The murder of George Floyd has sparked a global movement against racism and police brutality. The discussion of racist violence and police repression have again shone a spotlight on how dangerous it is to be a black man in America.
But by viewing the criminal justice system as the frontline of structural racism and men as the primary participants, we risk ignoring the violence which is a day to day reality for black women.
Black women’s interaction with the state, through law enforcement, is marked by violence. Black women are murdered by the police. They are assaulted and injured by the police. They are sexually harassed and assaulted by the police. They are arrested wrongly by the police. They convicted and incarcerated for defending themselves against violence of others.
Breonna Taylor, a health worker, was shot dead as she slept in her own bed when the police broke into her home. Part of the reason such violence receives less attention is that, like all violence against women, police violence against black women is proportionally less likely to occur in public.
For George Floyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, we can watch their last moments on video, the unwarranted violence clear and public. We can see police officers as spectators and participants. The public collective nature of it is all too reminiscent of lynching. But when Black women and girls — Breonna Taylor, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson, Charleena Lyles — are killed, it is often at home, away from the watching world.
When black women are victims of non-police violence, then too they are affected by the racism of the criminal justice system. About 22 percent of Black women in the United States have experienced rape. Forty percent will experience intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. And Black women are killed at a higher rate than any other group of women.
A 2015 survey of Black trans and non-binary individuals found that 53 percent have experienced sexual violence, and 56 percent have experienced domestic violence. At least 16 Black trans people were reportedly murdered in 2018 alone.
When abuse occurs, they are less likely to be believed. A Georgetown Law Center report found that “adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”. Black girls are perceived to be more independent, more knowledgeable about sex, and in less need of protection. Beliefs and stereotypes about Black women make them less credible victims despite being statistically more likely to be so. These include ideas about promiscuity, mental health aggression, physical strength and honesty.
Black women are over policed and under protected by a racist and sexist criminal justice system. As the left begins to discuss alternatives to repressive policing, we must not forget how gender too plays a regressive role in criminal justice.