Police Racism and Black Women

August 4, 2009

I've spent the last few days mulling over blog posts and news articles detailing the events of and reactions to Henry Gates' arrest, and instead of feeling like I'm working towards answers, I am instead left with a growing list of questions. Part of the uproar surrounding Gates' arrest was the troubling reminder that neither socioeconomic status nor reputation could protect the scholar from what happened to him. This was made even more evident in Obama's initial reaction to the incident, a reaction that seemed to reflect anger among the black middle class for still being subjected to police racism.

A long and violent history exists between African-Americans and police officers in the country, one that is by no means in the past. But one particular point stands out when I think about that history, and that is that black women are often overlooked in the conversation about race and police brutality.

I feel reluctant to pose the hypothetical question, "How would things have been different if Gates had been a black woman?" -- these sorts of speculations take away from Gates' experience of racism -- but I do wonder how gender played into his arrest and the uproar that followed.

The factors of class and gender matter, and I don't think we have to look far to see how gendered racism plays out between the police and black women. Though the narrative of racialized police violence often focuses on the relationship between black men and white men, there are plenty of instances in which black women face racism and the threat of violence, often sexual violence, from the police. In 2006, 92 year old Kathryn Johnston was shot to death by three police officers who entered her home using a no-knock warrant, claiming to be investigating a drug raid. LaTanya Haggerty was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer who believed her cell phone was a gun. As Renee Martin at Womanist Musings details, black women are the victims of racist police brutality all the time. But when these women were killed, there was no national uproar. There were merely comments about tragic circumstances and misunderstandings, and people writing off the incidences as the terrible result of racism and violence in low-income communities.

Context and location, like all factors, matter in the case of Gates, and his arrest is by no means the first racist incident to plague the Harvard community. Black students and professors alike have reported incidents of racial bias in which they were stopped for various kinds of 'suspicious behavior.' Chanequa Campbell, a low-income black Harvard student was denied her diploma because of her possible affiliations with men suspected to have murdered a Cambridge resident in her dorm. Harvard's silence during the investigation was uncomfortable - would the institution have been openly protective of one of their own students had she been wealthier or had legacy ties to the university? The speculation itself is troubling.

The reality is that I don't think I'll be seeing the post-racial world anytime soon. I won't see it when Gates is able to find justice because I will still think of Dr. Thea James getting pulled over and being accused of shoplifting when she's at a store in Cambridge. I won't see it when Harvard's racial politics and racial profiling are investigated because most people of color who experience racism from the police don't live there. I won't see it when the violence between black men and white police officers subside because the lives of black women won't be accounted for. And I won't see it until gendered racism is examined within the context of police treatment and violence.

Nina Jacinto is a freelance blogger living in the Bay Area whose writing focuses on issues of race, gender, and media representation. She's a graduate of Pomona College and loves South Asian diaspora narratives, bargain shopping, and the Internet.



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