Black Women Leading the Fight for Police and Criminal Justice Reform

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Deidra Reese

Ohio Unity Coalition

The fight for criminal justice reform has been ongoing in the United States of America since the first enslaved African made the attempt to escape to freedom. With the establishment of slave patrols to seek out those who sought freedom, the idea of “what is justice?” began to take root in America.

Black women have always been key to the fight for criminal justice reform in the United States, standing up and speaking out at risk of their own freedom, like Angela Davis or others, there have always been black women. But what has also always been present is the struggle between the fight to save ourselves as a Black person or the struggle to save ourselves as women because the systems and structures set things up to create the conflict. As we moved into the modern age this became more prevalent and led to the field of research of intersectionality by Kimberle’ Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, known as the godmother of Critical Race Theory, was also one of the first to force the narrative regarding the over policing of Black Girls and Women. Her groundbreaking 2016 report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected provided empirical data about the disparities in punishment against black girls versus white girls and showed that the disparity for black girls was greater than even that of black boys versus white boys.  Crenshaw simultaneously produced Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women  which provides perspective on  gender specific police brutality against Black women. 

Often the names and faces of Black men are known and easily recognized for having been victims of unfair policing, as victims of police brutality, or as having been unfairly persecuted and imprisoned. We can call the names of so many going back to pre-civil rights to current day. Unfortunately calling the names of Black women who have experienced the exact same fate is a harder challenge with few exceptions.

Say Her Name, was an important book, but also became an important movement and rallying cry of scholars like Crenshaw and others to force the inclusion of the names, faces and voices of Black women, women of color and trans-women in the narrative regarding police brutality.  All too often there were high profile incidents occurring that brought significant outcry and demands for reform, but they focused on men or boys. Professors such as Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow, Andrea J. Ritchie, who co-authored Say Her Name ,  and Dr. Carla Miller- Coats, who  in  2020 brought together a multidisciplinary group of scholars to provide a panoramic view of current issues affecting women in various stages of the criminal justice in Women, Minorities, and Criminal Justice, are at the point of leading contemporary research into this much needed realm.   These Black women have researched extensively on the issues surrounding criminal justice and its impact on African American women in particular and how greater attention needs to be paid to detail the experiences and perspective of Black women in policy and the public narrative around criminal justice reform. These women have studied extensively and provide empirical data regarding disparities in arrests, as well as sentencing of African American women in our criminal justice systems across the United States. They have also provided information regarding the lack of attention paid to the specific intersections of gender, sexual orientation and race as we grapple with the disparities that exist in our criminal justice system because of racial bias.

The need to expand the conversation and engage policymakers and opinion shapers is critical if we are ever to have true reform. Historically, it has always been black women who have been critical in the struggles for reform and freedom of our people. We know the names of people like Fannie Lou Hammer, Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm, and Sojourner Truth.  However many of us don’t know the true story of their contributions to all of the efforts for justice and freedom in America. Often, they were forced to take a back seat, or allow others to receive the credit and accolades for the work that they put forward. This dynamic is not new or particularly unique as many African American women will attest in their own personal experiences. But this dynamic is very similar to what is experienced in the fight for freedom as it relates to civil rights reform. Unless we are deliberate about looking at what happens to African American women in the criminal justice system from their initial contact to the very end of their engagement upon full release, we will never be able to adequately address what changes need to be made.