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Naming the Threat

The scourge of police violence targeting Black women

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

It’s not hard to completely miss something that exists in plain sight. To see is itself a process of precognition—matching up an anticipated picture of reality to what you observe in real time. If there is no precognition, no placeholder mental picture that deems the matter significant, then perception can be delayed—and indeed, in many cases, entirely denied. 

This is especially true as it pertains to social problems. For instance, when it comes to recognizing state violence against Black women and girls as a social problem, the sense is that “there is no there there,” even as evidence surrounds us in plain sight. It takes no great effort to unearth video proof and other firsthand accounts of incidents in which police officers attack and even kill Black women and girls. In one stream of footage, law enforcement officers are shown punching, handcuffing, or straddling Black girls in bikinis and school uniforms. Some are preteens; indeed, some are as young as seven. In other footage, there are montage-style shots of a highway patrolman pummeling a Black woman in the face with his fists as motorists speed by. You can also easily track down videos in which Black mothers sought police intervention in disputes with their neighbors, only to be thrown to the ground and handcuffed themselves, or in which a Black woman is placed in a choke hold for barbecuing on a sidewalk. Scores of other shots show police officers yanking Black women out of cars in routine traffic stops, or body-slamming or abusing them in response to a mental health crisis or after a woman demanded service in a restaurant. Then there are the ritual humiliations and abuses of Black women under police detention being paraded half-nude into booking offices, or hog-tied and dragged out of a police cruiser, or tased while handcuffed in a restraining chair. Most Black women who experience these painful and humiliating encounters with police survive. We know, unfortunately, that some, like Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna, and all too many others, do not.

Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell in 2015.
Waller County Sherrif’s Office/Getty

To bring the stories of Black women killed by police into the center of public debate, I founded SayHerName, a campaign that celebrated its fifth anniversary in December. Throughout that time, SayHerName has insisted that we begin to treat state violence against Black women as a fully legible social problem; its mission is as acute today as it was on the day that the demand arose during the massive protests against the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer in New York. In my own experience moving through activist circles in the years since the SayHerName campaign began, the names of women like Anderson, Bland, and McKenna have growing resonance. In late November, Senator Elizabeth Warren referenced SayHerName’s impact in a tweet calling for criminal justice reform and acknowledging Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, and Bland. It’s still regrettably the norm, however, for the media to overlook the root causes of this kind of violence. As a result, the debates we now conduct over race and police accountability still tend to crowd out the experience of Black women—and most dangerously, we also have contributed to the marginalization of the risks Black women confront within the very communities and families tasked, unfairly, with facing up to such risks. This crushing conspiracy of silence is itself a condition of Black women’s intersectional erasure and subordination. 

And that is why SayHerName is organized around a simple act of speech: It is a means of reclaiming the public sphere in the name of Black women harmed and killed by police violence. Amid the group’s grim annual task of updating the nationwide list of Black women killed by the police, I’ve often wondered whether it was remotely possible that any of these women were even aware that their lives were at risk.

It’s long been a sober tradition in Black families for parents to conduct what’s known as “the talk” with their male children—alerting them to the extreme, potentially life-threatening hazards of courting a confrontation in encounters with the police. The talk is a painful object study in what W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed the burden of “double consciousness” for African Americans—stressing the need for total social obsequiousness in the presence of white social power at the prospective cost of one’s own life.

Black girls and women are not conventionally viewed as compulsory recipients of the talk the way their male counterparts are. And they’re likewise less often schooled in the Du Boisian narrative that governs the internal war between seeing oneself through society’s eyes and seeing one’s self through one’s own. We thus reinscribe, in the missing debate over the Black female victims of police violence, a core patriarchal precept in the wider quest for racial justice: an understanding of the issue as a fundamental conflict between men—particularly over freedom, self-determination, and power.

The idea of “masculinity threat” has lately gained traction as a means of explaining the predisposition of some officers rather than others to resort to lethal violence. This schema suggests that the officers who are more likely to be involved in deadly force aren’t necessarily those who measure high on racial bias, but those whose conception of their own masculinity seems to be under pressure. But the theory of masculinity threat so far has yet to account for the ways in which Black women may be exceedingly vulnerable to it. The torrent of videos and other graphic depictions of police violence targeting Black women and girls clearly shows something salient at work that does involve the psychology of masculinity. But the widespread, ongoing failure to fully apprehend these episodes as expressions of illegitimate police power tends, at best, to consign the punishment of Black women to being a trickle-down effect of the repression of Black men. And at worst, this crucial oversight leaves intact a whole array of bad-faith and racist assumptions about such episodes arising all but exclusively as a consequence of Black women’s bad attitude and threatening behavior. 

In other words, we still desperately need to fully explain how the routine killing and abuse of Black women and girls at the hands of law enforcement occur at the toxic intersection of race and male supremacy. This nexus of unexamined power simultaneously gathers up Black women in the grasp of disciplinary impulses while also depriving them of the political and discursive tools to hold anyone accountable.

Foregrounding masculinity threat in the context of police encounters with Black women raises precisely the question of what kind of “threat” Black women are imagined to constitute. Or to put the dilemma in the familiar terms of the talk, what is it that Black women must see when they look at themselves through the eyes of the officers who might take their lives?

Sandra Bland’s encounter with former Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian Encinia over her “attitude” ended, ultimately, with her death in a jail cell three days later. Bland’s death might technically be classified as a suicide, but the fact remains that the tragedy was precipitated by a simple act of self-possession—her assertion that she had every right to continue smoking her cigarette in her own car during Encinia’s questionable traffic stop. Although the encounter lasted only seconds, the trigger for this deadly series of events was centuries in the making.

Those of us who believe that Sandra Bland would certainly be alive if she were white—after having done everything during that traffic stop that Bland did—have to theorize more directly about what in Encinia’s perception of her as a Black woman proved ultimately lethal to Bland. How was the simple fact of her status as a doubly suspicious Black woman able to trigger, facilitate, and bolster Encinia’s aggression against her? Once we can tell that story clearly, we will better understand how a Black woman may unexpectedly find herself—to take just one among countless and egregious examples of such risk—beaten and arrested by the very officers she’s called for protection. 

In debates over race and police violence, the go-to intervention is de-escalation. But the experiences of Black women with law enforcement suggest that policing toxic masculinity requires interventions that far surpass the typical ways in which police departments operate. At a minimum, one cannot train away the very conditions of racialized and gendered power that may draw some abusers to the police force in the first place. It is already known that officers with relatively high levels of concern about their masculinity are more likely to use severe force with Black— but not white — male suspects. Combined with the timeworn gender scripts about women’s presumed and compulsory deference to male power, the threats to Black women may be acute. Aaron Dean, Atatiana Jefferson’s killer, said during his 2017 Fort Worth Police Department job interview that he aspired to join the military but viewed police work as a “way to do some of those same things without having to deploy overseas.” He blithely noted in addition that he’d have “no problem” using lethal force on the job if necessary. 

It’s a tall order to expect de-escalation training alone to substantively counter a policing culture that rewards a job applicant who sees the vocations of soldier and cop as functionally cognate—as violent missions predicated on containing or wiping out hostile enemy populations. Dean’s comments during his job interview reveal that the “escalation” in question begins far in advance of specific police encounters with Black women. If white male cops feel empowered to enforce domestic laws using the same tactics and approach that soldiers use to fight wars, a few hours’ worth of training that stresses restraint in the field isn’t going to be any sort of prelude to a lasting peace.