Sixty-five billboards were quickly erected in predominantly African American neighborhoods in Atlanta on February 5, 2010. Each showed a sorrowful picture of a black male child proclaiming, “Black Children are an Endangered Species.”
Georgia Right to Life and the newly-formed Radiance Foundation spent $20,000 to sponsor the billboards that included the address of a previously unknown anti-abortion website.
This was the opening salvo in a campaign to pass new state legislation attempting to criminalize abortions provided to women of color allegedly because of the “race or sex” of the fetus. Doctors would have been subjected to criminal sanctions and civil lawsuits. Central to the argument of our opponents was the false claim that most, if not all, abortions are coerced.
At Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, where one of the billboards was only a few blocks away, we knew that this race- and gender-baiting campaign would have national implications, driving a racial wedge in the pro-choice movement and a gender wedge in communities of color. The legislation would also trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Although SisterSong had not expected this fight, we could not afford to be silent. We surged into action to challenge the marketing of the billboards and the legislation. We formed a coalition for the fight with SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW!, Feminist Women’s Health Center, SisterLove, Planned Parenthood of the Southeast Region, and Raksha. We strategized together to use a reproductive justice approach that intersected race and gender as the smartest way to counter this intersectional attack on abortion rights.
We succeeded – this time. We won, in part, by shifting the debate, researching our opponents, understanding the divisions among our opponents, correcting their “facts,” and engaging our Civil Rights allies. In the process, we made new discoveries about how to deal with this latest tactic of our opponents.
Identifying the Campaign
Because of the conflation of race, gender and abortion, the billboards very quickly became national news, picked up by CNN, The New York Times, ABC, The LA Times and many others.
Our opponents began a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children. After all, many people in our community already believe that black men are an endangered species because of white supremacy. Our opponents used a social responsibility frame to claim that black women have a racial obligation to have more babies – especially black male babies — despite our individual circumstances.
The campaign also accused Planned Parenthood, the largest single provider of birth control and abortion services in the black community, of targeting the community for “genocide” because of its “racist founder,” Margaret Sanger.
We had to fight the rhetorical impact of the billboards by reframing the discourse as an attack on the autonomy of black women, shifting the focus away from the sad, beautiful black boy in the advertisements.
It was not accidental that they chose a black male child to feature in their messaging, exacerbating gender tensions in the African American community. We decided that the best approach was to emphasize our opponents’ negative subliminal messages about black women. Either we were dupes of abortion providers, or we were evil women intent on having abortions – especially of black male children – for selfish reasons. In their first narrative, we were victims without agency unable to make our own decisions, pawns of racist, profit-driven abortion providers. In their second narrative, we were the uncaring enemies of our own children, and architects of black genocide.
We decided on affirming messages that refuted both narratives. We had to manage both positive and negative emotions about abortion.
We repeatedly asserted our own agency as black women who are trustworthy, informed and politically savvy. We insisted that whether black women were pro-choice or pro-life, we were united in believing that black women could reasonably decide for ourselves whether to become parents. Freedom is inherent in black women and we would let no one limit our liberty. We aggressively linked women’s rights to civil and human rights.
Our messages: We decided to have abortions. We invited Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black neighborhoods. We are part of the civil and human rights movement. We protected the future of black children, not our opponents. We helped women. They judged them.
We found a resonating message of trusting black women that was widely embraced by African American women. This response forced our opponents to change their messages. They eventually declared—defensively—that they “do trust black women!” We knew we had scored a victory.
Researching the Opposition
We researched our opponents to debunk their emotional appeal that they were defending black children and women. At the same time, we resisted ad hominem attacks.
We kept asking the question, “Where do they get the money to finance their movement?”
With the support of Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, we looked at their connections and funding.
We learned from contacts that our opponents crafted this strategy in 2009 in a secret meeting on St. Simon’s Island in South Georgia between Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) and the Georgia Republican Party. They hoped to build an alliance between white and black conservatives, not only to restrict abortion access in Georgia but to split African American voters.
To provide an African American woman to champion the effort, Georgia Right to Life hired Catherine Davis, who failed twice at winning a Congressional seat as a black Republican. Davis’ partner was the Radiance Foundation that designed the billboard. It was set up by an advertising executive, Ryan Bomberger. Bomberger claims that he is the son of a white mother raped by a black man and that his mother gave him up for adoption because she did not believe in abortion. Bomberger says that it is his mission to save black babies, even if it means allowing rapists to choose the mothers of their children.
The billboard campaign was accompanied by a two-hour pseudo-documentary film, Maafa 21, that purported to trace the eugenics movement in promoting genocide against African Americans, and how abortion is part of it. It was created by a white Texan, Mark Crutcher, who has made a career of attacking Planned Parenthood. More than 20,000 copies were distributed free.
We looked at the cross-pollination between the anti-abortion movement and conservative figures from other arenas. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is employed by the anti-abortion Priests for Life and revealed a close relationship with Fox News’ host, Glenn Beck, even speaking at Beck’s August 2010 rally that attempted to hijack the symbolic legacy of Dr. King’s historic 1963 March on Washington. These associations did not aid her credibility in the African American community. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of the billboards tied their campaign to other conservative figures distrusted by the African American community.
We also learned that race and gender became a bait-and-switch tactic by our opponents. When they could not locate any black women who had abortions because of the race of the child – no surprise! – they switched tactics to claim that they were really concerned that Asian American women were having sex-selective abortions, using even more disguised racism against “foreigners” and hyperactivating prejudices against immigrants.
Putting Out Facts
Anti-abortionists misused data and facts. The cornerstone of their genocide theory is that black women have had fewer children over a number of years. In fact, women of all races have fewer children when they have increased access to reproductive health services and educational and job opportunities.
The reality is that black women have always controlled our fertility when we could. We brought knowledge from Africa that helped us practice birth control and have abortions. After the end of slavery, we were determined to end the forced breeding of our bodies, and we cut our birth rate in half in the first 40 years after the Civil War. We continued this intentional decline as part of our racial uplift strategy to have fewer children and provide more opportunities for the ones we did have.
Black women, however, do have three times more abortions than white women, a statistic anti-abortionists used to demonize abortion providers. Black women have more unintended pregnancies, less access to contraception, are more vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse, and experience single motherhood more than our white counterparts. For reproductive justice activists, the solution is to help black women have fewer unintended pregnancies and to eliminate the obstacles that interfere with personal decision making.
Another anti-abortion tactic is to claim that abortion clinics are “always” located in African American communities, especially by Planned Parenthood. In Georgia, we were able to easily refute this claim by presenting demographic data, proving that only four of the 15 abortion clinics in our state are in predominantly black neighborhoods.
We addressed the story of Margaret Sanger and her allegedly racist agenda. We documented that African American leaders had worked with Sanger in the 1930s to ask for clinics in black communities. We challenged our opponents’ historical revisionism by citing famous leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White, Mary Church Terrell, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizations like the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women. We dared them to call these icons of the civil rights movement pawns of a racist agenda.
A Trust of New Leadership
Engaging leaders of Civil Rights organizations was critical to informing the African American community about the true facts of black women’s lives. We reached out to Julian Bond, former chair of the NAACP, who had endorsed the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. We had a boost when anti-abortion activists chose to picket the 2010 NAACP National Convention, trying to force them to retract their support for reproductive justice. The support of the NAACP opened the door for other Civil Rights organizations to join us, such as Rainbow PUSH.
Women of color are able to build stronger alliances between the Civil Rights and Reproductive Justice movements. It is equally clear that most male-led Civil Rights organizations will not take the lead on gender justice issues on behalf of women, especially on a difficult issue such as abortion.
We stopped the legislation in Georgia in the final two hours of the legislative session. And then we sat down to consider future plans. We created the Trust Black Women Partnership, a long-term strategy to ensure that black women can mobilize wherever such campaigns appear in African American communities, and to generate deeper discussions about black women’s autonomy and human rights.
Our opponents will not retreat, but, in fact, will “re-load,” as Sarah Palin would say. Georgia Right to Life and the Radiance Foundation, working with Priests for Life and its $10 million war chest, announced plans to spread their campaign. Similar billboards have already appeared in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and Tennessee.
The anti-abortion opponents changed their tactics: now they claim to promote adoption for black children as a more compassionate alternative to abortion, ignoring the fact that four out of five “hard to place” children in the adoption system are African American.
The struggle in Georgia also highlighted tensions within the pro-choice movement about the leadership of women of color. The pro-choice movement must overcome its historical reluctance to confront accusations of racism and genocide. It must work harder to understand the power of the reproductive justice framework. Mainstream organizations have to step back and let women of color lead when race and gender intersect in abortion politics.
Reproductive justice activists recognize that we all live in a system of white supremacy that affects everyone in America: no one is immune to racism. The failure to recognize this legacy jeopardizes our collective ability to defeat our mutual opponents. Working honestly on race and power relations is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do to defeat race- and gender-based attacks on abortion and women’s rights.
Loretta J. Ross is National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.