Column: We need more than Megan Thee Stallion to save this ‘forgotten population’ in California

Thursday, October 15, 2020

By Erika Smith for the Los Angeles Times

I couldn’t help but notice all of the high-minded speechifying on Capitol Hill this week, particularly the male senators who felt the need to make grand proclamations about women’s rights and how far my gender has come in America.

Their proof, of course, was Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the white woman from Indiana waiting to take her seat on the Supreme Court.

“This is history being made, folks,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday morning. “This is the first time in American history that we’ve nominated a woman who’s unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology. And she is going to the court, where there is a seat at the table waiting for you. And it will be a great signal to all young women.”

Maybe so. But his words, spoken with such insufferably blind gusto, were also a reminder of the persistent political disinterest in acknowledging — much less fixing — the racial inequities that make it harder for most women who look like me to succeed in even close to the same way in America. 

Megan Thee Stallion was brave enough to break it all down in an op-ed penned for the New York Times earlier this week.

“From the moment we begin to navigate the intricacies of adolescence,” she wrote, “we feel the weight of this threat, and the weight of contradictory expectations and misguided preconceptions. Many of us begin to put too much value to how we are seen by others. That’s if we are seen at all.

“The issue is even more intense for Black women, who struggle against stereotypes and are seen as angry or threatening when we try to stand up for ourselves and our sisters. There’s not much room for passionate advocacy if you are a Black woman.”

Megan Thee Stallion has good reason to feel this way.

The hip-hop artist, who is perhaps best known for a song with Cardi B that one Republican congressional candidate said made him want to “pour holy water in my ears,” says she was shot by Canadian rapper Tory Lanez while riding in an SUV in the Hollywood Hills. Last week, Lanez was charged with assault and, this week, he was ordered to stay away from her and surrender his guns.

“My initial silence about what happened was out of fear for myself and my friends,” she wrote. “Even as a victim, I have been met with skepticism and judgment.”

This is a story that Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Los Angeles) has heard too many times before in California. For every Megan Thee Stallion who tries and fails to prove she’s a victim to the public, there’s another Black woman who tries and fails to prove it to the courts. And then those women disproportionately end up in prison.

In fact, women are the fastest growing segment of the population that’s getting locked up in this state, explained Kamlager-Dove, who is chair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Incarcerated Women. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the female jail population has jumped six-fold since 1970 — twice as much as the male population during that same period. And those women are disproportionately Black and queer.

Kamlager-Dove has been holding hearings with incarnated women across California in recent months, hoping to understand the increase and figure out what sort of legislation might help reverse it or at least ease life for those who must remain behind bars.

So far, what she has found is that most Black women end up in prison because of some combination of poverty, addiction and being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man — whether it’s a boyfriend prone to violent behavior or sex trafficking.

“They’re sentenced because they’ve been sexualized and adultized — I’m not sure that’s a word,” she told me. “But certainly there is data out there that shows Black girls lose their childhood much quicker than white girls and other girls because they are sexualized as at a younger age. The sentiment is that they are strong and so they don’t need as much emotional support or nurturing. They are levied with more adult expectations.”

Women like Keiana Aldrich.

Molested as a child and then in and out of juvenile hall, she became a sex trafficking victim as a teenager. At age 17, she was charged as an adult and accepted a plea deal for being caught on video helping her pimp force a man he had kidnapped to make purchases at a store. The pimp wasn’t charged, but she got a sentence of nearly a decade.

“I question if she would have been given the same sentence if she were a man,” Kamlager-Dove said. “I question if she would have been given the same sentence if she were not African American.”

What’s more — if that same kidnapping went down today, Aldrich probably wouldn’t even have been charged because California lawmakers decided to stop treating exploited minors as criminals. A petition to commute her sentence is sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. He should sign it.

And, yet, for every Keiana Aldrich, there’s also a Black woman who gets exploited while in prison in California. Women like Robbie Hall.

The 58-year-old great-grandmother was among the thousands of prisoners forced to continue working behind bars during the pandemic, reportedly without masks. She contracted COVID-19, of course, and spent weeks in hospital recovering, my colleague Kiera Feldman reported.

Now Hall is back in prison where she has been locked up for 35 years, serving a 15-year-to-life sentence for murdering a man who she says raped and tried to kill her. As a child, she said was physically and sexually abused.

Hall, like many Black women in prison in California, is at the tail-end of a lifelong cycle of trauma, often made worse by government entities that failed them in their youth, whether it was an underfunded public school or an overwhelmed child protective services agency. And too often, none of that is taken into account by the courts.

“They’re sentenced for these very long terms without any thought being given to the circumstances which led them there in the first place,” Kamlager-Dove lamented. “And so, quite frankly, until we have a reckoning with those prejudices, it may continue to be harder to pass legislation that deals with it.”

It’s why I can only nod at Megan Thee Stallion’s assertion that Black women are entitled to our anger about a laundry list of mistreatment and neglect.

“We deserve to be protected as human beings,” she wrote.

Kamlager-Dove, who is Black, is willing to try, which is more than I can say for most of the senators talking nonsense about women’s rights at Barrett’s confirmation hearings this week.

“It’s a population that it’s a forgotten population,” she said, frustration creeping into her voice. “But at the end of the day, these women are our sisters and our mothers and our grandmothers and our aunts. And they deserve our attention.”