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What The SOTU Means For Black Women

Here's what we learned from Biden's 2022 SOTU and what it means for us.

Politics

During the presidential election of 2020, Black women across the country sashayed to the polls to deliver the presidency to Joseph R. Biden. With a Black woman running mate by his side, and the promise of robust change after four years of what felt like an unending catastrophe on a national and global scale, Black women were ready to move the country forward with the help of our elected leaders.


This might not be a surprise to many of us, but in the little over a year since Biden has taken office, Black women have seen minimal return in our investment from the leaders who campaigned for our votes. A pandemic and a war going on? We’re tired!

In his first State of the Union address as president this past Tuesday, Biden addressed these pressing issues: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the sanctions he’s placed on Russia, continued efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, healthcare, the Black female nominee for the Supreme Court, and more.

Here are my key takeaways of the night and how they impact the lives of Black women:

The Pandemic and Healthcare

The President relayed reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that states that most of the country no longer need to wear their mask with projections showing that more of the country will reach that threshold in the forthcoming weeks. He continued by talking about the effectiveness of vaccines and new treatments such as Pfizer’s pill purport to reduce the likelihood of hospitalization by 90 percent.

Black women have experienced the brunt of the economic and health disparities of COVID-19 with reports that Black women are dying at higher rates than white men from the virus and that Black women are still struggling to recover from the impact of losing their jobs during the pandemic. Any plan that seeks to move the country forward from the devastating impact of the virus, needs to address the unique challenges that Black women face in the healthcare system from the inability to pay for medical treatment. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 27.9 percent of Black households have medical debt, compared with 17.9 percent of white households.

While discussing his unprosperous Build Back Better plan, the President urged pharmaceutical companies to cut the cost of prescription drugs. “We pay more for the same drug, produced by the same company in America than any other country in the world,” Biden said. The President used the example of insulin which he proposed should only cost 35 dollars a month. But anything less than free will always leave many Americans writ large, and Black women in particular at a disadvantage.

Policing

In a rare moment of bipartisan unity, Biden received a rousing round of applause from both Republicans and Democrats after declaring once again that he does not support efforts to defund the police and that instead, he’s in favor of giving police departments even more funds and resources. Many might remember how during his campaign Biden latched himself onto the family of George Floyd at the height of the Defund the Police movement in a transparent attempt to garner campaign support. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a part of a promise made by Biden to the family of Floyd, failed to pass through congress. While critics have pointed out that the act doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the real problems with policing in America, the failure of even meager reform to pass is an example of the government’s disinterest in ensuring that Black Americans are free from the terror of police violence.

Continued efforts to recertify the Violence Against Women’s Act and last year’s Stop Asian Hate bill – both of which Biden mentioned in his speech– have functioned as just ways of funneling more resources away from vulnerable populations and into policing. Black women in particular who would benefit more from receiving resources such as housing, healthcare, and others things that could curb the rate of intimate partner violence, are left to rely on the police who often exacerbate situations to a lethal degree.

It’s also important to note that despite Biden’s staunch support against the Defund the Police Movement, defunding is a matter of local government not federal.

SCOTUS

If Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, filling the seat of soon to be retired Justice Stephen Breyer, then she will make history as the first Black woman to sit on the bench. The excitement at the prospect of having a Black female judge has certainly possessed many Black women as it's been 233 years that the highest court in the land has not had Black women representation. While speaking about Jackson, no doubt to stave off Republican attempts to paint her as a radical, Biden noted that Jackson has gained the support of the Fraternal Order of Police. But what does it mean for a Black woman to be on the Court if she is supported by an organization that has spoken out against victims of police violence?

As parents, siblings, and victims ourselves, we need a justice system that protects and defends victims of police violence. We need police violence to end. Having a Black woman as vice president has proven that Black faces in high places are not enough if they are being used as instruments of the state to further disenfranchise Black women. We need the policy to match.

Educat​ion

Studies have shown that Black women disproportionately owe the most in terms of student loan debt, and despite it being one of his key campaign promises that he would eliminate such debt once he takes office, Biden has neither canceled student debt nor did he mention it during his address Tuesday night, continuing to leave millions of Black women who are crippled by debt in the dark about what the future will look like if they are to continue having to pay on their loans.

On the subject of education, Biden calls for the support of Pell Grants, HBCUs, and community colleges (though it was recently announced that free community college would no longer be a part of the spending bill.)

Voting Rights

Voting rights continue to be in jeopardy all across the country. In January, Biden said in response to the voting rights act named after late Civil Rights leader John Lewis has lost momentum in the Senate that "No matter how hard they make it for minorities to vote, I think you are going to see them willing to stand in line and defy the attempt to keep them from being able to keep them from being able to vote." The bill would seek to make election day a national holiday, allow states to have two weeks of early voting, allow voting by mail, call for the expansion of the type of identification people are allowed to use in states that require ID, same-day registration and voting, and outlaw partisan gerrymandering.

In his SOTU speech, Biden urges the Senate to continue to fight for voting rights, but his recent comments signal towards a concession that will just continue to place the undue burden of Black voters to jump through hurdles to have their voices heard electorally instead of taking systemic measures to ease any restrictions. Even with the robust organizing of Black women-led nonprofits like the Black Voters Matter fund, who continue to provide resources and information to Black voters, the continued trajectory of voting restrictions will leave Black women, the Democrats' most loyal voter base, without the ability to make it to the polls in the future.

The Future

Throughout the pandemic, Black women have been doing what we’ve always done–helping each other survive. Whether it’s the Black-women led Magnolia Medical Foundation expanding its mission to specifically help Black mothers through the physical, mental and emotional toll of COVID-19, or the many social media communities that have sprung up to offer Black women mutual aid or mental health help, one thing is clear: where politicians may be failing us, our communities are holding us together.

Featured image by Getty Images

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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