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Opinion Police violence affects women of color just as much as men. Why don’t we hear about it?

Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old from Alexandria, Va. delivered a speech at the March for Our Lives rally in D.C. on March 24. (Video: Reuters)

“I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

In a day filled with stirring and powerful speeches, the one delivered by Naomi Wadler during Saturday’s March for Our Lives, the one that shined a spotlight on an ignored group of gun violence victims, rang loudest in my ears. That’s because the 11-year-old from Alexandria was an echo of Andrea J. Ritchie, author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.”


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Whereas Wadler talked about gun violence in general, Ritchie has been looking at the violent interactions between women of color and police. More to the point, Ritchie’s research is about showing that the police violence against African American men that has horrified and galvanized the nation impacts women of color just as much.

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“No matter how high the volume got on the conversation around police violence, we were still largely invisible,” Ritchie said about black women in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” Ritchie explained that one of the ways to shatter that invisibility is to take the data that we have on African American men and “look … where we’re already looking more intensely.”

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“If you analyze the stop-and-frisk data by both race and gender,” she pointed out, “you see identical rates of racial disparity among stops of women as you do among stops of men.” Stop-and-frisk is one of the strategies of “broken windows” policing, which puts an emphasis on minor crimes to prevent bigger ones. “One of the express targets of broken-windows policing is street-based prostitution,” Ritchie told me. As a result, Ritchie said, “black and brown women are routinely profiled as being engaged in prostitution-related offences.” She noted later in the interview that “85 percent of arrests for [loitering for the purposes of prostitution] were of black and brown women.”

Listen to the podcast to hear Ritchie discuss how the perception of African American women is part of how they get ensnared in the criminal-justice system. “Those perceptions of black women as animalistic, as overly strong, as menacing, as just not human, persist in the ways that police officers interact with them to this day,” Ritchie explained. “Police officers just punish black women for literally lifting their voice to ask a question because black women are perceived to have no right to do so. No right to insist on being treated with dignity.”

The 2015 case of Sandra Bland is a infamous example of “driving while black.” There’s also “walking while trans[gender],” Ritchie said: “No matter what they’re doing, they are read by police officers as being inherently engaged in prostitution.” And then there is the war on drugs.

“We can talk about giving birth while black,” Ritchie noted. “When black women give birth, they’re up to 10 times more likely to be, sometimes non-consensually, have their blood drawn, their umbilical cord blood drawn, and tested for drugs.” She also recounts a couple of cases in which women were forced to undergo vaginal searches by police. One was conducted in broad daylight at a gas station. Another was the result of a search warrant conducted during an early-morning raid. You read that right, a search warrant for a vagina.

“The notion that we’re getting equal justice in this country, as black women and women of color, is very fraught, particularly if we’re low-income, particularly if we’re perceived to be drug users, if we’re perceived to be in the sex trade, if we’re perceived to be bad mothers.” Ritchie told me. “There’s no guarantee that in the courts you’re going to find justice for black women in these situations.”

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.