We speak with acclaimed scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw about her new book #SayHerName, which honors the stories of 177 Black women and girls killed by police between 1975 and 2022 whose deaths received little media coverage or other attention. “We can’t give these women back to their families, but we can make sure that they are not lost to history,” Crenshaw tells Democracy Now! She also discusses the ongoing right-wing “attack on Black knowledge,” such as Florida’s new education curriculum that claims slavery had “personal benefit” for enslaved people, as well as the recent death of civil rights scholar Charles Ogletree.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We spend the rest of the hour with acclaimed scholar, activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. She has a new book out honoring the stories of 177 Black women and girls killed by police between 1975 and last year, who then had their lives erased from memory when their deaths were not covered or misrepresented by the media or were excluded from textbooks. She focused in detail on nine stories.
In her recent L.A. Times op-ed, headlined “Black women are the unseen victims of police brutality. Why aren’t we talking about it?” she notes, “Black women and girls are more likely than any other group of women to be killed by the police,” and, quote, “The confluence of factors that converge to make Black women and girls the most vulnerable of all women to state violence also conspire to erase their loss of life, both in individual cases and as a group.”
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw is executive director of the African American Policy Forum, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University, and author of the new book, _#SayHerName: Black Women’s Stories of Police Violence and Public Silence.”
Professor Crenshaw, welcome back to Democracy Now! So sadly, your book is more relevant today than ever. Talk about why you wrote it, and tell us some of the stories of these women that we should know.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Amy, it’s such a pleasure to be back and a special honor to be on with my sister-in-law, Dorothy Roberts, who effectively laid out exactly what the conditions are that contribute to Black women’s vulnerability to state violence and the erasure of that vulnerability. We call it the loss of the loss. We call it the marginalization of Black women, because their stories about violence and their stories about experiencing anti-Black racism just have not at the center of how we imagine police violence, how we imagine assault on Black bodies, and yet it is at the core of so many dimensions of anti-Black racism.
So, we’ve heard about the Henrietta Lacks story and the exploitation of her cells. We also heard about the exploitation of Black women’s productive labor. Black women were the source of American wealth. We are. We were. It’s through our bodies that the slave population came into existence, which is the predicate for American superpower status. And yet, we are the last ones to be talked about. We are the last ones to be elevated. We are the last ones to be defended and marched on behalf of when we are killed, when we are falsely accused, when we die disproportionately in childbirth, and when our productive labor benefits the entire country.
So, #SayHerName is the one thing, the imperative, that we can do something about. We can’t give these women back to their families, but we can make sure that they are not lost to history. And we can make sure that the circumstances under which Black women suffer are part of our consciousness about what in the society needs to be addressed in order to really achieve a fully inclusive democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about some of the women? And you talk about the erasure at so many levels, the story of their lives and all the stories of knowing about them after they’ve lost their lives at the hands of police. Share that storytelling that you say is so important.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, one of the things that we wanted to do with telling the stories is both broaden the circumstances, so people understand that some Black women are killed not because they were engaged in any kind of lawlessness, but because their family called for help. So, Tanisha Anderson was killed just a few days before Tamir Rice was by the Cleveland Police Department. Why? Because she was having a mental health episode. Her family called 911, thinking they were going to get help. Instead, they got armed officers who came and body-slammed her in trying to force her into a confined space, and then knelt on her, George Floyd style, while holding a gun on the family, preventing them from coming to her assistance and aid. Michelle Cusseaux, also killed within seconds of police arriving on a mental health pickup order — this was five days after Mike Brown.
So, these are all of the ways — some of the ways that Black people lose their lives when they have to encounter police, police coming, not trained to deal with the situation, police having stereotypes about Black people — not just Black men, Black people. The person who killed Michelle Cusseaux said that his life was in danger from this five-foot-two woman because of the look in her eye. So, what we’re looking at is stereotypes about Black women in which they’re never seen as damsels in distress. They’re just as likely to be seen as threats as their male counterparts, which is why, although Black women are less than 10% of women population, they account for more than one-fifth of people who have been killed — women who have been killed by the police.
So, these are the stories that we need to have in order to see the full expanse of vulnerability. Only when you have the full story can you actually demand the kind of transformations that are necessary to protect people against this particular risk.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Crenshaw, you are now in Martha’s Vineyard, where you’ve just completed a session on critical race theory. You coined this term. Can you talk about it? And, of course, it’s the subject, I mean, of — it is the target, I should say, for the second in running for the Republican nomination for president, after Donald Trump, the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. You have traveled through Florida talking about this issue. Talk about how critical race theory relates to this kind of erasure that we’re seeing here and how you’re trying to fight against it.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, critical race theory has been weaponized by the far-right folks, like Christopher Rufo, as a container for all of the anxieties, all of the discomfort, all of the retrenchment, the reaction to the antiracist demonstrations, to what happened after George Floyd. It’s a convenient way of capturing that anxiety. It just so happens that, though, critical race theory really is something. It’s the study of how racial inequality is reproduced, is embedded in our institutions, in our structures, more broadly, across society.
So, the goal of the African American Policy Forum’s Critical Race Theory Summer School for the past four years is to frame critical race theory in ways that people can recognize it. So, when people give their children the talk, for example, the talk is not about the birds and the bees. It’s what Black parents must tell their children for them to increase the odds that they will survive an encounter with police. It’s the wisdom. It’s the knowledge. It’s the way that we’ve had to encounter a world that is not color blind. Intersectionality also tells us that we’ve got to give that talk not just to our sons, but to our daughters. That’s what #SayHerName is all about.
So, in the Vineyard this year, we began Critical Race Theory Summer School with two live panels. They can be found on YouTube. The point is to be able to say that the attack on Black knowledge is an attack on Black freedom — but not just Black freedom, it is an attack on our multiracial democracy. That’s what January 6th was all about. That’s what this upcoming prosecution is all about. This is why the stories that we tell about our lives are essential to this entire multiracial democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it links directly to January 6. Of course, we’re speaking to you just after President Trump was indicted yet again, this time around trying to basically foment a coup d’état, overturn the 2020 election.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, let’s remember, one of the most striking images of January 6 was the image of the Confederate flag marching through the Capitol. It had never happened before. And that wasn’t just happenstance. If you look at the actual rationale for the claim that the election was stolen, where do they focus their complaint? It’s on largely Black-, Brown-populated cities: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee — right? — Detroit. The argument is that these votes were illegitimate votes, these poll workers were illegitimate poll workers. This is a deep undercurrent in American society, that has always felt that the participation of nonwhite people, and particularly Black people, was somehow contradictory, somehow not consistent with the idea of who this democracy is supposed to be for and about. Our Supreme Court basically said that African Americans can never be citizens because of their enslavability: What was done to us is a feature of who we are.
So it’s not an accident that this was the argument that Trump was able to dog whistle. It might not even be a dog whistle. And fortunately, at least as far as the allegations against him are concerned, we are using, are seeing the flashback, using laws that were developed to address the ways in which conspiracies to rob us of our citizenship and right to vote still are on the books and still can be used to correct the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you further about the Republican presidential contender, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has doubled down on the Florida Board of Education’s new rules that require educators to teach students that enslaved Black people, quote, “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Yep, last month, Governor DeSantis defended the curriculum.
GOV. RON DESANTIS: I think that they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is, all of that is rooted in whatever is factual. They listed everything out. And if you have any questions about it, just ask the Department of Education. You can talk about those folks. But, I mean, these were scholars who put that together. It was not anything that was done politically.
AMY GOODMAN: The NAACP has called Florida’s new curriculum a, quote, “sanitized and dishonest telling of the history of slavery in America.” This comes as Ron Peri, one of DeSantis’s appointees to oversight board of Disney’s special tax district, is drawing attention for reportedly teaching a 2021 seminar in which he said, quote, “Whites were also slaves in America,” and cited discredited research to argue there was the “Irish slave trade.” Meanwhile, CBS reports two of the nation’s largest organizations that cater to Black professionals say they’re moving their annual conventions out of Florida because the governor and state lawmakers have become increasingly insensitive to people of color. The fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha said that their convention was scheduled to take place in Orlando, but the organization is now looking elsewhere because of, quote, “Governor DeSantis’ harmful, racist, and insensitive policies against the Black community.” If you can respond to all of this?
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, we’ve been trying to respond to it for the last three years, Amy, but the attack on critical race theory, the anti-woke attack on antiracism, it was always going here. This is what it is all about, the effort to both-sides slavery, the effort to basically say, “Look, at least slavery gave Africans skills. There was some benefit to it.” This is an old ideology. And the very fact that people don’t recognize it underscores how much ignorance there currently is about our own history.
The idea that Black people were benefited, that somehow they would have been unmoored to any kind of productive labor had it not been for enslavement, this was the rationale for enslavement. This was the rationale for the Civil War. These are the ideas that the Daughters of the Confederacy tried to hardwire into our education system.
So, when there is a pushback against that, and a broadening of our understanding of how enslavement was rationalized, how enslavement was based on the mass, forced reproduction of Black women, all of these facts, that had been marginalized, are now framed by the anti-woke cabal as indoctrination. They are counterindoctrination. This is the true indoctrination. And finally, people are able to see it for what it’s worth.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the news of the death of the Harvard Law professor, the civil rights activist Charles Ogletree at the age of 70 this past weekend. Can you mention, talk about his significance?
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, you know, I have a very special relationship with Professor Ogletree. I was part of Anita Hill’s legal team and just was so overwhelmed and moved by his willingness to defend her and to understand that even though she was a witness, she was going to be treated as a defendant. This is what we understood from the beginning about Black women’s ability to testify, to tell the truth about their experiences. They are not seen, we are not seen as credible across the country, across all groups. His loss is unimaginable. And at the same time, we have to remember that he was a warrior for justice and demands that still are real.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, author of #SayHerName: Black Women’s Stories of Police Violence and Public Silence.