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Racial Injustice, Domestic Violence and the Shelter Movement, written by Carolyn Russell MA, MSW
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - September 28, 2020


Domestic violence has been defined as a pattern of coercive, aggressive, and violent behavior and California laws make it a “crime” to harm an intimate partner. Though men are survivors of abuse, it is women and girls who have been disproportionately impacted for centuries by this epidemic of global violence, rooted in a hierarchical, oppressive society that continues to create societal attitudes and beliefs about how intimate partners should be treated. Racial injustice contributed to this hierarchy and negatively impacts the fight against domestic violence and intimate partner abuse so this is a good moment to examine policies, procedures and historical practices and the way in which they impact black families.

My work with survivors in started in early eighties at an Oakland based shelter was led by white women, housing predominately black clients and their children. I am constantly reminded of my early and current experiences working on the crisis hotline. Calls from Black women complaining about being evicted from white-led shelters, and worse being turned away.  As this was occurring in the early eighties, I was not surprised when a black colleague, working in a shelter, stated black women were still being turned away, and being told there was no space. These are experiences black survivors of abuse endured while they were trying to navigate the various systems for support.        

To set this in context of domestic, for black women and their children, the statistics of abuse far also exceed that of their white counterparts. According to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research on the Status of Black Women, 31.5% of all black women in the United States will experience domestic violence. Additionally, a report from the National Center for Victims of Crime found that 53.8% of black women have experienced psychological abuse, while 41.2 of black women had experienced physical abuse. These statistics are alarming and disturbing to those impacted by domestic violence. Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. In 56% of these homicides were committed by a current or former intimate partner and in the overwhelming majority of these cases (92%) the person who killed them knew their victim.

Unfortunately, even though black women are more likely to suffer domestic violence during this crisis than other groups, racism exists in many of the institutions designed to support and offer them protection solace and relief. Black survivors of domestic and intimate partner abuse, including heterosexual, LBGQT communities will often face forms of racism from the very institutions designed to protect them. It is worth considering that domestic violence became a social and political issue in the late 1960s as part of the women’s liberation movement. That movement was largely led by white women and the same was true for the pioneering domestic violence shelters. According to Linda Ammons, longtime Dean of the Widener School of Law,

“A study of the shelter movement in America led a researcher to conclude that black women are ignored in the policymaking, planning and implementation of shelter service.”

This has had consequences. Many black women have left shelters or have been excluded due to misunderstandings about their social situation, their cultural needs and differences. “African-American women hesitate to seek help from shelters,” continues Ammons, “because they believe that shelters are for white women. Because the shelters are associated with the women’s movement, and many black women are estranged from women’s politics, they may feel that only white women’s interests are served in the shelters.” Today, many of these shelters continue to reflect white norms and few black women are represented in national leadership.

Black communities often have different norms and cultural identities in terms of family dynamics, religious belief and identity. I think a personal experience from my early days in the shelter is worth sharing. On occasion, black women, who knew no other way to discipline their children, would use corporal punishment. Of course, this was and is unacceptable since children who have already experienced significant violence and they should be able to live violence free in the shelter. However, the undisguised horror and condemnation expressed by well meaning but culturally insensitive white staff alienated those black women creating barriers for healing and success. A culturally responsive approach would have understood that corporal punishment was more common in the black community and what was needed was needed was a sensitive approach that offered non-violent alternatives for disciplining children.

Of course, the other aspect facing black survivors is racism that is endemic in the law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Both black survivors and offenders have lived in contact with and been affected adversely by their involvement with these systems. Racism impacts the way in which black women seek support. Historically, even in situations where black women are living in an unsafe home, they have refrained from calling the police. There is a lack of trust of white police officers brutalizing and killing black men that creates a community that fears any involvement with the police. Black women may feel they are doing “harm’ to black men and the black community by involving law enforcement. The courts and the justice system, by incarcerating a disproportionate number of black men and women survivors of domestic violence, help to reinforce this level of distrust in the black community. As Feminista Jones in Time writes,  “As Black people, we don’t always feel comfortable surrendering “our own” to the treatment of a racially biased police state and as women, we don’t always feel safe calling police officers who may harm us instead of helping us.” Most often, black women will suffer in silence rather than involve the police and it is difficult to combat domestic violence in black communities where women and their children have been taught to keep silent and never share family business. The only way to address this societal epidemic facing black women and girls is to start with the historical and persistent racism and sexism faced by black communities.

Domestic violence programs, most serving vulnerable populations, are now being asked to deal both with the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on their communities, and the reality of centuries of systematic, institutional racial oppression. Physical and sexual violence stem from this culture of historical oppression on one hand and privilege on the other. Institutions can no longer be silent. Confronting the legacy of racism is difficult for those who choose not to educate themselves about these matters. The non-profit sector, the donors, the boards of directors, the leaders must confront the legacy of racism and work to align their values and practices to address inequities that exist in their programs. State and local legislators must recognize the unique risk factors facing black women and girls. Organizations should use this opportunity for introspection, re-examining their policies, procedures and historical practices and the ways in which they serve black families.

Taking responsibility means openness to learning, while addressing the inequities that exist, countering implicit bias with inclusion, as we work to heal historical trauma. We must work to build equity and practices that enhance and support black survivors and black women working to end social injustice and inequities in our programs. We invite all to join in our fight to end this societal epidemic that ravages our black families. Can we begin with an appreciation of the struggles that black women and girls continue to endure every day? Our job as an agency is to lift up the voices of our black sisters and brothers as we combat domestic violence while creating a zero tolerance of such behavior. We will thereby take ownership in creating a safe place for our most valuable resource, our children.