Commentary Race

We Trust Black Women to Stand Up, Speak Out, and Lead

Monica Simpson

SisterSong and our partners and allies are committed to trusting Black women, telling the truth about our lives, and demanding that decision makers either stand with us or get out of the way.

Black women have led our communities in the fight for health and dignity throughout the course of history. We have worked to build strong families in the face of ignorance, hate, and structural oppression.

Sadly, many of our elected officials either stand in the way or fail to help. They claim that Black women can’t be trusted. But it’s not us that can’t be trusted, it is lawmakers who fail to address the very real problems facing our community who should not be trusted. And as we look ahead to the 2016 election, and beyond, we at SisterSong, and our committed colleagues in the field, agree that the time has come for these politicians to stand with us or move out of our way.

That is why now more than ever Black women need to come together to speak out against attacks on our autonomy. We cannot allow another lawmaker to spout off about who we are or another community leader to talk about our families. We are here. We are making decisions every day to plan and care for ourselves and for our children. We deal with attacks on our ability to access reproductive health care and obstacles to raising our children—the need for better education, difficulty affording child care, a broken criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration and police violence, continued health disparities, and a lack of access to high quality health services. We are struggling, but we are also striving to get by in a world that far too often wants to push us down.

While legislators pass discriminatory limits on programs that support families and even try to control the reproduction of low-income women and women of color by limiting the number of children we can have, they also put up barriers to affordable health services.

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Black women are less likely to have access to reproductive health care, including effective methods of contraceptionabortion, or annual gynecological exams and other health screenings. We are also at an increased risk of death or severe complication during pregnancy and childbirth. We face poor health outcomes for breast, cervical cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. A significant majority of women diagnosed with HIV are also women of color and the cost of treatment often pushes effective options out of reach.

There is a real health crisis for Black women in this country that is only exacerbated by an organized attempt to strip us of our rights and our bodily autonomy. People should not be forced to be pregnant when they are not ready, and we will not be told that we cannot be parents or that we should have to endure having our children grow up in a climate of fear or without a safe and healthy place to call home.

More than a decade ago, community organizer and SisterSong supporter Cazembe Jackson endured a traumatic experience that has only made his support for Black women as leaders today even stronger. As Jackson, who now identifies as a Black trans man, explained to me via email, “In April 2001, when I was 20 years old, I was gang-raped by four men in Huntsville, Texas. At the time I was a college student attending a local predominately white university and living my life as Black queer stud. They said it was a ‘corrective rape’ because throughout the time I was getting raped I was told this act of violence would help me dress and act like a ‘real’ woman.”

“It was a really hard time,” said Jackson, “in addition to having survived, to know I was also targeted because of how I expressed my gender identity and going through the experience of being re-criminalized by the local police department for what happened to me.”

Jackson went on to explain how when he returned home for break from college, he learned the rape had resulted in pregnancy. “I went to my local Planned Parenthood, which handled my [abortion] procedure. This and I also got referred to a local rape crisis center that probably saved my life. No one [at Planned Parenthood] tried to make me feel bad about my decision or like I wasn’t smart enough to make the decision,” he added.

“Living now as a Black trans man I have seen how access to health care is still for many in this country a luxury putting Black families and our futures in jeopardy. The same way that discriminatory legislation and the history of the ownership of Black bodies in this country undermines the leadership and history of Black women and Black communities who have been building culturally competent services for our families,” said Jackson.

“As a Black trans man it’s important to support Black women as leaders in both our traditional and informal family structures.”

Black lives and health and dignity matter. For the work and organizing to also matter to our families and our community, we must ensure that Black women and Black transgender people are included. Black men must sometimes stand next to us and at times step aside so that other members of our community can step up and step out to push for the change that we all desperately need and that we deserve.

Black women fight for ourselves and we fight to uplift our people. We will not stand by while decision makers pass law after law that is designed to control our decisions or that are based on racist stereotypes of Black women and our families. We will speak out when groups try to divide us—like SisterReach did when they responded to billboards pushing racist propaganda in Tennessee.

More than five years ago, SisterSong launched Trust Black Women, a partnership to create a strong, coordinated movement led by Black women that would not ask for trust and autonomy, but demand that we each be able to make important moral decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities. It is clear that need has not gone away, and let’s be clear, we are not going away either.

As we reflect on the past work of the Trust Black Women initiative we are also looking at how future efforts can grow and expand to make sure that the voices of our transgender family and friends are not left behind.

We trust Black women to know what is best for our lives, our families, and our future. We trust Black women to be leaders in the efforts to recognize and dismantle the systems that work to keep us down. SisterSong and our partners and allies are committed to trusting Black women, telling the truth about our lives, and demanding that decision makers either stand with us or get out of the way.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”