New menace to society?

Police shootings of black women are the deadly consequence of

Many mid-city Los Angeles residents affectionately called her Mom and described her as sweet and harmless. Margaret Laverne Mitchell was a homeless, middle-aged, African-American woman who had become a familiar figure on the streets.

These same residents shook their heads in uncomprehending outrage when Mom was gunned down May 21 by Los Angeles police officers. Police claim they stopped to question her about a stolen shopping cart and they shot her when she threatened them with a screw driver.

Their story is hotly disputed by at least three witnesses who say that the officers shot Mom as she walked away.

The question in my mind is whether Ms. Mitchell was the victim of stereotyping - not just as a black, but as a black woman.

Much has been made in recent years about how black men are stereotyped.

But little attention has focused on black women.

No matter what conclusion police and investigators ultimately come to regarding the slaying of Mom, as long as she and other black women are typed as deviant, violent, and crime-prone they will continue to be seen and treated by many in law enforcement as the new menace to society.

Even if Mitchell did what police allege, how much of a threat could a middle-aged, diminutive woman with a screw driver be? Couldn't the officers have fired a warning shot, radioed for help, or used nonlethal force such as a stun gun, tasers, rubber bullets, tear-gas pellets, pepper spray, or bean bags to subdue her?

Mom's slaying might just seem like deadly business as usual for the Los Angeles Police Department. The US Civil Rights Commission concluded in a recent report that the problems of abuse that became a national disgrace with the Rodney King beating still plague the LAPD as well as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

But her killing brought to five the total of African-American women shot under questionable circumstances by police in Southern California in the past three years. Mom's shooting follows the December slaying of Tyisha Miller by Riverside, Calif., police officers. This unprecedented pattern is a harsh reminder that for many in law enforcement, black women, like black men, are increasingly regarded as menaces to society.

That has deadly consequences for black women in how society views and treats them.

While much of the media instilled the stereotypes and fear of black men as lazy, violent, crime-prone, and sexual predators, black women were typed similarly.

The Miller case in Riverside was a classic example of this. An article in the city's major daily newspaper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, relied exclusively on the character description by the Riverside Police Department, calling her "aggressive," "assaultive," "a possible gang member," and "mistaken for a man."

Police shot Miller 12 times on Dec. 28. She was lying, unresponsive in her locked car, with a gun in her lap. Police say that when they broke the window to reach for the gun, Miller sat up and appeared to reach for the gun. Four officers, three white and one Hispanic, were involved in the shooting.

The latest slaying of a black woman raises a bigger concern.

Racial and gender stereotypes about black women rest solidly on deeply ingrained myths and stereotypes. They have had these serious consequences:

*Image assault. The image of the sexually immoral and physically aggressive black woman puts black women at risk in law and public policy. In many cases police, prosecutors, and the courts ignore or lightly punish rape, sexual abuse, and assaults against black women.

*Devalued lives. Black women are far more likely to be raped, assaulted, and murdered than non-black women. They are far less likely to have the media treat crimes against them as seriously as crimes against white women.

The rape and murder of seven-year-old Sherrice Iverson, an African-American girl, at a Nevada casino in 1997 was another classic example. The numerous features and cover stories in the major press on her white teen killer humanized and evoked sympathy for him. Yet no press features were done on Iverson to personalize her story.

*Prison. For the first time in American history, black women in some states are being imprisoned at nearly the same rate as white men. They are seven times likelier to be jailed than white women.

*Homelessness: The killing of Mom spotlighted not only the issue of police abuse, but also the crisis of homelessness among black women.

African-Americans make up more than half of the homeless in America, and black women make up a significant number of that total.

While the homeless receive much individual sympathy, it has not resulted in an increase in drug, alcohol, education and job training programs to help women such as Mom get off the streets.

No matter what conclusion police and investigators ultimately come to regarding the slaying of Mom, as long as she and other black women are typed as deviant, violent, and crime-prone they will continue to be seen and treated by many in law enforcement as the new menace to society.

*Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a syndicated columnist, wrote 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press, 1998). He lives in Los Angeles.

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