Book Says Black Women Face More Violence Under ‘Prison Nation’

Black women in poor neighborhoods have faced increasing violence because public policy has focused on unconditional punishment, not prevention, according to a new book by a public policy expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Beth Richie, author of “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation” (New York University Press, 2012) directs UIC’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy.

Harsh sentencing since 2000, especially for drug trafficking, combines with gender dynamics in black neighborhoods to propel some women into violent relationships and crime, Richie says.

“I define the ‘male violence matrix’ as violence against women that has its roots in patriarchal arrangements, as well as by communities, institutions, and agencies organized around patriarchal power and male supremacy,” said Richie, who is professor of African American studies and gender and women’s studies at UIC.

Most political responses to the culture of punishment address its effect on men, Richie said.

“While the impact on men is clear, there are also significant ways that women experience the negative effects of the prison nation, especially those women who also experience gender violence.”

Richie states in her book that the anti-violence movement has compromised with conservative leaders for the sake of limited progress. She writes that feminists, racial justice advocates, and anti-violence activists have not responded to three incidents that she presents as case studies:

  • Repeated police brutality toward a middle-aged Chicago public housing activist, who won a settlement but said she never again felt safe.
  • An assault against four young lesbians in New York, who were imprisoned for defending themselves.
  • Infant abandonment by a Chicago teenager who had been raped at home and was afraid to contact police.

“Together, they represent thousands of women and the new level of disdain toward black women who are young, poor, queer, or living in vulnerable circumstances — groups that anti-violence programs typically ignore,” Richie said. “The more stigmatized their social position, the easier it is to victimize them.”

Richie urges the anti-violence movement to adopt “a critical black feminist approach” in which:

  • Anti-violence activists focus on black women’s everyday experience of “gender subordination, structural racism, class inequality, and pressure to conform to hetero-normative sexuality.”
  • State-sponsored solutions are among options that include intervention by community officials, faith leaders, activists and family members.
  • Crisis intervention is culturally competent, reflecting the norms, beliefs and practices of the community being served.
  • Grassroots activists mobilize around issues of youth disempowerment, sexuality, rebuilding the family, and reframing gender relations.
  • The anti-violence movement addresses globalization’s role in chronic unemployment, war-related violence, and sex trafficking.

“When America’s prison nation is understood to be the backdrop for male violence against black women, a new formulation of anti-violence politics will emerge,” Richie said.

She will read from and discuss the book Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Women & Children First bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago. For information, call (773) 769-9299.

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