Shanesha Taylor And The Peculiar Prosecution Of Black Women In This Country

March 24, 2014  |  

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The mere fact that there is not a single Change.org petition or Twitter hashtag aimed at freeing Shanesha Taylor tells me how little regard we place on how racism affects black women.

If the name doesn’t sound familiar, her story just might ring a bell. From the CBS affiliate in Scottsdale Arizona, this is Taylor’s story:

It’s unclear if an Arizona mom got the job she was interviewing for, but after a witness found her children, ages 2 years and 6 months in a hot car outside, she now faces child abuse charges.

Scottsdale police said a witness heard a crying child inside a Dodge Durango parked in an office complex parking lot at 9700 N. 91st St. in Scottsdale about 12:30 p.m. Thursday. The woman reported to police the two young children were inside the vehicle parked directly in the sun, with the engine off, the doors closed and each of the four windows were just slightly open.

The mother, Shanesha Taylor, 35, returned to the vehicle about 45 minutes later and told the officer she had just finished a job interview and did not have anyone to watch her children.

“She was upset. This is a sad situation all around. She said she was homeless. She needed the job. Obviously not getting the job. So it’s just a sad situation,” said Scottsdale Police Sergeant Mark Clark. 

She was arrested and booked into jail for child abuse.

Her children are now in CPS custody.”

Yes, it is extremely sad – and desperately dangerous – for a mother to leave her two small children alone in a vehicle. It’s even more sad and just as dangerous that we lock up a woman, whose sole crime is being homeless with children.

And Shanesha Taylor is not alone. I read stories daily of black women being mistreated by law enforcement and jailed for peculiar reasons. From the trivial, including the unbelievably silly stories of black women being arrested and jailed for wearing thongs on the beach, to the more heartbreakingly sad story of the black mother who was arrested and even incarcerated for sending her child to the wrong school district, and other odd reasons in between. In very few of those occasions do these stories ever occupy the national black conscious beyond casual expressions of sympathy (i.e. “that’s so sad…”). In many instances, these peculiarly-arrested black women are likely to be vilified and implicated in their own miscarriage of justice by the community-at-large.

Honestly, I feel that if not for the Marissa Alexander case being in such close proximity to the Trayvon Martin case – both in locale and in timing – would we really care about her story at all? Honestly?

Missing from most conversations around incarcerations are the statistics, which show how black women are the fastest growing prison population in the country and how the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for black women is 1 in 19; compare that with 1 in 118 for white women. Also missing is how young black girls are “disproportionately affected by punitive, zero-tolerance policies,” which contribute to the much discussed (but never in terms of female children) school-to-prison pipeline. In this report entitled “Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls,” Monique W. Morris cites research, which found that teachers perceived black girls as being ‘loud, defiant, and precocious’ and that black girls were more likely to be reprimanded for being “unladylike” (including behavior described as loud, defiant and precocious) than their white or Latina peers.

Likewise, there is little talk about our current welfare policies and practices, particularly how the Department of Human Services and the justice system often work together to strip mostly black and poor women of their autonomies and rights as mothers – and it happens all in the name of protecting the welfare of children. According to this Frontline report, black children in the child welfare system are placed in foster care at twice the rate for white children. In this UCLA Law Review article entitled “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers” Dorothy E. Roberts poignantly points outs this:

As neoliberal policies strip poor African American neighborhoods of needed services, poor and low-income black mothers tend to receive child welfare support only when they have been charged with child maltreatment. An African American woman I interviewed in a black Chicago neighborhood poignantly captured this fundamental problem with U.S. child welfare philosophy:

[T]he advertisement [for the child abuse hotline], it just says abuse. If you being abused, this is the number you call, this is the only way you gonna get help. It doesn’t say if I’m in need of counseling, or if . . . my children don’t have shoes, if I just can’t provide groceries even though I may have seven kids, but I only get a hundred something dollars food stamps. And my work check only goes to bills. I can’t feed eight of us all off a hundred something dollar food stamps . . . I don’t want to lose my children, so I’m not going to call [Department of Children and Family Services] for help because I only see them take away children.”

When I read about the Shanesha Taylor case, I can’t help but to think how she, as a homeless mother trying to land employment, felt in that moment about relying on the system for help? And with all the talk from Washington about cuts to welfare, was the system even an available option? I also wonder how prosecuting her actually serves in the best interest of these children? What could be gained from turning their mother into a criminal, which will now pretty much guarantee that she will never hold a job again? How does traumatically ripping them from their mother’s arms and placing them into the unpredictable foster care system act in their welfare? In this peculiar justice system, which seems to punish poor women for the crime of being poor and of few options, we have contributed to the overall economic and familial instability of the most vulnerable members of society: the children we are supposed to be protecting.

Another statistic to note comes from the American Civil Liberties Union website, which says that girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders than white girls, who are more likely to be treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems. There is no denying that race too plays a part in how we view black women and their encounters with the justice system. Even more of a reason why Shanesha Taylor deserves our support and the benefit of the doubt.

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