“What does this have to do with feminism?” I’ve been fielding this question about the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner a lot in the last few weeks—both on and off the interwebs. (And I’ve been learning I’m not the only one facing this question. When Everydayfeminism reblogged my Facebook friend Aida Manduley’s now-viral (and wonderful) Ferguson Masterpost, “what does this have to do with feminism?” question was one of the most liked comments. In this article, Emma Akpan reports being told by feminists, “we can’t talk about police violence today, because we’re talking about women.”)
This question of what the killings of Brown and Garner have to do with feminism are worth answering—though not because all politically important issues must be “about women.” It is worth answering because state violence is also actually about women. The state systems that criminalize people of color and subject them to violence are vehicles of sexist oppression.
An important response to the “what does this have to do with feminism?” question—and one of the most widely discussed ones out on the interwebs (see here, here, and here) is that the state-sanctioned murder of black youth is a reproductive justice issue. Restricting women’s reproductive lives has always been a way of controlling them, but women of color have been disproportionately controlled by being denied the right to parent and being stigmatized as bad mothers. The mechanisms range from coerced sterilization to the Moynihan Report’s blaming of black women for poverty. A context that subjects youth of color to systematic violence is one that prevents women of color from parenting healthy children.
But women of color are not only the mothers of victims of state violence. Women of color are victims of state violence. Seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed as she slept while the police raided her father’s home. The police officers who killed Rekia Boyd in 2012 argued that they were acting in self-defense. Just last week, police in Jasper Texas were cleared of criminal charges for “grabbing [Keyarika] Diggles by the hair, slamming her face onto a counter and pinning her to the floor, before dragging Diggles, by the feet, into a holding cell.” Her offense was having not completely paid off a traffic ticket she was paying off in monthly installments. As the poster advertising a town hall meeting on My Brother’s Keeper I attended a few weeks ago asked, women of color are victims of police violence: why don’t we know their names?
When feminists point this out, it is often objected that men are more likely to be both killed by police and incarcerated. Whether or not this is true, the state apparatuses of the criminalization, violence, and control of people of color extend beyond prison and police murder. As Kim Crenshaw argued in her famous essay, “Mapping the Margins” (you know, the one where she invented the term “intersectionality”) advocacy discourses based only in race (or only in gender) can prevent us from seeing harms caused by the intersection of the two.
Women of color’s interactions with the criminal justice system subject them to violence that is both racist and gender-based. As the case of Marissa Alexander shows, stereotypes of women of color being aggressive impede claims of self-defense in response to intimate partner violence. The combination of overpolicing and racist stereotypes make women of color likely to be arrested for being victims of IPV. Mandatory arrest laws for IPV often result in dual arrests, because police are unable to identify the “primary aggressor.” Just last year, 39 incarcerated women were sterilized without their consent in California prisons. Transwomen of color, often profiled as sex workers and drug addicts, are highly vulnerable to police assault.
State violence and punishment also do not only happen through the vehicles of the criminal justice system. The welfare system increasingly criminalizes its recipients. For instance, in many states, welfare fraud is now a felony charge. As Dorothy Roberts argues, the foster care system, which was once conceived as protecting children from social disadvantage, is now understood as protecting children of color from their criminal mothers. According to studies cited by Roberts, unsubstantiated labels of individual women of color as “cognitively delayed” and “hostile” are used to justify the removal of their children from their custody. Angela Davis argues that even if men are more likely to be incarcerated in prisons, women are more likely to be placed in mental institutions, suggesting that they are vehicles for control of women.
We need a conversation about state violence in which it is possible to discuss the ways in which sexist and racist oppression work together to create special vulnerabilities for women of color.