This Is Nothing New

Atrocities against women, especially women of color, continue to plague the U.S.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

Lucxama Sylvain from Pexels
Source: Lucxama Sylvain from Pexels

By Erica D. Marshall Lee, Ph.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates

Atrocities against women are nothing new. 

Injustices against *fill in the marginalized group* are nothing new. 

My own response as I write this sentence yet again ranges from deep despair and hopelessness to sheer unadulterated anger and rage. Recent weeks have been monumental in exposing the ugly underbelly of our society’s continued tendency to condone the devaluing of Black and Brown women and girls. Again, this is nothing new, but for many, the pain is as bright and intense as if it were the first injury experienced.

During the week of September 14, 2020, our country saw allegations of forced, non-consensual sterilization of immigrant women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, the death of the honorable champion of women’s rights, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the controversial decision made in the Breonna Taylor case. For many Black and Brown women and girls, these are calamitous times.

The alleged travesties at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia have highlighted America’s demeritorious history of promoting harm to the reproductive health of women, and women from marginalized groups in particular. In the past, and indeed the present, women and some men were subject to sterilization without their consent.

The term eugenics has its origins in the Greek word eugenes meaning “well born.” It is defined as beliefs and practices designed to advance the notion that the genetic superiority of the human population is improved by excluding people and groups deemed inferior and/or supporting those considered superior or beneficial.

Contrary to the popularly held belief that the eugenics movement began with Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, it was actually America’s eugenics crusade that inspired his efforts. Hitler said, “It was America that taught us a nation should not open its doors equally to all nations,” and that the United States “simply excludes the immigration of certain races” (Serwer, 2019). Journalist Edwin Black (2004) also quotes Hitler as saying:

"Now that we know the laws of heredity, it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world. I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock."

Indeed, it was Americans who set out to “breed” a superior race through government involvement (Fayyad, 2020). This created the foundation, leading to the 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell allowing the state-sanctioned nonconsensual sterilization of individuals in public institutions considered “mentally unfit” or genetically inferior (Fayyad, 2020). When penning the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wrote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Fayyad, 2020). In fact, this ruling has to date still not been overturned and is responsible for 70,000+ forced sterilizations in the U.S.

The intention of forcibly sterilizing women was the elimination of "undesirable" genes, which were not limited to those with mental and physical disabilities but also the poor, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. In the 1970s, the Southern states saw the rates of forced sterilization at such alarming numbers that they were derisively termed “Mississippi appendectomies” (Kugler, 2014). In fact, there were instances of medical students performing unnecessary hysterectomies on impoverished Black women solely for training purposes.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Brenda Feigen, co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project, filed a federal lawsuit in 1973 on behalf of Nial Ruth Cox, a Black female subjected to forced sterilization in 1965 (Mar, 2020). Prior to that incident, she and her family received state welfare benefits and were visited regularly by county officials. At the age of 18, Ms. Cox became pregnant and her mother, Devora Cox, was told by county officials that her daughter was "immoral" and unless she agreed to have her sterilized, the family would lose their benefits.

Devora and Nial were informed by her doctor that the procedure was reversible. Despite the lack of any corroborating evidence, the doctor’s report described her as an “18-year-old mentally deficient Negro girl” (Mar, 2020). Indeed, the lugubrious emotions and disbelief that have been evoked for many by the current travesties brought to light in Georgia are likely compounded by the fact that Justice Ginsburg, widely regarded as a beacon and defender of women’s rights, passed on September 18, 2020.

Fast forward to Wednesday, September 23, 2020. Members of the BIPOC community, allies, and advocates were left waiting for a Grand Jury decision regarding the death of 25-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was killed on March 13, 2020, while police were executing a “no-knock” warrant at her residence. While the country has seen arrests and progress in the criminal investigations of the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, movement has been protracted in Breonna’s case.

It came as no surprise to many that charges were not brought against any officer involved in the events that led to Ms. Taylor’s death. The message, in the eyes of many Black and Brown women and girls, was clear: Individuals in positions of authority can continue to oppress women in vulnerable situations; be it from an ICE facility to the not so safe comfort of their own homes. BIPOC women are more vulnerable as a result of their race, ethnicity, and social standing.

That said, BIPOC women are strong, persistent, dynamic, resourceful, caring, determined, intelligent, and valuable members of society. Many have tried to stand on our necks and snuff out the light that burns within us, but our ancestral sisterhood allows no space for the destruction of our spirit. As psychologists, we must not only fight for those we serve but leave room to care and advocate for ourselves. We have the tools to serve as advocates, activists, and sisters in our community and indeed our nation. 

Be kind to yourselves when it seems no one else can, seek out support networks that empower and provide agency, unplug when and if possible, implement positive self-talk and pleasurable activity, and set limits for others and yourself. We are in this together. Baraka nyingi.

References

Black, E. (2004, February 6). Hitler’s debt to America. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/feb/06/race.usa

Fayyad, A. (2020, September 18). America’s shameful history of sterilizing women. The Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/09/17/opinion/americas-shameful-ongoing-history-sterilizing-women/

Kugler, S. (2014, March 25). Day 17: Mississippi appendectomies and reproductive justice. MSNBC. https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/day-17-mississippi-appendectomies-msna293361

Mar, R. T. (2020, September 19). The forgotten time Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought against forced sterilization. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/19/sterilization-ruth-bader-ginsburg/

Serwer, A. (2019, April). White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/04/adam-serwer-madison-grant-white-nationalism/583258/