Cause and Effect

Kimberlé Crenshaw on the Say Her Name movement and her fight for gender-inclusive racial justice.

by Lauren Savage Published Spring 2016
  • Comments (2)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

Why do you think Black women’s experiences are pushed to the margins in the movement against police violence?

I think there are a couple of obvious reasons. Black women are not valued. It’s not that the violence is invisible; it’s that it isn’t seen. One horrifying example is the death of Natasha McKenna at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. There is a video showing Natasha McKenna being violently extracted from her holding cell, naked, by five sheriff’s deputies in hazmat suits, who then tase her four times in the process of moving her to a restraint chair. It is incredible that this video has prompted very little response across the country. There are other videos showing Black women being beaten on the sides of highways in plain sight, hauled out of car windows, hogtied, and dragged across the floor — grandmothers stripped down and thrown — it’s there for anyone to see. The question is, when it is seen, why doesn’t it become a problem? Why aren’t we incited to say their names?

Your Black Girls Matter report [released by the AAPF and CISPS
in February 2015] focuses on the structural inequality that Black girls face. Tell us about your findings.
Our study showed that the disparity in treatment between Black girls and white girls was greater than the disparity in treatment between Black boys and white boys. Around the country, Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended from school than white boys, but Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. So race seems to be more salient in the decision to punish Black girls than it is in the decision to punish Black boys. That often gets suppressed and marginalized because there are so many boys in general who get suspended. But it’s important that those differences rise to the surface in our efforts to intervene.

“We can’t significantly improve the well-being of communities of color without dealing directly with the vulnerabilities that women face.”

How can your research, reports, and advocacy translate to a change in policy?
My team and I are currently working on a policy strategy with respect to Say Her Name and the sexual abuse of women by police officers. In thinking about interventions, we have to start by looking at the permissive policies and uneven distribution of power that enable the problem. Then we can begin to consider dismantling them and creating another grid of power. We know that leading by example and having a strict, articulable policy really make a difference. Both signal to officers that sexual access is not a perk of their job. So we’re advocating for the development and implementation of a clear set of open procedures and expectations for law-enforcement officers. A key component of our work is building public awareness so that people have the will to address these problems.

More and more college students are involved in racial-justice advocacy. Do you think this reflects a shift in consciousness?
The current shift among students is important, because it represents a repudiation of the effort to suppress ongoing racial-justice issues. Post-racial ideology [the idea that America is colorblind] can’t completely contain the realities that people are experiencing. That is an essential starting position for any effort to make a shift more historically stable. The rate at which students of color are matriculating onto campuses is starting to decline. So student activists really are casting attention to critical issues, and for a lot of folks, these students are heroes.

Black Lives Matter drew a lot of comparisons to the civil-rights movement, and some people felt that it didn’t measure up. What’s your response to this assessment?
The thing that disturbs me the most is assuming that the struggle for racial justice is divided up into separate and distinct movements. That is not how we think of the structural oppression we have been resisting for centuries. There are clearly ebbs and flows and different generational moments in the movement. Ideological differences have always existed among people of the same generation around how to frame the problem, how to mobilize against it, and what should be first on the agenda. But some factors are constant. The role of women in organizing and mobilizing, and their relative absence as subjects of racial injustice, has been continuous. I don’t think any generation can say to the other, you got it right, or you got it wrong. These are debates across our history.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (58)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment


The premise that White police officers target and kill Black men and women for no cause is absurd. With a Black President, we could have hoped for Reverend King's plea to put color aside and strive to uplift all men but what we got was charges of racism, sexism, xenophobia and every other ism used to divide and enrage the country for radical purposes.

But let's look at the statistics. Based on 2013 FBI numbers, 2491 Blacks were murdered, the offenders were 189 White and 2245 Black. Black offenders made up 39% of all offenders while only representing 13% of the population. http://www.aim.org/special-report/black-criminals-white-victims-and-whit...

As a fighter for Social Justice, perhaps Prof. Crenshaw should begin to concentrate on the disintegration of the Black family unit. When the War on Poverty started in the 60's, about 25% of Black children were raised by single parent families. Today, that number is 70%. Psychologists and economists will tell you that children raised by single parents are much more likely to have psychological and emotional issues, difficulty in school, and are much more likely to end up in the lowest economic strata. The probability that Federal programs have created incentives for single parent households cannot be overlooked. Where is the outcry?

Let us stop blaming the police for trying to maintain law and order. Let us stop accepting excuses for the over representation of the Black community as crime offenders, much of that black on black crime. Until Black opinion leaders have the guts to address this (like Steven A. Smith on ESPN), the problem will only get worse.

Thank you for sharing your feedback with Columbia Magazine. Please kindly send your contact information to magazine@columbia.edu so that we can include your letter in our upcoming summer issue.

Thanks again!

-Columbia Magazine Staff

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time