Breonna Taylor and the Erasure of Black Women from Movements Addressing State Violence Against Black People

Trigger warning/content warning: This blog post contains descriptions of state violence against Black people, including killing, brutalization, and sexual assault and harassment, as well as descriptions of physical and sexual brutalization of Black women during the chattel slavery era.

On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis Police Department officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, when the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, preventing him from breathing. This killing sparked a wave of protests across the United States demanding justice for George Floyd and renewing mainstream conversations about police violence against Black men in the United States. However, far fewer people have demanded justice for Breonna Taylor, a Black woman whom Louisville Metro Police Department officers shot to death while she was sleeping in her home on March 13, 2020.

The erasure of Breonna Taylor from this current reckoning of police violence against Black people is indicative of the broader erasure of Black women’s experiences with state violence. A common myth about anti-Black state violence is that it only affects Black men but, in reality, it affects Black women too. Black women face state violence in ways similar to Black men, like brutalization and killing, and in ways more particular to Black women, like sexual harassment and assault. Importantly, this blog post does not seek to detract from movements addressing state violence against Black men; rather, it seeks to highlight state violence against Black women, which is so often erased from these movements.

State violence against Black women falls at the intersection of institutional racism and institutional sexism, so it tends to be erased from both anti-racist and anti-sexist movements. Attorney, activist, and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, describes this phenomenon, stating that, due to societal tendencies to assume individuals experience only one marginalized identity, Black women, who experience multiple marginalized identities, tend to be “excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse.” She further states that these issues of exclusion cannot be addressed by simply including Black women in anti-racist and anti-sexist movements as they are currently structured. Rather, these movements must be “rethought and recast” to specifically address the “intersectionality” of the racist and sexist experiences that Black women face.

Historical State Violence Against Black Women

Modern patterns of state violence against Black women are a continuation of historical patterns. During the chattel slavery era, White enslavers constructed three main false stereotypes about Black women that informed the patterns of state violence Black women faced: the Mammy, the Jezebel, and the Sapphire. These stereotypes had distinct features and purposes key to the perpetuation of violence against Black women during the chattel slavery era and beyond.

First, the Mammy stereotype constructed Black enslaved women as loyal, obedient, and nurturing to White people, while also exhibiting superhuman strength and being able to endure pain. One purpose of this stereotype was to masculinize Black women in order to justify demanding brutal physical labor from them in plantation fields. Mammy was devoted to the White people she worked for and “… tolerant, if not deserving, of all forms of violation, pain, and abuse.”

Second, the Jezebel stereotype constructed Black enslaved women as inherently hypersexual and thus unable to be raped. The purpose of this stereotype was to justify rape of Black enslaved women by White male enslavers. The use of rape was two-fold. On the one hand, it was used as a weapon of control and terror, much like whipping, which Black enslaved women also endured. Secondly, it was used to replenish Black populations for enslavement after the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Because free or enslaved status passed through the mother, children born as a result of these rapes were enslaved.

Finally, the Sapphire stereotype constructed Black enslaved women as aggressive, angry, and out of control. This stereotype, like the Mammy, masculinized Black enslaved women, thus justifying demanding brutal physical labor from them. It also served the purpose of delegitimizing Black enslaved women’s anger at, and resistance towards, the injustices that they were facing, thus justifying committing violence against them to put them back under White enslaver control.

Modern State Violence Against Black Women

Historical stereotypes about Black women continue to be widely believed today and result in state-sanctioned violence. However, finding quantitative, statistical data about this violence is difficult for several reasons. One major reason is that the federal government does not keep reliable data on police killings. The Washington Post keeps data on police shootings and provides these data by race, by gender, and at the intersection of both. However, these data fail to encompass all forms of violence that police commit because they exclude police killing by means other than shooting and other forms of police violence like brutalization and sexual assault. The dearth of data regarding police-perpetrated sexual violence, in particular, highlights the continuing erasure of Black women from activism surrounding state violence against Black people.

Today, due to the enduring legacies of the Mammy and Sapphire stereotypes, which masculinize Black women and stereotype them as inhumanly strong, Black women experience state violence through many of the same patterns and in many of the same ways that Black men do, like brutality and killing. However, this fact is continually erased. For example, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released a study in 2013 finding that one Black person is killed by police or vigilantes every twenty-eight hours, but “[a]lthough the report did not identify Black men and boys as the sole victims of extrajudicial killing, the study became integral to racial justice movements anchored by a singular focus on Black men and boys[,]” thus erasing Black women from the narrative. However, between 1999 and 2014, 20% of unarmed Black people killed by police were women and girls.  Black women are also disproportionately subject to Stop-and-Frisk policies, just as Black men are. For example, in 2013, of all the men stopped and frisked in New York, 55.7% were Black, and of all the women stopped and frisked in New York, 53.4% were Black. These are very similar rates.

Moreover, while police kill unarmed Black men and White men at about the same rate, police are far more likely to kill unarmed Black women than unarmed White women. Nearly 60% of Black women killed by police were unarmed. Further, “the high percentage of unarmed black women killed by police significantly increased the overall odds for unarmed black[] [people].” This fact illustrates the enduring legacy of the Sapphire stereotype, which constructed Black women as inherently aggressive and out-of-control.

Black women also experience state violence through patterns and in ways different from Black men, like sexual harassment and assault. For example, for Black women, the Stop-and-Frisk discussed above often becomes “Stop-and-Grope,” where police use frisking Black women as a cover to grope them and make comments about their bodies. “Stop-and-Grope” reflects the enduring legacy of the Jezebel stereotype, which constructed Black women as inherently sexual.

As of 2010, sexual assault or misconduct was the second most common complaint of police misconduct after excessive force. One of the most egregious examples is the thirteen women who accused an officer with the Oklahoma City Police Department of sexual assault and misconduct. All of these women were Black. Official reports stated that the officer targeted these women because he profiled them as people who used drugs and engaged in sex work, and therefore thought that they would not be credible. However, at least one of the women he victimized neither used drugs nor engaged in sex work, so it is likely that he targeted these women particularly because they are Black women. The officer was found guilty of assaulting some—but not all—of these women, and is now in prison. The fact that this officer engaged in this behavior so habitually and the fact that he was not found guilty of assaulting all of the women he victimized shows the lasting effects of the Jezebel stereotype, which constructed Black women as unable to be raped.

The Erasure Must End

The erasure of state violence against Black women, like Breonna Taylor, cannot continue. Activists must work to incorporate intersectionality in social movements. The Black Lives Matter movement was created by three Black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, to bring attention to police killings of Black people. However, the movement has since developed in such a way that it centers police killings of Black men, and consequently, Black women killed by police are erased from the movement. Moreover, the Say Her Name campaign, launched in December of 2014, was created specifically to bring “awareness to the often invisible names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence.” However, it has since been co-opted into the mantra “Say His Name,” perpetuating the erasure of state violence against Black women.

Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, is also a Black women, and she created the Me Too movement ten years before famous White actresses brought mainstream media attention to it. The Me Too movement then developed to center White women’s experiences, thus erasing Black women from it. Centering Black women in the Me Too movement is critical to combatting Black women’s experience of sexual violence at the hands of the state. Leaders in both racial justice and gender justice movements should work to ensure that the movements are intersectional and include Black women. There must be justice for Breonna Taylor.

Sarah Nawab is a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law and a 2020 Equal Justice Works fellow. She is passionate about prisoners’ rights and serving the unique needs of incarcerated women.