Last week, President Obama gave a powerful State of the Union address, with a strong populist message addressing diverse issues: climate change, minimum wage increases, paid sick and family leave, pro-family workplace policies, support for veterans, debt-free college, decreasing student loan debt, health care reform, immigration reform, and the need to pushback against the erosion of voting rights of African American’s and people of color. He also became the first President to mention lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people at a State of the Union.
I felt the audacity of hope all over again. During his seven years in office, President Obama has taken executive action in the face of a racially polarized nation, a “Do Nothing Congress,” and an economic downturn—all to promote civil rights and equality for marginalized people. President Obama has advocated for eliminating the gender pay gap; has reduced racist disparate sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenses through the Department of Justice; raised the minimum wage for federal contract workers; increased labor protections for domestic workers; ended prosecution against the Defense of Marriage Act; and unveiled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to grant temporary stay from deportation for childhood immigrants and has advocated for immigration reform (albeit being the “deporter”-in-chief). Obama has also taken executive action to prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals in employment and housing.
In his 2009 inauguration speech, President Obama referenced the life and legacy of Anna J. Cooper, who was the first black women to earn a doctorate degree, and was an inspiration to him. The Black State of the Union calls to attention many of the issues facing Black Americans that were not discussed in President’s speech, including the plight of black women and girls. Black women voted at higher rates than any other racial or gender group in 2012, and helped to elect and re-elect President Obama into office. Yet, the varied experiences of Black women who have to contend with a capitalistic, patriarchal, and white supremacist society that views and treats them as the “lowest of the low” are hardly addressed in rhetoric or in action.
My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), unveiled last February, is a groundbreaking public-private initiative that aims to address the continuing impacts of racial oppression and structural barriers to that affect the opportunities available to Black and Latino boys and men. MBK is a critical solution to combating racial inequality, structural racism, and the lack of opportunities many boys and men of color face. In the wake of many high profile examples of victims of police violence and harassment—such as the murders of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in NYC—there has been more attention to issues of structural and institutionalized racism and support for solutions to promote deep change.
However, the current increased attention to racial justice issues far too often erases black girls and women (and women of color) who also face similar plights, including unequal access to educational, employment, and economic opportunities. Black girls and women must contend with barriers created by intersecting forms of oppression, while civil rights and anti-racism advocacy portray black men as the primary victims of racism and white supremacy—and therefore the sole subjects in need of redress and restitution.
Black girls and women live in communities with high rates of gun violence; and experience systematic and institutionalized discrimination; police brutality; underfunded and failing schools; pressure to join gangs; high rates of poverty; income and economic inequality; higher rates of foreclosure and predatory lending; employment discrimination and more. On top of all of this, black women and other women of color daily experience sexual harassment; sexual violence; misogynoir; state and interpersonal violence; coercion into sex work and human trafficking; daily dehumanizing prejudices and microaggressions; and discrimination in housing, employment, starting small business. Yet, the sentiment that all the women are white and all the blacks are men—as the aptly named Some of Us are Brave subtitle expresses—is still applicable today.
Sadly, both racial justice and women’s equality movements in America have historically marginalized, silenced, and de-prioritized the lives and barriers faced by Black women and girls and still continue to do so. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 discusses the exclusion of black women stating, “This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression.” This still rings true today.
From pre-school onwards, black girls are suspended at higher rates than their peers—especially if they are dark skinned. Black girls also have to contend with the school to prison pipeline that harshly and discriminatorily suspends/expels them and increases the likelihood of not completing high school or higher education, and increases the likelihood of becoming an incarcerated. Black children are seen as older and less innocent white kids and this “implicit dehumanization of Blacks… was a significant predictor of racial disparities in the use of force against children. According to a recent study from the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, “Starting at around 7 years of age, American children believe that Black kids feel less pain than their white counterparts… This empathy gap extends beyond childhood for black people and studies show that Medical personnel, cops, and people of all backgrounds assume black people feel less pain than white people.
Affirmative action policies are touted as handouts and shoe-ins to minorities, yet have benefitted more white women than others. This racist sentiment has led to Court challenges to attempt to end or curtail the practice despite the fact that American schools are still very much segregated and do not prepare and invest enough in low and middle income black and brown children’s educational success.
Black women on average suffer greater economically and face harsher economic restraints and barriers than white women, who are often the face of sexism, gender pay gap, and sexist discrimination. Furthermore, economic downturns are known to make Americans more racist and protectionist. The oft cited gender wage gap of 77 cents to a every dollar for similar work ignores the larger gender pay gap black women face compared to their white counterparts. The Center for American Progress writes that, “These women of color are increasingly the breadwinners in their families—53.3 percent of black households and 40.1 percent of Latino households.” CAP notes that black women earn 64 cents for every dollar a white man earns.
Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, writes that “closing the wage gap would afford a working African-American woman more than two years’ worth of food; almost 10 months’ worth of mortgage and utilities payments; more than 16 months of rent; more than three years’ worth of family health insurance premiums; or 4,549 additional gallons of gas, each year.”
Black women and women of color are also more likely to be a part of the working poor, and are overrepresented in low-wage work, which often means experiencing wage theft, too few hours, sexual harassment, and scheduling abuse. The wage/income gap, as well as the racial wealth gap also hurts black women’s ability to thrive, pursue opportunities, and raise healthy prosperous families. According to the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), single black women have “the lowest net worth of all racial and gender groups, and young black women have the highest unemployment rate of all women and during the recession lost more jobs than their male counterparts.”
The AAPF study also shows that in nearly every measurement of social outcomes—unemployment, health disparities, health care access, homelessness and eviction, poverty, teenage/single motherhood rates, wage and wealth gap, justifiable killings, and more—black women and girls are suffering the most without respite, support, or an end in sight. Many gender based programs, are targeted towards and accessible primarily to cisgender, heterosexual, upper middle class, able bodied, white women.
Research from the Black Women’s Blueprint shows that by the time black girls reach 18 years of age 40 to 60% of girls have been sexually assaulted or raped, which doubles the likelihood of future victimization in adulthood. Out of all women, black women are the most likely to be murdered in America and 94% of black female homicide victims are killed by people they know and 64% of those victims are wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of their killers. Not only are Black and native women the most likely to be sexual assaulted and victims of domestic violence, but they are often charged for standing up to their attackers. Domestic violence is the number one killer of young black women, yet black women, like other victims of abuse, are too often blamed for being attacked and brutalized. Black women like Marissa Alexander are punished for defending themselves against their abusers, and then revictimized by being separated from their families and unable to truly live due to incarceration. Black women also make up the fastest growing group of people being incarcerated, with a “lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for all women in the U.S. is 1 in 56, but for Black women it’s 1 in 19.”
The media’s constant referral to domestic violence victims as “cases” or “stories” perpetuates the dehumanization and lack of empathy given to survivors of violence. Calling Janay Rice’s brutal attack an “NFL scandal” robs her of humanity and autonomy. Public responses were filled with scrutiny, invasion of privacy, mocking, and victim blaming. This failure to see Rice as a real human victim of domestic violence prompted prompter her to tell the media, “If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels.” As Hannah Giorgis wrote for The Guardian, to be a black woman survivor of violence “means having your most horrific memories go viral without your consent. It means having millions of people virtually dissect your wounds, not to heal them but to decide if your injuries were bad enough for everyone to feel bad for you.”
The AAPF study shows that during the last decade, black and brown boys have been recipients of “over 100 million [dollars] invested in achievement, dropout prevention, and mentoring initiatives exclusively targeting Black and brown boys. [While] during this same period, less than 1 million dollars in funding targeted Black and brown girls.” This disparity is unacceptable and pits members of the same communities and families against each other, and express how little black and brown girls and women matter to this country.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, meaning “what occurs when a woman from a minority group tries to navigate the main crossing in the city. The main highway is ‘racism road’. One cross street can be Colonialism, then Patriarchy Street. She has to deal not only with one form of oppression but with all forms, which link together to make a double, a triple, multiple, a many layered blanket of oppression.”
Black women continue to inspire me and the world by being our authentic beautiful, resilient, strong, intelligent, loving, community-oriented, vulnerable, and preserving selves. Black women have been and continue to be at the frontlines of social movements as community leaders, teachers, nurses, healers, organizers, lawyers, doctors, artists, and more. And yet, still we are erased within these very movements. So we must ensure that trans and cisgender black women and girls are always included when we say #BlackLivesMatter, and resist making cis, heterosexual black men the sole face of police brutality, while brutal attacks against black women and girls are given far too little attention and their names remain largely unknown.
Black girls and women like seven-year-old Aiyanna Stanley Jones, who was shot in the head and killed during a botched police raid. Renisha McBride, who was shot in the head for knocking on a door while trying to ask for help. Tanesha Anderson, unarmed mentally ill woman killed by police in front of her family. Islan Nettles, a trans woman murdered in the street near a police station. Mary Unique Spears, a mother of three killed for turning down the advancements of a man who was street harassing her. Marlene Pinnock, the elderly great-grandmother who was brutally attacked by a California police officer for allegedly jaywalking. And these are only a few of the names and women out there who are not given the protection or benefit of childhood, womanhood, or humanity—thus being seen as threatening and undeserving of protection or solidarity. I mourn for these women and girls, and wonder who else does as well.
I also celebrate the resiliency of the Black girls and women who do survive, thrive, and fight back. I stand with and am deeply inspired by the courage of 16-year-old Jada who refused to be shamed or silenced despite the violence of her assault and subsequent harassment and violation of her body on social media.
Black women’s full humanity needs to be recognized. We do not exist to be the world’s mule. We must move from rhetoric to taking steps that increase opportunities for black girls and women while decreasing the myriad ways black girls and women get caught in the belly of the beast. Black women and girls need programs that are culturally relevant, effective, sustainable, and accessible. And even this is not enough. We also need targeted research and policies that study the plight of black girls and women, so we can propose solutions to create real change. The White House Council on Women and Girl’s report late last year titled, “Expanding Opportunity and Addressing Unique Challenges Facing Women and Girls of Color” is a step in the right direction, but it just the beginning.
Instead of objectifying and shaming women, or calling us “less than classically beautiful,” or viewing and limiting us through dehumanizing stereotypes like the “Angry Black woman,”—even when we’ve brilliantly broken barriers and achieved phenomenal success—we need to truly see black women as complex, multi-faceted human beings. We need to recognize that black women are deserving of equal opportunities and policies that combat the systems of oppression we face. And most importantly, we are deserving of full humanity and everything that comes with it. Despite the lies the world has taught us, Black women and Black girls matter.
We can no longer, and will no longer wait.
Itohen Ihaza is a black feminist and womanist, art and music lover, writer, photographer, and human being.