February/March: The Pandering Months
Here we are again, ending Black History Month, starting Women’s History month. This time, the season coincides with the Democratic primaries. The Democratic Party has no more loyal group of voters than African Americans, especially African American women. Black women’s votes will help cinch the nomination, and no Democratic president will win without them. It all adds up to a recipe for pandering.
In this week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar sparred over the Violence Against Women Act, which they were both eager to take some credit for. The Act, which passed in 1994—and its 2018 reauthorization—recognizes domestic violence as a crime, lays out stiff penalties for offenders, and provides some funding for services for victims. The trouble is, while VAWA is claimed as a huge achievement in white—especially institutional, white feminist circles—Black feminists have never been happy with it.
VAWA came after decades of grassroots organizing, much of it led by women of color. But in contrast to the peer-to-peer, self-defense, in-community work those groups had been doing, VAWA called in the cops. Especially in communities of color, the criminal justice solution is no solution. Relying on a system that is rooted in white supremacy, classism, and patriarchy, VAWA, for example, recommended a mandatory arrest policy that actually made women of color, poor women, and immigrant women particularly vulnerable to arrest, welfare surveillance, and deportation.
Fast forward to today, and while social services have been privatized or shrunk, incarceration has expanded, and prisons and jails have never been female-friendly. Just this week, a report from the U.S. Commission on Human Rights found that, across the country, women in prisons are disciplined at a much higher rate than men and receive much more disproportionately harsh punishments. Black women in prison have it especially rough. While they make up only about 23% of the population in women’s prisons, they account for around 40% of women in solitary confinement.
Many women, especially women of color, are calling for something profoundly different. Transformative justice, or restorative justice, they call it. Like those grassroots strategies of old, these approaches rely on informed peers to address the problem, not police. They’ve proven more effective at preventing recurrences of domestic violence and provide way more benefits to survivors. Call it intersectional, call it just plain informed, these solutions-seeking strategies acknowledge that, while it happens everywhere, in every demographic group, domestic violence is always embedded in systems of class and race and gender because we all are.
Which brings me back to my problem with February and March. Race, class, and gender aren’t separable. When they are abstracted one from the other, we end up with responses that don’t solve our problems. Do we need more months? We certainly need more intersectionality. And we need to look at systems, like the Democratic Party’s, that have left us with a candidate field crammed with pandering white people.