Friday, May 11, 2012

“Project Prevention”: Saving Black Women from Themselves and Creating a Better Future

My intent was to simply write about the recent NY Times article that suggested that Black women are responsible for being overweight and all associated illnesses. Then I started reading more about an organization that was called C.R.A.C.K (now called Project Prevention) and my blog post changed. So what does this call for Black women to lose weight and the actions of an organization that seeks to sterilize drug-addicted women have in common? They are both part of a larger ideology that pathologizes Black women’s bodies. Contextualizing these two parallel conversations shows that at the core is the privileging of some bodies over others. 

Black women’s bodies have historically been problematic for those who hold the power to define race-gender hierarchies. Early Europeans constructed Black women’s bodies as different, highly sexual and “other”. Black women’s societal worth is often devalued in the eyes of European Americans. Such devaluation can also occur when other Black folk subscribe to the ideology of the damaged Black woman. The damaged Black woman is often used to promote policies that focus on changing individual behaviors as opposed to critically questioning societal structures that contribute to Black women’s inequitable positions. The result is the culture of poverty, the culture of fatness and the culture of drug abuse that permeates the two stories that I discuss below. 

Fat Ass Black Women and Self-Inflicted Illnesses
If only fat ass Black women would change their behaviors then all that ails us would disappear. If only poor ass Black women would stop being so bossy then they’ll get married and all that ails us would disappear. See the similarities between these statements? If only Black women would change. Change woman, change! Become skinny, get married, stop being poor. Darn it, if we can only get these women to behave differently then dangerous (culturally, economically, medically) Black folk would disappear. 

The recent article in the New York Times (May 5, 2012) says,

“I call on every black woman for whom it is appropriate to commit to getting under 200 pounds or to losing the 10 percent of our body weight that often results in a 50 percent reduction in diabetes risk. Sleeping better may be key, as recent research suggests that lack of sleep is a little-acknowledged culprit in obesity. But it is not just sleep, exercise and healthy foods we need to solve this problem — we also need wisdom.”

Elizabeth Catlett 1967 
I don’t take issue with Randall’s call for Black women to take better care of our bodies and health. I don’t dispute that Black women appear to be susceptible to illness that are weight related. What I take issue with is the individualistic approach to conceptualizing the problem of weight and illness among Black women.

Alice Randall’s approach is rather reminiscent of the Moynihan approach to dealing with poverty in the Black community. Let’s fix the women and all else will go away. Employed is a cultural approach to understanding weight and its intersection with race and gender and illness. What is ignored is how structural factors, such as racism, contribute to Black women’s inequitable health. 

After reading this article I did wonder as to whether or not Randall has  been in the “Hood” recently? In my recent trip to Brooklyn, NY, here’s what I noticed: there is on average 3 fast food restaurants/per block (and I’m being generous with the term restaurant), there are multiple liquor stores, etc that fill these urban concrete jungles. My, 80 plus year old, grandmother lives in Brooklyn, NY. She lives on a quiet residential street--free of gang violence and all the troubles we tend to associate with urban Black communities. She, like my uncle, lives in a “middle-class” neighborhood (with the decline in wealth among Blacks, I’m no longer sure what constitutes a middle-class neighborhood). My Grandmother likes some of the products sold at Whole Foods. To purchase these products, she takes a bus and a train to get to the nearest Whole Foods Market. The products simply cannot be found in her neighborhood. I lived in Prince George’s County, MD—one of the so-called most affluent Black suburbs in the country. I had to leave PG County to shop at Whole Foods. This pattern of what’s available in our communities is a function of zoning laws and other policies. If we look at the zoning component, we have to go back to the country’s early efforts at urbanization. The federal government played a substantial role in placing certain types of people and businesses into certain communities. This is further perpetuated via tax credits and banking policies. I won’t make this an urban politics lesson. However, I encourage you to check out the placement of I91 in Hartford Connecticut. The placement of this highway forever fractured a viable Black community. How in the face of all of this can we simplify Black women’s weight in a statement that suggests that Black women choose to be fat? Where is the choice?
Eliminating a Potentially Damaged Child

The private sector is also engaged in “encouraging” Black women to change their behaviors. Children Requiring a Caring Community (spelled Kommunity to allow for the acronym C.R.A.C.K), now called Project Prevention, seeks to promote 

“public awareness to the problem of addicts/alcoholics exposing their unborn child to drugs during pregnancy. Project Prevention seeks to reduce the burden of this social problem on taxpayers, trim down social worker caseloads, and alleviate from our clients the burden of having children that will potentially be taken away. Unlike incarceration, Project Prevention extremely cost effective and does not punish the participants. We seek and welcome alliances with all sectors of our communities including drug treatment programs, hospitals, social service departments, among others, and have established such contacts throughout the United States. Project Prevention does not have the resources to combat the national problems of poverty, housing, nutrition, education and rehabilitation services. Those resources we do have are spent to PREVENT a problem for $300 rather than paying millions after it happens in cost to care for a potentially damaged child.” 

Stockwell Memorial Garden, south London
This organization offers substance-abusing women a $300 payment in exchange for their sterilization. The women are compensated if they agree to use long-term birth control, such as hormone implants, injections, IUDs, tubal ligations or vasectomies. The primary targets of Project Prevention are primarily poor women, and particularly poor women of color—look at who they are partnering with (social welfare offices and homeless shelters for example). 

This private organization has constructed the potential problem of drug-addicted women’s childbearing as a danger to others in society and as such decided that it must be contained. This is not a new phenomenon. Black motherhood has long been contested in the U.S. Black family formation, particularly among the poor, tends to be constructed as costly (consider the 1996 welfare reform discourse). In the meantime, there seems to be little concern about the women. 

Underlying the perceived danger of Black procreation is the standard of what/who makes a good mother. Black women, historically and currently, are not perceived as fitting the criteria of good mothers. Why, because we are perceived as lacking the necessary values (morality is often linked to skin color), and we are perceived as possessing excessive and uncontrollable sexual appetites. Given this, private organizations and the government (think family caps) have decided that they know what’s best for Black women. Control their sexual behaviors. Meanwhile, poverty, depression and sexual abuse--all factors that might contribute to drug use--are left out of our conversations (see James, The Violent Matrix). Where is the choice?

Both of these stories, fat Black women and the dangerous drug-addicted woman and her offspring, rely on a historical narrative that positions Black women as damaged. The question that I’m left with this week is why are some so committed to the erasure of Black women? What do you think?

For further reading see:


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  2. This is a great piece. Thank you for the insights.

  3. What about those, such as myself, who do not suffer from "self-inflicted illnesses"? I have multiple sclerosis, which at one support group meeting where a film was shown, the physician-narrator blamed it on a "Caucasian gene". I'm not kidding!

    The problem of food deserts, wherein liquor stores and convenience stores, is one that we must address, predominantly in urban areas, but what about those of us who live in rural areas? What role does obesity play there? How are our behaviors any different than those who live in urban areas? Short answer: Food deserts are a concern here as well, but that cannot be the entirety of it all.

    I am concerned with the ongoing hymn that "If Black Women Work on Their Problems, Then the World Might Be a Better Place for Black Families." Our bodies are still highly exoticized (e.g., prostitution, crack mammas, etc who will do anything for a hit or help from some external source; think "Halle Berry in 'Jungle Fever' or 'B.A.P.S., or 'Monster'".

    Anyway, wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.