The Criminalization of the Invisible Black Woman

By: Zakiya Sankara-Jabar

On Feb. 11, Shaina Bell, 24, went to her job at Little Caesars, down the street from the motel she and her three children stayed at in Ohio. Bell left her children, the oldest 9 years old, in the room, and later that night, she was arrested. The charge against Bell was two misdemeanor counts of child endangerment. If you ask me, the real crime Bell was arrested for was being a Black, working-poor woman in America.

Americans like Bell are being forced to work in a global pandemic for a wage that will not cover their basic needs. The police charged Bell for providing for her family and punished her for creating solutions to impossible choices where our government has failed. Shame on us as a society.  

After her arrest was nationally publicized, Bell’s mother, Danielle Hosey, received overwhelming requests from community members wanting to help Bell and her children. Hosey organized a GoFundMe, which has now received over $150,000 in donations. The connection to resources that GoFundMe provides is remarkable, but the crowdfunding service should not replace the social services that we expect of our government. What about others like Bells? What about the thousands of working parents in America who barely keep their heads above water as schools remain closed and who are working through a pandemic because it is a necessity for survival?

Photo via GoFundMe

Our society has fallen in love with the idea of the highly accomplished, leaving the majority of the working class (composed of mostly Black Americans) to be invisible. As for Black Americans, we love to declare “Black Girl Magic,” but whom does that phrase belong to? Is it still considered “Black Girl Magic” for the minimum wage-earning working mother of three? Or does it only apply to the Black women who can afford fancy brunches and child care? The poor and working poor, especially Black people, are being punished and criminalized because of their net worth or the lack thereof.

During this pandemic, 2.9 million Americans moved back in with a parent or grandparent. Many white Americans have generational wealth to fall back on. While the statistics show that Black and Hispanic young adults are more likely to live at home than white Americans, it also offers it’s by choice and not a cycle of poverty. Americans like Bell come from ancestors who built this very country, yet they are left to fend for themselves when it comes to stable housing, affordable wages and child care.

We need a social safety net in America to protect the people in poverty. A social safety net would be a social contract for our citizens, an arrangement that would ensure that people’s basic needs are met even in a global pandemic. Other countries have understood the financial burden a global pandemic causes on their citizens and have gone as far as to make sure their working class or even working poor are still getting their basic needs met. Germany offered $5,000 in assistance to small employers and freelancers. Spain established basic income for residents in poverty, and Ireland introduced weekly emergency payments to those who have lost their jobs.  

Why does our government choose to criminalize those in poverty rather than assist them? Our government would rather pay to lock someone up in jail than provide them with financial assistance and social services during a pandemic. Society was quick to dehumanize and criticize Bell without addressing that we are all complicit in the broken system – a system that forces the poor and working poor to suffer silently and find their own solutions to problems that the government has created and then chooses to ignore.  

The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, also known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, was created to fix America’s growing welfare problem. In reality, not only did it not end the welfare issue, but it stopped lifting people out of poverty. It permitted the government to blame poverty on individuals, not on the system that has kept them barely surviving for hundreds of years.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven women to make impossible choices like reducing their hours or quitting the workforce altogether. Due to no reparations from slavery, Black Americans make up a majority of the poverty population that becomes a never-ending cycle of creating our solutions. Our government is forcing the poor and working poor to make impossible choices. 

Americans need to fight for a social safety net that delivers choices and security. We deserve a government that puts its policies where its mouth is. The time is now to stop pretending like the Shaina Bells of the world are invisible. Our society needs a government that understands the connection that raising the minimum wage has with stable housing, food security, child care and escaping poverty.

Zakiyaw Sankara-Jabar is the national director of activism at brightbeam and the co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! She has served as the national field organizer at Dignity in Schools Campaign. She is a preeminent thought leader in racial and education justice and has received numerous awards.

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