Dr. Beth Richie spoke to an audience of several hundred women at First United Methodist Church on International Women’s Day, March 8. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

Laws meant to protect against gender violence without taking race into account can have results that disproportionately harm women of color and other marginalized people, said Beth Richie, professor of African American Studies and Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She was the keynote speaker at the Evanston community’s International Women’s Day celebration, sponsored by the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, the Women’s Center at Northwestern University, the Woman’s Club of Evanston, the League of Women Voters of Evanston, the Frances Willard Historical Association, the Evanston Women’s History Project and the City of Evanston.

Dr. Richie said the “persistent, pernicious way that domestic violence continues” can be laid at the feet of two nationwide attitudes that need to be broken down: a prison-nation mentality and carceral feminism, which relies too heavily on prisons to solve social problems.

The prison-nation mentality, Dr. Richie said, comes from an over-reliance on the law-enforcement system to solve societal problems by criminalizing actions and conditions that could and should be addressed otherwise. “Increasingly we talk of people with problems such as mental health issues and drug abuse as criminals.” More aggressive law-enforcement strategies are said to protect “a larger social good,” but this “aggressive state control is imposed on marginalized communities.”

Examples of the prison nation are schools with “holding cells” for certain students, arrests for substance abuse, loitering laws and a lack of a safe space in jails for transgender people. More prisons are built and more are being run by private companies hired by states to save taxpayers’ money.

Carceral feminism, Dr. Richie said, is an over-reliance on the prison system and is premised on the ideas that all women are the same and the system will protect all victims of violence. Conversely, those whom the system does not protect are not taken seriously or considered real victims – which leaves some women at increased risk of violence. 

A victim of spiraling abuse who finally takes action and strikes out at one or more of her abusers is sometimes charged as a criminal, Dr. Richie said. Present laws and law enforcement consider the contexts of race and gender, but many rely on them as able to protect everyone. “The law-and-order mentality can harm those already marginalized or vilified members of society,” she said.

“What should be the call to action on International Women’s Day 2016?” Dr. Richie asked. “The abuse – physical, sexual, street harassment, policies – and the structural racism of the prison nation endanger us as much as do the manifestations of sexual assault. The isolation and marginalization made possible by prison build-up must be addressed.”

Since reliance on a single solution has endangered some already vulnerable populations, Dr. Richie advises thinking much more broadly about victims and solutions, holding accountable for gender violence those who are fighting against racial violence, and not relying on any single solution for those who are in danger.

“We have to do more and do it better. To end gender violence is radical, life-changing work,” Dr. Richie said.

After Dr. Richie spoke and answered questions, audience members were invited to the hall where many had enjoyed a pre-speech breakfast so they could learn about how many local organizations are working toward justice for marginalized, vulnerable and at-risk members of the community. Among the organizations are the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, Curt’s Café, Evanston Scholars, the Evanston Police Department, PEER Services, the Moran Center, Youth & Opportunity United, Family Focus, Evanston Township High School and the Youth Job Center.