They’re back! Racist anti-choice billboards are popping up again in American cities, proclaiming that the most dangerous place for a black baby is in a black woman’s womb and that black children are an endangered species. The groups behind this campaign, Radiance Foundation in partnership with state organizations that advocate against reproductive freedom, claim that they are pro-baby. In reality, they are building an anti-choice campaign on a long-standing history of demonizing women of color by questioning our decision-making abilities and our humanity. What is presented as pro-baby is actually anti-woman. The themes being presented through this billboard campaign are more than insulting; they are a dangerous continuation of racist attacks on black women as mothers that are all too often used to justify society’s disrespect, distrust and neglect.
These billboards bring up questions with disturbing answers. If the most dangerous place for a black baby is in a black woman’s womb, then how safe are black children in a black woman’s care? If black women can’t be trusted to make decisions about our reproductive health care or intellectually process the facts within comprehensive sex education, how can we be trusted with other decisions? If black children are some sort of separate species, doesn’t that mean they aren’t equal human beings? Through this billboard campaign “black” is once again presented as the exotic “other” and black women are defined as barbaric and unworthy of trust or respect. Melissa Harris-Perry breaks down this history and its ramifications in her piece Bad Black Mothers in The Nation.
I am reminded of a story in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. Malcolm X told of the lynching of his father and the subsequent denial of insurance funds resulting from that murder being reported as a suicide. As a result, Malcolm X’s mother was impoverished and struggled to provide for her children. In a segregated racist society, his mother was often unable to find well paying work. She was pestered by state welfare officials and, when Malcolm X. was caught stealing, saw her child removed from the home and place in foster care. I was struck by the injustice of that and disturbed that the state would rather assume a black mother was incapable of raising her children than accept it’s own role in her family’s difficult situation. When black women are seen as unfit and incapable of parenting, social policies and the approach taken by state agencies will reflect that and families will suffer as a result.
Black children continue to be over-represented in the foster care system. In her article Race and Foster Care: Questions Without Answers, Sarah Phillips points out that white children are four times more likely to be reunited with their family than black children after being placed in foster care. That statistic speaks more to the lack of support for black families than the inability of black women to parent. Studies found that 44 percent of families did not receive services that would improve their ability to provide for their children. Yet organizations that claim to support black babies fail to lend support to campaigns to reform social services or provide funding for programs that have been proven to keep families healthy and together.
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When the racist billboard campaign came to Milwaukee, Sarah D. Noble, managing director of the Reproductive Justice Collective in Milwaukee, wrote a powerful response. Noble broke down the challenges faced by black families in Wisconsin by highlighting the high poverty rate, low employment rate, and lack of adequate education and jobs. One statistic stands out – that black babies in Wisconsin are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. Wisconsin’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the country. It’s interesting to note that there are no billboards claiming that Wisconsin is a dangerous place for a black baby to reside.
If the organizations behind these billboards were committed to improving healthy outcomes for black babies they would support expanding access to health care, education and economic reform, and equal pay protections for women. They would support programs that empower us to make decisions about our bodies and our lives free of restrictions and judgment. The path to empowerment is not paved by the integrity of black women and no amount of outdoor advertising will change that.