The case of Renisha McBride, the 19-year-old black girl whose car broke down in the early-morning hours of Nov. 2 in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights and was shot in the face by a white homeowner after she knocked on his door asking for help, has all the markings of becoming a divisive racial flash point. Although her death has been ruled a homicide, the shooter has not been charged with anything. Vigils have been held demanding justice, as well as a vibrant Twitter campaign, mostly thanks to the efforts of writer, filmmaker and Detroit native Dream Hampton. In a short film that she posted to YouTube about the events surrounding the case, one of the protesters writes a sign saying, “Don’t shoot, I’m a black woman.”
This is not the only time in recent memory that a black woman in danger was viewed as a threat. Last October during Hurricane Sandy, 39-year-old Glenda Moore of Staten Island had been trying to get her two young sons to safety when quickly rising floodwaters swept them away. Moore ran to one house and then another, asking the residents to call 911. The first told her to go away, reportedly saying, “I don’t know you. I’m not going to help,” and the second turned out their porch lights. Neither called the police as asked.
These cases signal the rise of a new black-female stereotype that just may be more insidious than the old ones. In her 2011 book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, Tulane political-science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry describes four classic caricatures: the “angry black woman”; the loud-talking, neck-rolling Sapphire; the highly sexed and sexualized Jezebel; and the maternal, asexual, dark-skinned, large-boned Mammy. But none of those images should inspire fear, or explain why anyone would immediately view black women like McBride or Moore as threats, as opposed to women merely in need of help.
Of course, black men have long been profiled by society as threatening, or maybe even as criminals. The tragedy of the killing of Trayvon Martin only served as proof of how persistent this stereotype is. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow, the systemic profiling of black youth leads to increasingly higher rates of their arrest and incarceration, as well as massive distrust of law enforcement in black communities. But Alexander is silent on black women profiled as criminals.
In order to better understand how history might help us understand the present, I contacted a historian at UCLA, Sarah Haley, whose work looks at how historical perceptions of black women have impacted their societal treatment and relationship to the criminal-justice system. When I asked her about the McBride case, and why she thought the homeowner might not have offered help, she said that black women are more often viewed as “the help” than in need of help. She added, “Black women have been seen as different than black men, certainly, but they have not always been seen as women either; to be a woman is to be seen as deserving of protection, and black women are not always seen that way.”
As an example of how these views have impacted the lives of individual black women, she pointed out that at the turn of the 20th century, black women were sometimes subjected to harsher treatment than men when convicted of crimes. “They were thrown in city convict camps, whipped and forced to pave local streets for things like cursing in public … it was rare for white women to even be prosecuted for such crimes.” Haley was of course saddened by the McBride case, but in some ways she was not surprised because we have so often viewed black women as more threatening, more masculine and less in need of help, protection and support than white women.
It’s a complicated and dehumanizing stereotype — and its debunking seems somehow at odds with feminism. No one wants to project the message that black women are weak and helpless. And yet when a 19-year-old with a broken-down car knocks on a door only to get shot in the face, we know that something is severely wrong in how society perceives black women as criminals or not, victims or not, and even women or not.