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Why is it important to bring a racial justice framework to our efforts to end domestic violence?

by Ivonne Ortiz, Training and Education Specialist for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

wocOctober marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), a time when as advocates we work hard to bring attention to an issue that continues to affect our communities. Beyond raising awareness, DVAM brings a national spotlight to the issue of domestic violence, creating an opportunity to elevate conversations about its root causes, which stem from a culture of oppression and privilege. We know that domestic violence is linked to a web of oppressive systems such as racism, xenophobia, classism, ableism, sexism, and heterosexism. And while domestic violence occurs in every culture regardless of socioeconomic, educational, and religious background, we must address the fact that violence disproportionately affects marginalized groups, especially those who experience multiple forms of oppression. In response to the importance of bringing a racial justice framework to our work, we bring a focus to the experiences of women of color, who experience domestic violence at high rates and continue to encounter barriers when trying to access supportive services.

Experiences of survivors of color

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African American females experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 2.5 times the rate of women of other races. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 23.4% Hispanic/Latino females are victimized by intimate partner violence (IPV) in a lifetime, defined by rape, physical assault or stalking. Project AWARE’s (Asian Women Advocating Respect and Empowerment) 2000-2001 survey of 178 API women found that 81.1% reported experiencing at least one form of intimate partner violence in the past year.

As we think about how to make our programs more accessible, we must talk about why some groups have more access to services and experience better outcomes than others. We know that survivors must overcome a number of challenges when trying to escape abuse, but racism imposes additional burdens on survivors of color, whose survival includes navigating a complex web of oppression.

The Women of Color Network has developed multiple resources highlighting the many challenges that may prevent women of color from accessing much needed services. As the WOCN explains, each community has unique struggles, but there are common factors and considerations which may account for under-reporting of domestic violence and underutilization of services by survivors of color.

An intersectional approach takes into account all aspects of ones’ experiences of oppression as well as all the systems that produce and/or perpetuate that oppression when responding to survivors’ needs. This intersectionality of oppressions lens calls for the integration of racial justice strategies in our approaches to both preventing and responding to domestic violence.

The case of Marissa Alexander

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Among communities of color one of the major challenges to seeking assistance is the distrust of law enforcement. Many survivors of color are fearful of subjecting themselves and loved ones to a criminal and civil system they see as sexist, and/or racially and culturally biased. A recent report from the National Domestic Violence Hotline revealed that both survivors who had called the police those who hadn’t shared a strong reluctance to turning to law enforcement for help. Of the 2 in 5 (43%) of respondents who felt police had discriminated against them, 22% identified race as the basis for this discrimination.

In 2010 Marissa Alexander, an African American mother and survivor of domestic violence, fired a warning shot at the wall of her home in order to scare her estranged, abusive husband during a life-threatening beating. First responders did not recognize Marissa as a victim. For trying to protect herself, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Marissa accepted a plea deal with the State of Florida including time served (1,030 days), an additional 65 days in the Duval County Jail, and two years of probation while serving house detention and wearing a surveillance monitor.

The Free Marissa Now Campaign released a fact sheet titled Repeal Mandatory Minimums: A Racial Justice and Domestic Violence Issue, which provides information on how women of color are often coerced into engaging in illegal activity such as drug trafficking by their abusive partners, and because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain crimes, women are imprisoned for long periods of time. Marissa was incarcerated despite the fact that she had no prior criminal record, was a licensed and registered gun owner, and harmed no one when she fired that fateful warning shot.

How racial justice relates to our work to end gender based violence

Racial justice work combats all forms of racism by establishing policies that ensure equitable power, opportunities, and outcomes for all. In the case of the movement to end gender based violence, racial justice refers to the proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes and actions that produce access, safety, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all.

To understand the role of racial justice within the context of victim services, we must consider both adverse affects of institutional racism and individual racism. Individual racism refers to the judgments, biases or stereotypes that can lead to discrimination. Institutional racism refers to “policies, practices and programs that work to the benefit of white people and the detriment of people of color, usually unintentionally or inadvertently.” (Equity and Empowerment Lens 2012) Addressing institutional racism requires the examination and dismantling of systemic policies and practices that serve to perpetuate disparities. Understanding historical context should play a role in every analysis of social and public structures and investments.

Similarly, racial justice work is an important component of our efforts to prevent intimate partner violence. Domestic violence prevention is about addressing the root causes and changing the social norms that allow and condone violence. By applying a racial justice lens to this work, we acknowledge the role of racism and privilege in perpetuating violence in our culture and commit to working to dismantle these constructs at the individual, community, and societal levels.

Join the conversation

This year for DVAM 2015, we are talking about addressing the intersectionality of oppressions through partnerships with allied social justice movements. The concept of incorporating a racial justice framework into our movement work is central to these conversations. The Awareness Highlights section of the DVAM website, “Awareness + Action = Social Change: Why racial justice matters in the prevention equation” lists a number of events that provide opportunities to engage in the national dialogue around this issue. Click on the links below for detailed information.

The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence is committed to increasing access to all survivors of domestic violence by bringing into focus the ways in which race and ethnicity shape survivors experiences and offer strengths towards building healthy communities.

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