Monday, February 23, 2009

What the Black Community Can Learn From A Tragic and Senseless Death

I am still in shock about the death of a former student, Tiana Notice. Only 25, Tiana was a bright, talented, articulate, and highly motivated student who was making a difference in the world.

Tiana had done a lot in her short time with us. She earned a bachelor’s degree in politics and government in 2007, and was pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Communication. While pursing her bachelor’s degree, she almost singlehandedly founded the University of Hartford chapter of the Roosevelt Institution, a national network of student think-tanks that conduct policy research on pressing issues.

Tiana was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, James Carter II.

Tiana did what was expected of victims of intimate partner violence (IPV); she got a restraining order. However, that did not stop her ex-boyfriend from stalking and harassing her and finally on Valentine’s Day, stabbing her to death.

When I first heard about her death, I wondered how someone with the smarts and abilities of Tiana could end up in an abusive relationship that would eventually lead to her death. Her passing has made me think and read a lot about the problem of domestic violence.

Domestic violence in black communities, I found, is far worse than I ever imagined.

(While all that I write below may not apply to Tiana’s specific situation, my hope is that the analysis I provide will move my readers to try to do more about the problem of domestic violence.)

Although intimate partner homicides among blacks have declined sharply in the last 30 years, according to the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community (IDVAAC) at the University of Minnesota, homicide by domestic partners is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 15 and 45.

The data on domestic violence in the black community should be more widely known. Blacks are disproportionately represented among perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. An IDVAAC factsheet presents some very disturbing trends on domestic violence, especially intimate partner violence:

  • In a nationally representative survey conducted in 1996, 29% of black women and 12% of black men reported at least one instance of violence from an intimate partner.
  • Blacks account for a disproportionate number of intimate partner homicides. In 2005, blacks accounted for almost 1/3 of the intimate partner homicides in this country.
  • Black women comprise 8% of the U.S. population but in 2005 accounted for 22% of the intimate partner homicide victims and 42% of all female victims of intimate partner homicide.
  • Black women experience intimate partner violence at rates 35% higher than their white counterparts and 2.5 times the rate of men and other races.

Addressing these problems writes the editors of a special issue on domestic violence in the black community in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma (Vol. 16(3) #49, 2008), will require “efforts that seek to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and situational context in which domestic violence occurs among African Americans.”

Domestic violence among blacks is strongly associated with such factors as concentrated poverty and high levels of unemployment. Specifically, intimate partner violence occurs more frequently in families with very low incomes, those in which the male partner is unemployed and not looking for work, and among couples that live in neighborhoods in which a majority of the residents are poor, regardless of the couple’s income.

Further complicating the situation is the problem of patriarchy. In the United States, the use of violence as a legitimate way to dominate and control is a part of patriarchal manhood.

What is the connection between domestic violence in the black community, assertions of patriarchal masculinity, and social and economic context?

The shift from a manufacturing to a technological and service-based society has left many black men behind, at great risk of becoming marginalized and obsolete. In this context, oppressive structures, practices, and conditions are creating stresses and pressures that lead to frustrations and ultimately patriarchal violence as a way to adopt to this frustration.

Social and cultural critic, bell hooks, succinctly captures this point in her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity: “If black males are socialized from birth to embrace the notion that their manhood will be determined by whether or not they can dominate and control others and yet the political system they live within (imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy) prevents most of them from having access to socially acceptable positions of power and dominance, then they will claim their patriarchal manhood, through socially unacceptable channels.”

None of this, of course, should be interpreted as an excuse for black men who batter and/or murder their partners. Pointing out the connections between domestic violence and social and economic disadvantages does not excuse the abuser. There are plenty of black men living in impoverished communities who do not become abusers.

Without a doubt, James Carter II should go to jail for this horrible and senseless crime.

And, men, particularly black men, must accept responsibility for their own actions.

At the same time, there needs to be a holistic approach to combat the problem of domestic violence in the black community. In addition to personal agency on the part of black men, there must be initiatives (designed by churches and other indigenous institutions) in the black community designed to help black men resist patriarchal violence. Also, we must all do more to speak out against domestic violence. And last, to break the cycle of violence, more must be done to break up concentrated poverty, create sustainable employment, and guarantee access to high quality education.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Call For A New Black Politics

Commentators on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum have been suggesting in their writings that the election of Barack Obama points to the end of black politics and that America has now become a post-racial society.

Without a doubt, the election of the son of an African immigrant and a white woman from Kansas is a monumental step forward for America.

But, America is not a society free of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of exploitation and oppression. For the descendants of those who survived centuries of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation, the journey is incomplete.

Black (and brown) communities across America face a litany of social problems, including poverty, unemployment, inadequate access to quality housing and healthcare, rape, HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and intraracial violence just to name a few.

  • According to “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression,” the sixth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day report from United for a Fair Economy (UFE), although the black unemployment rate is currently 11.9 percent, among young black males age 16-19, unemployment is 32.8 percent.
  • A factsheet produced by the Women of Color Network shows that for every black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 black women do not report theirs. The National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) found that 18.8% of African American women reported rape in their lifetime.
  • A study by The Violence Policy Center, “Black Homicide Victimization in the United States,” shows that from 2002 to 2007 the number of black male juvenile homicide victims rose by 31 percent. Meanwhile, the number of young black homicide victims killed by guns rose at an even sharper rate: 54 percent.
  • Data compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that in 2005, the rate of AIDS diagnoses for black women was nearly 23 times the rate for white women. The rate of AIDS diagnoses for black men was 8 times the rate for white men.

Barack Obama’s election does not change overnight the fact that Blacks are routinely and systematically disadvantaged in American society.

Though the claim that black politics is dead is a bit premature, in order to tackle these problems, the content and style of black politics much change.

It is important to note that many of the social ills black America faces have gender specific dimensions, which, if they are to be solved will require that issues involving gender and sexuality must move from the periphery to the center of the black political agenda.

In her seminal book, “Black Sexual Politics: African American, Gender, and The New Racism,” Sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, makes a compelling case that to confront these problems the black community must embrace black sexual politics.

According to Collins, “Black sexual politics consists of a set of ideas and social practices shaped by gender, race, and sexuality that frame Black men and women’s treatment of one another, as well as how African Americans are perceived and treated by others.”

To combat white supremacy and structuralized racism, race will have to remain at the center of the black political agenda. But it is also important that the black community and its political leaders embrace a political agenda that shows much greater sensitivity to issues of gender and sexuality if these longstanding social problems are ever to be solved.