Ferguson and Cosby? Black Women Have More to Discuss

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The narratives of black women are few and often negative--but in order to obtain justice, black victims must be saints.

Credit: Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr under Creative Commons

The narratives of black women are few and often negative--but in order to obtain justice, black victims must be saints.

AUSTIN, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)–Just as the country is being forced to realize that justice will be denied for the family of Mike Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, front pages are also carrying the latest on accusers of Bill Cosby.

Which image of black masculinity will win: Black man as brute rapist or black man as innocent victim lynched, for all intents and purposes, by a racist white justice system?

The choices are narrow, indeed.

While black feminists (myself included), community activists, Cosby loyalists, and everyone in between spar about whether there is enough, or any, actual evidence against Cosby or whether we are solely concentrating on Ferguson, the void surrounding the ongoing case of 13 black female victims who have made sexual assault allegations against Daniel Ken Holtzclaw, a white and Asian police officer in Oklahoma, is the elephant in the room.

Holtzclaw is accused of forcing many of the women into his patrol car and threatening them with arrest if they did not submit. The 34 felony charges include first-degree rape, forcible sodomy, sexual battery and second-degree rape. The youngest accuser to-date is 17; the oldest is 57.

Violence against black women in this country is epidemic: almost half of all black women have been sexually coerced by the age of 18. The No. 2 cause of death for black women is homicide, stemming mostly from intra-racial intimate partner violence. Currently 64,000 black women are missing in America, most under dubious circumstances.

No Tidy Image or Trope for Us

But the recent clash of metanarratives surrounding race, gender, violence and justice spotlights the deadening of black womanhood: African American female victims exist in abstraction in this society, as there is no tidy image or trope that represents the legacy of violence against us, whether by the state, intimate partners or random violence.

Outside of media images of black women as welfare cheats, prostitutes or sex freaks, or grieving black mothers and professional widows, there isn’t a simple metaphor that addresses the complexity of our experience of racialized and gendered violence, let alone justice.

This is not a plea for the creation of an easy media trope. Rather, we need to move away from all of these canned narratives because they exclusively, and often too simplistically, privilege certain kinds of victims as well as racist ideas of justice.

It means black victims have to be saints to have their humanity recognized or obtain justice. Often it’s the victimization of black men that forces the black community to respond en masse. This pits the complexities of patriarchal power, which black men have the ability to wield, against the forces of white supremacy. And that leaves folks under the impression they must choose whether to fight against gender oppression or racism.

Clearly, we need to battle both, and we need to be engaged in ongoing discussions about the ways that these issues are connected.

This limited scope of discussion also effectively renders black women’s suffering invisible.

Countless news outlets have Bill Cosby photos and the allegations against him prominently displayed alongside images of several of his accusers, mostly white. How many of those media outlets covered the Holtzclaw case? How many reported the fact that the DNA of the 17-year-old accuser was discovered inside Holtzclaw’s uniform pants?

At the most recent hearing, the teen explained why she did not go to the authorities: "What am I going to do? Call the cops? He was a cop." This girl clearly understood that few care about the victimization of young women with her kind of circumstances: black, impoverished and with warrants.

We can care about the allegations against Cosby as well as the outcome of the verdict in Ferguson. But we need to stand up and demand justice for these kinds of victims, too.

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