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Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America's Prison Nation

by Beth Richie

New York: New York University Press, 2012, 229 pp., $22.00, paperback

Reviewed by Jean Hardisty

Beth Richie is well-known for her engaged research and activist scholarship. In Arrested Justice, she draws on her many years of work in the violence against women movement to present an analysis that incorporates race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—known as intersectionality – and incorporates the emerging understanding of the damage the criminal justice system does to communities of color, especially poor women. Her voice is fierce, and she targets some injustices that have been previously exposed while providing an original critique of today’s movement against domestic violence.

Richie focuses on the role of race and racism in the fates of women who have been victims of violence, inflicted by both individuals and the state. As an intersectional thinker, she places the experiences of women of color at the center—a perspective that is quite distinct from the “politics of inclusion,” a multiracial approach that generalizes from the experiences of white women, adding on the experiences of women of color. Sexual violence, which white feminists often discuss as a tool of patriarchy, is from an intersectional perspective also a tool of racism and colonialism.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of feminist organizing was driven by the goal of social change, and it incorporated race and class into an intersectional understanding of both violence against women and the role of the state. At the local level, it viewed the police as obstacles to justice for women, not as allies in the enforcement of justice. Richie covers in some detail the erosion of this social justice focus, as the antiviolence movement began increasingly to rely on the state for financial support and on the police for the protection of victims. Abetted by the media, the criminal justice system designated some victims of violence as more “deserving” than others. Eventually, the criminal justice system was portrayed as the benevolent defender of women of color not against racist institutions but against men of color. As the movement was coopted and folded into a government-run system of services and prevention, its goal changed from social justice to protection for the deserving.

Thus, perhaps out of fear of biting the hand that feeds it, the movement largely abandoned “undesirable” and “undeserving” poor women, especially those of color, as well as nonconforming women such as lesbian, transsexual, addicted, mentally ill, or disabled women. They just do not capture public sympathy in this age of conformity and hostility to poverty—yet they are, Richie points out, the “least protected and most stigmatized and therefore at greatest danger.”

The process Richie describes can be applied to other social-justice movements as well, though it is a mistake to generalize across issues. Even in her book, Richie often fails to distinguish between the anti-rape movement and the movement against domestic violence. Important differences thus become collapsed as the term “antiviolence” is used to incorporate both. But because most social justice movements are eventually coopted by their need to gain acceptance in order to achieve reforms, much of what Richie says about coexistence with the criminal justice system is generalizable to both rape and domestic violence. Acceptance is achieved through the promotion of a sympathetic stereotype, such as the professional lesbian, the disabled hero, or the child with cancer. It is crucial that a sympathetic stereotype replace a negative one, such as the butch lesbian, the disabled slacker, or the chain-smoking cancer patient.

Recent groundbreaking scholarship and activism by the ACLU, the NAACP, and others have shown how the criminal justice system has functioned as a tool of the state, imposing what the writer Michelle Alexander calls a “new Jim Crow” system of segregation and oppression on men of color, especially black men (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010). But this system also afflicts black women, Richie shows, and the use of positive victim stereotypes by the antiviolence movement exacerbates the problems Black women face in maintaining their own safety within the context of a racist criminal justice system.

The collaboration (my term) of the women’s antiviolence movement with mainstream politics, including with law-and-order rhetoric, has “contributed to the ongoing escalation of male violence against Black women,” Richie argues. She documents that African American women are disproportionately victimized by their intimate partners compared to whites—and their physical assaults and sexual abuse are undoubtedly underreported, due to what Richie elsewhere has called “the trap of loyalty.” Because the black community is so overpoliced and harshly punished in comparison with the white community, black women may be reluctant to report violence to the police for fear that yet another black man will face unfair treatment in the courts and in prison. In addition, because black women are so often demonized and dismissed, they do not get the protection they need from mainstream institutions. The combination of black women’s high level of victimization, their reluctance to report it, and their lack of protection leaves them more vulnerable than white women. Clearly, the context in which black women and other women of color experience violence differs from that for white women.

Moreover, it is not unusual for black women to be further victimized by the authorities who are supposed to help them. This comes in various forms: police brutality by male police officials; physical and sexual assault by male staff on women in state custody; child protective services that intervene disproportionately when a black mother is suspected of child neglect; and the demonization of welfare recipients by journalists who are supposedly telling their stories.

Richie uses the term “prison nation” as a metaphor for the policies developed since 1960 that have led the US to become first in the world in its rate of incarceration. According to the Sentencing Project, more than sixty percent of the people in US prisons are now racial and ethnic minorities. The increasing incarceration of people of color has been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which two-thirds of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

While “prison nation” is a stunning term that captures this age of scandalously racialized mass incarceration, the use of this metaphor has an unfortunate shortcoming. “Prison nation” is not itself an actor. Like institutional racism, “prison nation” is the manifestation of certain political structures and methods of oppression, mobilized by individual actors and a complicit general public. The actors most successful in creating prison nation are those who can accumulate the greatest amount of power and thus affect the course of the country. (Certainly the right-wing members of the Supreme Court are stars in the area of racially biased incarceration.)

It is not Richie’s job here to delineate the individuals, organizations, funding sources, collaborators, or techniques of the political right, and she should not be criticized for not having done so. But to imply that “prison nation” is itself the culprit in the horrendous demonization of women of color and the shocking indifference (or worse) to violence against them leaves the reader without an identifiable antagonist to hold accountable for our current system.

Richie attributes the national acceptance of prison nation to the growth of neoliberalism, now the dominant ideology of the United States. However, it would have been helpful if Richie had provided a definition of neoliberalism, since it has become an increasingly imprecise term that generally refers to free markets exempt from regulation; privatization (of water, parks, health care); private property rights; and free trade. In addition, equally important for the growth of prison nation has been the ideological tenet of “personal responsibility.” This club has been most effectively used to batter poor women, who are told that their fate is the result of their bad choices and their lack of initiative.

I hope young women are not discouraged to read that the white-dominated antiviolence movement is so resistant to placing women of color at the center of its politics. One story not told by Richie is the emergence of organizations, programs, and shelters led by and serving communities of color. The antiviolence movement is, in fact, ripe for the leadership of young women of color, who may have to raise their voices to be heard, but whose message becomes more and more clear as analysis such as Richie’s clarifies the problems.

Arrested Justice is a splendid demonstration of the intersectional perspective, a bulletin about the state of the violence against women movement, and a warning about the terrible effects of mass incarceration on individuals and communities of color. I hope that all activists and scholars—women of color and white women, young and old—read this book and from it, learn how stacked the system is against women of color, especially poor women.

Jean Hardisty is former executive director of Political Research Associates and a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women.