Davis Discusses Issues Concerning Black WomenBy Rishi Shrivastava
Angela Y. Davis spoke in Kresge Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, at the closing of the "Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name 1894-1994" conference.
Davis, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been a spokeswoman on racial and economic issues, as well as women's rights, for more than twenty years.
She addressed the conference's theme at the beginning of her speech. "We've been called upon to defend the names of many of our sisters in sometimes new and provocative ways," Davis said.
Recently, black women came to the defense of Anita Hill, Lani Guinier, and Johnnetta B. Cole when they were attacked by the right wing. However, black women could have defended Guinier better when she was considered for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton Administration, she said.
She stressed the need to further defend black women such as Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. Elders had the courage to suggest drug decriminalization, Davis said.
"I want to publicly thank my sister Toni Morrisson," Davis said. She said Morrisson, the first black female Nobel Laureate, has defended the name of black women to the world.
New problems for black women
Davis went on to speak about the new problems black women face. "While courageous people fought to make the walls of academia less impenetrable, these very victories have spawned new problems and foreshadow new struggles."
The rights of all black women are not respected equally, she contended. It is not more important that an assistant professor is denied tenure than that a secretary is trapped in a dead-end job, she said. "What was and remains a problem is the premise that middle class women necessarily embody a standard that poor sisters should be encouraged to emulate."
Davis then discussed sexual harassment in the work place. Since black women held mainly domestic jobs from the end of slavery to World War II, they were particularly susceptible to sexual harassment, Davis said. Furthermore, the white public would wrongly blame these black women when harassment occurred, she said.
In other matters, more education is necessary to prevent the spread of AIDS, she said. Also, Davis called for campaigns to acknowledge the "sexual autonomy of young black women."
Davis outlined four major guidelines for black women to follow. First,"we can no longer assume that there is one monolithic force against which we position ourselves in order to defend our name. It's not just the white establishment," she said.
Also, "there is a sense in which neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism are coming dangerously close together." For example, Davis said both groups are raising reverse discrimination arguments and are also taking stances against affirmative action.
Her second guideline was that black women refrain from talking to each other in ways they themselves do not wish to be addressed by others. "We can no longer ignore the ways in which we sometimes end up reproducing the very forms of domination which we like to attribute to something or somebody else."
Davis's third point concerned society's criteria for characterizing black women. "We have to go out of the habit of assuming that the masses of black women are to be defined in accordance with their status as victims."Furthermore, she said it is wrong for blacks to portray themselves as victims to gain advantage "like when Clarence Thomas invoked the idea that he was the victim of a high-tech lynching."
In her final recommendation, Davis argued against damaging race relations with other minorities. "We cannot afford to commit ourselves so fervently to defending our names that we end up poisoning ourselves against" other races.
Opinions on recent issues
Davis also expressed her opinions on recent controversial issues. She criticized the government's treatment of illegal immigrants. "Black migrant workers from the South were historically treated in very much the same way as undocumented Latinos are treated today." We must all discourage backlash against immigrants and understand that they are not responsible for high unemployment, she said.
In addition, socialism is not an empirically flawed concept, Davis said. "Just because socialist states have fallen ... for reasons that had much more to do with a lack of democracy than with socialism itself, this doesn't mean that socialism is an obsolete political project."
Regarding criminal issues, sentencing guidelines are inherently biased against blacks, Davis said. For example, she said that the sentence for possessing crack is the same as the sentence for possessing 100 times as much powdered cocaine to get the same sentence as one who possesses crack. This law is discriminatory because blacks use crack more often than they use powdered cocaine, she said.
Also, increased prison construction only promotes crime, and incarceration should be abolished for many groups, she said. In fact, Davis suggested the possibility of releasing women from jails since they are generally involved in less violent crimes.
Davis said prisoners should be given voting rights. She said state laws prohibiting inmate voting rights discriminate against minorities because a disproportionate number of inmates are black or Latino. Approximately four million prisoners in the United States are denied suffrage, she said.
She concluded by emphasizing the need for a new United States-Caribbean policy, especially for Cuba and by encouraging the audience to attend a 1995 women's conference in Beijing.