Race, Rape, and the Vagaries of the US Criminal Justice System

By Kali Nicole Gross

Zeba Blay’s blog post illustrates how the specter of rape hangs over the harrowing video of an African American girl, Dajerria Becton, 15, being violently forced to the ground by former police officer Cpl. Eric Casebolt in McKinney, Texas. This and other indignant opinion pieces draw attention to a critical issue facing black women in the criminal justice system—sexual assault by law enforcement officers.

It’s a timely subject given last month’s horrific massacre in the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, when avowed white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof fatally shot nine African Americans. One reason, according to him, is that blacks rape white women. There is a tragic irony to that claim. Roof invoked a tired tool of white supremacy—the myth of the black male rapist—to justify his own extralegal violence against African Americans, the majority of whom (six in total) were black women.

Like his southern racist forerunners, Roof’s claim and actions all but ignore the litany of violent sexual assault against black women committed by white men, those in and out of uniform.

Historically, the justice system did not criminalize rape and other violent crimes against black women, though it punished black women in the harshest fashion for defending themselves against would-be attackers and rapists. Those black women who stood up faced execution or lengthy prison sentences. On chain gangs in the South, they were easy prey for prison overseers and the male inmates they were forced to labor alongside. In other parts of the country, black women, largely excluded from all-female reformatories, languished in custodial prisons where they were also victimized by prison guards.

But we don’t need to look to the past to find examples of black women’s sexual assault by law enforcement. Currently, there are charges pending against a former Oklahoma City police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw. Holtzclaw was arrested for allegedly assaulting 13 black women last year. He now faces 36 felony counts, including rape, forcible sodomy, and sexual battery. Among the compelling evidence: DNA of the youngest victim, 17, was discovered inside of the officer’s uniform trousers.

Holtzclaw’s alleged crimes highlight impoverished black women’s vulnerability. He allegedly targeted women in poor areas and exploited those who would have otherwise been arrested for minor drug possession or outstanding warrants. He was only caught after allegedly stopping and assaulting a middle-class, black woman, 57, who had been driving home through East Oklahoma City. She told her daughter what happened and together they went to the police. As more victims surfaced, when asked why they did not initially come forward, one explained: “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. All police work together. I was scared.”

The lack of mainstream outrage or media coverage of the Holtzclaw case points to another aspect that foments sexual violence against black women and girls. That is, outside of black feminist groups like OKC Artists for Justice, few seem to care.

That devaluation of black womanhood rests upon the country’s pathological lionization of an impossible white femininity that leaves black women victim to social violence as well as police brutality. Right now in United States no female is more likely to be murdered, beaten, or raped than a black woman. Even so, black women remain the least likely to receive adequate protection.

In response to these issues, researchers such as sociologist Beth Richie shed a much-needed light on the relationship between biased justice, community violence, and black female victimization. Historians, too, have begun to delve more deeply into the subject. The forthcoming special issue of the Journal of African American History focuses on black women’s experiences in the US criminal justice system. These kinds of efforts can provide important context and directives for policymakers.

Ultimately, while no single approach can remediate centuries of systematic, state-sanctioned violence, black women’s activism is another vital tool. Black women should also use their power as a key-voting bloc to make black women’s and girl’s safety, in black communities as well as in the criminal justice system, a priority for presidential candidates in 2016.

Kali Nicole Gross, associate professor and associate chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new book Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America, will be released January 2016 by Oxford University Press.

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