The murder of Breonna Taylor exposes the dual forces of sexism and racism that obscure the pervasiveness of police violence against Black women and girls.
The killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have consumed our nation and brought a long-overdue reckoning over the lingering effects of systemic racism and racial bias in police killings. Yet, even as there is renewed energy around conversations about racial justice, the murder of Breonna Taylor has received less national attention, despite occurring under similarly dubious circumstances. CNN headlines have screamed about the “George Floyd protests” as thousands have taken to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd after watching former police officer Derek Chauvin place a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. After Arbery was killed on a jog, thousands used the hashtag #IrunwithMaud on May 8 to commemorate his 26th birthday.
Taylor’s death was not caught on camera. The police officers involved did not have their body cameras turned on when they stormed her apartment in the wee hours of the morning on a no-knock warrant. But there was no video footage of similarly galvanizing murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The public does not need a video to have empathy
and anger for the death of an unarmed African American man because, despite racial differences, the male is still the default in our patriarchal society. The dual forces of sexism and racism have combined to obscure the pervasiveness of police violence against Black women and girls.
The murders of unarmed African American men deserve attention, and their families deserve justice, but so do the families of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Korryn Gaines, Kathryn Johnston and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Conversations about police brutality and systemic racism must also include the stories and experiences of Black women.
In 2015, the African American Policy Forum launched the #SayHerName project to highlight the vulnerability and the unique experiences of Black women targeted by police violence. The report included the names and stories of African American women and girls who had been killed by the police. The report also noted, according to a Cato Institute study on police misconduct, “sexual misconduct was the second most common type of [police] misconduct reported.” African American women are subject to both excessive use of force and sexual assault. In 2014, Yvette Smith was killed by a Bastrop County police officer within three seconds of opening her door after calling the police to mediate a dispute between two men at her home. In 2016, Austinite Breaion King was violently dragged from her vehicle and thrown to the ground by a law enforcement officer who cited the “violent tendencies” of African Americans. The same year former Oklahoma City police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of sexually assaulting eight mostly poor African American women.
Racist and sexist attitudes affect perceptions of African American women and girls, which make it harder for them to be seen and understood as victims. Studies have shown African American girls are often seen as more adult than their white peers by all other races and genders. Black women are not afforded the traditional protections of femininity because we are perceived as the Angry Black Woman or the Strong Black Woman or as sexually promiscuous. These myths about our attitudes or sexuality or anger or strength often obscure violence against African American women and girls and make our suffering more permissive.
Despite our vocal advocacy for both civil rights and women’s rights, as neither white nor male, we are often left to bear the dual burdens of systemic racism and misogyny alone. Over the course of our country’s history, African American women have had to contend with both racism and sexism. Our country is much less familiar with the critical contributions of civil rights leaders like Ida B. Wells, Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm, Ella Baker and Daisy Bates. Feminist groups have marginalized us for our race and by some civil rights organizations for our sex. As Malcolm X once famously said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
Last month, the Louisville Metro Council passed Breonna’s Law, a law banning the use of no-knock warrants and requiring police officers to always activate their body cameras when executing warrants. It is a fitting tribute to a woman who spent her life saving lives that her life will save lives, but she deserves justice. The officers who killed her under dubious circumstances should be fired and arrested for her murder. Breonna Taylor was worthy of protection. Black women are worthy of protection. #BlackLivesMatter, so fight with us, too.