Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Christopher Brown
Christopher Brown is a sophomore at Vassar College studying political science and mathematics.
On February 27, 2014, President Obama launched his new initiative entitled “My Brother’s Keeper.” The program asserts that at least 200 million dollars will be invested in determining which businesses, sectors of higher education, and other facets of the American lifestyle are best equipped to help provide opportunities to young men of color. The initiative is based upon the premise that a high percentage of African American, Hispanic, and Native American students are reading below proficiency levels once they hit the fourth grade.
While the program is ideal on paper, there are multiple flaws with the premise of the fund. First, it is extremely problematic that President Obama has placed a dollar amount on the effort of pushing back against centuries of institutionalized racism. Even more disconcerting is the initiative’s complete disregard of women. Women of color are by far much more marginalized compared to their male counterparts. While it is ineffective to get into an argument of “who is the most oppressed within the oppressed,” it is important to acknowledge that this program speaks towards a greater issue of women of color falling through the cracks of the judicial and congressional system of the United States.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is a prominent critical race theorist who is well known for her coining of the term intersectionality, referring to the need to acknowledge the multiple different identities of oppressed peoples working in tandem with each other. Crenshaw has written many pieces exploring the plight of the African American female.
In her piece “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” Crenshaw claims that Black women constantly fall through the cracks and are effectively dehumanized by the judicial system, specifically in rape and sexual harassment cases. Crenshaw states that the current state of antiracist politics is not sophisticated enough to deal with the intersection of race and sex, and therefore Black women are either seen as Black or women, yet not as both. This unfortunate phenomenon is highlighted in multiple Title VII cases.
One such example is DeGraffenreid v General Motors. In DeGraffenreid, five Black women brought suit against General Motors, alleging that the employer's seniority system perpetuated the effects of past discrimination against Black women. Evidence adduced at trial revealed that General Motors simply did not hire Black women prior to 1964 and that all of the Black women hired after 1970 lost their jobs in a seniority-based layoff during a subsequent recession.
Rather than decide the case consistent with the way it was presented, as a race and sex discrimination case, the court split it into two separate entities. On the sex discrimination basis, the court rationalized that the claim was invalid because the company had hired many women in the time span given. As I’m sure you guessed, these employees were exclusively white women.
Ignoring half of the case, the court simply dismissed the race based discrimination claim, recommending that the five women work in consolidation with another suit taking place at the time, focused exclusively on race. The women, however, were not satisfied. Their case was neither a race or sex discrimination case; it was a case brought about by Black women fighting for equal access to opportunities for themselves and others sharing their identity .
Although DeGraffenreid took place in the 1970s, present day scenarios illustrate that oppressed people can still be victims of our judicial system—a system that remains inadequate. Cece McDonald, for example, is a Black transgender woman who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for attacking a man who was not only harassing McDonald for being a transgender woman, but was also threatening physical violence towards her and her friends. Whether or not McDonald deserved jail time for her actions is a sensitive situation; however, the court proceedings that followed showcased the more despicable problem.
After being convicted, officials decided to place McDonald in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, an all male prison facility, with a final prison destination to be decided at a later date. The state claimed jurisdiction over McDonald’s registered gender, and, declaring her legally a man, later permanently sentenced her to a men’s facility .
Cece McDonald’s story highlights the continued failure of the American judicial system to be able to deal with intersectional forms of identity. To deny a transgender woman a prison location consistent with her gender identity is nothing short of treating that person as inhuman.
It is important for the judicial system to be able to interpret the situations that a diverse group of oppressed peoples face. The story of a Black gender queer person is different from that of a Hispanic lesbian woman, which is different from my story as a Filipino-American straight man.
I can’t sit here and say that Obama’s intentions in the creation of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative were malicious. Yet the effect that the program has on society is far more significant than the intentions behind its formation. The initiative fails to acknowledge the continued oppression of any groups outside of Black and Hispanic men. Women of color again fall through the cracks and are further marginalized.
In current society, it is impossible for our system to recognize multiple identified peoples, leading to further marginalization from courts and other authoritative bodies. In order for our system to be an effective and just system for all, it cannot continue to lump Black women with either Black men or White women. A Black woman is not a member of the Black community or the female community—she is a member of the Black female community.
 Hudson, David. "President Obama Launches My Brother's Keeper, His New Initiative to Help Young Men of Color." The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/02/27/president-obama-launches-my-brothers-keeper-his-new-initiative-help-young-men-color (accessed April 25, 2014).
 The White House. "My Brother's Keeper." The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper (accessed April 25, 2014).
 Wikimedia Foundation. "Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberlé_Williams_Crenshaw (accessed April 25, 2014).
 Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/tbettch/Crenshaw%20Demarginalizing%20Intersection%20Race%20Sex.pdf (accessed April 25, 2014).
 "DeGraffenreid v General Motors." http://faculty.law.miami.edu/zfenton/documents/DeGraffenreidv.GM.pdf (accessed April 25, 2014).
 Wikimedia Foundation. "CeCe McDonald." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CeCe_McDonald (accessed April 25, 2014).
Photo Credit: Flickr user Michael Coghlan