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We Are Not Your Superwomen: On Black Women Saving America From Itself


In the wake of Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning Senate win in Alabama last night, black women again demonstrated our ability to show up and rescue the country from gross moral turpitude. Exit returns show that over 98% of Alabama’s black women voters cast their votes for Jones, ushering him on to victory by the narrowest of margins. This is similar to black women’s overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, although that election (due to the electoral college) had a very different outcome. The truth is that black women have a very long and storied history of trying to save America from itself.

While the Constitution still declared black people three-fifths human, Harriet Tubman delivered black people into freedom, and sometimes at the muzzle of a gun. When the earliest forms of American feminism centered itself around white women’s desire to vote, it was Sojourner Truth who famously said, “Ain’t I a woman?” and wondered aloud why the female suffrage movement depended on her voice, but would not fight for her vote. Though black men first won the franchise by virtue of the 15th Amendment, it wouldn’t be until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the right to vote would be extended to black women. Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper rest among the black women in history who did the intellectual, emotional, and physical labor for American feminism while only white women enjoyed its spoils in their lifetimes.

If you want to know what a mainstream moral opinion will be 50 or 100 years from now, ask a black woman today. Black women are always light years ahead of America’s present moral compass. Consider, for example, the popular “Me’ Too” movement, which puts the spotlight on sexual harassment and sexual assault. While white women like Alyssa Milano, Ashley Judd, and Gretchen Carlson have been credited as heroines of the movement, it was a black woman, Tarana Burke, who first created the hashtag to call awareness to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in our culture. Yet, per usual, the first beneficiaries of the intellectual or cultural movement first ignited or championed by black women are not black women ourselves.

Even before Tarana Burke, there was Anita Hill, who famously faced the whitest, most powerful, most testosterone-laden institution in American history–the U.S. Senate–to give her account of the sexual harassment she endured at the hands of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. One by one, Senators took turns ripping her reputation to shreds, while Joe Biden, who then chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, simply let them. It’s important to note that Thomas went on to be seated on the Supreme Court (where he still sits today), Biden went on to become vice president of the United States (and enjoys broad support in the black and feminist communities today). Anita Hill, on the other hand, suffered numerous career setbacks and acts of persecution stemming from her 1991 testimony against Thomas. In the late 90s, political resentment about her Senate testimony forced her from her position at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law. At the time, David L. Boren served as the University’s president. However, in 1991, he was a senator who sat on the Judiciary Committee and voted to confirm Clarence Thomas. Hill even received a harassing phone call from Thomas’ wife nearly 20 years after her testimony, demanding that she apologize for having testified against him. David Brock authored a book entitled “The Real Anita Hill” that painted Hill in a very critical light. Brock later recanted much of the negative information he had written about her, but the damage to Hill’s reputation had been done. Fastfoward 26 years later, every white  woman who lives to see her abuser held accountable in the “Me Too” movement owes Hill a debt of gratitude, because she said “me, too” before the cultural zeitgeist had shifted to believing women and holding powerful men accountable.

Anita Hill during 1991 Senate testimony

So why do black women repeatedly find ourselves ahead of the curve on cultural and political issues? Why do we continually lay the groundwork that others benefit from long before we do? Is it because we relish living up to the strong black woman trope? Do we enjoy setting tables that others will eat from before us? Of course not. As black women we often find ourselves at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, so our efforts to reduce the burden of any aspect of our identity is an effort in self-care. If a storm is brewing, we build a shelter for ourselves, even if we are the last ones to enter it.

While America lags behind on issues of social and economic justice, black women continue to be ahead of our time waiting for the rest of the country to catch up to where we were a generation ago. However, let us remind policymakers that our support is not unconditional and automatic. Let us make demands on lawmakers that prioritize our needs. Now, in the wake of Doug Jones’ Democratic victory in a deep red state, black women hold important cards in terms of setting the Democratic Party’s policy agenda.

Though the rest of the country might think so, we are not superwomen. We cannot continue to do the heavy lifting of America’s moral consciousness without equitable recompense.  The empty applause and you go girls that Alabama black women are receiving for rescuing their state (and themselves) from Roy Moore aren’t the same as equitable treatment in terms of public policy. Black women in rural Alabama, for example, have higher food insecurity and higher infant mortality rates than their white counterparts. Their policy needs for better food accessibility and prenatal care are evident, yet continue to go unaddressed. Here’s hoping that Alabama’s black women, and black women in general, leverage our political capital to advance our interests going forward.

 

 

 

 

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Why Have All The Post-Weinstein Apologies Been So Bad?

The only thing more shocking and appalling than the number of high-profile men exposed as sexual harassers, assaulters, or rapists in the post Harvey Weinstein era, is how dreadfully inadequate the apologies are.  One would assume that given the sheer volume of revelations coming to light, the subsequent apologies would get better and better. After all, it’s not often that life gives you so many examples in quick succession of what not to do when responding to allegations of sexual harassment or assault. Sadly, the pitiful list of half-hearted and wrong-headed apologies issued so far prove that such an assumption would be wrong.

Some, like Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore refuse to apologize at all, and instead have taken the Donald Trump/Bill O’Reilly route of denying all the allegations made against them by multiple accusers. Trump, O’Reilly, Moore and their ilk deny any wrongdoing whatsoever and instead pretend that they have all been victims of elaborate smear campaigns that have lasted decades.  A bombshell article in the Washington Post featured four women who accused Moore of sexual molestation and other forms of impropriety on the record.  Since then, more women have come forward with similar accusations. Leigh Corfman, one of the accusers, alleges that Moore molested her when she was 14 and he was 32. Moore responded to Corfman’s allegations in this way: “These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post on this campaign.” Leigh, by the way, voted for Donald Trump.

Others, like Senator Al Franken from Minnesota have immediately issued acknowledgements and apologies, but with enormous caveats and equivocations. Last week, kabc.com radio personality Leeann Tweeden accused Franken of kissing her without her consent and groping her in her sleep while the two worked together on a USO tour in 2006. They were set to perform in a skit together when Tweeden says the unwanted advances began. She released a photo of the groping incident as well. For his part, Franken initially responded with the following underwhelming apology: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”

Good god. Maybe it’s my tiny lady brain making me stupid, but what part of groping an unconscious woman is supposed to be funny? Why does this apology include the word “but?”

Franken has since released a more carefully worded, but still underwhelming statement, after his first one was almost universally scorned.

Just today, veteran journalists Charlie Rose and Glenn Thrush were outed as harassers. For his part, Rose released the following statement on Twitter:

“I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.” Why is there always a “but” with these “apologies?” It is unacceptable that despite a veritable deluge of revelations and admissions, that powerful men are still issuing qualified apologies to the victims of their unwanted advances and assaults.

Since it seems that it’s only a matter a time before all of our favorite journalists, captains of industry, politicians and entertainers are revealed to be sex offenders, I would suggest that all of these powerful men utilize their well-paid publicists to pre-emptively out themselves as abusers and issue thoughtful, meaningful apologies, if for no other reason than to spare their careers.

Such an apology should go something like this: “I recognized at the time that there was a power imbalance between me and the women I hurt with my actions. I knew that said power imbalance would either coerce women into acquiescing to my advances under duress or would keep them from reporting me to people who could do something about it if they refused. I exploited that power imbalance because I felt that my wealth/stature/influence entitled me to sexual access to these women. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I used my power/influence/status to exploit women and for that I’m sorry.”

Let’s be clear. The reason that these apologies fall miserably short is because these men really don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. Senator Franken in his initial statement thought it should have been obvious that grabbing a sleeping woman’s breasts was an attempt at humor. Charlie Rose felt that despite admitting he was mistaken in thinking that he was pursuing mutual attraction with his accusers, he still insisted that not all the allegations were correct. In other words, these men felt that their intentions were more important than the actual effect of their actions. It was the women who misinterpreted the situation, not them.

We are witnessing only the tip of the iceberg so far. In the coming weeks and months, many more men will be outed as harassers and abusers, and if the current trend continues, they will all issue outright denials or qualified apologies.

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Protests, Patriotism, and Profit–Why the NFL’s Owners Turned on Trump

Trump comments on NFL

Colin Kaepernick set off a firestorm of controversy when he decided to begin his silent protest during last year’s NFL’s season. The decision to kneel cost him his football career, but earned him a place in the cultural zeitgeist as a hero or a villain depending on whom you speak to. At a campaign rally for an Alabama senatorial candidate who is now a footnote at his own campaign event, Donald Trump unloaded a heap of opprobrium upon NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. Though the invective was directed at all kneeling players in general, it was a thinly veiled reference to Colin Kaepernick. The president of the United States spewed, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off of the field right now! He’s fired!” He went on to say, “When people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem, the only thing you can do better, is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave.” Beyond that, Trump also suggested that the efforts to improve player safety have ruined the game: “Today, if you hit too hard, 15 yards, throw him out of the game…They’re ruining the game, right? They’re ruining the game. It’s hurting the game.”

The entire league now thrown into a maelstrom, the NFL response at the commissioner and ownership levels was swift and severe in their condemnation of Trump’s comments. What’s important to note is that most owners as well as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, made Trump’s insults towards players the focus of their responses. However, I would argue that the motivation behind their strong responses wasn’t the “son of a bitch” comment or the veiled swipe at Kaepernick. Rather, it was the “leave the stadium…pick up and leave” comments. Therein lies the source of their discontent. After all, it’s not as if this was the first time that Donald Trump had singled out Colin Kaepernick for criticism over his protest. However, this was the first time that he called for a boycott of  the NFL because of the protests, and if the Wu-Tang Clan is to be beleived, the NFL’s philosphy is C.R.E.A.M.

The League finds itself in a very vulnerable place right now. Though Kaepernick is not currently on anyone’s team, his actions inspired dozens of other players to take a knee during the national anthem this season. Television ratings and stadium attendence were down even before Trump’s comments this weekend. Amidst continuing controversy over the League’s handling of CTE, it was revealed that disgraced former New England Patriot and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, had one of the most severe cases of the disease ever recorded.  The NFL is a business first and foremost. And as any business facing countervailing winds in rough seas, the first instinct is to stop taking on water and right the ship.

The NFL is an organization in which 70% of the players are black. From an owner’s perspective, it would have been untenable to remain silent after Trump’s comments when so many players were already taking a knee during the national anthem and concerned that the league was apathetic (or even hostile) to racial inequalities and the impact of CTE on the brain. It would have been conceivable that players who were already angry enough to kneel or raise a fist during the playing of the national anthem, would have become angry enough to refuse to play at all. And as we’ve seen with Kaepernick’s protest, these things tend to spread.

If I were an NFL owner in charge of a 53-man roster in which a majority of the players were black, I would be more inclined to placate my workforce with solidarity (or at least the appearance of it), than to risk their general malaise mushrooming into a strike. Is this a cynical view? Perhaps. But the deafening silence of team owners during Kaepernick’s free agency leads me to believe that their recent conversion to free speech advocates may not have the purest motivations now that the man with the bully pulpit of the White House has weighed in on their business. Make no mistake. NFL owners are not just suddenly seeing the value of protest. Nor are they even asserting the lofty idea that protest can be a form of patriotism. They don’t dislike the president either. In fact, several NFL owners are either Donald Trump’s friends or politial benefactors. What the owners responded to en masse was a potential interruption of their profits. And that’s something that even Donald Trump understands.