Unequal anger in abortion debate

Courtland Milloy
Columnist March 13, 2012

Any day now, a billboard could appear on a busy city street in the Washington area featuring a large photograph of an adorable yet pensive looking black girl standing beneath these words:

“The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”

Such billboards, part of a national antiabortion campaign, have already appeared in Atlanta and New York, and similar ones are expected to go up in other cities this year. The stated purpose is to bring attention to the disproportionately high rates of abortion among black women. But the real intent is to shame the black woman, single her out by race and cast her body as the personification of sin and death.

Do white women know how it feels to be attacked like that?

In response to a column I wrote Monday about the iconic white woman and perceptions of her as she takes center stage in the fight over reproductive rights, many readers argued that race was irrelevant.

One wrote: “Women of all colors are equally angry because things thought settled 30 years ago are being threatened and the real issues, the issues that wake EVERYONE up at 3 a.m., are not being addressed.”

That view, widely shared, highlights part of the reason that race still matters. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion. But, as the billboard campaign reminds us, the conservative effort now underway to overturn the court’s decision is not just being waged on women’s reproductive rights, but on the black woman as a person.

Do white women recognize the difference?

“When you add racism to sexism, oppression manifests itself differently,” said Paris Hatcher, executive director of an Atlanta-based women’s advocacy group called SPARK Reproductive Justice Now. “In this country, it’s okay to shame and blame the black woman, to pathologize and criminalize her behavior. Black women become the nannies, the mammies, the Jezebels.”

There are an estimated 123 million white women in the United States, and roughly 16.4 million of them live in poverty, according to the census. Of 20.7 million black women, almost 6.6 million live in poverty. The poverty numbers for both groups are awful, although the consequences of poverty and sexism increase exponentially when racism also is a factor.

Used as a political ploy, racism against black women also scars white women. The so-called black “welfare queen,” for instance, was a racist myth that gained currency during President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s. The sole purpose was to divert attention from the feminization of poverty in America.

Meanwhile, the criminalization of the black woman serves to legitimize a sharp increase in the numbers of black women being incarcerated and the indignities they face behind bars.

Testifying in February before the Georgia legislature, Ashley McCray, who is black, described what it was like being pregnant in the Cobb County jail — and giving birth while shackled.

After removing the chains that had been tightly wrapped around her swollen ankles and stomach— and leaving one wrist shackled to her bed — McCray was pressured to give birth. “Giving birth is painful enough on its own, but to tie me down to do it is torture,” said McCray, who spent seven years in jail after being convicted of embezzling from an employer.

She had come to Georgia with two children after fleeing Hurricane Katrina and found herself desperate for money not long after.

When the labor took longer than the time allotted for inmates to give birth, “they forced me to have a C-section,” she said, referring to the surgical delivery of a baby by cutting open the mother’s abdomen.

McCray was testifying in support of a bill that would ban the shackling of pregnant inmates in Georgia, but the measure died in committee. (A similar bill passed in the Florida legislature last week, ending the practice in that state.)

Because the attack on the black woman’s body is so pervasive and, historically, so persistent, black women are expanding the womb-centered debate over abortion and birth control to one of “reproductive justice.” This includes a pro-choice stance on abortion and the embrace of a “pro-life” outlook, but with a twist that distinguishes them from, say, Life Dynamics, the antiabortion group that’s putting up those billboards.

“When we say ‘pro-life,’ we mean the whole life, where conditions underlying the abortion rate are addressed,” said Jasmine Burnett, lead organizer for Sister Song, an activist group in New York, as well as chairman of the mobilizing committee for Trust Black Women, a national coalition of black women’s rights organizations. “Those other pro-life groups ought to change their name because as soon as a black child is born, they stop caring about the life of the child.”

In this battle over women’s rights, the black woman and white woman have much in common. But race cannot be brushed off as a distinction without a difference.

All anger is not equal.

To read Courtland Milloy’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
milloy.

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