From Recy Taylor to Breonna Taylor: Plight of Black women often forgotten when it comes to justice

In 2018, I urged my colleagues to wear pins honoring Recy Taylor for the State of the Union address. I wanted to tell her story — a Black woman kidnapped and brutally gang-raped by six white men — as an example of the experiences of Black women and the failures of the justice system that we so rarely hear or protest about.

Today, with the entire world uniting in calls for justice after the killing of George Floyd, it is not lost on me that Breonna Taylor’s killing, just a few months before, did not see the same outrage, or illicit the same quick justice system response. Unlike the Floyd case, no one has been arrested in connection with Breonna Taylor’s death. And, after three months, the officer who seems most at fault still had time to appeal his ouster from the force. I can only say this for sure: As we see momentum toward reform and embrace of change from leaders nationwide, it is more important than ever that we remember Black women.

When we think about the structural inequities of the justice system, it is always the Black men we envision as victims. But Black women are victims, too. Drug sentencing laws and other barriers to reentry for the formerly incarcerated have ballooned the number of Black women in prison in the same insidious ways those policies affect Black men. In 2017, the rate of Black women imprisoned was twice the rate of white women put behind bars, despite the fact that the rate for black women has been dropping since 2000, according to the Sentencing Project.

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Women in general have more involuntary contact with police than they do arrests, suggesting more negative interactions with law enforcement than arrest records show, according to 2015 data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative. Black women are actually the least likely to be armed when they find themselves in a violent confrontation with police. When you add to this statistics that suggest Black women are more likely than white women to be stopped by police, and more likely to experience use of force, the risk for Black women becomes clear.

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In our schools, Black girls are pushed toward the justice system early and often, with those first interactions chaining them to the criminal justice system indefinitely. It often starts when black girls are disciplined for behavior. Bias in New York, for example, sees Black girls suspended at rates 10 times higher than white girls, often upending their education.

These are just a few examples, but they paint an important picture that should remind us all that justice must be served for Black women, too. Our struggles are often relegated to the shadows, even as we support the progress of others. Our stories are often whispered in the background, even as cameras and reporters follow the lives and deaths of our brothers. And it’s time for all of us, but especially Black women with the platforms to do so, to speak out.

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Throughout the protests inspired by Floyd, there has been a small but vocal undercurrent calling for justice for Black women wronged, harmed and killed.

Mixed in with signs covered in “Black Lives Matter,” you’ll see a few that read “Say Her Name,” a phrase coined by the African American Policy Forum in an effort to ensure we memorialize women like Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and countless others.

Women in elected office, women in positions of power, women with the ability to bring the necessary attention, need to step up and include Black women’s experiences in calls for justice. In the past, we’ve been unable to break the chain of injustice that may soon link Recy Taylor, who was raped in 1944, to Breonna Taylor. We must use the momentum of this moment to ensure that doesn’t happen.

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Recy Taylor pursued her attackers in the face of threats and violence against her and her family, but none of the men responsible were ever charged or held accountable, despite admissions and eyewitness testimony. It took decades and renewed attention to stir the Alabama legislature to apologize in 2011 for the treatment she received, the closest she would come to justice.

Breonna Taylor can no longer wage that battle herself. It us up to us to seek justice on her behalf. It us up to us to seek justice and progress for all Black women. It us up to us to ensure that we remember and recognize Black women in whatever reforms carry us forward.

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After centuries of failure, our nation has taken the first step toward recognizing that Black lives have value, worth and importance. As we begin to accept that Black lives do matter, we must remember to include Black women.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey is co-chair and founder of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls.

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