Poor Black Female = Cheap Lives (2001)

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Cheap Lives -- The East St. Louis Murders
AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/
November 26, 2001

In the spring of 2000, FBI agents implored police officials in East St. Louis, Illinois to allow their serial killer unit help hunt down the suspected serial killer of five women in the city. Police officials flatly turned them down. It was not the first time the FBI offered to help them catch the murderer, and each time they said no. They gave no public explanation why they refused FBI help.

Now 1 1/2 years later, with the grisly body count climbing to 13, a spate of unfavorable stories on the murders in the national press, and with many East St. Louis residents up in arms over official foot-dragging, embarrassed city officials now seek FBI help. It may be too late. The East St. Louis murders are on the FBI's backburner. Their priority is to bag other possible culprits in the September 11 terror massacre at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But why did East St. Louis officials wait so long to get help? Their explanation is that they were under staffed, lacked the resources, and that the murders did not seem to fit the pattern of a serial killing. The more troubling explanation is that the murdered women, with one exception, were black, poor, and had long personal histories of drug-use and prostitution. These are not the type of women that reflexively ignite police and public outrage. And there's a reason why.

During the past decade, poor black women have been hammered by racial and gender stereotypes, criminal violence, and toss-away-the-key punitive laws.

Their grotesque treatment has had horrific consequences.

* Cheap life. The East St. Louis murders underscore the colossal risk of murder and criminal violence more black women now face. Homicide now ranks as a major cause of death for young black females. A black woman is ten times likelier to be raped and assaulted than a white woman. The media often magnifies and sensationalizes crimes by black men against white women, and ignores or downplays crimes against black women.

* Drug menace. In 1999, a handful of black U.S. Customs Service agents blew the whistle on the abusive treatment of black women air travelers. They revealed that thousands of black women travelers were subject to illegal strip searches, x-ray examinations, monitored bowel movements, unlawful detentions, and targeted monitoring by drug sniffing dogs in their search for drug traffickers.

This stirred a national furor, and tossed the ugly light on the mounting numbers of women, especially black women, arrested for illegal drug use. Nearly half of the women behind bars in America are there for drug-related offenses, the majority of whom are black. Some of the suspected serial murder victims in East St. Louis had numerous arrests for drug use. They easily fit the popular public and media profile of the drugged-out, derelict black woman.

* Dangerous women: The state execution in Oklahoma of Wanda Jean Allen this past February, police slayings of black women in Los Angeles, Riverside, California, and Chicago, a sharp upswing in violent crimes by women, and Hollywood films that show black women as swaggering, trash talking, gun-toting, vengeful Thelma and Louise types, have escalated public fears that black women are menaces to society. The result: One in four women are now imprisoned for violent crimes, and half of them are black. Also, in a survey published in the Washington Post in May, one out of four black women complained they, as many black men, are racially profiled.

* Skyrocketing imprisonment: Black women are eight times likelier to be jailed than white women. For the first time in American history black women in some states are imprisoned at nearly the same rate as white men. And they are being jailed at even younger ages than ever. An American Bar Association study in April found that teen girls account for more than one-quarter of the juvenile arrests, are committing more violent crimes, and are slapped back into detention centers after release faster than boys. Black girls were arrested and jailed in far greater numbers than white girls. Almost certainly many of these delinquent teen girls will jam America's prisons as women. Even with the flutter of media attention on the East St. Louis murders, police officials are no closer than ever to nabbing the killer, or identifying a suspect(s). Their promise to step-up the investigation rings hollow. According to reports, they have beefed-up the number of officers assigned to write traffic tickets, but not to the murder investigation. More incredibly, they refuse to make any link between the murders, and say that they will handle the murders on a case-by-case basis.

The big danger is that official casualness toward the murders could translate into more bodies. This would again confirm the suspicion that when the victims are poor, black and female, their lives are cheap, and expendable.

Source: Race, Racism and the Law: http://academic.udayton.edu/race/

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