As a Black woman in America, I have never known a time in my life when I have felt more unsafe, vulnerable and unprotected. This acute sense of insecurity is sometimes a challenge to articulate. It is, however, a real and shared experience among the many Black women in my life and we continue struggling to give it voice. Behind closed doors, Black women increasingly describe feeling disdained, disregarded, rejected and dismissed. This societal hostility is a widespread sentiment that is not limited by socio-economic background, education, geography or age and was crystallized in the recent case of Shirley Sherrod.
The source of these feelings and experiences come from the larger society, but sadly, too frequently they come from within our own community. Whether in the projection of a caricature of our image in media, the unequal treatment and harsh punishments of the workplace or in the dismissal of our most urgent needs by law enforcement authorities and media, it seems that the attacks on Black women are endless and coming from all angles. Even our own men have taken to attacking us in public forums about everything from being "too demanding," "too angry" and the laughable charge of "having too high standards," to the most recent attack of not being fit for marriage.
I do not know what Black women ever did to merit this pattern of assault, but I do know this: this hostility is not good for the overall health and progress of Black communities as a whole and by extension for the whole of America. And here is why:
If Not in the Spirit of Human Decency, Think Pragmatically
It seems, at best, reckless and counterproductive to either participate in or bear witness to the politicized vilification, demonization and objectification of Black women. This is especially true when coming from within the Black community when these facts are considered: more than half of Black households are headed by Black women - some reports indicate as many as 69%; in the 2008 election cycle, 68% of Black women voted for Barack Obama, and by default for the Democratic party; 85% of the brand purchasing decisions by Black consumers are made by Black women - even in two income households many Black men unabashedly admit they defer financial decision-making to their wife or partner; and on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Black churches are filled primarily with Black women. These are all solid indicators of economic, political, social and cultural value in our democracy. In plain terms, Black women are a surefire voting bloc, a special-interest group, a considerable consumer group, a tax base and clearly the core tithing base in Black churches. With all of the economic, political, social and cultural struggles Black communities are confronted with today, the last thing the community and America can afford is alienating and offending the primary people who hold it together - Black women.
In the days after the Shirley Sherrod take down, I did not hear one voice of influence, advocacy or power stepping-up to protect or defend her. Indeed, any number of talking heads filled their airtime going after the usual easy targets, but I did not hear anyone - specifically Black elected officials, institutional or civic leadership or clergy - hold to account either the White House or the oldest civil rights organization for so readily going after a Black woman in the most demeaning, humiliating and public way. On any other matter of an offense to Black people, America's Black elite, intellectuals, clergy, civil rights organizations and elected leadership trip all over themselves to insert their opinion.
Evidence of Black on Black Classism, Elitism and Sexism
I believe there is more to what was allowed to happen to Shirley Sherrod and to the acceptance of those attacks against her. Something Black America doesn't like to acknowledge - at least not publicly - is the clear and present evidence of classism, elitism and sexism within the Black community. The failure to give public airing to this element in the latest episode of race-baiting in America, and the protection of Black America's favored daughters and sons while those expendable "others" are offered-up and left to twist in the wind, was shameful. The sledgehammer, woodshed treatment of Shirley Sherrod simply would not have happened to someone like Mrs. Valerie Jackson, the widow of Maynard Jackson who was the first Black mayor of Atlanta and by my many accounts considered one of Black America's social elites. However, if by chance it did happen to someone like Mrs. Jackson, I imagine heads would roll and perhaps even another summit of sorts - much like the spectacle orchestrated for Harvard Professor, Henry "Skip" Louis Gates - would have taken place at the White House. Even Desiree Rogers, former White House Social Secretary and considered part of Chicago's Black elite was afforded an investigation and given the benefit of the doubt before she resigned 11-months into her job for her part in the White House Gate-Crasher scandal. The same is true of former White House Adviser Van Jones who, after profane remarks he had made in the past became public, resigned after the benefit of a few weeks of White House consideration.
For reasons known all too well to those in the Black community, a woman like Shirley Sherrod, who did not appear to be part of the Black Elite, was publicly denounced without cause and then terminated without the benefit of greater consideration. Black women everywhere were left to wonder, who then will give the rest of us the benefit of the doubt, protection or defense.
Why, you may ask, is all of this important? Why should ALL of America and particularly Black America treat Black women with greater consideration and with much higher care? It is because the Shirley Sherrod episode is a tipping point. Perhaps, it is a great warning sign of which we should take note.
Here is what wise political, civic, community and religious leadership should know: Black women are in heightened survival mode. In addition to the shared stressors the rest of America is burdened with in these uncertain times, Black women are weighted with an inordinate amount of violence and crime in their community, double-digit unemployment, sub-prime housing fallout, and poor healthcare options and treatment. Additionally, they struggle with a host of social issues such as absentee fathers, domestic violence, disproportionate incarceration rates and single-parent households. Black women are trying to figure out how to best protect and defend themselves, their children and ultimately their communities. They do not need their own community or any leadership actively working against them.
Finally, no one takes Black women seriously because Black women have not tallied their aggregate worth in this democracy. That is a first step to correcting this pattern of hostility, easy assault and vilification. But the day Black women recognize and leverage their hard fought and long-earned social, political and economic value in this democracy will be the day there will be a tectonic shift in perception and treatment - not a moment before then.
Sharon D. Toomer is founder and managing editor of BlackandBrownNews.com, an award winning news and information site and is a resident analyst for the New School on Sirius/XM. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.