It’s been harder than usual to ignore the devaluing of black womanhood in America. From video footage of a black woman getting knocked out by her famous spouse to the case of ten black women allegedly raped and assaulted by a police officer in Oklahoma to the revelation that 64,000 black women are currently missing in the country—the fact is black women in the US are suffering. Suffering punctuated by a commingling of violence and biased criminal justice. Suffering worsened, too, by a government that is more than complicit in injustice and a black community plagued by inaction. It’s not that we are ill-equipped when it comes to combating violence, racist policing, and mass incarceration. Rather, when such campaigns are undertaken, the emphasis is typically on black men.
Black women have a long history of being overrepresented in the criminal justice system, more than black men, and due in large part to a bigoted politics of protection that underscore policing and justice. Whether resisting rape during slavery, or sexual and physical assault long after its end, black women have been systematically denied legal protection and excluded from obtaining justice. Black women have simultaneously endured strict punishment. When they defended themselves, black women faced harsh discipline and some of the highest rates of conviction in self-defense cases. Popular discourses held that black women were so criminal and promiscuous that they could not be raped or considered true crime victims. As a consequence, police routinely arrested black women walking home from work on specious prostitution charges. Poverty based on conscripted jobs also served as a pathway to the penitentiary. Limited to domestic service, if employers’ items were lost, black women were accused. White police and white juries tended to take the word of whites over black women.
Moreover, the rumors about black female immorality endured. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they served longer sentences than white women and they did HARD time—whether crammed into infested cells at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, or in racist reformatories in New York, or on brutal chain gangs in Georgia; where they didn’t just deal with vile working conditions but also sexual assault from inmates and guards. Violation was a risk from the time they were taken into police custody through their confinement, and for the most part, wherever they were confined.
That history, those themes—those legacies still haunt us. They haunt black women today.
We are criminalized and extremely vulnerable to disproportionate arrests and sentencing. The recent death of Shaquise Buckner is an important example. Buckner, a 16-year old black girl, was gunned down in Chicago roughly a week after Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Considering the duration of the protests in Ferguson and across the nation—together with the racist, unconscionable militarized police response—it’s not surprising that her death or the subsequent peaceful, candlelight vigil held on her behalf did not garner the same level of attention.
But even if Mike Brown’s murder hadn’t been in the national spotlight, there is a good chance that Buckner’s murder wouldn’t have received much attention anyway. She wasn’t male and the shooter probably wasn’t white.
You might think that I’m comparing apples and oranges. But we haven’t seen the same reaction for the following cases either: Rekia Boyd, an unarmed 22-year old black woman felled by a police officer in Chicago in 2012, Aiyana Staney-Jones, the 7-year old black girl killed in a police raid in Detroit, or for Marlene Pinnock, the 51-year old black women beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer, which was caught on video earlier this year. Some ripples, yes, but nothing close to what we witnessed take place in Ferguson.
I understand why deaths like Mike Brown’s spark widespread outrage—murders like these serve as a blatant example of state sanctioned anti-black violence. Plus, this scenario has history with us—another black man lynched by the racist white power structure. And that’s true. But I’m concerned that if that’s the only kind of tragedy that prompts mass action then the overwhelming majority of black female victims in particular will remain marginalized. And I know it’s not really okay to be tit-for-tat with racial suffering, but I am angry that our pain and the loss of black women’s lives is often eclipsed…it’s always somehow less than.
I also get frustrated when folks say that we can’t talk about Shaquise Buckner’s death at the same time that we talk about Mike Brown’s. Supposedly if one does this they’re colonized or divisive. Or, I hear this a lot: it’s a distraction. It’s regarded as taking attention away from state sanctioned anti-black violence. I have a hard time with that because the same isms responsible for deaths like Mike Brown’s are also responsible for deaths like Shaquise Buckner’s. I mean, don’t we agree that issues like biased policing, racism, white supremacy, poverty, and powerlessness are fundamentally responsible for this young woman’s death too? State violence via police brutality and state violence via the failure of just, equitable policing are interrelated issues.
But let me frame it another way: if white kids were dying like the black ones in Chicago, the comprehensive, effective response would happen so fast that I wouldn’t even be able to get a period on the end of my sentence, right? There is a politics of protection here that is just as deadly, just as anti-black, just as responsible for the disproportionate number of black homicide victims period, let alone black women.
We need to consider whether it’s time for a more proactive and simultaneous approach in activism—ideally confronting the state sanctioned murder of blacks by police and the state sanctioned murder of blacks by police abdication. Doing so might offer more ways to comprehensively address black victimization via criminalization. Approaching it this way also helps to reframe and push back on those who raise the pathologizing rhetoric of “black on black crime” for nefarious purposes; but we can push back on that without dismissing community safety concerns and without sacrificing opportunities to get sustained redress for the vast majority of black homicides as well as other black victims of biased justice. What I mean by that last part is that we can make big cases elevate those otherwise ignored.
We’ve seen examples of this potential already. When big cases have been linked to other black tragedies it has afforded avenues for justice that probably wouldn’t have been possible. I don’t know that there would be any justice for Renisha McBride if the murder of Trayvon Martin hadn’t helped make her case visible on a national level. Likewise, we probably wouldn’t know about Marissa Alexander if her case hadn’t been invoked to highlight racist sentencing disparities between her 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot and George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
The Alexander case also highlights the intersection of gender violence. Discussion of the Alexander case has tended to focus on the racism of her sentence rather than why she fired that warning shot in the first place—her ex had been beating her and she didn’t want him to do it again. She had an order of protection against him and he later admitted that he beat her in the past and had a history of domestic violence. He is not alone. As I mentioned earlier, the number two cause of death for black women and girls is homicide, primarily caused by intraracial, intimate partner violence. That homicide rate is double that of white women.
I discuss issue of intraracial gender violence for two reasons: Firstly, I don’t want to keep papering over black women’s pain. I also want to demonstrate that reducing the number of black homicides would be a major step forward in alleviating mass incarceration. Reducing gender violence would reduce the number of black homicide victims and probably the number of black folks imprisoned for violent crime. This seems like an important way to think about engaging mass incarceration. Whereas drug crimes represent roughly 25% of the charges for which folks are incarcerated, 50% of the folks behind bars in state facilities are there for violent crime.
I know that violent crime in the country has dropped across the board, and I am not in denial about white on white crime, but the homicide rate for blacks is disproportionate. And let me add: everyday black women and men and community activists have and continue to stand up and press for meaningful interventions. We know they hold vigils and protests and that they actively organize for peace. We also know most of the time, those efforts are ignored—and not just by the press but by the state as well.
That their efforts are routinely ignored is more reason to take up the cause and to do so every time a black victim gets national and international attention. Spotlighting the connection between Mike Brown’s death and the mitigating factors that contribute to black homicides also have the potential to keep those outraged fires burning rather than dwindling after the one cop gets fired or prosecuted or acquitted.
We see glimmers of a long-term movement beginning with the growing emphasis on remedying police abuses (e.g. the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Police Department probe and broader discussion about the use of cop-body cams across the country), but this current development leaves too great a chance for the specific contours of black female victimization to be ignored. Until very recently, the silence surrounding the 26 felony charges against the Oklahoma officer accused of violating at least ten black women was deafening. And in case we didn’t know that black women are invisible to the United States government, consider the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which allocates government dollars to help young black and Latino boys to the exclusion of their female counterparts, or the fact that unemployment in the nation has improved for everyone else except Black women. That news is especially tragic because poverty remains the primary route for black women’s criminalization and incarceration. Recall the case of Debra Harrell, a black single mother arrested for child neglect because she let her nine year old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked her shift at a fast food restaurant. Despite being employed, Harrell couldn’t afford childcare. She spent 17 days in jail and could face ten years if convicted.
I know that in spite of all of this some will still be asking: so Mike Brown gets shot by a white cop and we should be talking about mass incarceration, community violence and/or find a way to elevate the discussion about gender violence against black women? And I’m saying: yes. Yes. And really, what I am proposing isn’t such a stretch.
Emmett Till’s death is often marked as the spark that helped ignite the modern Civil Rights Movement. On the face of it we could ask a parallel question: what did his death at the hands of some white store owners over a wolf-whistle in Money, Mississippi have to do with bus desegregation, poverty, or national voting rights? Everything. Everything. We know that now. So it’s in this spirit that I’m suggesting that we find a way to transform tragedies like Mike Brown’s murder into substantive change for all in the community. This would allow us to mourn all of our losses—whether it’s a slain trans woman from Brooklyn like 22-year old Islan Nettles, or 18-year old Mike Brown on the eve of his college career, or 16-year old Shaquise Buckner, walking with friends from around the way.
I’ll end with a quote from Shaquise Buckner’s aunt: "This violence has to stop. It has to stop. If all of our kids are being killed off there is not going to be a future for anybody."
Truer words have never been spoken.
This essay is a revision of my comments at the plenary on mass incarceration with Jelani Cobb, Khalil Muhammad, and Heather Ann Thompson at the 99th Annual ASALH Convention in Memphis, TN. I must also thank the following scholars because our critical exchanges helped clarify many of the ideas presented: Nicole Burrowes, Cheryl D. Hicks, Tiffany M. Gill, Daina Ramey Berry, Lisa B. Thompson, Luther Adams, Talitha LeFlouria, and Edward E. Baptist.
Kali Nicole Gross, Ph.D. is an associate professor and associate chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin. She is author of the award-winning book, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 and Murderess: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in 19th Century America (Oxford University Press, 2016). Twitter @KaliGrossPhD