More than 50 years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer — a Black woman leader of the Civil Rights Movement — brought the state violence she experienced as a Black woman into national consciousness. Hamer bravely spoke out about her experience being wrongfully arrested in 1963 and brutally beaten while in jail, reporting that the officer repeatedly tried to pull her dress above her head during the altercation. We will never know how many other Black women have been victims of violence at the hands of the state since Hamer bravely spoke out.
Today, decades after the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, countless Black women across the country continue to fall prey to exploitation, intimidation, and violence in public and private contexts. Black women experience the highest-reported rates of domestic violence in the country as well as alarmingly high rates of sexual assault, both at home and at work. As we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we must recognize and confront the continued devaluation and erasure of certain women’s lives from the forefront of mainstream feminist movements.
As we strive to build an inclusive movement fighting for women’s rights and combating sexual assault, we must generate visibility and accountability around Black women’s experiences of violence. We need to rally around victims such as those abused by Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer who was recently convicted of 18 counts of sexual assault against Black women while on duty and sentenced to 263 years in prison. This conviction by an all-white jury represents a major landmark for those advocating for Black women victims of violence. Yet the Holtzclaw trial received little coverage from national media outlets, and his victims saw little support from mainstream feminist and anti-violence groups.
Moreover, we must look beyond Holtzclaw as an individual bad actor and examine the institutional context that dehumanizes women of color. Holtzclaw was far from alone in being able to prey on his victims’ vulnerable positions, which were compounded by factors including race, class, ability status, involvement in the criminal justice system and substance dependency. While celebrating the brave women who gave a face to victims of sexual assault in the Holtzclaw case, we must also recognize they are outliers only in the visibility and justice they achieved.
In order to truly combat the systemic flaws that predators like Holtzclaw prey upon, we need to address overlapping discrimination within multiple systems. For instance, an under-explored aspect of Holtzclaw’s pattern of prey was his victims’ lack of economic recourse. Poverty too often leaves Black women disproportionately vulnerable to sexual violence both at the hands of the state and the men they encounter in their daily lives — partners, employers, coworkers, loved ones. We need to grapple with the reality that economic disparities often leave women — especially women of color — vulnerable to poverty and less financially equipped to deal with a crisis. Two-thirds of low-wage workers are women, nearly half of whom are women of color. Economic insecurity and wage disparities are further exacerbated for Black women: on average, Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men, while white women earn 78 cents per dollar a white man is paid.
Survivors of domestic and sexual violence who lack economic security are often unable to bear the financial ramifications of leaving an abuser or reporting sexual harassment or violence, or as in the case of Holtzclaw’s victims, may be viewed as less “authentic victims” even if they do try to come forward. One striking example of the interplay between race, class, and sexual violence, comes from the Department of Justice report on the economic links to violence at home, which found that women suffering from economic distress and women in “disadvantaged neighborhoods” experience more intimate partner violence than those who do not.
In addition to the trauma that comes with being sexually assaulted and the resulting issues with reporting, victims recount the damaging impact abuse and violence has on their workplace productivity and job security. Unpaid leave, missed shifts, and job loss only further contribute to the economic insecurity that too often perpetuates violence.
We must do more. It will take systemic change to address the widespread economic insecurity that makes women of color particularly vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Employers must provide their workers with fair wages and guaranteed, no-strings-attached paid leave so survivors can take time off to recover from injuries, obtain a restraining order, or make other plans to ensure their safety following instances or threats of abuse– also known as safe work days. Employers should make use of the resources that exist to help determine specific vulnerabilities of employees and guides to provide support for their workers in the form of counseling, accessible information, or a responsive Human Resources Department. Doing so will help ensure women of color have access to the support and resources needed to speak up or seek help when faced with violence, as well as create an environment in which Black women are more economically secure.
As women, survivors, and advocates come together during April to spread awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault in our society and celebrate the strides to combat this issue, we need to acknowledge and strategize around where we continue to fall short. We need to focus our efforts for visibility and accountability on stories like Daniel Holtzclaw, who felt empowered to abuse his law enforcement status to prey upon some of the most vulnerable members in society. Such accountability isn’t only required for police officers, but also for any individuals occupying a position of power, from CEOs to supervisors and managers. In short, to actively strive for a movement that centers on the lives and safety of all those who have suffered from sexual assault, especially those most vulnerable. The time is now to combat Black women’s vulnerability to violence from all sectors of our society.
Esta Soler is the founder and president of Futures Without Violence, a social justice organization that works to end violence against women and children. To learn more about FUTURES’s initiative to address sexual and domestic violence in the workplace and build resilient workplace communities, follow @WorkplaceNRC.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is an American scholar and founder of the Critical Race Theory intellectual movement. She co-founded the African American Policy Forum where she serves as Executive Director, and is a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School and is a leading authority in the area of Civil Rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism, and the law. To learn more follow @AAPolicyForum.