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The gun crisis we aren't talking about: Black women are under attack — and America doesn't care

Once every 19 hours, a black woman is killed by a man—but the typical dialogue on guns makes these crimes invisible


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Brittney Cooper
October 21, 2015 7:40PM (UTC)

The Black Lives Matter Movement has popularized a statistic released a few years ago in a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. The report found that a Black person is killed every 28 hours by a law enforcement officer or vigilante. A new study released by the Violence Policy Center provides another alarming statistic: Once every 21 hours, a Black woman is a victim of fatal intra-racial violence by a male perpetrator.

According to that study, which tracks the number of women killed by men each year, more than 1,600 women were murdered by men in single victim/single offender incidents in 2013. (Because the study only accounts for wives, ex-wives or current girlfriends, taking ex-girlfriends into account would surely make that number even higher.) Ninety-four percent of these women were killed by men they knew and 62 percent were wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers.

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Black Americans make up 14 percent of the population, and yet, of those 1,600 murders, 453 -- or 28 percent -- were black women. Of those 453 murders, 416 were intra-racial.

Thus: Once every 19 hours a Black woman is killed by a man. Once every 21 hours a Black woman is killed by a Black man. 92 percent of the time she knows her murderer. 56 percent of the time, she is wife, ex-wife or girlfriend of her killer. The study does not account for ex-partners or ex-girlfriends, a fact which would surely make that percentage skew higher.

In these incidents, the most common weapon used was a gun.

* * *

Far too often when we speak about our national epidemic of gun violence, our outrage is tethered to sensational cases, like the killing of the Charleston 9 or the recent slaughter of students at an Oregon community college. After these incidents occur, we commence our usual handwringing about the culture of gun violence.

Existing discourses about violent crime continue to make Black women intersectionally invisible. Within Black political discourses, the focus on intracommunal and intraracial crime usually centers on violent neighborhood-based crime, perpetrated by young men. Within our broader national conversation about gun control, female victims of lethal intimate partner violence are rarely the driving force for the conversation. And within our broader national narrative about Black lives, we focus primarily on the high number of killings of Black male victims by police. Talking about domestic violence in Black communities when appalling stories like the police killing of Corey Johnson emerge seems like a hard call to make.

The statistics from the Violence Policy Center do not take into account the epidemic of murders of trans women of color that LGBTQ activists have brought to our attention in the last several years. On October 15, a young man of color fatally shot Zella Ziona, a trans Black woman, after their friendship became public knowledge. We have had over 20 such murders of trans people this year, most of them women of color. Sometimes these women are victims of targeted hate crimes by cisgender men who seek to police and punish trans women for daring to occupy public space. Sometimes these men have had intimate or sexual interactions with transwomen, after which they choose to enact brutal and transphobic forms of violence.

Intimate partner violence is always about power and control, and Black feminist theorists have long named the particular vulnerabilities that (cisgender) Black women in heterosexual partnerships face when their husbands or significant others are structurally foreclosed access to the privileges of patriarchy. Black men don’t just take out their frustrations about white supremacy and white male privilege on other Black men; they come home and take it out on the bodies of women they claim to love.

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To be clear, most crime is intra-racial, despite conservative public narratives about Black-On-Black crime. So in naming the problem of fatal domestic violence that we have in Black communities, I am not attempting to pathologize Black people. People commit crime where they live, against those in closest proximity to them.

But uninterrogated masculinity is a violent enterprise, period. It does not matter the race (or the sex) of the body opting to perform masculinity. If the person does not question what masculinity means, then misogyny, violence, domination and control are par for the course. Even our national political discourse on guns frequently pits one group of men arguing with another group men over their right to have access to guns.

But women will not be safe until we create a comprehensive national framework for thinking about domestic violence as structural and state-sanctioned violence. Gabby Giffords' new Women’s Coalition for Common Sense (on which I serve) is doing work to make the connection between guns and domestic violence, and it is work I applaud. If the state refuses to regulate guns, it continues to support and facilitate a culture where all its citizens are vulnerable to victimization, women and children being chief among them.

At the same time, Black political discourses about the value of Black life have severe blind spots when they fail to consider domestic violence as a form of structural and state-sanctioned violence, in which cisgender Black men collude with the state against the well-being of Black women and girls, cis and trans. We are long overdue for creating a comprehensive framework for talking about violence toward Black women, trans* and cis, that takes into account these forms of structural vulnerability. That conversation will necessarily demand that we interrogate the violent, limited, and narrow forms of masculinity which Black men are asked to perform in churches, in politics, and in cultural production. But while Black communities engage in that work, we need comprehensive gun control legislation. Too many Black (women’s) lives are circumscribed by the barrel of a too-easily accessible handgun.

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Like the vast majority of Black people I know, I am intimately aware of the way that both women and men in Black communities lose when we fail to demand a shift in the culture of patriarchal violence. I lost my father to gun violence, after he was trying to protect a woman he was dating from a man she knew who had a gun and a temper. Another of my close female relatives survived horrific gun violence at the hands of an intimate partner. And one of my siblings is now co-parenting her partner’s son, because his mother was stalked and murdered by her male intimate partner last year.

The brutalization of Black women is quotidian. The murders of cis and trans* women are usually not committed by the police or by vigilantes. Because of this, these deaths don’t galvanize national movements. Black women are taught to protect the embattled social image of Black men at all costs, even at the cost of our own lives, so we frequently refuse to tell the truth about the levels of brutality we experience. But any time I’m sitting in a room with more than three Black women, if I sit long enough, all three can tell a story of some form of horrific physical or sexual violence that she or another woman whom she cares deeply about has experienced.

The truth of it is this: Once a day and something like twice on Sundays, a Black man takes a Black woman to meet her maker. Now we are not solely responsible for this monstrous terrain of Black intimacies. Black folks rarely get to love other Black folks on their own terms. We know Black men are not monsters. We don’t need or require Black women to be angels. But our shared intimate terrain has become a killing field, and this is simply no way to live. Together, in community, we must figure our way out of no way.


Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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