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Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls Must Include Work on Mental Health to Offer Real Hope

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor


Black girls are being pushed out, locked up, and shot down, thrown around or held down. Black women have been knocked out, knocked up, stepped out on and underpaid, undervalued, and flat out ignored for decades. They’ve cried at gravesites, knelt down in the middle of streets over dead bodies, worked 9 to 5, then 7 to midnight, bargained with landlords, burned the midnight oil, argued with doctors in hospital emergency rooms, pleaded with lovers to stay, prayed for lovers to go, ignored signs of diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease. They’ve been, done, and seen it all. Now they want more people to not only listen to them, but also to fight with them and make things easier for them to make things better for themselves and the ones they love and care for. For so long, cries fell on deaf ears in Washington. That might finally change now if three black women in Congress have anything to say about it.

On March 22 of this year, Congressional Black Caucus members Yvette Clarke (NY), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ), and Robin Kelly (IL) announced the creation of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CCBWG). The CCBWG is the first Congressional caucus devoted exclusively to the policy and advocacy concerns of black women and girls. The fact that this move is a long-awaited answer to black women’s “What about us?” inquiry to President Obama upon the creation of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative is not lost on many observers. Activists, scholars, and advocates have long known that black women and girls experience the same types of disparities as black men and boys do, and in many cases, the disparities are greater.

The African American Policy Forum (AAPF), which has been tireless and determined in its work on behalf of black girls and women, reports through its initiative and report of the same name, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, that girls are subject to the same school-to-prison pipeline that plagues black boys. In partnership with Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, AAPF’s review of national data and interviews revealed that the disparity between suspension rates of black girls and white girls was twice that of the suspension rate between black boys and white boys. Black girls are suspended six times more than white girls; black boys face suspension at twice the rate of white boys.

The widespread media and organization focus on the murders of black men by police, without a corresponding focus on black women, prompted groups like AAPF to highlight the lives and deaths of mothers, sisters, and friends who have been killed by police or other law enforcement. Similar to the rate for black men, black women were 53.4% of all women stopped by police in New York in 2013.

These are the types of concerns that the CCBWG aims to address. When interviewed by NewsOne’s Roland Martin about the formation and launch of the caucus, co-founder Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ) said:

Just like we are looking at our Brother’s Keeper as a focus on young Black men — young and old actually and what happens to them in our society — we have not done the same with women.… No one really focuses on our (women’s) voices when they are discussing public policy… We’re counted on in so many areas to be dependable and to show up.

At the same time, Watson Coleman acknowledges that black women’s voices and concerns are not usually included in policy and national discussions on matters critical to their survival and functioning. Powerhouse women at the helm of this initiative and widespread support of its formation and agenda suggest that policy can now perhaps turn to issues like equal pay, affordable housing, and criminal justice reform that includes black women and girls. But there’s something missing.

As politicians, activists, academicians, and others tackle the obvious barriers to black women and girls thriving in society, the call must go out to include mental health.

With increasing frequency, black women are speaking up about the mental and emotional toll their lives take on them. They are battling strained relationships and unbelievable pressure to keep and provide for families at the margins. The strong black woman syndrome is alive and well and kicking butt in every sector of black womanhood. Therapist Dr. Jameca Falconer writes on Psych Central:

In 2010, African American women reported feeling sad more than 1.6 times more than Non-Hispanic White women. Two of the criteria for major depression are a loss of interest or pleasure in things that used to be enjoyable and loss of energy. As a result,  African American women are 1.7 times more likely than White women to report that everything is an effort all of the time. So, African American women are more sad, experience less pleasure and expend great energy just to get thru the day. What a horrible way to live! The quality of life has to improve for African American women.

Yes. It. Does. To insure that the CCBWG addresses mental health, the black mental health community including providers, survivors, advocates, researchers, and caregivers should contact the caucus members or better yet become members; membership is open. A window of opportunity is opening to inform critical policy decisions that can influence how black women are treated by law enforcement, counseling services offered to black girls who are shouldering heavy family burdens and responsibilities, and much more.

Ourselves Black will follow the work of the caucus closely and provide periodic updates.

Chandra C.