The Criminalization of the Black Woman

In recent months, the criminal cases of Monica Jones, Shanesha Taylor and Marissa Alexander have made headlines The fate of these women seems largely tied to both stereotypes associated with Black women and and the 'White savior' myth. In this case, the White savior is not a tourist or college student who thinks they can study abroad in a random country in Africa and 'fix' it, but a justice system that is guilty of criminalizing and imprisoning Black women at disproportionate levels, treating them like a problem that needs correcting: Saving women from sex work, saving children from their unfit mothers, demonizing mothers who are addicted to drugs, and demonizing women who act in self defense.

Monica Jones is a Black transwoman in Arizona currently facing jail time after being found guilty of “manifesting prostitution.” Jones, who is an activist for the rights of sex workers, was profiled and arrested during a raid of Project Rose, a program where organizations collaborate with the police and gives sex workers two options: a Catholic diversion program (if they qualify) or jail. Programs like these, and the sentiments behind police raids that target and arrest women, rests on the assumption that sex workers need saving by the criminal justice system. Instead of addressing the lack of resources and economic opportunities in disenfranchised communities, criminalizing sex workers results in dangerous profiling of Black women and transwomen, (and most often, Black transwomen.) The criminal justice system saved Monica Jones by actively policing and profiling her and then locking her up in a cage. The profiling of transwomen as sex workers is not an exception or restricted to Arizona. In New York City, the NYPD often profiles and arrests transwomen (particularly, Black and Brown transwomen in working class neighborhoods) and charges them with prostitution, citing the condoms in their possession as evidence. Like many incarcerated transwomen across the country, Monica Jones is subject to abuse in an all-male jail.

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On March 20, Shanesha Taylor was arrested and charged with child abuse after leaving her two children in the car during a job interview. The homeless Black mother stated that se “had nowhere else to take her children." Austerity measures in Arizona cut child care subsidies from thousands of parents since 2009 — subsidies that would give parents, who cannot afford it, money for child care while they work (currently 6,000 children are on the waiting list for the subsidies and the number of children receiving these subsidies have been reduced by 70 percent since 2009). Now, Taylor is facing felony charges of up to eight years in prison. The county attorney, Bill Montgomery, declared he will proceed with prosecuting despite receiving an online petition with 12,000 signatures asking him to rethink the charges (since then, petition has reached over 55,000 signatures). Taylor's story rests on the assumptions that poor Black women are careless, unfit mothers and a threat to their own kids. With no nuance in the infliction they face on a daily basis trying to survive in poverty, the state is allowed to strip them of their resources then blame and jail them for their hardships.

These stories show us what happens when a Black woman rejects the notion that a system that actively works to oppress them is actually her savior,

This is the similar narrative as Monica Jones’ story but the criminal justice system isn’t saving Shanesha Taylor  from the 'ills of sex work,' but instead, saving her children from their own mother. Under a guise of caring for and saving children, the state does just the opposite. The incarceration of black women for being ‘bad’ parents does not help the child but disenfranchises them. As Dorothy E. Roberts says in Prison, Foster Care and The Systematic Punisment of Black Mothers: “Mass incarceration deprives thousands of children of important economic and social support from their parents, placing extra economic and emotional burdens on remaining family members…Separation from imprisoned parents has serious psychological consequences for children, including depression, anxiety, feelings of rejection, shame, anger, guilty and problems in school.

Bill Montgomery is not interested in the wellbeing of Taylor's two children. If he and the system were, they would not be incarcerating their mother, rather, they would provide the family with a  home and resources to not just survive, but to live. The idea that one must save Black children from their own mothers is a popular social sentiment dating back to the beginning of the War on Drugs. While the much hyped 'welfare queen' stereotype garnered support for the end of public assistance, the mythological 'crack baby' helped perpetuate the idea of the irresponsible, undeserving Black woman---often a poor mother who was dangerous to her very own kids. Using White supremacy as a pedestal, the result of both of these government campaigns was a continued depletion of resources from poor and Black communities, as well as the systematic surveillance and mass incarceration of Black people.

It took thirty years to debunk the crack baby fable, as researchers declared they “couldn’t find any devastating effects from cocaine exposure in the womb” and University of Pennsilvania neonatologist Hallam Hurt’s study concluded that poverty is more dangerous than prenatal exposure to cocaine. The initial studies declaring the dangers of the crack baby in the 1980’s were scientifically flawed (small sample sizes and not enough control groups). The pervasive notions in our society that both assumed the worst of Black people as a whole and made Black women dangerous to the lives of their children, allowed for the flawed studies to go unquestioned and be broadly accepted as truth. The result was thousands of women with stories similar to Shekelia Ward or Regina McKnight, who were criminalized for being drug addicted during their pregnancies, as opposed to being treated as addicts in need of rehabilitation.

On April 29, 2014, Governor Bill Haslam of Tennesee signed a bipartisan bill into law that criminalized the use of drugs while pregnant, with up to a 15-year-felony sentence as punishment. The state can criminally charge women beginning on July 1, 2014 without any evidence that the drug use harmed the child. The bill has the potential for locking up women across the state, profiling against Black women and poor women of color, and continuing mass incarceration.

Marissa Alexander, goes back to trial in July for assault with a firearm charges. As EBONY.com has extensively reported, Alexander was in an abusive relationship with her estranged husband, Rico Gray  (who has been arrested twice for domestic violence and once sent Alexander to the hospital as a result of his beatings.) When the now 33-year-old, who did not have a previous criminal record, shot a warning shot in the air during an altercation with Gray after he threatened to kill her, she was charged with three counts of aggravated assault. She is now facing up to 60 years in prison. About a month ago, Florida prosecutor Angela Corey sent out an unsolicited letter to legislators and media on the Alexander case which many saw as unethical. At the top of the letter were two photographs of Marissa, one where her hair is straight and past her shoulders — looking more or less like the photographs that the media and her campaign have used. The other was a photograph with her hair short and kinky, presumably during the same month of the altercation. The letter then attempts to highlight selective witness accounts as hardcore evidence and to use Marissa’s vernacular to paint her as guilty. Angie Nixon, who works on the Free Marissa Now campaign, said the prosecutor was “cherry-picking,” and mentioned they did “not tell everyone what Rico Gray stated in his sworn deposition, as well as conflicting testimonies the children gave.” While this was a letter to a few legislators, it gives us insight to how Corey may act in the courtroom, come July.

These cases may be recent but they are not exceptional. Much like Cece Mcdonald’s, Deborah Peagler’s, and even Lena Baker’s, these stories show us what happens when a Black woman rejects the notion that a system that actively works to oppress her is actually her savior---despite the fact that said rejection is often an act of survival. And yet, when she chooses to act in her own defense — the criminal justice system responds by saying she cannot.  The number of women imprisoned in the United States has increased by over 800 percent over the last 30 years, and Black women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than White women. On the backs of White supremacy, misogynoir,  transmisogyny, and capitalism, the over-criminalization of Black women that produces mass incarceration and serves to damage entire communities continues. The demonization of black women that strips them of their innocence makes it easy to paint them as the default aggressor in order to punish and criminalize them.