Shortly after he was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo., news of Mike Brown’s death began to spread across social media. Like others who have become symbols of racist law enforcement and state violence—Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice—Brown was Black, unarmed and killed by someone whose job was to protect him. And also like the aforementioned individuals, Brown was a male.
Last year, the Huffington Post reported that “there are more African American men incarcerated in the United States than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, 20 percent of Black boys are suspended from school each year, more than any other demographic. Other troubling statistics include unemployment, mental illness and lack of access to health care, all contributing to a grim portrait of life for far too many Black men and boys.
It seems, however, that similar issues Black women and girls face don’t get the same attention. Black girls are 12 times more likely than girls of other races to be suspended from school; Black women are three times more likely than White women to be incarcerated.
Black women and girls are also disproportionately subjected to police violence, accounting for 20 percent of the unarmed people killed by police since 1999, despite being just 7 percent of the population. Among them: Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old who was killed by Detroit police while sleeping on her couch; Natasha McKenna, who was fully restrained when she was stunned to death by a Taser in a Virginia jail; Rekia Boyd, unarmed when she was shot and killed in Chicago by an officer; and Bettie Jones, killed the day after Christmas by an officer responding to a call in her building, just to name a few.
Although the suspicious death of Sandra Bland, found dead in a Texas jail cell last July after an improper arrest by a state trooper, would make national headlines, stories involving Black women and police violence rarely garner massive outcry. In fact, Black women and girls who are victimized in similar cases are virtually missing from the mainstream media.
In 2014, the White House launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, formed to help boys and young men of color. In response, there was an emphatic call for a comparable effort for Black girls and women, most notably the African American Policy Forum’s (AAPF) #WhyWeCan’tWait campaign.
Last November, the White House Council on Women and Girls hosted a forum called Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color to discuss issues such as school discipline, economic opportunity, health and violence. Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett stated during a press call that helping women and girls is a top priority of the Obama administration: “We’ve made a lot of progress, and continuing on that path means we need to be more dedicated, more thoughtful and more rigorous than ever.”
Despite increased public attention being given to police violence, the spotlight still shines dimly on crimes committed by law enforcement that overwhelmingly affect women. Sexual misconduct is the second-most common form of police crime, but rape and other forms of sexual assault often receive diminished media coverage.
One exception was the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma police officer who was convicted of 18 counts of sexual assault in 2015. He targeted and preyed upon Black women, many from low-income neighborhoods, while he was on duty. He wept as the judge sentenced him to 263 years in prison.
As the contemporary racial justice movement continues to grow—largely thanks to the efforts of Black women—here are three organizations fighting to improve the lives of our sisters:
Black Women’s Blueprint
Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Black Women’s Blueprint (BWB) works nationally to address sexual assault of Black women of all ages, backgrounds, sexualities and identities and to help heal the trauma of survivors.
“We exist to foreground the notion that racial justice, civil rights and human rights movements have to center the lives and experiences of Black women and girls,” says founder Farah Tanis.
In partnership with the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, BWB provides technical assistance to 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities to address sexual assault and gender violence on their campuses, via training and workshops.
There has been some pushback from young men. “We say to them, ‘Your rights as my brother matter to me 100 percent. If you are violated, I am violated as your sister. And so it is the same thing for me,’” says Tanis. “We talk about racism; now, let’s talk about how sexism works.’”
Long Way Home
After Salamishah Tillet, associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, came out as a rape survivor in 1997, her sister Scheherazade began photographing her to, as Tillet frames it, “document my healing process.”
The photographs evolved into a larger multimedia performance called the Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS), performed by Black women, many of whom were also survivors. SOARS became the first project of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based nonprofit co-founded by the sisters in 2003. Girl/Friends is the organization’s biggest initiative. “Girls and young women, ages 16 to 24, are four times more likely than any other segment to experience dating and domestic violence and sexual assault,” says Tillet.
Many of these young women live in the North Lawndale neighborhood, which has the third-highest rate of gender-based violence in the city. Girl/Friends works in partnership with the public schools and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to provide after-school and summer programming for young women.
Last year, girls in the program led a march in recognition of Black girls and women who had been killed by the police. The protest included a tribute by Martinez Sutton, Boyd’s brother, which was held in the park where she was shot.
African-American Policy Forum
For three decades, scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and UCLA, has been leading the discussion on racial and gender justice. She coined the term “intersectionality” to identify the ways that race, gender, sexuality and identity work together, especially as they relate to structural inequality.
Crenshaw is the executive director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a think tank and public education organization, housed at Columbia. In 2015, the organization began the #SayHerName campaign, calling for increased media that focuses on the harm Black women face at the hands of law enforcement, including sexual assault.
“There’s a general unwillingness to talk about sexual violence, period. So when it comes to thinking about police brutality, excessive force, abuse of authority, the presence of sexual violence in that conversation is nonexistent,” says Crenshaw. “But it’s an open secret that this happens to the most vulnerable women, who are disproportionately Black, poor and often caught up in the criminal justice system.”
As part of the campaign, AAPF released a report last year on Black women and police violence.
“For too long, we’ve had a trickle-down sense of racial justice. We thought that if men and boys got theirs first, we were downstream and could benefit from it,” Crenshaw explains. “We have to go deeper in our own practice to challenge the silence and exclusion of more than half of our population in pursuit of racial justice. We can’t get there together if half of us are told to wait for the next train.”
Read more in the March issue of EBONY. Out on newsstands now.