If Mike Brown was Michelle Brown: Engendering the Fight for Racial Justice

A vision of racial justice that is genuine and viable . . . has to do this across gender and across race.

 -Luke Harris, Professor of Political Science at Vassar College and Co-founder of the African American Policy Forum

In the wake of Ferguson critical race theorists and feminists have begun to decentralize the “endangered Black man” trope. The intent here is to bring to the discourse notions of Black women and other Women of Color, who have so often been marginalized in this discourse, to the forefront of the conversation. A prominent example is the way in which the My Brother’s Keeper initiative has disregarded female communities of Color, which has garnered the Obama administration’s program many negative responses. The underlying point is that these institution-based efforts aimed at eradicating racial underperformance wind up perpetuating social inequalities, and further oppress Women of Color by focusing on their male counterparts.

What if Mike Brown was Michelle Brown? Odds are we wouldn’t know who she was, and it’s doubtful that the political uprising in Ferguson would have gathered the sociopolitical capital it has now.

In order to bring these issues to light, the African American Policy Forum [AAPF] sponsored a conference at Columbia University School of Law this past Saturday entitled “In Plain Sight: Towards Engendering the Fight for Racial Justice in the 21st Century.” The conference featured renowned scholars in various social justice realms: Luke Harris, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kiese Laymon, Nimmi Gorenthnana, Surita Patel, Cherelle Brown, Donna Hylton, Brittney Cooper, Kristie and Terry Dotson, Lisa Brunner and Nakisha Lewis, to name a few. All of whom spoke to the multifaceted nature of the problems that plague Women of Color due to the global patriarchal narrative. Through multiple panel-based discussions, the commissioners and testifiers offered alternative political perspectives through which to view hardships within female communities of Color.

The contexts that influenced the panelists’ testimonies were not only intellectual, but also deeply personal. These testimonies came from both men and women, making noticeable that these issues were not only pertinent to female bodies. Men of Color came through hard in advocating the necessity of a focus on these problems because debunking male narratives is crucial to the progression of PoC in general. The panelists’ concerns spanned a variety of topics, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, child care, poverty, foster care, revictimization of abused women, mass incarceration, mass deportation, immigration and more. The multitude of topics covered served as a necessary insight into the true political fallibility of the conversations surrounding Women of Color that are within plain sight yet go unnoticed. The fallibility of these conversations can be seen within various attempts at discussing issue PoC face. In particular, the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative highlights the inherently patriarchal stance taken in considering any difficulties that plague Women of Color.

The My Brother’s Keeper initiative was launched by the Obama administration in February of this year. The program claims to “ensure that all youth, including boys and young men of color, have opportunities to improve their life outcomes and overcome barriers to success.” The initiative has been generally perceived as a racial justice program. That is, a majority of Americans – including Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly – have embraced MBK as praiseworthy.

MBK purports to focus on “all youth.” However, as Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, suggested, MBK employs a narrow focus of funding aimed largely and specifically at young boys and men of Color. After President Obama issued a memorandum asking federal agencies to gather data on men and boys of Color, the Obama administration used this “data” to validate the specific focus of the initiative on them.

Anthony Choquette, Class of 2017, at the 'In Plain Sight: Towards Engendering the Fight for Racial Justice in the 21st Century' panel

Anthony Choquette, Class of 2017, at the ‘In Plain Sight: Towards Engendering the Fight for Racial Justice in the 21st Century’ panel

The memorandum ended up collecting 114 data sets that they claimed demonstrated boys and men of Color were in need of particular funding. 89 of these were not conclusive in suggesting that men of Color had it worse than Women of Color. This means that conclusions like ‘men of Color live in dangerous neighborhoods’ were invoked, implying that men of Color are the only PoC living in dangerous neighborhoods. However, in a highly segregated society that groups PoC together and away from white people, men and Women of Color often live within the same neighborhoods. This means only 25 of the 114 sets of data are potentially applicable to only men of Color. 11 of these 25 make no differentiation in gender, and compare men of Color to white men, excluding any comparative data between men and Women of Color. Of the remaining 14 potentially male-based data sets, 6 do not prove that boys of Color are worse off than their female counterparts. So, only 8 data sets truly imply that men of Color are worse-off than Women of Color. Unsurprisingly, these all focus on issues of murder, gun violence, gang involvement, etc. This “evidence” is highly inconclusive and does not warrant the specific attention paid to men of Color in the funding of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

MBK has been utilized by mayors of towns where violence against Black boys in particular has garnered national attention. Recently, the mayor of Ferguson, MO has accepted the MBK initiative. This centralizes the narrative of men of Color and their struggles, although some of the most involved participants combatting police brutality in Ferguson are women.

Two of these women are Ashley Yates and Johnetta Elize,who have been front-line activists in Ferguson, MO following the shooting of Mike Brown. They were 2 of the Ferguson 13, and have been deeply involved in protests on police brutality, sat in and participated in dialogues of the threat police pose to PoC, and Elize has even been shot with rubber bullets in her efforts to stop racial injustice via the hands of militarized police. Yet somehow their names are not in mainstream media, and they have been excluded from much of the conversations about police brutality that Black men are participating in. The approval of men was necessary for Yates or Elize to even get access to these spaces, implying that their voices were only needed when at the disposal of men.

Unfortunately, Yates makes it clear that women have consistently been used as props in Ferguson. A majority of the protesters are Black females, a majority of those arrested and harmed have been Black females, yet these Black female voices are silenced by the Black male-centered conversation surrounding Ferguson. This silencing has been conventional in American race discourse, and programs like MBK only further it. As Yates so eloquently put it, “the oppressor is not going to tell your story.” This is why no one has told us the stories of Rekia Boyd or Marissa Alexander, women that have fallen victim to the patriarchal systems I have been discussing..

Rekia Boyd’s brother, Martinez Sutton, was present at Columbia University Law School and offered an emotional testimony on his experience losing his beloved, strong sister. He “didn’t want to view it as a racial issue” but after following events concerning the violence against women after Rekia’s death he had no other conclusion to draw. Sutton received no apologies, no support, no anything for the devastating loss he and his family experienced. A white woman who’d gone to buy drugs in the projects and was thrown from a window received compensation from the city, as well asan apology from the police department. An Asian women who’d been beaten badly by the police received an apologetic letter from the mayor. A woman’s dog got shot by the police- the officer responsible was immediately fired ,and the dog’s owner received compensation and an apology. But Rekia and her family received nothing besides an apathetic “sorry” from the police officer who notified Sutton his baby sister had been shot.

Marissa Alexander also had someone advocating for her at the conference in Aleta Alston-Toure. Alston-Toure discusses the underrepresentation of over policed Black female bodies, particularly as pertains to the case of Marissa Alexander. Alston-Toure cleverly brings up the sad fact that, although Black female bodies are over policed, they cannot expect protection from law enforcement agencies or the court. In Marissa’s case, the Stand Your Ground law, which was invoked to justify the killing of Trayvon Martin, is not being used to defend her right to self defense in an instance where it is almost inarguably appropriate to do so.

Fortunately, these Women of Color have individuals who are dedicated to telling their stories. In a society where such events happen daily, bringing them to the table is important for us to develop the understanding that Women of Color are not better off than men of Color. Luke Harris, a professor of political science at Vassar College, articulates this perfectly: these shortcomings [the over-policing, silencing, underrepresentation of Women of Color, etc.] are predicated on the fabricated notion that Women of Color are far better off than their male counterparts.

If this assumption were true, would the average Black women accrue a wealth roughly 1/42 of what her male counterpart did? Would Native American Women on reservations be 2 times more likely to be either raped, murdered, or stalked than women of any other race? Would 25% of women who attend Bennett College, an all-women’s historically Black College, have identified as homeless at one point in their lives? All of these examples serve to dispel the notion that Women of Color are ‘fine.’

In short, Blackness is not simple. Nakisha Lewis points out that one of the failures of our [the Black] community is that we do not recognize the complexities of Blackness. These complexities are exemplified by the intersectional relationships within layers of oppression – i.e. class, race, gender, disability status. These all contribute to the problematic nature of discussing race and gender, particularly when in reference to Black women and other Women of Color, through an essentialized lens. In our predominantly white, neoliberal society, however, we have come to understand issues without an acknowledgement of the multifaceted nature of Blackness. Unless we begin to integrate Women of Color into the race discourse in the U.S., their voices will remain silent. Once heard, the voices of Women of Color will emerge into the mainstream race discourse. Even if the idealized framework isn’t entirely known yet, if conferences like the AAPF’s “In Plain Sight” continue to occur and garner attention, the framework will inevitably become visible.

Watch the entire conference here: http://www.livestream.com/aapf2014


  • crackerme_crackermenot says:

    What if Mike Brown was Michelle Brown? He wasn’t. Nor was he Michele Garcia. There is no need for hypotheticals that undermine the statistically proven fact that Black men are more at risk from police murder (and more severe consequences by the criminal justice system overall) than their female counterparts and their ethnic counterparts. These are the FACTS. Your marginalization of the very real increased threat that Black males face undermines the entire legacy of U.S. Black resistance and struggle for equality and attempts to replace it with a pan-gender, pan-cultural, pan-sexual coalition rooted in white “progressive” ideals that legitimizes the politicized competition for “equal attention” from the white power structure, without dismantling white privilege (male and female). That is not Black Freedom or Equality, rather it is sleeping with the enemy. Heal yourself.

  • Anonymous says:

    “What if Mike Brown was Michelle Brown? Odds are we wouldn’t know who she was, and it’s doubtful that the political uprising in Ferguson would have gathered the sociopolitical capital it has now.”

    You state this at the beginning of the article, yet nowhere in the article do you provide any evidence whatsoever for this claim. I understand the link you are trying to establish between a lack of attention towards the issues experienced by women of color and some sort of systematic neglect towards these women on the part of the government.

    However, by attacking initiatives such as My Brother’s Keeper, you undermine any progress at all that is being made. I completely understand that MBK may not address the problems faced by women of color. Regardless, there is absolutely no need to tear apart a program that has potential of helping anybody. You have no right to blast a program that may help some people, just because it may not help everyone. This is akin to proposing the complete dismantling of Medicare and Medicaid simply because the occasional person slips through the cracks.

    In addition, please, for the sake of the progress you claim to desire, stop using angry rhetoric to advocate for important change. It undermines your effort and alienates the overwhelming majority of people on this campus and in this country. If you want real change, change the discourse. An enormous obstacle to progress is the lack of a civil discourse. While this does include Sean Hannity calling all Muslims terrorists, it also includes people like the authors of this article and editors of this magazine verbally destroying a program that, as you say, has been supported by people from Al Sharpton to Bill O’Reilly.

    Please. Be realistic. And don’t aim for a pure nothingness over an impure something.

    Also, I would love to have either of the authors or editors or anybody else respond to this post. My email is anonymous.va@aol.com.


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