In the year since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, the national conversation on race has been mostly about Black men. Indeed, the vast majority of stories about police violence are about young Black men dying at the hands of (mostly) white police officers. But Sandra Bland’s mysterious, troubling death on July 13 expanded the dialogue to include Black women.
Although it has officially been called a suicide, journalists and activists have questioned the circumstances of Bland’s death. Pulled over for failing to signal a turn, she initially complied with the police officer’s requests, but the situation quickly turned antagonistic, and a routine traffic violation turned into resisting arrest. Apparently, she was left unattended in a jail in Waller County, Texas. Officials claim she then hung herself in her cell. The family has filed a wrongful death suit. I am sure we will hear more about the case in the weeks and months to come.
I must admit, the female half of the “Black Lives Matter” equation took me by surprise. I could relate to countless incidents of black men being pulled over and harassed by police officers because, after all, these things have happened to me. Back when I used to be a distance runner, it was a common occurrence for White female runners to trip over their own feet as they scurried out of my way. These experiences didn’t seem to translate to Black women.
After speaking to my wife and to female friends, however, I’ve come to understand that fear and unease are also an all-too-normal part of their lives as well. For my wife, the vulnerability of being a woman arises when she finds herself alone in parking garages or other unpopulated surroundings. A close friend, Gasby Brown, a Harvard-educated Black woman and president of The Gasby Group, a national philanthropy consulting firm, says, “Sandra Bland’s story could be mine. I travel alone a lot for work, and it’s very easy to imagine this kind of encounter with a police officer in a strange city. It is dangerous to assume that education, designer clothes and success create immunity to injustice for Black women. “
I am grateful for the candid and sometimes painful dialogue with women whose character and intelligence I respect. It has enlightened my tunnel vision. This is not the time for a he-said, she-said competition of who has it tougher in America. All people of color know in their bones a persistent fear that even our well-intentioned white friends can imagine and empathize with, but may not really discern. I am old enough to remember decades past, when racial relations were even more explosive, but the past twelve months have taught us that what looks like progress may in fact be political correctness masking the same old racism. It is a sad commentary that we all confront outright racism and harmful stereotypes in our daily and professional lives, and my personal lesson for this month is that black women’s lives matter. Their experiences are neither entirely the same as mine, nor entirely different.
George H. Lambert, Jr. is the President and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.