University of Washington associate professor Carolyn West Ph.D. is calling African Americans to action to combat domestic violence in communities of color. Church leaders, men's groups, parents, educators, children's advocates and policy makers all have a role to play in combating the crisis of violence within Black communities, West said.
"This is a call and a rally to people in positions of power who really do have the power to make some change around laws or social policy or resources to get behind this topic … which is about really the basic survival of our community, " West told The Skanner.
"This is not just an individual problem – that impacts people in their private homes. It has implications for all of us in the larger society, economically and socially."
The author of "Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue," West has written numerous journal articles about Black women and families, domestic violence and media portrayals of Black women. She will speak about her research Oct. 26 at a symposium in Portland, Ore., organized by the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. Black legislators from all over the country are attending the symposium, "Tap Dancin' on My Last Nerve Act II: Tryin' to keep it Together," to discuss mental health issues.
In African American families, domestic violence has complex roots and equally complex effects, West said. Higher rates of unemployment, health and education disparities, poverty – not to mention having to deal with racism on a daily basis — pile on stress for many African Americans. In addition, untreated depression and substance abuse play into the problem as risk factors that can result from, or lead to, violent behavior.
Native American and Black Women report experiencing more sexual and relationship violence than White and Latino women, according to figures from the Department of Justice. About 37 percent of Native American women report being raped or beaten and about 30 percent of Black women say they have been raped or beaten by an intimate partner -- compared to about 25 percent of Whites and 24 percent of Latinas.
Homicide statistics also tell a chilling story.
"The recent stats have come out from the National Institute of Justice and they indicate that close to half of the homicide victims in this country are African American and we are only 13 percent of the population," Dr West told The Skanner. "That is so difficult to wrap your mind around. We are 13 percent of the population and half of the homicide victims. It's very distressing. So the situation is beyond critical."
Most homicides are intraracial, meaning that African Americans — more exactly African American men — are committing Black on Black violence.
So what is going on and how can we fix it?
"It's important to know that that doesn't all come from our community. There are a lot of structural factors – such as poverty and so forth, that set the stage for this," West said. "But we have to be at the forefront of doing something about it."
West is urging African Americans to break the silence that surrounds issues of domestic violence. Too often, talking frankly about the problem is seen as hurting rather than helping one another, she said.
"There is so much negative press out there about our communities that the last thing we want to do is to fuel that …" she said. "So I think we end up being very silent about these issues and we tend to focus on other issues that affect our communities."
Some churches offer support, safety and encouragement to victims, she said, but other religious communities are overcome with feelings of shame so they ignore the problem or blame the victim.
"I have been working for many years in the faith community and domestic violence is a very sensitive topic that people are very reluctant to talk about," West said. "There's a lot of victim blaming and there's a lot of pressure for women to stay in those relationships.
"So we have a lot to do to educate ourselves."
West praises the men's groups who are working on tackling violence but says more men and women need to face up to the problem.
Currently the psychology professor is writing a self-help book for African American women in abusive relationships. She's also writing about the impact on adolescent girls and women of negative images of Black women in media.
"They seem like very different topics but I do think they are related," she said. "Because embedded in those images is so much literal and symbolic violence against African American women. I'm sure that we internalize that to a certain extent … in how we perceive we are entitled to be treated."
"I think it does have a profound impact on us, probably more than we even realize."
Parents can help by taking a stronger role in protecting kids from violent images in the media, West maintains. Instead of dismissing music videos, video games, movies and television shows such as wrestling as harmless, parents should sit down and assess the cumulative impact of thousands of images that disrespect African American women. The point is not censorship, she said, it is that without any checks and balances, young boys and girls are being bombarded with sexualized, violent images that begin to seem normal.
For example, West said, some video games popular with teens show men beating and even killing women. Often in music videos African American women are only shown as prostitutes or as sex playthings.
"My concern is that, based on my research, it tends to get acted out in adolescent teen dating violence," she said. "
"You can't live in a toxic waste dump or drink poisonous fluids and think your physical well being won't be affected. And I think those images can be the same because you are taking this into your mind and your consciousness."