Ignoring Racism Won’t End Gun Violence or Violence Against Women

Ignoring Racism Won’t End Gun Violence or Violence Against Women

A .22 revolver nearly killed Shawnda Pennington, a black woman. I don’t know what kind of gun was used to kill 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black man, only that he was unarmed when shot 12 times. Nor do I know what type of gun killed 38-year-old Ebony Byrom or 22-year-old Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, on March 18, 2017. I do know that Sacramento police fired twenty rounds at him.  

Shawnda, Michael, Ebony, and Stephon were killed by guns wielded by those either meant to protect or by those who proclaimed to love them. Arguably, both police violence and domestic violence are state sanctioned because the lack of action taken at the state and federal levels on gun legislation continues to cost lives.   

In her article “The Gun Crisis We Aren’t Talking About: Black Women are Under Attack and America Doesn’t Care,” Professor Brittney Cooper talks about how black women are disproportionately impacted by lethal domestic violence involving guns. Each month on average, 50 women are shot to death by current or ex-partners, black women are disproportionately represented in that number (https://every.tw/28LItHX);  (https://bit.ly/1KVoWTr). These statistics do not include the murder of black trans women, violence against whom is only recently becoming more visible, largely due to their own activism and more recently that of others in the LGBTQ community.

In my decades of work on violence against women, I’ve been taught that domestic violence knows no class, race, or education level. I still believe that to be true. But the systems and services set up for survivors do know class and race – and have been designed historically in ways that aren’t accessible to women of color. To say that the black community – namely black youth and black women – has been advocating for gun control because their lives depend on it is not hyperbole. Nor is it an understatement to say that white supremacy, white privilege, and overt and covert racism has either sabotaged, minimized or made this work invisible. A prime example of how this is playing out is the nation’s reaction to the activism of the students from Parkland, Florida.

I am inspired by Parkland students like Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky and others. I am grateful that their refusal to stay silent has mobilized so many to act on gun reform.  Just like I was inspired when I watched hundreds of people take to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown.

My white privilege working overtime, I thought, this is what democracy looks like, citizens using their constitutional rights to speak out against injustice. Then, I watched the tanks roll in and listened to mainstream media label a protest by predominantly black people a “riot”.

I am inspired by Clifton Kinnie, founder of OurDestinySTL (https://bit.ly/2fDelnk), a network founded by high school students during the Ferguson protests because students “need safe communities and schools.” Yet, during and after the Ferguson protests he and other young black men have been called “thugs” for demanding safer communities and schools. I am inspired by Charlene Carruthers, National Director of BYP_100 (https://byp100.org/), who repeatedly highlights the history of black youth advocating for gun reform while offering to share tactics and lessons learned with the Parkland Students.    

This is not a competition. But it is a question that I, as a white woman working to end violence against women – and, by extension, gun violence – need to ask myself and other white people. Why is black led activism made invisible at best or criminalized at worst, while white led activism is celebrated?

It is possible to respect the activists from Parkland and talk about the double standards wrought by the deeply embedded racism in this country. We will not end violence against women or gun violence unless we talk about exactly that.

Heidi Lehmann
Heidi Lehmann
Senior Director, Gender and Gender Based Violence Programs

Heidi has over fifteen years experience in Africa, Asia and the US as an advocate, case worker, and facilitator on programs working to end violence against women and girls. She is currently the Senior Director of Gender Based Violence Programs at HIAS. Learn More

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