This spring marks two years since Louisville, KY, police killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. Officers shot 36 rounds of ammunition into her home in a bungled raid serving a “no-knock” warrant, realizing later that the suspect they were looking for was already in custody. The police who shot her could have intervened to save her, but they didn’t; in Kentucky, as in most states, police are not obligated to deliver medical aid to people they’ve shot or maimed.1
In concurrence with the lynching of George Floyd, Breonna’s death sparked nationwide uprisings and prompted vigorous debates about the police’s role in public safety. Coalitions like the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and organizations like Black Visions brought attention to abolitionist arguments that the only way to prevent deaths such as Mr. Floyd’s and Ms. Taylor’s is to take power and funding from police and reinvest those resources into other public safety measures.
Breonna’s shooting was unusual in that, unlike most police shootings of Black women, it garnered significant media attention—although some argue only after the avalanche of news about the death of Mr. Floyd.
Police in America have killed 366 people so far this year—roughly three people a day according to data from Mapping Violence, a nonprofit research group. Their victims include Black women, amongst them Tracy Gaeta, a 54-year-old grandmother who was shot to death on February 22 in Stockton, CA. Ms. Gaeta backed her car into police officer Kyle Ribera’s police vehicle. In return, Ribera fired 30 rounds into Ms. Gaeta’s car, killing her. Although Ms. Gaeta was unarmed, Ribera was unrelenting, stopping briefly to load more bullets into the chamber of his gun then continuing to unload his weapon.
Black female victims of police violence also include children like 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was killed last spring in her hometown of Columbus, OH, after police officer Nicholas Reardon was dispatched to quell a fight among foster youth. Within seconds of arriving, Reardon shot Ma’Khia. As police often do to Black people, Reardon justified his use of excessive force by attributing superhuman attributes to the adolescent; he claimed that Ma’Khia appeared bigger than him so he didn’t think mace or other non-lethal approaches would be effective.2
This kind of excessive force by police isn’t the exception when it comes to deadly encounters with Black women. It’s the norm. Yet, while media attention of police shootings of Black men has increased dramatically thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, the grievous violence Black women suffer at the hands of police continues to attract little to no media attention.
Rather, at present, Black boys and men remain the face of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence in the US. Their deaths and the organizing that follows have given rise to powerful mass uprisings for racial justice and Black liberation. Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, George Floyd—we know their names. This is important. Black women and girls deserve the same recognition, rage, and people-powered response. As professor Brittany Cooper smartly asks, “Why does it remain so difficult for outrage over the killing of Black women to be the tipping point for national protests challenging state violence?”
The relative invisibility of Black women’s experiences of policing in the US is a product of Black women’s social positionality: Black women sit at the intersection of patriarchal misogyny and anti-Black racism. Patriarchy deploys ideological and physical violence to objectify and repress women in the interest of male dominance, denying women’s fundamental humanity. Anti-Black racism, an essential part of the racial capitalism that structures US (and global) society, involves, as a professor of African American studies Dr. kihana miraya ross explains, “society’s inability to recognize our humanity—the disdain, disregard and disgust for our existence.”
Existing at this intersection means Black women are doubly disregarded, and they are plagued by both hypervisibility—the experience of being overly scrutinized when our bodies are stereotyped or commodified—and invisibility—where violence against us is ignored or disregarded. This dualism makes talking about state-sanctioned violence toward Black women and girls hard, and it makes communicating about and organizing for a world that keeps us safe even harder.
The fight to defund the police and reimagine public safety is part of a larger, long-term social justice strategy to divest structural resources—i.e., tangible recourses such as money, member networks, and organizational power3—from harmful institutions such as the police, and to reinvest those resources into common-sense approaches to public safety. However, money isn’t the only currency organizers must rest from the powerful. They must also take ownership of symbolic resources, which shape how we value—or fail to value—the lives of Black women and girls, including transgender women and girls.
Such resources include “words, signs, images, music and even bodies [which] shape our perceptions of reality and invite us to act accordingly.”4 Social movements use these symbolic resources to expose patterns, cultivate compassion, recruit members, inspire collective action, and build public will for sweeping social changes. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is a symbolic resource, as was Emmitt Till’s open-casket. Till’s mother, Mamie, believed people should see what is often concealed—the ghoulish manifestations of white supremacy.
As we lay the foundation for new public safety infrastructure in the United States, the control and distribution of symbolic resources, including narratives, can be deployed to make the invisible visible. For Black women and girls that means exposing the underlying network of intersectional, systemic narratives, stereotypes, and myths that result in our hypervisibility, invisibility, and dehumanization in life and death.
Narratives as Symbolic Resources
Narratives are collections of stories, refined over time, through which we make meaning of the world. Narratives and stories differ. To quote the Narrative Initiative, “What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning.”5 Such meaning frames our worldview and understandings of our daily experiences, including our relationships with others, people’s behaviors, social structures, and global events. In sum, narratives are the foundation of our ideologies and belief systems, which shape our actions—and they’re powerful.
In all societies, multiple, competing narratives circulate, but some narratives are hegemonic—or dominant—centering the desires, beliefs, and values of dominant groups. Hegemonic narratives deploy science, law, and cultural difference to devalue and dehumanize certain groups of people, normalizing inequality and exploitation. These beliefs are then reinforced in social institutions, including churches, schools, and the media, and in interpersonal interactions.
Throughout US history, hegemonic narratives have portrayed Black people as inherently inferior, deviant, and shiftless. One such narrative appeared in the widely circulated1965 Moynihan Report. Rather than focus on systemic employment and wage discrimination, the report argued that single-parented households and the “breakdown of the nuclear family” led to a “culture of poverty” in Black communities. This narrative of Black pathology—singling out Black people as the source of our own, and the country’s, social problems—has old roots and persists today.
Anti-Black narratives are gendered, meaning they target Black women and men in different ways. In particular, they have consistently stereotyped Black women as sexual deviants and unfit mothers. Such narratives have accumulated power over time and hold sway over our capacity to empathize with Black women and our perceptions of who does and does not deserve to benefit from public safety measures.
Today, for example, more than a third of Black women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Yet according to a Brandeis University study, prosecutors file charges against just 34 percent of attacks reported by Black woman, compared to 75 percent of attacks reported by white women.6 According to research by the African American Policy Forum, the police are often perpetrators of sexual violence against Black women.7 Former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, for example, raped and/or sexually assaulted at least 13 Black women over several years.
In a future where public safety includes the welfare of Black women and girls, we have to interrogate how narratives of sex and race determine who is considered part of the public and from what and whom they need to be kept safe. As NYU history professor Jennifer Morgan, author of Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, writes, “you need so many lenses to see all the different ways in which we are still grappling with the legacies of hereditary racial slavery in this country that you can’t just look at it from one perspective. You’re going to miss so many other ways that this is being made manifest.”
Oppressive Narratives That Shape Perceptions of Black Women in the US
The narratives circulating around Black women in America contribute in essential ways to the hypervisibility and scrutiny Black women experience when alive, and to the erasure and invisibility Black women like Ms. Taylor, Ms. Gaeta, and Ma’Khia share in death. As professor Cooper writes about police killings of Black women, “in a world where the pains and traumas that Black women and girls experience as a consequence of both racism and sexism remain structurally invisible and impermeable to broad empathy, these killings recede from the foreground quietly.”8
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The narratives that shape how we value—or fail to value—Black women and girls have their roots in slavery; over time, they have accumulated immense power. To justify slavery, European and white settler experts exploited science’s growing influence, developing theories that argued that Black people were the result of an evolutionary diversion. According to such scientific racism, while white people evolved thanks to their environments and inherent biological traits, Black people remained evolutionary stagnant or regressed, resulting in a host of inferior qualities, including laziness, stupidity, hypersexuality, and deviancy. In other words, Black people were more akin to beasts of burden than people, and it was justifiable if not laudable to treat them as commodities from which enslavers extracted value.
The slave plantation was essential to the national and global economy, and it took shape within a patriarchal society that reduced women of all races to men’s sexual objects and breeding machines. While white women’s sexuality was policed to ensure the purity of the white race, Black women’s reproduction became a brutal business enterprise designed to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Stated otherwise, the first role of Black women in US society was not that of a mother, let alone citizen, but as producers of an enslaved labor force.
While white women bore responsibility for transferring superior whiteness to their offspring, Black women bore responsibility for passing down inferior Blackness. As professor of law, sociology, and civil rights, Dorothy E. Roberts, writes in her classic book, Killing the Black Body,
For three centuries, black mothers have been thought to pass down to their offspring the traits that marked them as inferior to any white person. Along with this biological impairment, it is believed that black mothers transfer a deviant lifestyle to the children that dooms each succeeding generation to a life of poverty, delinquency, and despair…. A popular mythology that portrays black women as unfit to be mothers has left a lasting impression on the American psyche.
In other words, according to hegemonic narratives, Black people were to blame for their own problems, and this blame resided in particular with Black women, the producers of Black children.
After emancipation, this myth that Black women were—by virtue of their reproductive power—the source of Black inferiority continued to permeate US culture, and stories of bad Black mothers were ubiquitous. Eventually, these stories gave rise to the welfare queen narrative, according to which Black women took advantage of social programs, misappropriating the tax dollars of hardworking Americans. Given that anti-Black racism barred many Black women from accessing public services, this narrative, which had no factual foundation, rendered Black female welfare recipients hypervisible. It also burdened Black women with the stereotype of the welfare queen who, as the Frameworks Institute writes, “is portrayed as a pathologically greedy, lawbreaking, deviant, lazy, promiscuous, and ‘Cadillac-driving’ Black woman who cheats the system and defrauds the American people.”9
Black People and the Police
For much of US history, law enforcement meant implementing laws designed to subjugate Black people and uphold white supremacy. The first slave patrols, created in the Carolinas in the 1700s, were made up of volunteer white men who hunted enslaved escapees and squashed rebellions led by enslaved people to free themselves. Such policing continued in southern states through the end of the Civil War.
Even after emancipation, southern plantation capitalism relied on cheap Black labor. So, although the 13th amendment technically freed some four million Black people in 1865, southern states swiftly implemented Black Codes—a combination of harsh vagrancy and contract laws—to keep Black people indentured. The police were responsible for enforcing these laws.
In 1868, the 14th amendment was ratified, and Black Codes were abolished, theoretically granting Black people equal protection. However, Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation quickly took their place. Black people were forbidden from living in predominately white neighborhoods. Theaters, restaurants, pools, and even water fountains were segregated. Black people who violated these rules risked violent interactions with police, resulting in unjust arrests, beatings, or death.
As Jim Crow evolved so too did the violent and lethal relationship between police and Black women. During slavery, hegemonic constructions of Black womanhood invisibilized Black women’s humanity, propagating stories that justified our rape and forced reproduction. Such stories alleged that Black women were “easy” and responded eagerly towards any sexual advance. During Jim Crow, the stereotype of the promiscuous Black woman converged with growing anxieties that promiscuous women destroyed families and communities. Increasingly, cities passed laws against public-disorder, including vagrancy and prostitution. In her book, The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification, Anne Gray Fischer argues that the police who enforced these laws targeted Black women, whom they viewed as both sexually deviant and likely to produce “a new generation of criminals.” According to Fischer, sexual policing—“the targeting and legal control of people’s bodies and presumed sexual activities10”—disproportionately impacted Black women, as did the “mass misdemeanor policing” that followed in its wake.11 In other words, by virtue of racist patriarchal narratives, Black women were hypervisible to police, with often violent results.
As the cases of Breonna Taylor, Tracy Gaeta, and Ma’Kiah Bryant reveal, today, when Black women interface with police, the outcomes are still violent—and sometimes fatal. According to reporting from the Washington Post, Black people are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, and Black women are fatally shot at rates higher than women of all other races. Since 2015, police have fatally shot 247 women. Of these women, 48 were Black, accounting for 20 percent of the women killed.12
Though pervasive, however, police violence against Black women—and to a more severe degree against Black transgender women—remains structurally hidden. This means that when you look at the most obvious places these stories and experiences should be documented and contended with—in the media and policy documents—they’re absent. This invisibility is a product of long-standing narratives that rupture empathy and compassion with Black women and exclude Black women from the public.
A Framework for Making the Visible Invisible
Narratives are part of the activist’s toolbox of symbolic resources, and indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement has changed many of the narratives around Black people, crime, and policing. The movement has embraced a framework of narrative power, whereby social movements take advantage of political opportunities to construct counter narratives that disrupt hegemonic thinking and expand collective perceptions of what is socially, economically, and politically possible. Narrative power goes beyond a cursory understanding of a problem, using symbolic resources—including ethical storytelling—to radically shape the rules and norms by which we live.
This type of analysis has its roots in Black feminism. A framework that insists on the simultaneous eradication of racism, sexism, and classism, Black feminism articulates Black women’s experiences where the feminist and civil rights movements failed to do so, making the invisible visible through intersectional analysis and storytelling. Indeed, Black feminism inspired intersectionality, the recognition that many of us hold concurrent identities that impact our lives. Today, Black feminism continues to expand as a framework, as organizers and thinkers like Charlene Carruthers build on it by making explicit the influence of queerness in the politic of reimaging society away from patriarchal sexism and anti-Black racism.13
The Black Lives Matter movement has followed in the footsteps of Black feminists. In a recent interview with Jacobin Radio, historian Donna Murch argues that through the use of symbolic resources, the Black Lives Matter movement delegitimized narratives of Black pathology that were used to justify the wars on poverty and drugs and the militarization of police in Black communities. In turn, the movement put the blame for Black suffering where it belongs—on the state—recasting Black pathology as “state-sanctioned violence,” which includes “any forms of harm produced, promoted, and/or institutionalized by the state to the detriment of Black women, their families and communities.” Through decentralized organizing, policymaking, electoral justice, a narrative power strategy, and other tactics, M4BL—an ecosystem of Black-led organizations—is using symbolic resources to reframe how we understand Black suffering in America and offer a vision for how to reduce it.
Increasingly, organizers and scholars are also intervening into the erasure of Black women and girls. One such intervention is the #SayHerName camping launched by the African American Policy Forum in 2014. #SayHerName is a symbolic resource that provides communities routinely excluded by mainstream media institutions with a platform from which to speak our truths and replace narratives that reflect a single subjective angle with those that include our voices, stories, and lived experiences.
BYP100’s She Safe We Safe is another campaign to put an end to violence against women, as well as gender non-conforming people. She Safe We Safe uses counternarratives to call for the reallocation of funding from the police to community-run programs that address gender-based violence in Black communities. In 2021, in collaboration with Times Up, me too international launched We, As Ourselves, a narrative power campaign to make visible the stories of Black survivors of sexual violence and to reshape the narrative around sexual violence and its impact on Black survivors. These are critical interventions by Black-led organizations—and we need more.
The humanity, freedom, and self-determination of Black women and girls are directly connected to the symbolic resources and power we have to define the problems we are working to solve. Who we collectively agree has the power to define both these problems and their solutions matters. In the next part of this series, I’ll explore the elements of the narrative power framework. In the third and final piece, imagining we’re in the near future, where what was once invisible is now common sense, I’ll explore how we use symbolic resources to reimagine public safety for Black women and girls.
- https://www.npr.org/2022/03/12/1086283433/police-officer-cleared-makhia-bryant-shooting; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/25/darren-wilson-testimony-ferguson-michael-brown
- Williams, R. H. (1995). “Constructing the Public Good: Social Movements and Cultural Resources,” Social Problems, 42.1, pp 122–124.
- Morris III, E. C. and Browne, H. S. (2013). Readings on the Rhetoric of Social Protest. State College, PA: Strata Publishing.
- Fischer, A. G. (2022). The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification. University of North Carolina Press.
- Carruthers, C. A. (2019). Unapologetic: A black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. Boston: Beacon Press.