates the racial bias inherent in the Stand Your Ground self defense law. But the case reveals racial biases that are both more complex than they initially appear, and also biases that are closer to home. Alexander’s plight reveals the unique vulnerabilities faced by Black women in the face of domestic violence, as well as their tragic invisibility in public awareness and advocacy around domestic violence, mass incarceration and Black-on-Black crime. This intersection of vulnerability and invisibility leaves Black women both overpoliced and underprotected when it comes to the violence they experience in their intimate lives.
The Overpolicing of Abused Black Women
Although Black women are seldom mentioned in conversations about violence within Black communities, according to a recent study by the Violence Policy Center, Black women experience intimate partner abuse 35 percent more than their White counterparts. Yet, when they contact law enforcement for protection, women of color are more likely than women of other races to be subject to arrest themselves. Indeed, the Urban Justice Center found that Black and Latina women constituted 66 percent of women detained under mandatory arrest policies. Black women who use deadly force in defense of themselves are less likely to successfully assert a battered spouse defense and are thus more likely to be convicted of and sentenced for a serious homicide offense.
This overpolicing of Black women with regard to domestic abuse is one of the many ways that their “blackness” deprives them of empathy typically associated with the sympathetic victim who is entirely passive and demure. Public awareness campaigns have often utilized white women to garner support for the cause. In contrast, stereotypes of Black women as domineering, hyper-aggressive and emasculating make them more likely to be seen as engaging in mutual combat. Saddled with such stereotypes when they are prosecuted, their legitimate fears of physical insecurity are discounted. As a consequence, they are more likely to be convicted for committing serious crimes of physical violence rather than acquitted for engaging in self-defense.
Black women who are subject to prosecutions as a result of efforts to defend themselves against intimate partner abuse are a part of a much larger trend of increasing incarceration of Black women. Indeed, in the twenty year period between 1980 and 2000, Black women experienced the highest rate of imprisonment – exceeding the rate of growth for Black men. As scholar Beth Richie has noted, prior experiences of abuse is a significant pathway toward imprisonment as the coping mechanisms often adopted by women are criminalized. Unsurprisingly, it has been estimated that about 85 percent of incarcerated women report experiencing some form of sexual or physical violence.
The Underprotection of Black Women
Black women are not only at greater risk of overpolicing, they are also at greater risk of significant injury or death at the hands of an intimate partner. The statistics are stark: as of 2011, Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by a partner than their white counterparts. The average age of Black women who are murdered by their partners is 34. Marissa Alexander is 33. Still others are left homeless or experience the loss of their children as a result of intimate partner violence.
Black women are also underprotected in relation to the various communities that should be accountable for their wellbeing. Within domestic violence advocacy circles, Black women may be seen but rarely are they heard; their specific vulnerabilities and the consequences of their over policing are marginal at best in the development of policy and advocacy. The risks and consequences of domestic violence are also marginal in the increasing mainstreaming of the movements against mass incarceration. Broader still, the concerns about Black-on-Black crime that have played a significant role in mobilizing national attention to the plight of African-American men have utterly overlooked the fact that partner violence is the leading cause of homicide for Black women and that 97% of Black women are killed intraracially.
This invisibility inside and outside of our communities in turn increases the vulnerability of Black women to abuse. It also places them in an impossible situation: use force and spend life in prison, subjected to racially discriminatory application of laws that no one seems to protest, or don’t fight back and join the statistics of murdered Black women, those whose names will never mobilize marches, commissions, or coalitions to work to ensure that this tragedy will never befall another Black woman. Black women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
In 1903, the great scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois captured the sentiment of the white gaze when he asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?” For Black women, the precise question might be reframed as “how does it feel to be invisible?” Until we reckon with and contest this invisibility within the context of domestic violence, incarceration and in the Black community’s consciousness more broadly, we can be certain that Marissa Alexander will not be the last to experience the type of injustice that is unfolding in Florida.