The news about the recent killings of unarmed black men—and, in at least two cases, convened grand juries’ unwillingness to indict their white police officer killers—has produced international protest and outcry. Most of the resulting discussion has focused on the disproportionate rate of police violence against black men, neatly coalesced in the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. But that statement, paired with its emphasis on black males, is a reminder of how black women are often rendered invisible. It’s a reminder of how the gendering of black lives matters.
From a feminist perspective, these protests are important not only because they draw attention to these ongoing acts, but also because they reveal the ways that gender shapes both police violence and those who are victimized by it.
If police violence is seen as a black men’s issue, then black female victims are easily overlooked and the problem persists.
Though both black men and women are stereotyped as inherently prone to lawless behavior, the narrative of black criminality is a gendered one. Black men have historically been and continue to be cast as dangerous, threatening, and inclined to violent behavior. This stereotype has its roots in the post-slavery era when such “violence” was used as a justification for lynching black men, despite pioneering work by journalist Ida B. Wells proving that alleged violent acts were rarely the impetus behind lynching. Nowadays, conservative news commentators like Bill O’Reilly present the disproportionately high murder rates in black communities as an explanation for police violence.
The stereotype resurfaces in officer Darren Wilson’s account of Michael Brown as a hulking, frightening figure, summed up in his statement to the grand jury: “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five year old holding on to Hulk Hogan ... Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”
It’s safe to say that the most well-known victims of police (and self-appointed vigilante) violence are black males. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, and Tamir Rice are only some of the most recent tragedies. Preceding examples that captured national attention include Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and Jonathan Ferrell.
Black women are an untold side of this story. When seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was shot in her sleep by police, her story made headlines but did not inspire protests, marches, or collective action. Nor did the case of Miriam Carey, an unarmed woman who was shot in Washington, D.C., by Secret Service and Capitol Police after driving erratically with her toddler in the backseat of her car. Judging from recent events, stories about black male victims of state violence generate more news and attention, despite the fact that black women are also subjected to these atrocities.
What to make of this pattern? Why does it matter? If police violence is seen as a black men’s issue, then black female victims are easily overlooked and the problem persists. The gendering of black criminality could potentially lead to greater resources and attention in ways that do little or nothing to address female victims of this violence. For instance, initiatives like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program focus on issues that pertain to black and Latino men. Gendering police violence as a social problem that primarily affects black men means that programs like My Brother’s Keeper are missing key constituents affected by this issue—women.
Depictions of black men as the primary victims of police violence may make black women reluctant to involve law enforcement in domestic violence cases; they expect black male peers will be subject to police violence or even death.
Additionally, while public outcry is important and necessary, it ignores the ways black women engage in less visible, more covert forms of protest against state violence. Feminist sociologists point out that the act of protesting itself is a gendered activity. Nancy Naples and Belinda Robnett have drawn attention to the informal methods women use to protest and challenge social injustices. For everyday black women, these acts might involve community activism or attempts to work with and reach out to law enforcement; when these activities are led by women, they are frequently overlooked.
A final point to consider is that gendered black criminality might inhibit efforts to reduce crime. When it comes to domestic violence, a 2006 Department of Justice report notes that depictions of black men as the primary victims of police violence may make black women reluctant to involve law enforcement if they expect black male peers will be subject to police violence or even death. Ironically, the stereotype of black male criminality may have the unintended consequence of making criminal activity more difficult to curtail.
The recent spate of unarmed men killed by law enforcement and self-styled vigilantes is terrible and disheartening. It is encouraging to see people from all parts of the world mobilized to speak out against procedures and systemic processes that result in undue loss of life. But we must not lose sight of the ways that gender shapes this problem or how it should be a factor in the creation of solutions that work for everyone.