In 2020, a year of rising homicides amid a devastating pandemic in the US, the increase in the death rate for Black women rivaled that of Black men.
As homicides increased nearly 30% nationwide that year, the rate for Black women and girls rose 33%, a sharper increase than for every demographic except Black men, and more than double that of white women, according to a Guardian analysis of homicide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Killings of Black women and girls increased across age groups, from school-age children to senior citizens. Gun violence drove the increase, with three-quarters of homicide victims who were Black women and girls dying from gunshot wounds.
The increase only worsened an “unspoken epidemic” that has been unfolding over years, advocates say. From the mainstream feminist movement to the news media to law enforcement to community violence prevention organizations, many institutions have stayed silent about the crisis of violence against Black women, who are expected to care for others, but often do not receive the same level of care, they said.
The homicide rate among Black men in the US has long captured national headlines, but despite decades of Black feminist scholarship and organizing on the topic, violence against Black women and girls continues to receive little attention, researchers say.
“The headlines are: ‘Black men and boys face astronomical homicide rates’ or ‘Black men and boys face an increase in homicide that’s deeply troubling.’ You might get a paragraph that says: ‘And so are Black women and girls’,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist legal scholar whose work has highlighted police violence against Black women. “Often the data doesn’t even get reported.”
“The heightened vulnerability of Black women to violence should be seen and addressed as a crisis alongside the already recognized epidemic of Black male homicide,” Crenshaw said.
Community violence prevention typically focuses on Black men and boys, who face the highest risk of being killed, and domestic violence advocacy is most often shaped by the experiences of white women, researchers say. This creates a vacuum of solutions tailored to the unique ways that Black women and girls are vulnerable to violence.
The heightened vulnerability of Black women to violence should be seen and addressed as a crisis
A national march against Black femicide is being planned for late August in Washington DC, where the homicide rate for Black women was among the highest in the nation in 2020. Rosa Page, an Arkansas-based nurse and founder of Black Femicide US, is helping to organize the march.
“When I saw the rate increasing,” Page said, “I just had to do something.”
There were 1,821 Black women and girls killed in 2020. That’s five women and girls a day.
In a handful of states, including Kentucky and Ohio, as well as Washington DC, the number of killings doubled or even tripled.
How much the increase in the homicide risk for Black women and girls was driven by domestic violence or other kinds of violence isn’t completely clear. There are significant gaps in national law enforcement data about their murders. For nearly half of the killings of Black women and girls in 2020, the FBI’s supplementary homicide report lists the relationship between the victim and the person who killed her as “unknown”.
Available data indicates that, like most American women, Black women are often killed by someone they know. Nearly a third of Black women and girls in 2020 were known to be killed by an intimate partner or a family member, according to law enforcement homicide data reported to the FBI, and another 16% were killed by a friend, neighbor or acquaintance.
In a country where many neighborhoods and schools are racially segregated, many homicide victims are killed by someone of their same race, usually a man, according to FBI national homicide statistics.
Shootings that happen inside homes or within families are often erased from the public debate over gun violence, which frequently focuses on mass shootings and street violence, advocates said. Focusing on gender violence as part of gun violence is crucial, they said.
“If someone [doesn’t] feel safe, [they] stay home. But what if home is not that safe place? Where are you supposed to go? Who are you supposed to call on?” said Linda Brown, an activist with Des Moines Black Liberation Movement who helped organize a march for murdered Black women and girls in Iowa last spring.
The coronavirus pandemic, which had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, exacerbated the situation. The economic and emotional stress of the pandemic is the obvious explanation for the increase in interpersonal violence, some advocates said.
Across racial groups, gun violence rose more in US neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty, CDC researchers found. Wealthy neighborhoods saw smaller increases in fatal shootings.
Black women and many of the communities in which they live were deeply affected by the pandemic.
“People who were near the edge, Covid took a lot of them over,” said Yvonka Hall, the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition. “People lost their loved ones. Many lost their jobs … think about the mental health impact that it has on people who are already marginalized.”
Helping domestic violence survivors escape from an abusive partner can be challenging at any time, but doing that during a pandemic is “a whole different thing”.
“We need to make sure that people understand that what happened is a direct result of the responses that we didn’t have to the emergency that existed,” Hall said of the increase in homicide among Black women and girls.
Already vulnerable families were also losing parents and grandparents to Covid-19, fracturing their support networks, sociologist Nikki Jones said.
“I think that likely has had a really disruptive effect, particularly the young people who are close to the edge of using violence, particularly guns,” said Jones, chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s African American studies department. “We haven’t accounted for this disruption to the family and extended family network.”
Black women, who were overrepresented among frontline workers during the height of the pandemic, have traditionally been caretakers for their families and neighbors. “They didn’t have the luxury to work from home,” said Stephanie Howse, a city council member in Cleveland, Ohio. “They had to get up every day to keep the economic system and the economic engines running in this country.”
Lashonia Thompson-El, executive director of the gun violence reduction group Peace for DC, said, “[Black women] bear the brunt of a lot of the challenges that we face, because in a lot of cases, men are incarcerated, or they’re struggling with gaining a living wage, employment, or completing their education. [Women] are living in neighborhoods where they just don’t feel safe. So a lot of the responsibility falls on women.”
Because of their roles as breadwinners and caretakers, Black women who are killed leave deep voids across entire communities.
“When you kill a Black woman, often times you kill a cornerstone of the community, because there are a lot of people tied to her,” said Cheryl Neely, a Michigan-based sociologist.
Where Black women are most at risk
Even before 2020, there were dramatic differences in homicide risk for Black women and girls across different US states. In north-eastern states like New York and New Jersey, Black women’s homicide risk is lower than in the south.
But it’s in America’s midwest, as well as in some southern states bordering the midwest, that Black women face the highest risk of being murdered, not in the deep south.
Black women who live in Wisconsin or Michigan have a higher homicide rate than Black women who live in Mississippi or Alabama. For white women, it’s the opposite.
Homicides of Black women and girls doubled in Wisconsin and Ohio, rising from 21 to 42 in Wisconsin and from 57 to 110 in Ohio.
For Black women working to uplift other women, “it’s like another gut punch,” Howse, the Cleveland city council member, said of the new homicide statistics. “There’s never a relief. We don’t get good days.”
At the same time, Howse said, she worried the “shock value” of the numbers showing rising violence against Black women would be received by many other people as “part of the normal narrative of, ‘Yeah, that’s what happens to those people over there.’”
“There’s a danger in just reporting the traumatic,” Howse said. “You numb people to the fact that it’s not just statistics. These are real individuals with destroyed lives.”
In Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor’s killing by white police officers in Louisville sparked national protests, homicides of Black women and girls statewide tripled in 2020, from 10 women and girls killed to 33.
“It’s devastating,” said Attica Scott, who in 2016 became the first Black woman elected to Kentucky’s state legislature in 20 years. At least once a month, Scott said, she talks to young Black women who “want to flee Kentucky”.
“They just don’t see the opportunity for change. They don’t see Kentucky as a safe place for them, a healthy place for them,” she said. “Especially after the uprisings of 2020, so many young Black women were readying to leave … They didn’t feel like the people who are paid to protect and serve are protecting them.”
As a Black female legislator in Kentucky, she has received “some kind of death threat, or something very close to a death threat”, almost every year, Scott said.
In the nation’s capital, homicides of Black women and girls more than doubled in 2020. Although it is home to some of America’s most powerful Black people, it is also a majority Black city where many residents face intense disadvantages.
Twenty-five Black women were killed in the District of Columbia in 2020, according to CDC data, compared with 10 the year before. No women of any other race were murdered in the district that year, according to the police department.
Jawanna Hardy, founder of Guns Down Friday, said, “Until it gets worse, that’s when they’re going to make a change. It’s sad to say that as more women get killed, they’ll want to do something about it.”
What states are doing wrong … and right
In Michigan, Neely, the sociologist, spent 2020 researching her second book on violence against Black women, looking at serial murderers of Black women and police indifference to their deaths. But in July 2020, she had to stop her work, because her niece, Courtney Neely, a 29-year-old with a new baby, had just been murdered by her child’s father, who then killed himself.
“It was devastating. I’m in the middle of writing a book about Black women being victimized, not knowing how close it would hit me,” Neely said. “And I couldn’t really deal with it. I was grieving and I was traumatized by her death, and for a while I had to take a pause in my research and writing. It was just too close to home.”
Researchers said that the stark racial disparities in homicide risk for Black women in the midwest are probably the result of broader systemic disadvantages that Black midwesterners face. These states also have some of the starkest racial disparities in overall life expectancy, indeaths from heart disease, and in incarceration rates, according to public health and criminal justice researchers.
But the wide variation in homicide risk for Black women and girls is not just a sign of what some states are doing wrong, experts said: it may also point to what some states are doing right. For public health researchers, disparities in health outcomes suggest that there are state-level policies that could be changed to make people safer, said Corinne Riddell, a public health researcher who studies racial disparities in life expectancy.
New York and New Jersey, for instance, saw substantial increases in the homicide rate for Black women and girls in 2020. But even after 2020’s increases, Black women and girls living in Wisconsin and Missouri still faced a homicide risk five times higher than Black women and girls living in New York.
‘We have to stop the cycle’
Some states are responding specifically to the threat of violence that Black women face. In 2021, Minnesota became the first state to establish a taskforce on missing and murdered Black women. Black legislators in other states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, are following suit, and Chicago congressman Bobby Rush has proposed that Congress create a national taskforce on the same issue.
Black women and girls need to know “that work is being done to turn this tide”, Howse, the Cleveland city council member, said. “We don’t have to be bystanders.” Cleveland recently created its own commission on Black women and girls, in response to a 2020 CityLab report that named Cleveland the worst metropolitan area for Black women in the US.
“Show me the places where Black women and girls are thriving,” Howse said. “What does it look like? What does it feel like?”
Brown, the organizer from Iowa, emphasized the need to include the toll of violence on Black trans women and “femme-facing folk”, as well as “those who don’t fit into gender binary”.
National homicide statistics do not identify whether victims are trans or gender non-conforming, and law enforcement agencies frequently misgender trans homicide victims. In 2020, half of the 46 homicides of trans and gender non-confirming people nationwide were killings of Black trans women, according to the Human Rights campaign.
Black women have a range of views on whether they think the criminal justice system can do much to reduce violence. Some, like Page, the Black Femicide US founder, want to see law enforcement officials pay more attention to cases involving Black women and girls, and support harsher criminal penalties for violence against women. Others argue that police and incarceration do more to hurt Black women than to protect them, and suggest that new, community-based interventions are more likely to keep women and girls safe.
“I believe deeply in rehabilitation, healing harm. What becomes complicated is figuring out who will help in that,” Des Moines organizer Jalesha Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s the job of people who have been harmed to heal their abusers, but we have to stop the cycle before it escalates.”
Jones, the UC Berkeley professor, said there needs to be a more “expansive conception of safety” for Black women. “I think we have an opportunity to really invest in new solutions but they will require some innovation and some experimentation. We have to have a much broader focus than just policing.”
While their views on policing differ, many advocates agree that violence against Black women and girls demands a broad social response, not one confined to law enforcement. Institutions that have been largely silent on the issue, from feminist organizations to churches, need to speak up, they said.
“You cannot solve a problem that you refuse to acknowledge,” Crenshaw said. “Black women should not be dying like this.”
Edwin Rios contributed to this story.