Billboards, Women of Color, and Politics
By Shaniqua Seth and Malika Redmond
Accentuated and airbrushed, often young and Caucasian, female body parts are displayed on billboards throughout the U.S. as a staple marketing technique to attract consumers’ attention and dollars. Feminists have long critiqued the way this advertising strategy objectifies women, but the strategy took a twist when a controversial billboard made national news after it was erected in New York City in 2011. The ad used a woman of color’s body not to sell a product, but to promote an anti-choice message. The young African-American girl in the billboard was both the object and subject of the message, which read: “The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American is in the Womb.”
Last year, nearly 200 similar anti-choice billboards were displayed in major cities across the country, including Atlanta, Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles, California. (The Los Angeles billboards targeted Latinas rather than African American women, stating: “The most dangerous place for a Latino is in the womb.”) Despite the number of ads, many people were unaware of the billboards, in part because most were strategically placed in low-income, Southern, communities of color. The New York City ad garnered national media attention as much for where it was placed — the affluent art and cultural SoHo district — as for the distasteful words written near the African-American girl pictured in the billboard.
While New York City reproductive rights activists were faced with challenging one offensive billboard, Atlanta became a hub for the vicious ads with tailored anti-choice rhetoric. These messages conflated abortion with genocide and compared abortion to the deaths of thousands of African-American people due to the inhumane conditions of 300 years of chattel slavery. Anti-choice activists also staged a protest in 2010 at the renowned Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where they used civil rights language to argue that abortion is discrimination against a fetus.1
These campaigns are the creation of anti-choice groups — including the Radiance Foundation, Life Always, and Issues4Life — which focus on reducing access to abortion in the African-American community. Anti-choice activists promoting these billboards and messages believe that African-American women’s abortions have the same devastating impact on the Black community as do critical socio-economic and health issues like high unemployment and heart disease.
Sadly, this stated concern for the wellness of the Black community by the anti-choice groups obscures their ultimate goal: to distort the facts about abortion in order to promote their anti-choice agenda and shame women of color from utilizing abortion services.2 Understanding, detangling, and responding effectively to the convoluted messages are vital to our work as women’s health advocates.
Abortion has been a legal right in the U.S. for 39 years, and is just one part of the full range of reproductive health and family planning options that all women need — including Latinas and African-American women. According to the well-respected Guttmacher Institute, “About one-third of all abortions are obtained by white women, and 37% are obtained by Black women. Latinas comprise a smaller proportion of the women who have abortions.”2 Although white women have the greatest number of abortions, the rates of abortions for African-American women and Latinas are disproportionately higher than their white counterparts based on their overall population size. Guttmacher notes, “These patterns of abortion rates mirror the levels of unintended pregnancy seen across these same groups. Black women are three times as likely as white women to experience an unintended pregnancy; Hispanic women are twice as likely—sharply disproportionate to their numbers in the general population.”2
Women’s health and reproductive justice advocates do not dispute these numbers, and agree that women of color have higher abortion rates. They consider the factors that are driving the numbers of higher-than-average abortion rates and find it reflects a crisis in access to high-quality, culturally appropriate reproductive health care, including effective contraception choices and education. Specific groups that face such barriers include our society’s most vulnerable populations: women who are poor, young, rural, uneducated, undocumented, and/or women of color. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has noted “minorities are less likely than whites to receive needed services, including clinically necessary procedures.” The IOM also notes that minority communities have a higher level of mistrust in the health care system, which also creates a barrier to care.2
The billboard campaigns misrepresent what’s driving the data on women of color’s abortion rates and scapegoats Latina and African-American women for the very socio-economic conditions faced by their communities that impact their disproportionate use of abortion services. As California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ) notes, “The problem in our communities is not abortion. What Latinas/os truly need to thrive is access to quality health care, good paying jobs to support their families, and quality education to provide positive life opportunities.”3 Loretta Ross, SisterSong’s National Coordinator (and former NWHN board member), astutely counters their claims that abortion is genocide by noting, “The best way to fight genocide is to make sure the objects of that genocide or control make these decisions for themselves.”
Women of color have always been a vital part of efforts for women to gain full bodily integrity and have been speaking, writing, and organizing around issues of race and gender since the mid 19th-century. In 1851, Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a Woman”?” In 1970, Frances Beal, head of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), declared that: “Black women have the right and the responsibility to determine when it is in the interest of the struggle to have children or not to have them and this right must not be relinquished.”4
Today’s activists are building on this long history and saying: “Trust Black Women!” Advocates and activists with women of color reproductive justice organizations have challenged these anti-choice billboard initiatives — and won! The Trust Black Women Partnership (TBW) was born from a commitment to protect Black women’s dignity and dismantle the billboard campaigns. TBW, comprised of 20 founding partners who are both for and against legal abortion, but unanimously support women’s right to make their own decision about reproductive health. TBW seeks to “develop a strong network of African American women organizations and individuals mobilized to defend our human right to make abortion and family planning decisions for ourselves.”5 TBW also works “to counter the growing anti-abortion movement in African American community and defeat race- and gender-based campaigns and legislation that limits abortion access for Black women.”5
TBW hit the ground running and coordinated street protests and mass media campaigns (including blogs, documentaries, and online protests) that saturated communities where the billboards appeared. At the 2011 SisterSong Reproductive Justice Conference, TBW premiered the film “We Always Resist: Trust Black Women”, which describes how Black women have always fought for reproductive rights and considered these rights to be essential. “We Always Resist” is part of TBW’s long-term strategy to combat anti-choice messages that women of color are incapable of making appropriate reproductive choices. To date, TBW and its allies have been successful in taking down many of the anti-choice billboards! 5
We proudly stood for the dignity of women, and won! We must proactively work towards change and must not become complacent because of victories over specific billboards or anti-choice initiatives. We invite you to join the effort and stay connected by following the organizations that founded the TBW Partnership and their allies. You can find out more about TBW and the founding organizations by going to www.trustblackwomen.org. Most importantly, put your money where your heart and mind are because TWB and its allies need our support. We encourage you to continue to make a difference by becoming an ally, organizer, or advocate to any of the TBW member organizations.
Shaniqua Seth is the NWHN Health Communications Manager. Malika Redmond, M.A., is a Feminist Researcher/Writer and Women’s Advocate for the Women’s Resource Center to end Domestic Violence, Atlanta GA and NWHN Board Member.
1. Ross L “Trying to Hijack the Civil Rights Legacy: What’s Behind the Anti-choice Freedom Rides”, Conscience 2011, Vol. XXXII(2: 17-20.
2. Cohen, S. “Abortion and Women of Color: The Bigger Picture”, Guttmacher Policy Review 2008; 11(3). Available online at: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/11/3/gpr110302.html
3. Valle G, “California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ) Denounces Racist Billboard Campaign Attacking California Latinas’ Reproductive Justice”, Los Angeles: CLRJ, 2011. Available online at: http://www.californialatinas.org/news/downloads/CLRJ_Press_Release_Anti_Latina_RJ_6.9.11.pdf
4. Nelson J, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
5. Trust Black Women, “Our Story”, Available online at: http://www.trustblackwomen.org/about-trust-black-women/our-story