Barack Obama has made it clear: black women deserve more of changemakers’ attention.
This was the basic thesis of the President’s speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s (CBCF) 45th Annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C. on Sunday. The CBC has been important to Obama’s career, given that he was a member while he was the junior senator from Illinois, and he acknowledged this importance in his speech:
Whatever I’ve accomplished, the CBC has been there. I was proud to be a CBC member when I was in the Senate, and I’m proud to be your partner today.
Obama’s speech, which you can see at the end of this post, was focused on this influential group of African-American policymakers and legislators. He used the moment to highlight black women, noting the role they played in organizing for civil rights and systematic change even as their importance was erased on the basis of both their gender and race:
Of course, black women have been a part of every great movement in American history, even if they weren’t always given a voice. They helped plan the March on Washington, but were almost entirely absent from the program. And when pressed, male organizers added a tribute highlighting six women—none of them who were asked to make a speech. Daisy Bates introduced her fellow honorees in just 142 words, written by a man. Of course, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson sang. But in a three-hour program, the men gave women just 142 words. That may sound familiar to some of the women in the room here tonight. The organizers even insisted on two separate parades—male leaders marching along the main route on Pennsylvania Avenue, and leaders like Dorothy Height and Rosa Parks relegated to Independence Avenue. America’s most important march against segregation had its own version of separation.
Black women were central in the fight for women’s rights, from suffrage to the feminist movement, and yet despite their leadership, too often they were also marginalized. But they didn’t give up, they didn’t let up. They were too fierce for that. Black women have always understood the words of Pauli Murray, that “hope is a song in a weary throat.”
Obama spent most of his speech addressing the structural barriers and disadvantages that affect black women and women of color disproportionately—pay gaps, education that steers women of color away from STEM or other high-powered fields, cultural messages that cast doubt on the abilities of women of color—and saying that the country needs to move toward a society that encourages the intellectual and professional empowerment of black women.
He also spent a notable part of his speech addressing criminal justice reform, addressing crimes that disproportionately affect women of color and women in the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline:
And although in these discussions a lot of my focus has been on African-American men and the work we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper, we can’t forget the impact that the system has on women, as well. The incarceration rate for black women is twice as high as the rate for white women. Many women in prison, you come to discover, have been victims of homelessness and domestic violence, and in some cases human trafficking. They’ve got high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. And many have been sexually assaulted, both before they got to prison and then after they go to prison. And we don’t often talk about how society treats black women and girls before they end up in prison. They’re suspended at higher rates than white boys and all other girls. And while boys face the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of girls are facing a more sinister sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. Victims of early sexual abuse are more likely to fail in school, which can lead to sexual exploitation, which can lead to prison. So we’re focusing on boys, but we’re also investing in ways to change the odds for at-risk girls—to make sure that they are loved and valued, to give them a chance.
And that’s why we have to make a collective effort to address violence and abuse against women in all of our communities. In every community, on every campus, we’ve got to be very clear: Women who have been victims of rape or domestic abuse, who need help, should know that they can count on society and on law enforcement to treat them with love and care and sensitivity, and not skepticism.
The president also addressed how media conflates his desire for greater police accountability with anti-police ideology—something that he doesn’t identify in himself or the country at large:
So I just want to repeat, because somehow this never gets on the TV: There is no contradiction between us caring about our law enforcement officers and also making sure that our laws are applied fairly. Do not make this as an either/or proposition. This is a both/and proposition. We want to protect our police officers. We’ll do a better job doing it if our communities can feel confident that they are being treated fairly. I hope I’m making that clear.
Check out President Obama’s full speech below.