An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
This article appeared in the April 5, 2010 edition of The Nation.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough.
March 18, 2010
A Right to Life for the Living
By Melissa Harris-Lacewell
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study employed Eunice Rivers as an outreach coordinator for more than thirty years. Her role, as an African-American nurse, was to gain and maintain the trust of black men targeted by the study. She helped ensure that they did not seek the widely available, highly effective medical care that they critically needed to treat their syphilis, because if they received penicillin they would disrupt the study’s goal of observing the disease’s devastating course of blindness, madness and physical decay
African-American children face threats to their survival, and African-American women are confronted with challenges to their capacity to parent healthy children. But shaming misinformation campaigns do nothing to address these problems.
Georgia’s largest antiabortion group, Georgia Right to Life, is employing a similar strategy. Catherine Davis is its Eunice Rivers. As outreach coordinator for the predominantly white group, this black woman is traveling to black churches and colleges decrying abortion as a genocidal conspiracy against African-Americans and encouraging black women not to exercise their legal right to obtain the healthcare of their choice.
The Tuskegee study was initiated in the rural South during a period of great economic distress. It preyed on vulnerable communities with few medical resources and little political power. It employed a cynical racist strategy of encouraging black compliance by deploying black spokespeople to claim that the study’s efforts were in the best interests of African-Americans.
Georgia Right to Life has revived this racial masquerade by portraying its opposition to reproductive rights as a campaign for racial justice. This is a potentially effective strategy because it taps into the troubling legacy of eugenics-inspired efforts to broaden birth control access and legalize abortion. Family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger was a eugenics proponent who sought to reduce birthrates among the poor, the disabled and racial and ethnic minorities. State-enforced involuntary sterilization was a common practice in the United States until the 1960s. Southern doctors routinely performed hysterectomies without consent; civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer was the victim of one of these “Mississippi appendectomies.” Moreover, black families and children are often labeled deviant, pathological, potentially criminal and burdensome to taxpayers. In a country that glorifies large white families, it feels as though few celebrate or encourage the birth of black children. Given this ugly history, it is easy for many to believe racialized antichoice appeals like the Georgia Right to Life billboards asserting Black Children Are an Endangered Species.
But if black children are endangered, the reasons are far more complicated than those billboards suggest. If these conservative organizations are really concerned about creating and maintaining a robust black birthrate, then they will have to buy space for some additional billboards. They could start with a billboard that says, Poverty Is Genocide. Black babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. Maternal poverty, inadequate nutrition and insufficient prenatal care are the key contributors to black infant mortality.
They need a billboard declaring Inadequate Education Is Genocide. Black children are significantly more likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and residential segregation and, therefore, to attend schools with inferior resources, lower-quality instructors and larger class sizes. Children in these schools are vastly more likely to drop out, to be arrested, to be the victims of violent crime and to die prematurely.
They need a billboard explaining Racism Is Genocide. For much of American history, black pregnancy has been stigmatized as a shameful condition that spreads the malignancy of blackness. Research examining the impact of stress on birth outcomes shows a substantial racial difference in psychosocial stress. Infant birth weight and health suffer in conjunction with a mother’s perception of racism. This means that the racism black women feel throughout their lives affects the health of their future infants.
Of course, Georgia Right to Life does not sponsor such billboards or employ outreach coordinators to address these structural inequalities. Instead its work portrays abortion as genocide and therefore implies that black women are the murderous monsters through which the race is being destroyed. But evidence suggests that black women restrict their family size as a response to constraints on their opportunities for parenting rather than out of a murderous rage toward black children. These constraints operate in surprising ways.
For example, the lowest fertility rates are among college-educated black women, who chose to pursue opportunity and a better life for themselves. As a result, these women are less likely to start families–college-educated black women are the group least likely to be married–and those who do, start later in life and with fewer resources. A recent study by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development revealed that single black women have on average only $100 in personal wealth, compared with $41,500 for single white women. With less disposable income, many black women are shut out of the booming reproductive technologies market available to their white peers. In this twisted sense even college education could be argued to constitute racial genocide.
African-American children face threats to their survival, and African-American women are confronted with challenges to their capacity to bear and parent healthy children. But racialized and shaming misinformation campaigns do nothing to address these problems. Poor black communities do not need a contemporary Eunice Rivers encouraging them to decline medical care; they need comprehensive healthcare reform that provides them with access to affordable options for preventing unwanted pregnancy, safely terminating unwelcome pregnancies and shepherding chosen pregnancies to full-term healthy babies.