Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Much of the national conversation around race and policing centers on black men, while police violence against black women receives far less media attention. In 2015, the African American Policy Forum created the hashtag #SayHerName, to push for a more gender-inclusive racial justice movement and highlight women like Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, Jessica Williams, and Kisha Michael.
The lack of national attention on black women’s deaths isn’t because only men experience racial disparities in policing. While the number of black women killed by police is lower than that of black men, 2015 data from the Washington Post’s police shootings database show almost identical racial disparities across gender.
Even in routine interactions with police, research shows that “for both women and men, there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ethnicity.” Data on New York City’s police stops show nearly identical rates of racial disparities by gender in stops, frisks, and arrests of black men and black women. In addition, black women were 22 percent more likely than white women to experience the use of force during stop-and-frisk experiences in New York City, according to a recently released report by Roland G. Fryer Jr. at Harvard University.
Just in the past year, we’ve heard numerous stories of black women experiencing violence at the hands of police, especially after being perceived as disrespectful. Sandra Bland’s traffic stop in 2015 escalated to violence when an officer pulled her over for failing to use a turn signal, insisted she put out a cigarette, and then forced her from the car for refusing to do so while yelling “I will light you up” and threatening Bland with his Taser. In a New York Times article published shortly afterward, law professor Robert Weisberg of Stanford University said, “the motive for yanking her out seems to be her rude behavior.”
Other recent stories reflect similar dynamics. A police officer in McKinney, Texas, threw 15-year-old Dajerria Becton to the ground, grabbed and dragged her by the neck, and pinned her to the ground with his knee while cursing at her, supposedly for using a private pool. A high school girl in South Carolina was pulled by the neck, flipped backward in her chair, and dragged from the room by a police officer for failure to leave the classroom. Last June, 26-year-old elementary school teacher Breaion King was slammed to the ground twice after she was pulled over for driving 15 miles over the speed limit and was perceived to be “uncooperative” by the police officer. In each case, the women and girls were perceived to be rude, uncooperative, or disrespectful of officers.
However, as a recent Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) reminds us, critical and disrespectful speech toward the police does not justify use of force or the power to detain and arrest. The report found that the BPD threatens First Amendment rights when an officer “unlawfully stops and arrests individuals for speech they perceive to be disrespectful or insolent” and then “retaliate[s] against individuals for protected speech through the use of excessive force.” Black people were overrepresented in arrests for highly discretionary offenses, such as “failure to obey,” “making a false statement to an officer,” and “disorderly conduct.” The probe also found gender bias in the BPD, including failure to investigate sexual assault cases, coercion of sexual favors from sex workers, and disrespect for victims of sexual violence.
Often undiscussed is that these stories reflect a long history in the United States of disparate treatment of black women and girls at the hands of the state, stemming from a history of enslavement, white supremacy, and the denial of black people’s humanity. Enslaved people did not have legal claim to their own bodies; for women, this meant being considered property and facing legalized physical and sexual assault. In 1855, a 19-year-old enslaved woman, Celia, was hanged for killing her “master” when he attempted to rape her.
Even after gaining official citizenship rights, black women and girls continue to face treatment that denies those rights. In 1963, five black women (including activist Fannie Lou Hamer) were subjected to sexualized and racialized violence by police after attending a voter registration workshop. The five women were stripped naked, slapped, and made to say, “Yes, sir.” In 1975, Joan Little stood trial for murder after fighting off her jailer when he attempted to rape her. Although she was acquitted after a national outcry, her story is reminiscent of Celia’s trial and hanging in 1855 and present-day police encounters that result in violence for perceived disrespect are continued examples of ignoring black women’s rights as citizens and causing bodily harm.
As researchers, we have to ask how our national legacy of denying the humanity of black women and girls surfaces in our policies today. Only by acknowledging this history can we fully understand where we are now and how to move forward.