Week 4: Black Women — Victimized & Villified

In what ways are women an absent presence in the film? What did you see as the overall effect of the manner in which black masculinity, black male role models, and the black family were discussed in the documentary?

I too was struck by how utterly absent women appeared to be in discussions of the riot as well as Los Angeles’s black community more generally (or, Lohs An-guh-liss as Chief William Parker would call it). I would argue that this absence is conspicuous enough to draw attention to itself — though I am sure this was not the intention of the documentary — and that much can be understood by their lack of voice / presence. To claim however that women are completely absent would be to ignore the brief but significant moments in which they do appear. In example of this, I would like to suggest that there are two instances in the documentary in which women do play a crucial role: the scene in which the woman is interviewed about her domestic situation and Daniel Moynihan’s claim that “about a quarter of Negro families are headed by women.” I see these two examples as dual sides of a single coin — women that serve as sites of sympathy and vulnerability and who are simultaneously indicted for their roles as these familial “heads.” In regards to the former, the woman who is featured in this documentary, carrying her infant, details her struggle to support her five children with the financial assistance she is provided by the government. She is caught in a cycle of poverty (cannot work because she cannot afford childcare; cannot afford childcare because she cannot work) that is, according to CBS, a result of her husband being incarcerated. The viewer, I would argue, is not meant to fault her so much as her “criminal” husband, who left her in this predicament. Thus the blame is not seemingly assigned to the system that relegates single black mothers to live in poverty but to her husband and his neglect of his family unit. “Black masculinity, black male role models, and the black family” are all identified as factors that lead to the unrest in Watts. The need to assert a dominant, masculine front among black males, the vacuum of black male role models, the collapse of the black family unit: all are regarded as underlying causalities for the “madness” that seized Watts in the summer of 1965. Women inside of this, then, become sites of pity, but it a sort of pity that is at once demeaning and almost farcical: rendering black women in this way participates in a narrative of sentimentality and strips them of their agency.

This line of argument is underscored and furthered by Daniel Moynihan’s assessment of the factors that contributed to the “rioting.” Though Moynihan was a lifelong Democrat and sociologist who argued for the advancement of the black community in America, his rhetoric in this segment is deeply problematic. It does not merely suggest that it is the absence of father’s that produces so much crime and unrest in the impoverished “Negro” America, but the very fact that women head these households that precipitates instability and “rioting.” I think that this implicitly goes deeper than merely suggesting that a lack of “male role models” is what caused such a crisis in the black community (and further to this, black identity). Rather women are regarded as inadequate: their inability to instantiate American “values” in the children they are “left” to raise strips them of their agency, the ability to care and provide for their children. This rhetoric participates in the larger disenfranchisement of women (especially single mothers) that pervaded the contemporary moment — in point of fact, “The Moynihan Report” as it came to be known was criticized by the left for its inordinate attention to children born out of wedlock. This fiction of the stable, nuclear family (and its potential disintegration in the 60s) was especially damning for black families:

As a direct result of this high rate of divorce, separation, and desertion, a very large percent of Negro families are headed by females. While the percentage of such families among whites has been dropping since 1940, it has been rising among Negroes.The percent of nonwhite families headed by a female is more than double the percent for whites. Fatherless nonwhite families increased by a sixth between 1950 and 1960, but held constant for white families. It has been estimated that only a minority of Negro children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both of their parents. Once again, this measure of family disorganization is found to be diminishing among white families and increasing among Negro families (“The Moynihan Report”).

This quotation from the government-sponsored “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” (authored by Moynihan) highlights the institutionalized narrative that a fundamental difference between black and white America was the structuring and maintenance of “stable” family structures. The reasons that “divorce, separation, and desertion” are more prevalent in the former are attributed to slavery, (the inadequacy of) the post-Civil War Reconstruction, and “poverty & unemployment,” the “wage system,” and population growth. While there are mentions of the effect that incarceration might have on the black community, it is discussed as a result of the aforementioned social determinants:

It is probable that at present, a majority of the crimes against the person, such as rape, murder, and aggravated assault are committed by Negroes. There is, of course, no absolute evidence; inference can only be made from arrest and prison population statistics. The data that followa unquestionably are biased against Negroes, who are arraigned much more casually than are whites, but it may be doubted that the bias is great enough to affect the general proportions. Again on the urban frontier the ratio is worse: 3 out of every 5 arrests for these crimes were of Negroes.

I would be interested in discussing the question of “incarceration” further in class if time allows: Dr Ryan’s observation that Chief Parker codes his discussion of race in the language of “law and order” is a rhetoric and a line of argument that I mentally align with the Nixon administrations initial “War on Drugs.” John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s “Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs” was quoted in a Harper’s report in April 2016 admitting

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did (Harpers).

If you would like to read more about the way in which the language of “law and order” was codified to indict the black community, I would direct you to the original Harper’s article (http://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/). This policy, though arguably targeted at the men of the black community, had significant implications for the way in which black women came to be viewed, understood, and vilified when discussing the “collapse” of the black family unit and the “rioting” resultant from its “instability.”

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