Clenard Childress is pastor of New Calvary Baptist Church in Montclair, NJ. He takes credit for coining the slogan “The most dangerous place for an African-American child is in the womb.” African-American women in the reproductive justice movement beg to differ, describing his creation as offensive. Which, of course, it is.
I say it is derivative.
Niche marketing is defined as “concentrating … marketing efforts on a small but specific and well-defined segment of the population.” Skin color is the very definition of “well defined.” Pastor Childress found his market.
Back in the 1980s, arguments such as this were generally addressed to a generic audience. We were simply admonished that “the most dangerous place to be is the womb.” (Paranoia about low reproduction among whites was popular.) Feminists of the day denounced that slogan as—yes!— offensive. Which, of course, it was.
“Across the United States, billboards are visible evidence of the contentious abortion debate,” historian Cynthia Greenlee writes, commenting on the very public appearance of Childress’s slogan in an ongoing advertising campaign dating from 2010. Greenlee warns that African-American antichoicers are playing a long game, that their phoney arguments and careless statistics have traction.
These personalities, arguments and statistics are introduced in a riveting 15-minute investigation presented by PBS-Frontline in December. Made by Fulbright and AFI Docs, Tribeca and Sundance award-winning documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen’s Anti-Abortion Crusaders: Inside The African-American Abortion Battle was developed in partnership with The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. It does not pretend to be fair and balanced but does succeed in making its case without hyperbole.
The filmmaker has positioned herself at what we might nowadays call the intersection of race and culture, specifically the so-called “culture wars.” Her earlier The New Black (2013), for example, explored how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights. Richen also serves as director of the documentary program at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and is a Guggenheim Fellow.
This short film was inspired by footage Richen shot of the demonstration where she first saw signs carrying niche messages such as “abortion is killing black people.” Follow-up research uncovered what she characterizes as a growing network of antichoice African-American activists. In her content-rich quarter-hour, we see Childress reminding women parishioners that we do not own our bodies, that we have been lied to and victimized by the abortion “industry.” Sound familiar? We also visit the Life Dynamics talk show in Texas where a surprised white guy (Mark “we’ve been here for years” Crutcher) welcomes this gentleman of color to the antichoice movement. Is the good ol’ boy patronizing his guest? Who can tell?
Minority women do appear here but, foreseeably and overwhelmingly, they are foot soldiers—that is, the soldiers marching on their feet at the Supreme Court and Planned Parenthood and outside clinics where protestors contribute what abortion doctor Willie Parker calls “the cloying malice of their prayers.”
Patriarchal structure has not been discommoded by desegregation.
And, frankly, these “new” color-inflected antichoice arguments are as stale as Childress’s derivative slogan: Let’s hear it (again!) for Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, whose character grows more evil with every telling, no matter that she had the support of such contemporaries as W.E.B. Dubois, Mary McLeod Bethune and Adam Clayton Powell. (And was viscerally hated by Anthony Comstock, no friend to any woman.)
For this market, the charge against Sanger is that she was a racist, as, they also charge, were many of her prominent (white) allies. Thus, the work of present-day Planned Parenthood is grounded in race-based animus and consequently perpetuates a genocidal ideology. Really? “This argument has become a lightning rod, and I think it is effective,” says Yoruba Richen. “Only recently has Planned Parenthood looked at this complexity as opposed to just kind of ignoring it.”
Good politics, but Planned Parenthood is a prime target of antichoicers precisely because its services empower women’s (sexual) lives, and not for any other reason. The promotion of women’s reproductive health and wellbeing, whatever that may mean for individuals (breast exams, cancer screenings, contraception, pregnancy testing, abortion, STD care, etc.), is simply intolerable to antichoicers.
With all due gratitude to Margaret Sanger for this towering achievement, she shuffled off the mortal coil fifty years ago, fully seven years before Roe v. Wade (1973). She will not be appearing in Montclair to challenge Pastor Childress’s calumnies.
But perhaps what is old is new again when presented to a newly targeted niche.
More perniciously, the conflation of contraception and abortion with the eugenic programs of an earlier generation, together with the genocide-rhetoric popular among current antichoice activists, speaks directly to the troubled experience of non-white America. (Troubled? That’s one word for it.
“Medical racism is a huge issue and it’s something that we haven’t really reckoned with in this country,” says Richen. “Genocide is a very potent argument in our community because of the history of racism. That’s why this message is able to catch on.”
Her view is partly challenged elsewhere by Dr. Willie Parker. “It was not lost on me, an African-American man from Birmingham, Alabama, descended from slaves, that legislation [promoted by the antichoice movement] aimed at telling women what they might and might not do with their own physical bodies looked a whole lot like men owning women’s bodies,” he has said. These days, Parker performs abortions at the last remaining clinics in former slave-states Mississippi and Alabama.
In an Esquire profile from 2014, author John H. Richardson suggests that what bothers Parker most is the argument that abortion is a secret plot to kill black babies. “At a time when African-Americans are suffering tremendous amounts of economic disparity and human suffering, the antis want to compound the suffering by making people feel conflicted about controlling the size of their families,” Richardson writes.
Nothing new here, except the specifics of that niche market. “The people who talk about black genocide are the same people who defund Head Start and food stamps and are now trying to dismantle public education by encouraging voucher systems—all of the systems that need to be in place to take care of those black babies,” Parker argues. “It’s diabolical.”
Old wine in new bottles. We see the poison, and we must not be fooled. “This is a movement that is being ignored at our peril,” says Yoruba Richen.