This article, questioning whether paying attention to black men and boys harms black women and girls, really made me angry. While I believe Brittney Cooper, the author, has the best of intentions, the whole piece is infected with feminist ideologies and Brittney seems genuinely clueless as to the real state of affairs when it comes to black women: they are little more than slaves.
I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like to be a black woman, because obviously, I don’t.
But I do know what it’s like to be a white woman, and choosing not to exploit my right to abuse black women doesn’t mean I’m blind to the fact the choice exists.
Here is Brittney’s article with my responses:
Two African-American girls live in the White House. But Malia and Sasha Obama’s presence there, in a traditional two-parent home, alongside their highly accomplished mother and their devoted grandmother, feeds a dangerous and false narrative about the progress of African-American girls and women. Though President Obama has been able to provide this kind of life for his daughters, he seems oblivious to all the ways in which Malia and Sasha’s educational and economic trajectory, even prior to coming to the White House, looks in no way similar to that of the masses of African-American girls.
That’s right, Brittney. Sasha and Malia Obama are rich and you are not. Very few black children of either gender are rich. Don’t forget though that those girls will always be black first and rich second.
That’s racism, and there’s a reason for it.
Like many African-American men, the president has bought into the narrative about the problems of absentee black fathers and about the potential danger and destructiveness of fatherless black sons. Donning the role of father-in-chief for back people last week, the president announced his new My Brother’s Keeper initiative, designed to address and ameliorate issues of low achievement and lack of mentoring for young black and brown men.
You thinks that’s a narrative that needs to be bought into? Are you crazy? It’s not a narrative, sweetheart. It’s reality. I can understand your dislike of the idea that young black men are innately dangerous and destructive but you need to separate a racist cultural trope from the stark truth that all children, no matter what their skin color, need their fathers and suffer deeply from their absence.
Those are two different things.
I am ambivalent about My Brother’s Keeper. Yes, by almost every social measure, African-American men, and boys in particular, fall behind at alarming rates. They are suspended from school the most, incarcerated the most, have the highest rates of unemployment, commit disproportionate amounts of violent crime, and have some of the lowest high school and college graduation rates. Frequently their encounters with law enforcement and white male authority figures end with black men dead.
You can be ambivalent about that one particular initiative. Fair enough. But read the rest of your paragraph again. All those problems are linked to the absence of a father. The children of single mothers everywhere are more prone to social problems. A lot of that grows out of grinding poverty, which is far more likely when children do not have two committed parents raising them.
Even living near single mothers causes problems for otherwise stable communities.
Of all the factors most predictive of economic mobility in America, one factor clearly stands out in their study: family structure. By their reckoning, when it comes to mobility, “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.” They find that children raised in communities with high percentages of single mothers are significantly less likely to experience absolute and relative mobility. Moreover, “[c]hildren of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.” In other words, as the figure below indicates, it looks like a married village is more likely to raise the economic prospects of a poor child.
These are alarming times. Times that would make Ida B. Wells weep. Over these many months, as I have watched the failure to convict both Trayvon Martin’s and Jordan Davis’ killers, I have worried. Worried because I know that when African-American boys are being killed with impunity by white people this triggers every kind of deeply held race trauma that African-Americans have. We circle the wagons. We fight fiercely to protect our beloved boys. We demand their right to grow into men. And we should.
I agree. You should fight to protect your men and boys. Your interests as women are deeply, irrevocably tied to the interests of the men in your community.
The thing is: This “we” is mostly African-American women – doing the fighting, the organizing, the praying, the rearing, the fussing, the protecting, the loving. And the losing. Black women have been their brothers’ biggest and best keepers.
You may fight for your sons but how many of you fight for your husbands? It’s not a trite question. The lack of marriage in the black community is a direct contributing factor to entrenched, almost unbreakable poverty. It’s hardly the only factor, but it is the one you can most easily control.
There are powerful economic and cultural factors working to make sure the black community stays fractured and easily exploitable.
Stick with me here and I’ll explain what I mean.
But when black men occupy space at the center of the discourse, black women lose critical ground. I wish these struggles did not feel like zero sum struggles. I wish that black men — Barack Obama included — had the kind of social analysis that saw our struggles as deeply intertwined.
Aside from Barack Obama, which black men are at the center of the discourse? All the ones suspended from school? The ones with no marketable education or skills? The ones in jail? The ones with felony convictions who are disenfranchised? The ones struggling to pay child support working shitty jobs for little money and no benefits? The homeless ones? The returned veterans suffering from PTSD and committing suicide at alarming rates?
Look around you. There are very few black men who wield real power. They are barely on the margins of discourse, never mind occupying the center. Where do you get this idea that black men occupy space at the center of the discourse? It certainly isn’t from your lived reality. Unless you last name is Obama, of course.
According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are suspended at a higher rate than all other girls and white and Latino boys. Sixty-seven percent of black girls reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness for more than two weeks straight compared to 31 percent of white girls and 40 percent of Latinas. Single black women have the lowest net wealth of any group, with research showing a median wealth of $100. Single black men by contrast have an average net wealth of $7,900 and single white women have an average net wealth of $41,500. Fifty-five percent of black women (and black men) have never been married, compared to 34 percent for white women.
Here is the ugly harsh truth, Brittney: black women are little more than slaves.
Your role in contemporary, liberal, feminist society is to do all the shit work rich white women think beneath them. Someone still has to raise the children, change dirty diapers, wipe snotty noses, cut up apples so no one chokes. Someone has to clean house and fetch dry-cleaning and pick the kids up from school. Someone has to wash dishes and do laundry and scrub the toilet.
Guess who that someone is?
Those well to do white ladies with $40 000? That money has been stolen from black women in the form of third world wages paid for domestic labor. White women have no interest in paying fair wages or offering benefits to the mostly black and Hispanic women they hire to raise their children and clean their houses and provide their husbands with sexual services. What would the net worth of those groups look like if white women had to pay a living wage to their nanny or housekeeper?
Rich white women have a deeply vested interest in making certain that the black community remains fractured. Why do you think they gerrymander their school districts to keep black children in inferior, underfunded schools while their own children go to state of the art institutions built with the money they have stolen from black women?
This situation is dire at every level. But perhaps the most troubling thing of all: The report indicates that while over 100 million philanthropic dollars have been spent in the last decade creating mentoring and educational initiatives for black and brown boys, less than a million dollars has been given to the study of black and brown girls!
And you think that’s just an oversight? Oh, oopsy, we forgot to study the girls?
Wake up, lady. You are slaves. One does not raise the consciousness of slaves.
Several years ago, in line with the rise of the field of Girls Studies in academe, a group of students asked me to teach a course on Black Girls Studies. The number of books and scholarly articles barely added up to enough for a full course syllabus.
I’m surprised there was even that much material. Who in the academy is producing the research? Are your white colleagues even a tiny bit interested in black girls? And how many of them are paying slave wages to black girls to raise their white children and clean their sparkling white toilets?
No mass movements to address the social plight of African-American women will ever happen because there is not enough collective knowledge about us to be alarmed. And in fact, this failure to study and ascertain the actual social condition of black women is a centuries-old problem.
No mass movement will ever happen because you are relying on your masters to kickstart it. White women will never, ever give up their slaves willingly. Not a chance. Their ability to build their own wealth through labor force participation requires a constant source of disorganized, easily exploited human capital to perform domestic labor and all the other really shitty jobs white women are far too precious to consider doing themselves.
In 1893, Fannie Barrier Williams lamented before the Chicago World’s Fair: “Less is known of our women than of any other class of Americans.” There were “no organizations of far-reaching influence for their special advancement, no conventions of women to take note of their progress, and no special literature reciting the incidents, the events, and all things interesting and instructive concerning them.” Moreover, “separate facts and figures relative to colored women are not easily obtainable,” she told the crowd.
That’s not an accident, honey. It’s a requirement. In order for white women to continue to surreptitiously enslave black women, black women must be kept totally ignorant of their own situations.
It’s the Matrix, and you are the batteries.
Black women remain caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of hyperinvisibility and invisibility. Everyone thinks that they know everything there is to know about us, but based on facts alone, very little is actually known. And what we don’t know can hurt us – is hurting us. What we fail to acknowledge is that images of black and brown women drive a startlingly large amount of social policy. Disdain toward supposedly irresponsible black and brown women – welfare queens as those on the right derisively call them – is at the heart of the right’s continued unfeeling push toward austerity. This same disdain toward disproportionately black and brown female wage laborers undoubtedly informs the national resistance to raising the minimum wage. Images of “dastardly” brown women crossing our borders illegally in order to drop anchor babies drives immigration policy.
It’s not disdain. It’s brutal economic reality. Our labor force cannot function without a class of slaves. Someone needs to do the shit work, for as little money as possible. Single black mothers face starvation level “benefits” or starvation level wages to do that shit work.
And the exceptionalism of Michelle Obama and her daughters frankly doesn’t help matters. Black women themselves become complicit in this pushing of ourselves to the background, marshaled there by our mythic belief in our own strength, our unresolved traumas over fathers who failed to meet expectations, our self-sacrificial love for black men, and our deep desires to respectably conform to the American nuclear ideal. Michelle Obama makes many black women long for this return to tradition.
And so you should. Guess who is the most likely to get married and stay married? College educated, rich white women. Guess who is most likely to enjoy the health and happiness and benefits of marriage? Rich white women. The more educated and affluent the woman, the more easily she can see that a stable, long-term relationship with a man is in her best interest overall. She raises her sons and daughters to realize the same truth.
There are no easy answers here. Black and brown men’s needs and lives matter. And I’m glad we have a president sensitive to those needs. But as Mychal Denzel Smith argued, “The path to equality for Black and Brown people [cannot be] to uphold patriarchy.” And as Dani McClain argues, it seems that women and girls simply have no place in this new set of initiatives. Beyond the problems of using personal responsibility and philanthropy as models to solve a deeply systemic set of social problems, the failure to imagine the struggles of men and women of color as linked together is perhaps the most short-sighted aspect of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
There is no failure to imagine the struggles of black men and women are linked. You are just profoundly misunderstanding the linkages. Black men are hounded from schools that do not capture their talents, interests or abilities. They are thrown into a labor market that offers few opportunities and incarcerated at phenomenal rates to make labor force participation even more difficult. The broader culture both vilifies and exploits them, encouraging fractured families and single parenthood. That leaves black women holding the bag, raising children alone with few choices but to perform the labor white women need.
For there is no saving black and brown men without the labor and love of black and brown women. Yet surely, we have come far enough to imagine liberation strategies that don’t require men of color to tread over “this bridge call our backs.” While we, women of color, are doing the heavy lifting to keep our communities functional and intact, the question remains, “Who will lift us?” Who will fight for us?
Now there is the right question. Who will fight for you? It’s not white folks. Certainly not white women: they need you.
You know who will fight for you?
It’s the same group of people who always do the fighting. Who always put their lives on the line to protect their communities. Who risk everything to protect those they love.
The black community is no different than any other community. If you put the needs of men and boys at the very forefront of every social justice project you undertake, at the center of all your discourse, at the very heart of your community, you stand a chance. You will face dire opposition from a larger culture that can’t function without the slave labor of black women. The pressures on black men to abandon their children will intensify, up to and including even greater rates of incarceration and disenfranchisement. The glorification of violence and criminality will intensify. The gentrification of neighborhoods and segregation of school districts will intensify. The more the black community works to elevate men specifically, the more strenuously white culture will intervene to prevent that from happening.
It’s not black men walking across “this bridge called your backs”. It’s white women. When you embrace feminist ideas like “the patriarchy” and “equality”, you play right into their hands. Black men are not your enemy.
They are your hope.
Your only hope.
Isn’t it time white women scrubbed their own fucking toilets?
Lots of love,