Over the last few years, slowly but surely, the reality of the lived experience of black American women has continued to come to light. Historically, when state violence is discussed in academic, activist, or popular media spaces, it is understood as a phenomenon that is male in nature. Men are generally understood as the perpetrators, and men are understood as the victims. Whether we are discussing Rodney King or Amadou Diallo, the cases of women who have experienced violence at the hands of the state have largely been erased from public narratives. This is in large part because state violence against men of color has generally been about public displays of dominance. It typically happens in public spaces where others are present to witness the violence (streets, parks, etc…). On the other hand, violence against women tends to happen behind closed doors, in private (at night, in prison cells, in police cars, or in TSA screening areas, for example). This type of violence isn’t easily recorded, so it can’t go viral or show up in your facebook feed. The violence against women tends to be shame inducing, and the victims are often those who are most vulnerable.
And so, in the most cynical of ways, the latest news about the state of affairs in Baltimore Public Housing is no surprise. Allegedly for the last several years, maintenance workers employed by the Baltimore Public Housing Authority demanded that women living in Baltimore public housing have sex with them in order to get needed repairs on their apartments. According to Think Progress:
The lawsuit, filed in September, alleged that maintenance men demanded sex from women living in public housing before they would make repairs to their ‘deplorable conditions,’ which included rodent and insect infestations, lack of heat, mold, and electrocution risks. It also claims that at least one employee threatened a woman with violence if she didn’t give into his demands for sex, while another offered a woman cash for sex. The men also allegedly tried to intimidate women out of requesting repairs by sexually harassing them.
“These victims are too poor to move out and relocate their families,” the complaint says. “Consequently, they are left with the impossible choice of either succumbing to unwanted sexual demands in order to save themselves and their children from life-threatening conditions in their homes, or, living in squalor.”
Much like the Daniel Holtzclaw case, BHA employees targeted women who were vulnerable. Many of them were disabled, all of them were poor, and most, if not all, were black. The women complained to BHA commissioner Paul T. Graziano for years and were completely ignored. As a result, the women who were sexually assaulted by BHA employees are also asking that Graziano be fired.
Like Holtzclaw, these abusers were able to operate out in the open without fear of repercussion because of who their victims were. The assumption about who black women in public housing are (welfare queens, manipulators of the entitlements systems, lazy, shiftless, unwilling to work, etc…) not only creates a negative media and political environment about social supports for the poor, it has also created a bureaucratic space within public housing authorities all over the country that is not only physically violent, but emotionally violent as well.
In my research about the experience of black women living in Chicago public housing, over and over again women reported experiences of being degraded, ignored, and pushed aside by employees within the Chicago Housing Authority. The very people we hire to make sure that the most vulnerable of our population have housing, food, and support often treat residents with a blatant disregard that is often more common than not. Unfortunately, housing authority employees all over the country are absorbing the same toxic political and media narratives about the poor that the rest of us are. As a result, spaces like the Baltimore Housing Authority—where multiple women could complain of sexual assault over a number of years and are simply ignored—are created. Instead, we assume that black women, especially poor black women, are just lazy and hypersexual.
In the aftermath of these tragedies, as practitioners, activists and academics, our first step must be to hold ourselves culpable. In what ways have we absorbed toxic stereotypes and narratives about the citizens we have the honor to serve, and how do these assumptions keep us from showing up and doing the best work possible?
Photo credit: ‘#SayHerName, National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women,’ by the All-Nite Images via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
One minor point — Baltimore’s housing authority is actually referred to as the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC).
One major point — I find the subject line of the email I received from Shelterforce (in which a link to this article was included) incredibly offensive. “Repairs-for-Sex Scandal: Just a Symptom”. Call it “repairs-for-sex” implies there was some sort of deal struck between the two parties — a trade, of sorts.
Make no mistake — there was no trade, nor was there a deal in which the vulnerable party (the women who were raped) was complicit. Implying that these women somehow traded sexual favors for repairs to their apartments is beyond unacceptable. They were sexually abused, extorted by the very people who should have been assisting them, and the victims of a very serious crime. We need to stop sugar-coating what happened to these women and actually speak frankly and honestly about how to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
Firing our Housing Commissioner would be a good first step, using language that properly reflects what happened to these women would be another.
Thanks for your comments. First, I want to be clear that the staff, and not Alexandra, take responsibility for the subject line of the email that referred to this story, and about which you are concerned.
I can see your point about the implication of complicity, though it was not at all what we intended. We know that what happened was absolutely not an exchange in which the women are in any way complicit; it was extortion and sexual assault. Period.
It is challenging to convey the sort of nuance and complexity that our writers regularly deliver in the length of a subject line, and to do it in a way that makes people pay attention enough to open and read, which is our obligation to our writers. Perhaps we were too caught up in the indignity and wanting everyone to pay attention to this important piece on it that we didn’t realize that anyone would read it that way. I realize that that is ironic given the content of the post, which is all about how our assumptions and misperceptions of women in public housing are what let these assaults be overlooked for so long. Ouch.
Comments like yours are very important to us as we navigate the waters of language. It helps us to think through problematic implications of our language, and we did lose our way on this one.
Believe me, at no time did I assume the author of the piece was responsible for the subject line. No woman who works every day on housing issues — particularly issues that disproportionately affect poor women, could have made such a mistake.
While I understand the need to create compelling subject lines for emails, there needs to be a balance between “compelling” and respect for the subject. Always.
However, I do thank you for your follow-up comment and email, and hope that we all continue to learn how to best serve those who depend on our words to make a difference in their lives.