According to the 2000 Census, there were over 34 million Americans who identified as African American. This group constitutes over 12 percent of the U.S. population (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2001). As a group, they are very diverse and differ greatly from each other in socioeconomic status, education level, racial identity, acculturation, family structure, and political affiliation (Sue and Sue 2003). For example, while roughly 20 percent of African Americans live in poverty, about one-third are considered middle or upper class. While one-third of African American men are involved in the criminal justice system, one out of seven African American families earned more than $50,000 per year (Hildebrand, Phenice, Gray, and Hines 1996). Since the 1970s and 1980s, when violence against women first became viewed as a critical social issue, scholars have begun to examine racial and ethnic differences in the incidence and severity of violence. A growing focus of this inquiry has been domestic violence in the African American community.
I. Intimate Partner Violence in the African American Community
II. Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence against African American Women
III. Cultural and Community Factors
IV. Theories of Intimate Partner Violence
V. Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment
VI. The Black Church
VII. Coping Strategies and the Process of Survival
VIII. Areas for Future Research
Intimate Partner Violence in the African American Community
Although violence against men does occur, women are much more likely than men to be the victims of violence (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000). According to the National Violence against Women Survey (NVWS) (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000), 22 percent of women surveyed reported being physically assaulted by a current or former spouse or partner in their lifetime, compared with 7 percent of men reporting such assaults. Similarly, violence against women tends to be intimate partner violence (IPV); 64 percent of the women compared with 16 percent of the men in the NVWS who reported being raped, physically assaulted, or stalked were victimized by a current or former spouse/intimate partner. In fact, femicide, the homicide of women, is among the leading causes of death for African American women between the ages of 15 and 44 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2005), and many of these femicides are committed by the victims’ intimate partners (Campbell et al. 2003). Another potential consequence of IPV is increased rate of HIV infection among African American women who are abused (Lichtenstein 2004). For example, in one study of a predominantly African American sample of HIV-infected women, the author concluded that risk for HIV infection was increased because these women were trapped in abusive relationships with HIV+ men and were not able to negotiate sexual activity with their partners. Due to these types of disparities in IPV, most of the research in this area has focused on violence toward women, including the literature addressing domestic violence in the African American community.
Among the most cited studies that examined domestic violence, or IPV, among African Americans were the First and Second National Family Violence Surveys. In the first study conducted in 1975, Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz (1980) reported that black husbands reported higher rates of severe violence and overall violence toward their wives than did white husbands; in black families the rate of overall wife abuse was 169 per 1,000, compared with 112 per 1,000 for white families. For severe acts of violence toward wives, the rate for blacks was 113 per 1,000 versus 30 per 1,000 for whites. Straus and his colleagues also examined wife-to-husband abuse and found that black wives reported severe violent acts toward their husbands at nearly twice the rate of white wives (76 per 1,000 compared with 41 per 1,000). This pattern of findings was replicated in the second survey conducted ten years later, in 1985 (Straus and Gelles 1986), which found that black families reported higher rates of overall husband-to-wife abuse (169 per 1,000) and wife-to-husband abuse (204 per 1,000) compared with white families (107 per 1,000 and 116 per 1,000, respectively). Based on these data, questions were raised about whether African Americans were actually more violent in general than whites. Subsequent research has resulted in oftentimes confusing and seemingly contradictory findings, with some studies reporting similarities between IPV rates between blacks and whites, and others reporting increased risk of IPV toward black women compared with white women (West 2002a).
Some of the differences found in this literature are attributable to the confounding effects of socioeconomic variables, such as neighborhood disadvantage (Benson, Wooldredge, Thistlethwaite, and Fox 2004), and low education and employment status, particularly for the perpetrators of interpersonal violence against African American women. For example, in an examination of risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships, Campbell et al. (2003) reported that the strongest sociodemographic risk factor for femicide was the abuser’s lack of employment. The abuser having a college (versus high school) education or a college degree while searching for work were found to be protective factors against femicide. When these sociodemographic factors were included in regression models, the race/ ethnicity of abusers and victims failed to have independent effects on femicide. As stated by the authors, ‘‘unemployment [of the abuser] appears to underlie increased risk often attributed to race/ethnicity’’ (p. 1092). Benson and his colleagues also found that differences between white and African American women’s risk of violence decreased substantially (although still remained significant) when taking into account neighborhood disadvantage (e.g., percentage of residents unemployed, on public assistance, and living below the poverty line).
Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence against African American Women
Factors associated with African American women’s ability to leave abusive relationships include having their own home and their own source of income (Lichtenstein 2004), further highlighting the importance of sociodemographic factors in understanding IPV among African American women. Sociodemographic circumstances are also among the most commonly reported risk factors for IPV among African American women. ‘‘African-Americans are economically and socially disadvantaged, which places them at greater risk for IPV’’ (West 2004, p. 1489). Closely related to economic disadvantage is the fact that many African American women are marginalized, making them vulnerable to multiple traumatic experiences (West 2004). Other risk factors may include stereotypes and myths about African American women that may affect their help-seeking. Stereotypes of the black superwoman may discourage an African American woman from seeking help because she might subscribe to the belief that she should be strong enough to endure or stop the violence directed toward her. Similarly, African American women, cognizant of the stereotypes that portray them as aggressive, masculine, dangerous, and promiscuous (Bell and Mattis 2000), may avoid seeking help out of fear that they will be blamed for the abuse. They may also be seen as less legitimately needful of help because of their darker skin and potentially larger size and the perception that they are more likely to fight back (Bell and Mattis 2000). These stereotypes may also present African American women as needing to be controlled by their men, which may foster IPV as well (Bell and Mattis 2000; Hampton, Oliver, and Magarian 2003). Alcohol-related problems are also risk factors for IPV among African Americans (Benson et al. 2004; Campbell, Sharps, Gary, Campbell, and Lopez 2002).
Cultural and Community Factors
Other risk factors for IPV seem culturally specific to African American women. In her interviews with black battered women jailed for illegal activity, Richie (1994) used life history interviews to distinguish this group of women from (a) white battered women in jail and (b) black women in jail who had not been battered. Comparison of their responses allowed Richie to identify experiences unique to this group of black battered women. Compared with the non-battered black women, the black women who were battered reported a notable sensitivity to the social and economic position of African American men. This concern for African American men prompted a desire to protect them from a racially unjust criminal justice system, resulting in fewer attempts to call the police or get other forms of help. Participants also reported feeling the need to provide opportunities to their men to help them feel more powerful, oftentimes doing so by relinquishing much of their own power. Because of poor treatment of black men by white men, and because black women were often able to find employment when their male counterparts could not, these women felt a sense of privilege compared with their male partners, and felt compelled to accept the violence.
While it is important to hold men responsible for the violence they inflict on women, it is also important to understand some of the contexts in which this violence might develop. As stated by King (1997), discussions of African American male violence should not take place outside of the context of understanding the treatment of African Americans in this country. In particular, he points to significant features of the African American experience in America, like chattel slavery, institutionalized racism, lynching, higher rates of execution in the criminal justice system, police brutality, and poverty. These injustices may cause feelings of frustration and hopelessness in African American men, and may lead to alcohol and drug use and low socioeconomic attainment. Perceived and real differences in earning potential between black men and women can also be a source of frustration and tension in a relationship, where the man does not feel able to fulfill society’s prescribed role for him as wage-winner; this frustration and tension may also lead to violence (West 2002a). Similarly, racial discrimination toward black men may lead to decreased access to resources and opportunities, causing stress and violence among black men. Oliver (2000) summarizes an argument by Staples (1982), which states that this anger and frustration toward society becomes displaced and their wives and girlfriends bear the burden of it. Similarly, Hampton et al. (2003), in describing the cultural and community context of domestic violence in the African American community, note that African American men, particularly those of lower social status, have adopted alternative ways of exerting their ‘‘manhood’’ because the traditional ways (e.g., being the financial provider) have been unattainable for them; these alternatives to establishing manhood may include violence.
Other scholars have written about beliefs held by many in the African American culture that may increase women’s risk of IPV. One is the so-called shortage of eligible black men that might cause some women to consider ‘‘man sharing,’’ which increases a man’s power over a woman (Lichtenstein 2004), or may discourage a woman from leaving an abusive relationship out of fear of not finding another partner. Another is the negative portrayal of African American women in some popular music, particularly gangsta rap, which often advocates violence as an acceptable method of relating to and controlling women (Bell and Mattis 2000).
Residing in violent communities can also increase risk for intimate partner violence for African American women because residence in such communities increases the likelihood of a woman being exposed to other types of violence (West 2002a) and may isolate her from potential sources of support (Benson et al. 2004; Hampton et al. 2003). Deteriorating environmental conditions in communities also weakens that community’s ability to influence and control the behavior of its residents. In these communities, violence becomes an acceptable way to respond to interpersonal conflict, and typical social controls such as churches and neighbors are no longer able to influence IPV (Benson et al. 2004). Similarly, African American women experiencing IPV who are also involved in illicit drug use quickly become isolated from the potentially supportive communities that may provide assistance in escaping the abuse (Hampton et al. 2003).
Theories of Intimate Partner Violence
Several theories of violence against women have emerged. Among them is feminist theory, which posits that women are abused by men because of the patriarchal and sexist values advocated by society and its institutions (e.g., media, legal system). These values are rooted in a history of ordained violence against women, which included viewing women and girls as the property of their husbands and fathers and gave men the right to chastise or reprimand their wives by hitting them.
Several critiques of feminist theory emerged from African American and other scholars (e.g., Collins 1991; West 1999) who stated that the theory did not address the unique history and experiences of African American women and was therefore inadequate in describing the experiences of African American women, including their experiences of abuse. Because its primary focus was addressing male oppression of women, feminist theory has been criticized for catering only to the experiences of white middle-class women and ignoring the experiences of women of color and the poor. So, although feminist theory has challenged white male supremacy, it has also been accused of stifling the experiences and ideas of black and other marginalized women (Collins 1991) who live at the intersection of sexism and racism. This dual minority status, or position as both woman and black in society, sets the stage for a unique set of experiences and presents unique challenges for black women that the traditional feminist literature does not address. The theory’s focus on male privilege also does not adequately address IPV among lesbians, and in particular, lesbians of color, who exist at the intersection of racism, sexism, and heterosexism. According to T. C. West, another problem with feminist theory in addressing IPV against African American women is that it equates black and white men’s male privilege relative to women, ignoring the pervasive culture of racism that impacts black, and not white, men’s status in society. As argued by Collins (1991), T. C. West (1999), and others (e.g., hooks 1989; Richie 1994), in order to fully understand the experiences of black women, including those affected by IPV, critique must occur not only on issues of gender, but also on issues of race, class, and sexual orientation.
Black feminist thought emphasizes the importance of race, gender, and class oppression; in doing so, it ‘‘fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift in how we think about oppression’’ and ‘‘[embraces] a paradigm of race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression’’ (Collins 1990). It further acknowledges African American women as both self-defined and self-reliant and places a strong emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge as a way of combating oppression (Collins 1990). Emphasis is placed not only on changing the consciousness of individuals, but also on altering society’s political and social institutions in order to support needed change.
The inclusive examination of multiple forms of oppression also allows one to examine the relative salience of each of a number of identities. According to hooks (1989), race, class, and sex determine a woman’s position in life and whether she will be dominated or will have the power to dominate. C. M. West (2004) explains that ‘‘when compared to poor women and lesbians, social class and heterosexual privilege can protect middle class or heterosexual Black women from some types of aggression. At the same time, racism can make it difficult for Black women, regardless of their economic status and sexual orientation, to escape racially based . . . violence’’ (p. 226). Black feminist theory also recognizes that black women may be more susceptible to violence in many settings (e.g., intimate relationships, communities) because of their position at the intersection of oppressions (West 2002a).
Richie’s (1994, 1996) theory of gender entrapment provides a framework for explaining illegal activity among battered women of color and incorporates four levels of analysis: social (examines societal structures and practices), individual (considers how human behavior is influenced by intimate relationships), community (examines the influence of community norms and values on behavior), and intrapsychic (considers how internal psychological processes affect meaning-making). This theory, which attempts to incorporate the combined effects and intersection of gender identity, cultural determinants of behavior, violence, and crime, is one more example of the comprehensive approaches and models needed to understand phenomena such as IPV against African American women.
Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment
Ways to reduce violence against African American women have been proposed. Some address the social inequities experienced by African American men (see Hampton et al. 2003) and call for a reduction in joblessness and underemployment among African American men through high school retention programs and through job information and placement centers. Community-based interventions designed to educate men and boys about manhood and womanhood and that challenge the prevailing and damaging stereotypes about African American men and women have also been proposed. These community-based programs, which can be offered through local churches or fraternities, will be most effective if they successfully combat societal and cultural norms that subjugate and oppress women.
Throughout the African American IPV literature, there exist several calls for culturally competent treatment of African Americans who are affected by IPV. Successful treatment will require both the therapist and the client to reject stereotypes of the dangerous African American woman and accept her vulnerability; it may also be necessary for practitioners and service providers treating African American women to help them grieve the loss of their ‘‘superwomen’’ identities. The healers in IPV interventions may also be required to serve as advocates for their clients (Bell and Mattis 2000), potentially assisting them as they navigate the criminal justice system and helping them to secure the resources necessary for them and their children to live safe and violence-free lives. Bell and Mattis further assert that culturally competent interventions with African American victims of interpersonal violence should be consistent with a client’s culture, including themes and topics most directly relevant to African American women, particularly religion and spirituality. This culturally sensitive treatment and incorporation of religion and spirituality should not include challenges to women’s religious beliefs, but rather should provide a safe place where women can explore and critically examine their own beliefs (Bell and Mattis 2000). Treatment of religious women may also include referrals to or collaborative work with religious leaders who have been trained in dealing with domestic violence issues, allowing women to explore their religious and spiritual issues (Jordan 2002).
M. West (1997) provides several recommendations for culturally appropriate assessment and treatment for women of color who experience IPV. She notes that a comprehensive assessment of race and ethnicity should be conducted, during which time clients can identify their primary ethnic identity (e.g., West Indian vs. black), which may allow for a better understanding of their worldview. Additionally, both objective (income, education) and subjective (perceived social status) measures of socioeconomic status should be assessed, as should family structure, which might include an assessment of family members’ roles and the family’s social support network. West also notes that it is critical to assess family members’ previous experiences with violence, including community violence, war, and lynchings. Suicidality and cultural coping strategies, including family rituals and other sources of strength, should also be assessed. Treatment should include legal assistance, provision of safety, helping women to regain a sense of control, and the validation of her experiences and feelings (West 1997). Additionally, practitioners should assist women in developing and strengthening their social support networks, and may use literature, art, and music as opportunities to reflect on their experiences (West 2002b).
Other recommendations for practice and education are provided by Campbell et al. (2003). These include using a strengths-based approach to interventions, increasing the number of African American workers to help African American victims of IPV, and focusing on injury prevention. Oliver (2000) discusses how aspects of African American popular culture, which include the common experiences, beliefs, and values among black people, could be used to increase awareness of the problem of IPV among African Americans and to potentially improve the effectiveness of IPV interventions. Facets of this popular culture include its heroes, music, common history of racism, and the black church. Oliver identified several mediums in the black popular culture that may be effectively used to combat issues of IPV in the community. For example, attendance at gospel musicals or black gospel plays is becoming increasingly popular among African Americans. These plays often address issues of relevance to black Americans and can be used to facilitate domestic violence prevention and intervention. According to Oliver, shows like How to Treat a Black Woman and Why Good Girls Like Bad Boys have already addressed IPV. Another potential medium is black radio, which serves as a source of communication and dissemination of black popular culture (Oliver 2000). Oliver describes the potential for radio programming and black disk jockeys to impart information and generate discussion about IPV in the black community. Finally, black music can be used in treatment with African American women through discussion of the lyrics relevant to IPV or other personal and relational issues relevant to African American women.
The Black Church
The role of the black church in addressing and combating IPV among African American women has been discussed by many scholars. Some scholars have noted that the church has been and can be a detriment to ending violence because of the patriarchal structure of most churches, the use of some scriptures to support the subjugation of wives by their husbands, or by ignoring the problem of IPV altogether (Fortune 2000). However, the church can also be a tremendous source of strength and support for African American women experiencing partner abuse (Bell and Mattis 2000). Similarly, prayer and faith can both be impediments to traditional help-seeking as well as provide support to IPV victims (West 1997). Because African American women may turn to their faith or religion in time of trouble, including IPV (Berkel, Furlong, Hickman, and Blue 2005), the church can be central to addressing issues of violence among its members.
Because of its position of esteem in the African American community, the church has a unique opportunity to effectively provide education about IPV and support for its victims, many of whom regularly attend church (Jordan 2002). This education and support may be in the form of helping both victims and offenders to understand the true meaning and context of scriptures often used to justify male domination over women. For example, Jordan asserts that the church must address the theological justifications often used for violence toward women and provide accurate interpretations of biblical texts that address male–female relationships. Another critical issue is the gender imbalance in church leadership. When women have more leadership positions in the church, issues affecting them, like IPV, are more likely to get addressed. According to Jordan, the black church is in a position not only to address domestic violence directly through providing shelter and resources for victims of IPV, but to address many of the contextual factors that might increase risk for IPV, such as unemployment, underemployment, and alcohol abuse. T. C. West (1999) further contends that black churches should denounce violence against women and challenge the culture of many churches that supports male domination.
Coping Strategies and the Process of Survival
Much of the data on African American women victimized by IPV focus on their incidence of battering. Also needed is an understanding of their coping strategies and processes of survival (West 2004). Using a womanist framework, Taylor (2004) interviewed twenty-one self-identified African American women survivors of IPV to determine how they understood and labeled their experiences and how they moved beyond simply surviving to thriving. The first of the six themes related to survivorship- thriving that were identified was sharing secrets/shattering silences. The cultural value of not ‘‘putting one’s business in the street’’ was recognized as an impediment to their safety. The process of healing began for many women through speaking out about their abuse, either with family members and friends, or with therapists in individual or group therapy. hooks (1989) states that black people are often taught not to speak out and to remain silent, perhaps out of a fear of rejection or isolation. But, according to hooks, and echoed by the survivors in this study, speaking out can be an act of resistance and can challenge a system of domination.
Reclaiming the self, or resisting society’s definition of who they were and who they were supposed to be, was another theme identified. Being able to define one’s self and identify one’s own course served to empower these women. Renewing the spirit was the third theme identified, and referred to women’s need to resurrect their spirits, which had died or were dying as a result of the abuse. This spiritual healing was essential to their overall health and recovery. This finding underlies the importance of spirituality in the lives of African American women in general, as well as those who have experienced IPV. As stated by others (e.g., Bell and Mattis 2000), in order to provide culturally competent service to African American women who are victims of IPV, practitioners must address spiritual and/or religious issues. The fourth theme identified was self-healing through forgiveness, which was achieved gradually and only after obtaining some distance from the relationship. The forgiveness of their partners was seen as a personal victory and was central to the participants’ self-healing.
The final two themes, finding inspiration for the future and self-generativity by engaging in social action, address the development of a sense of hope and empowerment, which are critical advances for women who previously had felt both hopeless and powerless. Based on these findings, the author recommends that interventions with African American women with a history of IPV include a focus on spirituality, forgiveness, safe places to share their stories, and opportunities for activism(Taylor 2004).
Areas for Future Research
One area in the African American IPV literature requiring critical attention is the topic of battering among lesbians (West 1998). According to Robinson (2002) and others, in many ways the dynamics of lesbian battering are very similar to non-lesbian battering. According to Robinson, the cycle of violence is often similar, the victims of abuse are often isolated from their friends, families, and other potential sources of support, and for some lesbian couples, one or both partners may have problems with alcohol. Lesbian battering also differs, however, in very important ways. First, the threat of being outed is a significant concern for lesbians who have not come out to members of their family, coworkers, or landlords. Internalized homophobia or fear of homophobic reactions by others may also discourage lesbians from seeking help.
M. West (2002, 2004) provides several other recommendations for future research in the area of domestic violence in the African American community. First, researchers should limit the number of simple black–white comparisons in partner abuse and focus more on the inclusion of more diverse samples of black women. Currently, much of the IPV literature focuses on the experiences of low-income women, which results in a paucity of information about middle- and upper-class women. Research on protective factors and resiliency are also needed (West 2004). Other recommendations include broadening the definitions of violence to include both emotional and verbal abuse (West 2002a), and stereotypes held by both victims and helpers (West 2002b). Campbell et al. (2003) also call for future research that generates and tests multidimensional causal models of violence and research that examines the impact of batterer intervention programs on batterers and couples. More community-based studies that address sociodemographic factors like employment status, single parenthood, education, substance abuse, support systems, and history of abuse are also needed (Campbell et al. 2003).
Although research in the area of IPV in the African American community has grown considerably in the last decade and has expanded our knowledge of the experiences of African Americans—particularly women—and violence, more research is needed to provide an in-depth understanding of the multiple factors that may foster or eliminate violence between intimates. To address this critical issue, scholarship and intervention strategies must continually incorporate and expand their understanding of the influence of multiple forms of oppression and culture on violence between intimates.
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