When anti-violence backfires

A well-intentioned movement to protect women has left many as vulnerable than ever. An expert explains

Topics: Feminism, Race, ,

When anti-violence backfires (Credit: BortN66 via Shutterstock)

Across America, black women are being disproportionately affected by domestic violence. Twenty-five percent of black women experience abuse from their intimate partner, according to the Violence Against Women Survey. And homicide by an intimate partner is the second leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 15 and 25. Interwoven between these statistics is the state-level violence experienced in marginalized communities. Policy decisions informed by societal discrimination based on race, class, gender and sexuality exacerbate a spiral of problems and growing social division.

This comes at a time when an increasingly conservative backlash threatens to deny protection for our country’s most vulnerable women. A bill recently passed in the House on a largely partisan vote was criticized by many House Democrats, some Republicans, and the White House for removing Senate-passed provisions extending protection to LGBT, Native American and undocumented immigrant women. And if the Violence Against Women Act is not reauthorized, millions of American women who don’t fit the obvious definition of a victim might be denied protection.

In her book “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation,” Beth E. Richie, professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, uses her expertise to reveal the hidden experience of black women living in marginalized communities. With over 25 years of work as a black feminist scholar and anti-violence activist, Richie tackles the extremely complicated interplay of race, gender and class that is causing violence against black women. From high prison rates to dwindling social welfare, our country is leaving these women behind.

Salon spoke with Richie about the mainstreaming of the anti-violence movement, the idea of a “culture of poverty,” and how these issues are being talked about in the upcoming election.

You describe the U.S. as a “prison nation.” What do you mean by that?

The prison nation, which is a broader concept than the prison industrial complex, for me represents the combination of both incarceration in the literal sense – an influx of people into the criminal legal system in all of its apparatus: jails, prisons, detention centers, etc. … [It is an] increase in arrest and removal of people from their communities into facilities, but it also represents the ideological shift and policy changes that use criminalization and punishment as a response to a whole range of social problems. Not just crime, but also things like policing people who are on welfare, using the child protective services system to control families, the ways that schools have become militarized. So it’s a broad notion of using the arm of the law to control people, especially people who are disadvantaged and come from disadvantaged communities.

How does this affect violence against black women?

It’s kind of an interesting parallel and a convolution of things. Anti-violence work has been going on in this country for years and years, and many people see the early 1990s as the time when there were big shifts in public consciousness about the problem of violence against women, as well as changes in policies that really took the crime of violence against women – domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, etc. – more seriously. So there were new laws, there were more sanctions, police were trained, domestic violence courts were opened up – there were a lot of policy changes that made the problem of violence against women a crime. And a lot of that harsh sanctioning of violence against women really grew out of, not feminist organizing to end the problem of violence against women, but a parallel criminalization of everything. The Violence Against Women Act really lined up right against the other crime bills that were passed primarily in the mid-1990s. So on the one hand, this is good news for anti-violence activists, in terms of criminalizing violence against women. But on the other hand, these crimes disproportionately impacted black communities, and so it was kind of a mixed result for African-American people. It created a schism, especially for African-American women, but also I think for African-American families and communities more generally, because we were taking position against mass incarceration at the same time that mass incarceration was being used as a tool to respond to the crime of violence against women.

This is an interesting development given the “everywoman” emphasis of the ’60s feminist anti-violence movement — which argued that all women, regardless of race and class, were vulnerable to domestic violence. 

Yes. We began doing training to try to raise public consciousness and make public the private care of domestic and sexual violence, in particular, by saying: This is not an isolated problem, it can happen to any women; it’s not just an issue for poor families or families of color. So — regardless of your religion, your race or ethnicity, your income, what region of the country you live in, what age you were … it didn’t matter what you wore, it didn’t matter if you didn’t cook well – there was nothing demographically or behaviorally that would protect women from male violence. We used that as a kind of anchor to our analysis: It can happen to any woman. And I think we were successful, at least initially, in making sure that it wasn’t another stigmatizing problem that was associated with other social problems of poverty and racism, etc. And people heard us. There was an increase in general public consciousness, and in particular, there was an increase in attention to the problem of violence against women by power elites – by executive decision-makers at corporations, elected officials, presidents of universities.

And when power elites started paying attention to it, they took seriously what could happen to women in their social context and started designing services for and passing laws that would protect women in their social context. So it became ultimately paradoxically kind of a narrowing of an understanding of the problem. That white middle-class or wealthy heterosexual married women or women on elite college campuses were at risk of violence against women and the attention, the resources, the analysis, went toward protecting those women at the expense of women who didn’t fall into those more normative categories. So it became hard to understand how a prostitute could be raped, for example. Or how a woman who is a substance abuser could be battered in her household. It became a sense of victimization tied to a sympathetic image of who could be hurt and how terrible it was that those women were hurt, as opposed to the real everywoman that we were trying to argue for.

You argue this trend in the anti-violence movement made it more difficult to help black women. 

A lot of benefit has resulted from the kind of mainstreaming of the anti-violence movement: A lot more people talk about it, there are a lot more services, there are college classes and journals, and federal agencies take the issues seriously. But in order for there to be mainstream public awareness and response to the problem of violence against women, some key leaders in the mainstream feminist anti-violence movement tried to keep the issue “legitimate.” So again women were seen as purely victims without agency, without ever having done anything wrong. There’s sort of a painting of innocence in a not very complex way at all, so that understanding of who is hurt by male violence got to be a very narrow slice of the real dimensions of the problem.

I think in general it’s difficult for people who are removed from the lives of more disadvantaged communities to understand the complexity of life there. I think that’s just hard. So one is kind of a general inability, whether it’s the news media or research studies, to really show complexity. And to show that violence — using rape for an example — that the violence a woman experiences is an assault on her body, but it’s also an assault on her spirit, an assault on her sense of confidence. It also feels like an assault on her race; it may feel like an assault on her sexuality, on her gender. And the lived experience of assault or violence is a very complicated experience to understand. The more complicated lives are, the more complicated the experience feels. But all of that is really hard to put on a public service announcement. And it’s hard to write into a law.

How do you think these issues will play out in the coming election?

That’s going to be interesting to see. I think it’s going to show up in a couple of ways. One is, there’s been real challenges to the Violence Against Women Act, which is again sort of the major national legislation that we worked so hard to create, that the Republican power in Congress is really trying to erode. And the parts that they’re trying to erode are specifically those parts that look at women in disadvantaged communities: immigrant women, women in low-income communities, women who are living on Native American reservations. And so there’s a real attack on the special provisions in the VAWA that could help women of color. That’s going to be an important issue.

I also think that the question of president Obama’s attention to poverty, and to chronic unemployment, in particular, in black communities, which have really suffered. And they’ve suffered because of chronic lack of resources and attention. And women specifically have suffered because of the diversion of even feminist issues to focus more on white middle-class feminist issues. Black women are struggling to survive in our communities, as they had been before Obama was president, and as they have continued to since he’s been president. It’s going to be tricky to see how we get people excited and mobilized to show up and take care of this election the way that we need to.

Occupy Wall Street has arguably brought poverty into the mainstream conversation, but many people have argued that it has ignored race and gender.

Absolutely. I think Occupy has done really important reframing work around this country and that’s really exciting. But the lack of strategic attention to race and gender both as separate but also as overlapping issues has been, I think, profound. And I’ve even thought at different times, So who’s looking out for women’s safety at the Occupy encampments? It seems like a basic question, but those of us who’ve been working to fight against violence against black women and other women of color always find ourselves saying, So even the best political strategies still fail to account for the ways that even within political movements, even within parks that have been occupied, even within radical HIV prevention work, you’ve got to always take into account that some women are in dangerous situations, dangerous relationships or dangerous communities. Even the political left, the more radical spaces, don’t always account for that vulnerability. And women aren’t only vulnerable, we’re also activists. But we are indeed vulnerable too, from within as well as from the larger systemic issues that I talk about as a prison nation.

The idea of a “culture of poverty,” made famous in the ’60s by Michael Harrington, argues that poverty has a self-perpetuating value system. The term has recently made a resurgence in popular discussion. What do you think of it?

I think that the culture of poverty implies that there’s something in how people make meaning of their relationship to each other, their family structures. Culture has a very particular meaning. And I don’t think that there is a culture of poverty in the true meaning of the word “culture.” I do think that there’s a way that people have adapted to disadvantaged circumstances and have made a way out of no way. I wouldn’t call that a culture of poverty, as if there’s something that’s in their mind or spirit or social organization that’s a value system or a sense of morality about poverty. I think people have figured out ways to survive. In anti-prison work, people often talk about the culture of imprisonment – that it becomes almost a way of life, that people expect to get arrested, that they expect to go to jail, that prison doesn’t startle them. And I think that’s completely false. Even though they know their risk might be higher because there are cops everywhere and they know lots of people who’ve been incarcerated, I don’t think it becomes like a culture as if it becomes normalized. And that’s the risk to me. I don’t think women who are battered, even if they’re hurt every day by the person that they live with, I don’t think they expect it and I don’t think it becomes part of their value system, but it does become part of their reality. I think the culture of violence and poverty and prisons are just ways, I think, to shift the gaze or remove responsibility from ending those systemic failures and blaming people for what their experiences are. And I think once a notion like the culture of poverty has been misused, I think it’s very hard to reclaim it. It’s too far gone in some ways, even if its original meaning might have been one that had more utility in terms of social change.

You close with five recommendations for strategies to create more just solutions to the problem of male violence against black women in the prison nation. Are you hopeful?

I do feel hopeful. I feel hopeful because I think that more people are beginning to understand that mass incarceration is not going to solve social problems. And I think the anti-violence movement is beginning to accept its responsibility for being too closely aligned with the mass incarceration strategies. And I see, especially with young people of color and queer organizations, people saying, We’ve got to do something differently, and we’ve got to listen more carefully to the stories, the voices of women who’ve been almost untouched by mainstream anti-violence work. We’ve got to turn to them and say, What would have worked differently? What could we do differently for our daughters, for the young people in your community? And I think people are looking with very creative optimism toward more transformative, restorative, real justice programs at the neighborhood grassroots level. It’s been very inspiring to me. But it’s taken a long time, and I think there’s been some kind of damage done between the mainstream anti-violence movement and, as I talk about it the book, black communities – because of the sort of failure to connect on the issues that impact black women. Mostly I’m hopeful that the book dignifies the stories of the incredible women that are surviving under horrific circumstances. And they really are surviving. They’re making meaning and situations that just sort of seem almost impossible to imagine if you don’t live them.

Lucy McKeon is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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