To understand the struggle to get people to acknowledge Black women as victims of homicide and police violence, you need look no further than the last several days. The confluence of Charles Blow's thoughtful New York Times article expressing concern that the #BlackLivesMatter mantra may be seen as more focused on the lives of Black men, and the simultaneous and pointed questioning of, and floundering responses by, two Democratic presidential candidates about the epidemic of homicides and alleged suicides of Black men and women in custody, present us with starkly divergent views of where we are as a nation. The affirmation #BlackLivesMatter originated with three Black women--Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi--and is intended to be fully inclusive of the ways that Black women experience police or vigilante violence, whether physical violence, sexual violence, violence against trans women or homicide. At the same time, Blow correctly raises concern about an "implicit masculine association" with that phrase.
At the Netroots Nation conference last weekend, both Democratic candidates badly missed the mark when neither was prepared to speak to the challenges faced daily by a significant part of the party base. Senator Sanders seemed more wedded to his economic analysis and his involvement in the 1963 March on Washington, while Governor. O'Malley responded, "Black lives matter. White lives Matter. All lives matter." Their unpreparedness and inability to get traction on issues that have dominated the headlines for a full year now triggers concerns about how their administrations would engage around crucial issues like criminal justice reform. Additionally, their lack of engagement bears out the findings of a recent HuffPost poll: race, racism, and the staggering loss of Black lives to state-sponsored violence are not viewed with the same sense of urgency by many whites, even when one of them is a former mayor of Baltimore.
In my experience, a similar disconnect occurs when you talk about homicides and violence against Black men versus the same kind of violence against Black women. People don't know that alongside the Eric Garners, Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins, we've lost plenty of Renisha McBrides (shot by a homeowner through his closed door as she sought help), Rekia Boyds (shot by an off duty policeman who shot recklessly into a crowd), and Natasha McKennas (tasered to death while shackled and in a jail cell), under similar circumstances. If they are aware, any sense of urgency they may have about responding to the epidemic of violence against Black people is much more apt to be driven by a narrative that centers or prioritizes the loss of the lives of Black men. Whether this tendency to put Black men first derives from the ways in which Black women have been relegated to, frankly, third-class status because we endure violence, discrimination, and harassment on the basis of race, sex, and sometimes gender identity, is unclear. It may also stem from the fact that, as Charles Blow points out in his article, Black women have often been relegated to the status of supporter or mourner, or otherwise not sufficiently centered in a debate that should rightfully include the violence and the homicides to which we ourselves have been subjected. And, as detailed in a number of recent reports, the violence is no respecter of age where young Black women and girls are at issue. This is not surprising, given the history of sexual assault and physical violence that Black women and girls experienced during slavery, or the lynchings that took place well into the 20th century, or the brutality we also experienced during the Civil Rights movement.
So I expressed my gratitude to Charles Blow for raising concern about the deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman-- both of whom are alleged to have committed suicide in police custody in the last week-- even as I continue to be troubled: troubled that in this instance, just like what happened when the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby resurfaced, it took a man to call attention to the need to pay closer attention to the issue of violence against Black women and girls in order for people to stop ignoring the problem. I'm equally troubled--as I said in my comment on Blow's article-- that part of our failure to grapple fully with our present predicament lies in our unwillingness to acknowledge our past sins. That Google created an Ida B. Wells doodle last week was great. That it did not make mention of her 40 years as an anti-lynching crusader harkens back to the poll results. Many white poll respondents think racism is a problem . . . somewhere, but not in their neighborhoods or communities. As long as the problem is occurring elsewhere, we don't have to step outside our comfort zones or take personal responsibility. We choose to only tell the parts of Ida B. Wells's story that are "pretty," rather than those that characterize the bulk of her work and legacy. And just as the politicos were floundering at Netroots, many of us can't entirely get our arms around the staggering level of violence that Black women and girls have experienced, do experience, and will continue to experience until we grapple with the parts of the story that make us uncomfortable, and denounce as unacceptable the violence, assaults, and homicides they endure at the hands of law enforcement. Until we acknowledge that their lives matter, until we #sayhername, until we--each. one. of. us.--vow to make it stop, and work to make that happen.
Lisalyn R. Jacobs is the vice president for government relations of Legal Momentum, the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. She works closely with members of Congress and the Administration on a variety of issues including the Violence Against Women Act, campus sexual assault, and workplace and other economic protections for victims of violence, among others.