Beyond Superwoman: Justice For Black Women Too

Beyond Superwoman: Justice For Black Women Too

By some metrics, African-American women are faring better than black men. They comprise nearly two-thirds of black undergraduates and a clear majority of advanced degree holders. But these numbers tell only part of the story.

(Justice for Renisha McBride / Facebook)

On June 18, 2007, Tommy Poindexter coaxed a woman out of her apartment in West Palm Beach, Florida by telling her that her car had a flat. Then he and nine other young black men forced her back into her home in the Dunbar Village public housing community, where they not only robbed her but engaged in three hours of rape, beatings, and torture. The female victim, a Haitian immigrant, was raped vaginally, orally, and anally, sometimes with bottles or a firearm, while they beat her twelve-year-old son in another room. In an effort to cover up their crimes, they told both the woman and her son to clean off and then forced the mother and son to have sex with each other. Finally, the assailants poured alcohol into the woman’s anus, ammonia on both her and her son’s eyes, stuffed a bar of soap into the woman’s vagina, and tried to light the mother and child on fire as they lay naked in a bathtub.

This horrific crime gained little media attention outside the West Palm Beach area. Sadly, black political leaders assisted in that neglect. Instead of rallying to the aid of the woman and her child, the Reverend Al Sharpton and officials from the Palm Beach chapter of the NAACP appeared at a press conference with the defendants’ families. They argued it was unfair not to offer bail to the men, citing a rape case involving white defendants in another Florida jurisdiction, men who had drugged and raped two underage women. Fliers were passed out at the press conference that portrayed the defendants as “voiceless, vulnerable, victims” and “Young African-American Males [who are] An Endangered Species.” Richard McIntyre, communications director for the national office of the NAACP, told a writer for the blog What About Our Daughters that “black on black crime is not part of our mission.”

Eventually, both Sharpton and the NAACP revised their positions, but only after being lambasted in the black feminist blogosphere. One critic, Shecodes, whose open letter was posted at What About Our Daughters, voiced the concerns of other bloggers: “Right-thinking black people everywhere are stunned by the recent betrayal of Al Sharpton and the NAACP in a situation that is just too outrageous to ignore.” Other bloggers added that both Sharpton and the leading civil rights group should “interpret this protest as a golden opportunity for critical self reflection, as a new line of dialogue, and as a chance to move into better alignment with the will of the very people that they exist to serve.”

To date, despite the best efforts of those who tried to bring this case to light, only four of the ten assailants have been charged, tried, and sentenced. The mother and son will be struggling to heal from that ghastly day for the rest of their lives.

Why has their trauma not served to highlight issues of sexual violence against black women and families? Why have black activists not given crimes against black women the same attention they have to the cases of the Jena Six, Oscar Grant, or Trayvon Martin? One hopes the protests against the murder of nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride, a Detroit youth killed last November when, after a car accident, she knocked on a door in a mostly white suburb, will signify that this bad old pattern is changing. Still, the focus on black men as an “endangered species” all too often limits the scope and effectiveness of black politics.

Since the end of the classical phase of the black freedom movement in the 1960s, many African-American activists have sought to boost the patriarchal role of black men. The huge number of female-headed, single-parent families, they argue, is at the root of a range of interconnected social ills—drug abuse, inner-city crime, and poverty. This emphasis on supposed black cultural pathology limits the vision of black politics, promoting sexism and making the individual and the family the only proper sites for change. The defense of black manhood overshadows the struggles faced by poor and working-class black women and girls who are also under siege.

The figure of the endangered black male is sustained by the related archetype of the black superwoman. The latter is, as Michele Wallace wrote in her 1978 black feminist manifesto, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, a

workhorse, can swing an ax, lift a load, pick cotton with any man. . . . always had more opportunities than the black man because she was no threat . . . But curiously enough, she frequently ends up on welfare. Nevertheless, she is more educated and makes more money than the Black man. She is more likely to be employed and more likely to be a professional. . . .

Black women may be under fire, but whether on a breadline or in the boardroom, they can, supposedly, stand the heat.

By some metrics, African-American women are faring better than black men. They comprise nearly two-thirds of black undergraduates and a clear majority of advanced degree holders. But these numbers tell only part of the story. In academia, for instance, despite their educational attainment, black women still hold fewer tenured professorships than do their male counterparts. They also make less money than do men with similar education and backgrounds.

Black women also lag behind in other ways. While fewer are unemployed than black men, more work in low-wage jobs. As a result, almost half of all black women have either no accumulated wealth or are in debt. And, although they voted at a higher rate than any other demographic group in the last presidential election, black women continue to have little political clout and hold only a fraction of the elective offices they should in light of their numbers.

Moreover, those who make it into the professions often suffer acutely from the same “dating panic” that strikes many heterosexual women in their thirties who haven’t found a mate. According to the 2010 Census, “71 percent of Black women aged 25 to 29 had never married, compared with 43 percent of non-Hispanic white women.” As Artisha Lawson, who works for a nonprofit, explained to the Toledo Blade, “It’s scary, because I want to share my life with someone . . . I’m looking for a life partner. A friend, someone to grow old with.” An African-American law professor at Stanford, Ralph Richard Banks, even wrote a book, Is Marriage for White People?, in which he advised black women to date outside their race.

Now, some black leaders like Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan would argue that what black women need most are strong black men who earn good salaries and want to have families. But not all women want to have partners or want those partners to be men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, a home can be broken even if two parents are present; parents may not get along, and two-parent homes can be abusive ones. As long as a patriarchal model of manhood and family frames the agenda of black politics, it is difficult to confront problems that face black women in particular—from sex discrimination to the economic plight of female-headed households to rape.

When racism is viewed as a battle among competing patriarchs, black men are seen as its primary victims. It becomes a melodrama played by villainous white men and the institutions they control and black male victims, with women playing supporting roles. This was certainly true for the Dunbar Village defendants, who were described in a supportive flier as “Tender enough to be treasured! Precious enough to be preserved!”

Even many black women believe that sexism in America is less virulent than racism and that white supremacy hurts black men the most. Melissa Harris-Perry, the writer and MSNBC host who identifies herself as a feminist and a rape survivor, was relieved, she said, that an ultrasound conducted while she was pregnant showed she was going to have a girl. Whatever challenges her black daughter would face, they would not equal those for a black son. But the oppression of black men does not erase the fact that we live in a society structured by male privilege, and the ability to equate the fate of all black people with that of black men is a prime example of how this privilege operates.

Even the experiences that we use to represent racial suffering are usually viewed as if they only happen to men. There is nothing more emblematic of racism than lynching; many black commentators wrote that Trayvon Martin was “lynched.” But some 130 African-American women and an uncounted number of children died illegally by the noose as well. And the myth of the black rapist that drove a large number of lynchings of men can be seen, in part, as a reaction formation. Like people who rail against pornography but indulge in it, white men who participated in executing black men for supposedly raping “their” women were often denying the actual sexual abuse of black women by white men.

In fact, black women are now and probably have always been raped and abused in greater numbers than white women—by men of both races. Even the most conservative estimates based on national crime statistics place the lifetime occurrence of rape for black women at almost 20 percent. According to one recent study, up to “sixty percent of Black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18.” Despite its prevalence, cases of black female rape seldom make it to court or get covered in the media.

Moreover, black women are often reluctant to seek redress for such crimes when the culprit is a man of their own race. Fearing, understandably, that black men may not be treated fairly by the justice system, African-American women silently suffer the effects of rape and other forms of violence from strangers and intimate partners alike. By testifying at the trials of her tormentors, the Dunbar Village rape survivor was a courageous exception.

Racism and sexism are not only connected; they help to define each other. And the key to freeing black people from both is to transcend the limits of a politics rooted in mainstream myths and attitudes. If African Americans ever want to cash that promissory note for payment of full citizenship that Dr. King famously said was returned for insufficient funds, we have to stop acting as if it was written only to the “other” man of the house. Those engaged in the ongoing quest for freedom and justice have to think about and practice politics, in the words of feminist scholar Wendy Smooth, “as if black women mattered” too.

Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd is a lawyer, political scientist, and associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Gender, Race, and Nationalism in Contemporary Black Politics and a board member of the Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society.