The crisis in Ferguson, Missouri is a watershed moment not only in civil rights, but in reproductive justice as well. Here’s why.
The central tenet of reproductive justice is that every woman has the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.
To do that, she must have sufficient social, economic and political power to be able to chart her own future. Throughout U.S. history, African American women have routinely been denied this basic right.
Under slave codes, enslaved women lacked legal status not only to refuse sex and childbearing, but also to keep the children they bore. Slaveholders regularly removed children from their mothers after weaning, either for sale to third parties or simply to prevent the formation of family bonds and loyalty.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and children were still being taken from African American mothers, only then it was being done by social workers/government agencies who saw pathology in Black single mothers far more frequently than in white single moms. The vilification of single moms of color was reflected in the infamous Moynihan Report of 1965 which blamed “Black matriarchy” for the deprivations facing African American communities — a now-discredited accusation rooted in ideology rather than evidence.
And now in the 21st century, children are STILL being taken from their mothers, only now it’s in the form of treating their teenage and young adult kids like criminals and locking them up (the school-to-prison pipeline) or outright killing them, like Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, etc.
As Dani McClain observed in The Nation, it’s in that sense that the senseless killing of Michael Brown is a reproductive justice issue. Too many cops and too many white people so fear and distrust young people of color that they shoot to kill, having, in Brittney Cooper’s words, “miscalculated the level of threat.” The upshot is that African American moms still are not allowed to raise the children they have.
But it is wrong to think that police brutality affects women of color only insofar as they are mothers. African American women, as well as men, are directly brutalized by police.
Like Black and brown men, Black and brown women are prosecuted and imprisoned — and at younger ages, suspended or expelled from school — in disproportionately larger numbers than their white counterparts, for similar behaviors. The “miscalculation of risk” posed by females of color all too often results in police killing, for example: Yvette Smith in Bastrop, TX; Eleanor Bumpurs in the Bronx; seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit; Tarika Wilson in Lima, OH. The presumption that police brutality only happens to boys and men erases the lived experience of these and countless other women and girls.
That’s hurtful in itself; but it also leads to bad policies. An example of bad policy flowing from this wrong presumption: President Obama’s signature racial justice initiative, My Brother’s Keeper. The MBK programs are not aimed at school discipline or police practices. They provide mentoring, job training and fatherhood skills to boys and young men. No girls are allowed in these programs, because girls are presumed not to be directly affected by excessive school discipline or brutal police practices.
Not only do girls not get the direct services, they also don’t benefit indirectly since the programs don’t address police or school practices.
Unless MBK is re-aligned to be inclusive, not only wouldn’t girls not get the direct services, they also wouldn’t benefit indirectly since the programs don’t address root causes like police brutality, unduly harsh school discipline, lack of jobs, and racial segregation.
And to add insult to injury, in the private sector part of MBK’s public-private partnership, at least one organization has suggested dusting off the discredited Moynihan Report’s vilification of the “Black matriarchy.” There is simply no excuse for thinking that blaming the single moms will somehow put a stop to policy brutality against African American kids.
It’s easy for policy makers to forget this, but a woman’s womb is not the sum and substance of her existence. If that is the only thing you notice about her, then the policies you come up with will be ineffective and/or counterproductive.
Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 08/22/2014