The outrageous shooting death of Sam Dubose by a Cincinnati cop is grabbing the headlines, but nearly two weeks after Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail after being stopped and brutally arrested for a minor traffic violation, her questionable detainment makes it clear that the criminal justice system is often as brutal to black women as it is to black men. As AlterNet recently reported, Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia overstepped his authority when he asked Bland to put out her cigarette, prolonging and escalating the stop.
Social media reactions to Bland's stop, however, have been divided, in part along racial lines. Many white people have argued that Bland would have left the stop untouched had she simply not given Texas state trooper Brian Encinia an “attitude.” Black people, overwhelmingly, have pointed out that white women regularly engage police officers just as Bland did, yet don’t have to fear being abused for doing so.
Critics point to a New York Daily News photo of a white woman breast-to-chest with an NYPD officer and a video of a white woman defiantly challenging an officer during a traffic stop as offering sharp contrasts with Bland’s treatment, and anecdotal examples of how law enforcement treats white and black women differently.
Julia Jordan-Zachery, a professor of political science at Providence College whose research focuses on the treatment of black women in the criminal justice system, says Bland’s story and ultimate death is another example of the myth of the strong black woman, who somehow is impervious to pain.
“It wasn’t possible for anyone to understand that she could have been in pain,” Jordan-Zachery told AlterNet. “What we know from literature is that black women are somehow so strong that we can’t even experience physical pain or that our tolerance level for pain is so high that no one ever listens to black women when we say we are experiencing pain.”
Breea C. Willingham, assistant professor of criminal justice at State University of New York in Plattsburg, echoed Jordan-Zachery’s analysis, saying that the disregard for black women’s bodies by American law enforcement dates back to America’s inception.
“From slavery days, during the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of black women in America, black women’s bodies were never really their own,” Willingham, who is currently working on a book that addresses the treatment of black women in prison, told AlterNet. “We’re always under surveillance. If you take the case of 15-year-old Dejerria Becton, in McKinney, Tex., where the cop slammed her on the ground in her bikini, knee in the back of her head, that’s just one example of the fact that there is no regard for our bodies.”
A major barrier in understanding the ways in which the criminal justice system treats black women is the dearth of research on the subject. While statistics on how law enforcement engage black men are plentiful, similar data on black women is limited. But Bland’s death has sparked a rare national conversation that’s forcing the country to take a closer look at how law enforcement and the criminal justice system treat black women.
AlterNet was able to find eight statistically-backed ways in which law enforcement disproportionately abuses black women, despite limited scholarly research devoted to the issue.
Below are some of the most glaring findings, along with some commentary from Willingham and Jordan-Zachery.
1. Black women make up 6 percent of San Francisco’s population, yet made up 45.5 percent of all women arrested there in 2013.
San Francisco is known as perhaps the most liberal and inclusive city in all of America, but that reputation means little for the black women its police department places in handcuffs. According to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, black women have been arrested at higher rates than other races of women in the city for the last 23 years at least. In every major arrest category, including possession, prostitution, weapons, drug felonies and marijuana, black women far outpace other races of women. Perhaps the most notable arrest disparity cited in the report is that arrest rates of black women in San Francisco are four times higher than the rest of California.
2. In New York City and Boston schools districts, black girls are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white girls.
During the 2011-2012 school year, 90 percent of all girls suspended were black, according to a recent report titled, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” Not one white girl was suspended that year. Boston was no better. Sixty-three percent of the girls subjected to expulsion were black during the same time frame, but no white girls were suspended.
“As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper, we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, the study’s lead author, said.
3. Black women were locked up in state and federal prisons at more than twice the rate of white women.
Overall, black women make up 30 percent of the prison population, despite being 14 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. There are a wide range of reasons why these disparities exists. A Huffington Post article cites a lack of economic resources, familial support, and systematic oppression as driving actors.
It is difficult to unpack that 30 percent figure because not much research is devoted to understanding black women and incarceration, and policymakers feel no pressure to allocate resources to understanding the issue. Jordan-Zachery says this is due to the either-or politics policymakers engage in. Under this model, they can only address the issues of black men or black women, with women normally being left out.
“We can either talk about black men under the umbrella of black politics, or we can talk about black women,” she said. “We can’t talk about both simultaneously. What I suggest is that it is not a politics of either or. It’s a politics of both and. We have to expand our understanding of politics in a way that sometimes go against the American understanding of politicians that leads us to make false choices. When we include black women, what we’re actually doing is expanding our politics.”
4. Black mothers in New Jersey are more likely than their white counterparts to be deemed “unfit parents.”
New Jersey Public Radio learned through its own investigation that the children of black mothers are four times more likely to be placed in foster care than the children of white mothers. Black children make up just 14 percent of the state population but account for 41 percent of those entering foster care. The report found that even if the mothers are at similar economic levels, the black mothers were still viewed as more unfit that white moms, so this is not a class issue.
Oronde Miller, of the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, cited a Texas analysis of unfit parents that reveals poverty was not at play when that state found more black moms unfit than white moms. Instead, he argued that authorities were racially biased in determining who was deemed a good or bad parent.
Nationally, pregnant black women are ten times more likely to be reported to child welfare services for drug use than white women, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
Jordan-Zachery says this data should inform us on how society views black motherhood.
“Even when we’re seen, we’re seen in a very negative way to justify punishment,” she said. “So, no matter what black women do, we become criminal elements.”
Laura Browder, a Texas mom who had to take her children with her to a child interview at a mall, was arrested for child endangerment a few weeks ago. This despite the fact that her children were a mere 30 feet away from her. We can only wonder if she would have been taken into custody for the same thing if she was white.
“Here’s a woman following the s0-called rules, to use policymakers language,” Jordan-Zachery said. “But in that case, she is still seen as a criminal. What makes her criminal? What makes her criminal in this case is poverty and a lack of child care. This is another element of invisibility. What are you supposed to do? If you leave your children at home, you become a criminal. If you take your children with you, you become a criminal. So, what are black women suppose to do? Not work? If we don’t work, then we become the stereotype.”
5. Dark-skinned black women receive stiffer prison sentences in North Carolina than light-skinned black women for comparable crimes.
In a study titled “The Impact of Light Skin on Prison Time for Black Female Offenders,” researchers found that black women who were perceived to be lighter skinned received sentences that were 12 percent lower than darker skinned women.
The authors of the study researched the criminal records of black women imprisoned in the state of North Carolina between 1995 and 2009 and controlled factors such as misconduct in prison, prior records and conviction dates. What the findings reveal, the authors wrote, is that associations with whiteness play a crucial role in how black women are treated in the criminal justice system.
6. States that drug test pregnant women disproportionately jail black women.
At least 17 states consider drug use during pregnancy to be child abuse,according to Guttmacher Institute. Pregnant black women are no more likely to use drugs than white women during pregnancy, but they are reported to child welfare services for drug use at rates higher than white pregnant moms,according to a 2015 report by the Drug Policy Alliance.
The ACLU reports that the incarceration rate for black women for drug-related offenses since 1986 has increased by 800 percent, compared to 400 percent for other races of women. It is crucial to note that black and white women uses drugs at the same rate.
7. More than half of all of women stopped by the NYPD are black.
In 2013, the most recent year from which arrest data is available, black women made up 53.4 percent of all arrests in New York City. Latina women were second at 27.5 percent and white women made up only 13.4 percent.
8. Black girls make up 14 percent of the U.S. population but make up more than 33 percent of girls detained or committed at juvenile justice system.
Willingham, whose research focuses on the incarceration of black women, says we see a higher rate of black girls behind bars than white girls because they aren’t getting the same support at the juvenile level. A recent report that analyzed how the sexual abuse girls experience can lead to incarceration points out that black girls make up a third of female juveniles detained or committed. Most girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced some form of sexual assault at some point during their lives. However, Willingham says black girls are less likely than white girls to get the rehabilitative support needed to decrease their chances of recidivism.
“Even at a young age, they’re considered ‘bad,’” she said. “For white girls, it’s, ‘Oh, they just have problems, they’ll be OK. We can help them. But black girls, no. They’re just bad.’ And we don’t even get the benefit of the doubt.”
Hopefully, attention to how black women are treated by police and the criminal justice system will change that.
The only reason Americans are beginning to hear about the abuses black women experience at the hand of law enforcement is because of social media, Willingham says. In order to gather a more complete understanding of how police brutality and incarceration impacts black women, more research has to be done. But the recent deaths of Sandra Bland, Kendra and, as of Sunday, Ralkina Jones, all symbolize that black women face many of the same kinds of law enforcement abuse as black men.
“Whether they’re slamming us to the ground or manhandling us, throwing us in jail and finding our dead bodies in them, there is no regard for us,” Willingham said. “It’s just like throwing the trash out. That is how I see the criminal justice system treats black women. It’s just taking the trash out.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr
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