By Lindsey Stevens
In mid-August, American media blazed with what has become an all-too familiar story: a young black man was killed by an armed police officer.
At the time of this writing, Michael Brown’s accused shooter has yet to see a day in court. Before the jury declined to indict officer Wilson the Ferguson story had taken the backseat to coverage of other national and international crises, passionate discussions about the incident continue—the prevailing narrative being one of racial profiling and police brutality.
Feminist activists tied Michael Brown’s shooting to reproductive rights, particularly for African-American women. For black mothers, living in a climate of constant fear of those who are sworn to protect can affect their ability to provide a nurturing environment for their children.
In reaction to images of excessive police force on protesters in Ferguson, Imani Gandy of Reproductive Health Reality Check tweeted, “I’m going to say it again: police brutality…is a #reproductive issue.”
Ostensibly, the connection is far-fetched.
To understand how police brutality is a reproductive rights issue is to understand the viewpoint that race and gender are inextricably linked.
The Combahee River Collective, a radical African-American feminist lesbian organization active in Boston in the 1970s, issued “A Black Feminist Statement” in 1977 outlining how the experience of black feminists in America differs from their white counterparts.
“We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race,” the collective wrote. “We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.”
The arrest of Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw, which came on the heels of the Michal Brown shooting, illustrates the oppression black women experience in America.
Hotzclaw is charged with sexually assaulting at least seven women in four months while on duty, all of who were lower-to-middle class African-Americans. His privileged arrogance, critics surmise, led him to believe that if he was questioned it would be a simple matter of their word versus his: Black women of low social strata versus a white male of revered authority. The charging documents state that Hotzclaw threatened the women with physical harm or arrest if they refused him. Many suppose the accused officer, a former college football star, targeted black women for their reasonable fear of police and the stigma they carry—one they have carried for centuries.
In Antebellum South, plantation owners justified the rape of their female slaves with a stereotype purporting that black women constantly craved sex. Because of their insatiable lust, slave women could not be victims of rape. Therefore, their attackers rarely endured any consequences.
Although slavery has been outlawed, its effect still permeates cases of sexual assault. A 1995 study revealed that college students were less likely to identify a hypothetical date-rape scenario as rape, believe that it should be reported to authorities or that the perpetrator should be punished if the victim was black. It is yet to be seen if this mindset will play a role in the final days of Hotzclaw’s case, but what is clear is that the Brown and Hotzclaw cases reveal America’s systematic and enduring racism through practices by authorities, for sexual abuse is the second-most-reported behavior of police misconduct, trumped only by excessive force.
“Facing stark realities, black mothers have to raise their sons with mistrust of the police and constantly remind them how to avoid violence and arrest,” RH Reality Check writer Emma Akpan said.
That goes for daughters as well, as any of the Oklahoma City women can attest.
Given the precarious position of women of color, it is time to stop pretending that plight of the black feminist is congruous with that of their white counterparts.
In a “A Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood,” Michelle Wallace wrote, “We exist as women who are black feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.”
Editor’s note: The F Word is a monthly column featured in the A&E section of the Campus Citizen and are opinions penned by Campus Editor, Lindsey Stevens.