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Asphyxiated by Racism

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by Charles M. Blow

Although the mantra “Black Lives Matter” was developed by black women, I often worry that in the collective consciousness it carries with it an implicit masculine association, one that renders subordinate or even invisible the very real and concurrent subjugation and suffering of black women, one that assigns to these women a role of supporter and soother and without enough space or liberty to express and advocate for their own.

Last week, the prism shifted a bit, as America and the social justice movement focused on the mysterious cases of two black women who died in police custody.

The first and most prominent was Sandra Bland, a black woman from suburban Chicago who had moved to Texas to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A & M University, a historically black school about 50 miles northwest of Houston.

She never started that job. After being arrested following a traffic stop, Bland was found dead in her jail cell. The police say she killed herself. Her family and friends doubt it.

As The New York Times reported last week: Bland “was arrested last Friday in Waller County by an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety on a charge of assaulting a public servant. She had been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.”

The Times continued:

“A statement from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office said that the cause of Ms. Bland’s death appeared to be self-inflicted asphyxiation. An autopsy on Tuesday classified her death as suicide by hanging, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Indeed, the Waller County district attorney, Elton Mathis, told a Houston station last week: “I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life.”

According to NBC News, Mathis also said: “If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that.”

The F.B.I. has joined that investigation.

Then, there was the case of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, arrested on Tuesday in Alabama for allegedly stealing a cellphone. According to AL.com: “Jailers last saw her alive at 6:30 p.m. She was found unresponsive at 7:50 p.m. Authorities said she used a bed sheet to hang herself.” According to the paper, she had been booked in the Homewood City Jail at 6:22 p.m.

The deaths seem odd: young women killing themselves after only being jailed only a few days or a less than a couple hours, before a trial or conviction, for relatively minor crimes.

And the official explanations that they were suicides run counter to prevailing patterns of behavior as documented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has found that, on the whole, men are more likely to commit suicide in local jails than women, young people are less likely to do so than older people, and black people are the least likely to do so than any other racial or ethnic group.

That doesn’t mean that these women didn’t commit suicide, but it does help to explain why their coinciding deaths might be hard for people to accept.

Indeed, because state violence echoes through the African-American experience in this country, it is even understandable if black people might occasionally experience a sort of Phantom Lynching Syndrome, having grown so accustomed to the reality of a history of ritualized barbarism that they would sense its presence even in its absence.

We have to wait to see what, if any, new information comes out about these cases. But it is right to resist simple explanations for extraordinary events.

These black women’s live must matter enough for there to be full investigations of the events surrounding their deaths to assure their families and the public that no “foul play” was involved.

Women are not adjuncts to this movement for social justice and the equal valuation of all lives; they are elemental to it.

The same week that news broke about these black women found dead in their jail cells, Google celebrated the 153rd birthday of anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells with a Google Doodle image. There seemed to me a fortuitous righteousness in the timing, an aligning of stars, an act of cosmic symmetry: celebrating a black female civil rights icon at the very moment that black females were the singular focus of the present civil rights movement.

Wells once said: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

I think that this burden of proof remains, and in this moment has gathered onto itself an increased, incandescent urgency, “like the light from a fire which consumes a witch,” as James Baldwin once phrased it.

In this moment, it falls to many of us to take up the mantle and articulate and illuminate the balance of the sinning against, vs. the sinning, for both black men and women alike.

This week that means investigating the “suicides” of Sandra and Kindra.

(This column originally appeared in the New York Times JULY 20, 2015 under the title “Sandra and Kindra: Suicides or Something Sinister?”)

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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