Commentary Race

Still We Lead: Clarifying the Resolve of Black Women

Jasmine Burnett

Only when our society acknowledges what Black women are doing and have been doing to advance equality for all will people truly understand why Black lives matter.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

While it has always been the case that Black women work tirelessly to create the change we seek, on the rare occasion our leadership makes headlines, it is often displayed as if it’s some new phenomenon that needs to prove it is relevant, as was the case recently in Ferguson. Further, there’s the idea that this lack of recognition of Black women’s leadership is part and parcel of our experience, as if Black women are not and have not made great strides in justice movements.

This glaring omission of our deep commitment to equality movements is holding all activists back from achieving justice. The narrative that has been pervasive since the late 19th and 20th centuries, which pushes the notion that Black women-centered activities should be dismissed without notice, has only served to pit the power of Black women’s leadership against our Black male counterparts and women of color allies, while isolating and making invisible issues of race within the mainstream women’s and LGBTQ liberation movements. This narrative also neglects the true extent of Black women’s work, and the fact that we are the only ones who can actually be counted on to defend the dignity of Black women and the rights of all Black people.

Only when our society acknowledges what Black women are doing and have been doing to advance equality for all—in spite of the disenfranchisement we’ve experienced that comes with lack of visibility, respect, and resources of any kind—will people truly understand why Black lives matter.

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Black women’s leadership was established out of an urgency to address problems of racism and sexism in this country. Our work has always been the struggle for the human right to create our own terms under which we can define ourselves and our relationship to society, and to have those terms recognized. Our leadership is more than a professional career where the ability to lead is based on one’s level of education, and its reach is broader than an act of charity driven by moral principles. The resolve of Black women, who continue to endure incalculable injustices, drives our sense of urgency to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities, and it is a daily imperative to create safe conditions where our race, gender, class, ability, age, or sexuality does not make us unfit for protection in the face of harm and wrongdoing.

Our political agenda is based on the following concepts: questioning long-established values and institutions of society; developing new systems to solve economic, political, and social problems; and broadening the base of municipal, state, and national governments where Black women are leading in agenda-setting and decision-making.

With the recent rise in peaceful protests and social justice organizing in response to white police officers and vigilantes being acquitted on the use of excessive force and violence on Black people, Black women leaders have received greater attention for their efforts to dismantle white supremacy. Some projects are indeed new—campaigns that are run by youth organizers who have entered the field with fresh takes on how to accomplish their social justice work—but much of the organizing happening in the wake of incidents of injustice recently is an offshoot of preexisting movements.

These movements existed long before many of today’s leaders were even born. For example, in her late 19th century pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Ida B. Wells responded to the rise in lynchings of Black men for allegedly raping white women while white suspects who were accused of raping Black women went unpunished. This provocative information led to an international speaking tour across the United States and the UK to raise awareness of the horrors of racially motivated sexual violence and lynchings in the Black community.

The disenfranchisement of Black women throughout history is connected, as is the impact of our work. Responding to the resurgence of state-sanctioned killings of Black people and sexual violence of Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to build solidarity and create a way for Twitter users to hold all communities accountable online and off for destroying anti-Black structures. The hashtag has had international implications as well, including acts of solidarity in Europe, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East, where activists have held public demonstrations of support for Black lives. These are just a few examples of the ways in which Black women have influenced conversations around racial justice and human rights through the written word as well as direct action and confrontation tactics.

Black women are fighting unfair treatment in their communities all the time; it’s only occasionally that the world is watching.

For years Black women have organized to protect and defend our reproductive rights, though you might not know that from much of the coverage of anti-choice bills, which often will include only quotes from mainstream, white-led organizations. Among the alliances created to fight for the human rights of Black women and girls, the Trust Black Women Partnership was founded in 2010 based on the premise that Black women must come together and do things for ourselves in order to achieve self-identity and self-determination and to get our basic needs met. (I am one of the Trust Black Women founding partners.) In order to do that, Trust Black Women has focused on attaining representation where agendas are set on issues that affect our lives and families, creating power-sharing schemas to improve how our needs are addressed when working with Black men and our allies, and building bases that Black people can tap into for support in challenging local and national systems of oppression.

Sadly, Black women’s leadership is often challenged through co-optation both by our allies and our opposition. In one example, liberal, progressive “allies” took the meaning and relevance of #BlackLivesMatter and decided to replace it with #AllLivesMatter. This attempt at generalizing the impact of police brutality of all people dilutes the specific impact of racial, gendered, and sexualized violence imposed on Black people. Anti-choicers then tried to stigmatize abortion care by inserting it into the #BlackLivesMatter conversation and suggesting that the two correlate. They have also gone so far as to use civil rights language in their rhetoric, omitting the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and his commitment to family planning. The ways antis continue to co-opt the legacy, experiences, knowledge, and public sentiment of historically oppressed communities is deeply problematic and disrespectful.

Black women’s leadership in the women’s rights movements has also been omitted and silenced many times to advance mainstream organizational agendas. In one example, as Loretta Ross explained in her article “Defeating Personhood: A Critical But Incomplete Victory for Reproductive Justice,” reproductive rights activists in Mississippi used single-issue organizing strategies to the detriment of Black women’s issues. In the activists’ anti-“personhood” campaign, there was a dearth of resources and attention paid to voter disenfranchisement of Black, brown, and low-income people in the South under another amendment, which unlike Mississippi “personhood” did pass. What Black women leaders and communities need from allies is a level of support that enables victories for their issues as well, including bans on voter suppression laws and police and vigilante violence.

Organizations seeking to improve their relationships with Black women leaders as they work to advance justice movements in the United States must aim to become better allies, and that includes acknowledging the true value of our work while also taking steps to avoid overshadowing Black women-led organizations and organizers working on a grassroots level, both on- and offline.

An expression used to rouse accountability from allies is “white folks, get your people,” to highlight that the change that shifts the “isms” and stereotypes that are perpetuated through white supremacy can be shifted by allies. As supporters, we expect our allies to give Black people the space we want to define ourselves and to lead and set policy that will meet our needs.

In 1896, Mary Church Terrell helped to organize the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women’s clubs following a letter written by James Jacks, a white president of the Missouri Press Association who had attempted to silence the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells through labeling all Black women as “prostitutes and thieves.” She concluded her speech with a question: “Who of you knows how to carry your burden in the heat of the day?” As a Black woman and leader, I am often asking that question of myself, and not because I have a choice. I simply wonder how strong I will have to be at any given moment because I know that often the only people who will stand with Black women without argument or question are other Black women.

The fact that no one will speak for us but ourselves is evident not just across the justice movements, but also within the systems in which we live, including the legal system. Marissa Alexander and countless other victims of state or vigilante violence seemingly have only received support from other Black women, despite the precedents their cases are setting within the “justice” system.

Black women are leading in those discussions as international delegates speaking at the United Nations on racial and gender discrimination and violence, even when our support comes to the detriment of our own visibility and bank accounts.

If you’re still wondering about what you can do, I’ll leave you with this: Black women’s leadership will be made stronger through our allies doing the work to educate their communities and support the organizational infrastructure and capacity of Black women-led organizations and efforts as Black women define it. I stand by the same commitment that several hundred Black women made to each other in 1991 while protesting the racist and sexist treatment of Anita Hill during her sexual harassment hearing against now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I pledge myself “to continue to speak out in defense of Black women, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.”

Whether that commitment can be made to Black women with any level of integrity from our allies remains to be seen. However, what Black women can promise is that we will continue to lead, defend our dignity, and protect our lives, families, and communities.

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”


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