By Loretta Ross
Sixty-five billboards were quickly erected in predominantly African American neighborhoods in Atlanta on February 5, 2010. Each showed a sorrowful picture of a black male child proclaiming, “Black Children are an Endangered Species.”
Georgia Right to Life and the newly-formed Radiance Foundation spent $20,000 to sponsor the billboards that included the address of a previously unknown anti-abortion website.
This was the opening salvo in a campaign to pass new state legislation attempting to criminalize abortions provided to women of color allegedly because of the “race or sex” of the fetus. Doctors would have been subjected to criminal sanctions and civil lawsuits. Central to the argument of our opponents was the false claim that most, if not all, abortions are coerced.
At Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, where one of the billboards was only a few blocks away, we knew that this race- and gender-baiting campaign would have national implications, driving a racial wedge in the pro-choice movement and a gender wedge in communities of color. The legislation would also trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Although SisterSong had not expected this fight, we could not afford to be silent. We surged into action to challenge the marketing of the billboards and the legislation. We formed a coalition for the fight with SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW!, Feminist Women’s Health Center, SisterLove, Planned Parenthood of the Southeast Region, and Raksha. We strategized together to use a reproductive justice approach that intersected race and gender as the smartest way to counter this intersectional attack on abortion rights.
We succeeded – this time. We won, in part, by shifting the debate, researching our opponents, understanding the divisions among our opponents, correcting their “facts,” and engaging our Civil Rights allies. In the process, we made new discoveries about how to deal with this latest tactic of our opponents.
Identifying the Campaign
Because of the conflation of race, gender and abortion, the billboards very quickly became national news, picked up by CNN, The New York Times, ABC, The LA Times and many others.
Our opponents began a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children. After all, many people in our community already believe that black men are an endangered species because of white supremacy. Our opponents used a social responsibility frame to claim that black women have a racial obligation to have more babies – especially black male babies — despite our individual circumstances.
The campaign also accused Planned Parenthood, the largest single provider of birth control and abortion services in the black community, of targeting the community for “genocide” because of its “racist founder,” Margaret Sanger.
We had to fight the rhetorical impact of the billboards by reframing the discourse as an attack on the autonomy of black women, shifting the focus away from the sad, beautiful black boy in the advertisements.
It was not accidental that they chose a black male child to feature in their messaging, exacerbating gender tensions in the African American community. We decided that the best approach was to emphasize our opponents’ negative subliminal messages about black women. Either we were dupes of abortion providers, or we were evil women intent on having abortions – especially of black male children – for selfish reasons. In their first narrative, we were victims without agency unable to make our own decisions, pawns of racist, profit-driven abortion providers. In their second narrative, we were the uncaring enemies of our own children, and architects of black genocide.
We decided on affirming messages that refuted both narratives. We had to manage both positive and negative emotions about abortion.
We repeatedly asserted our own agency as black women who are trustworthy, informed and politically savvy. We insisted that whether black women were pro-choice or pro-life, we were united in believing that black women could reasonably decide for ourselves whether to become parents. Freedom is inherent in black women and we would let no one limit our liberty. We aggressively linked women’s rights to civil and human rights.
Our messages: We decided to have abortions. We invited Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black neighborhoods. We are part of the civil and human rights movement. We protected the future of black children, not our opponents. We helped women. They judged them.
We found a resonating message of trusting black women that was widely embraced by African American women. This response forced our opponents to change their messages. They eventually declared—defensively—that they “do trust black women!” We knew we had scored a victory.
Loretta J. Ross is National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.