In a recent quote, author Toni Morrison said, “I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman.”
This is true, white men must be brought to justice for crimes committed against Black women. Until this happens, the flame of America’s race problem will continue to burn. In a world where white men can do no wrong, Morrison’s statement forces the reality of sexual violence against Black women to take center stage and accepts that the perpetrators of these crimes can be white men. Morrison’s statement is bold, timely and perfectly sound.
Morrison’s need to see a white man convicted for raping a Black woman is as much about criminal justice reform as it is about promoting equality. The current criminal justice system functions as a form of social control and is riddled with inequality. This system is an oppressive social construct that must be abolished. And whether we fall on the side of abolition or reform, we need to understand that members of the system — which includes white men in positions of power — must be assigned to the “criminal” category, where they belong. We only have to look to the case of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who assaulted 13 Black women while on duty, to see the truth of this. Disturbingly, after assaulting one woman, Holtzclaw wasn’t stopped in the midst of a violent spree. The charges brought against him include sexual battery, first-degree rape, forcible oral sodomy and indecent exposure. Holtzclaw now faces trial.
In conceptualizing this nightmare, I frequently compare the Black experience to the white experience. Consequently, these questions arise: What if 13 white women claimed they were sexually assaulted by a police officer? Would the total number even reach 13 before there was public outcry?
When it comes to the intersection of race and social status, white men — who function as self-appointed masters — sit at the top of the hierarchy where they hide behind a veil of presumed innocence, despite engaging in heinous crimes. The privilege embedded in white skin means one can engage in violence while everyone else ignores it. And when people do pay attention, they are galvanized to create online campaigns to raise money for officers who continue to “deny the charges brought against them.”
It seems America has sympathy for white police officers who terrorize Black women.
But where’s the sympathy for the women who were raped? Where’s the online campaign to raise money for them?
The position of white men in this hierarchy suggests that white men are superior to Black women. If we were to visualize this hierarchy, Black women would be buried in the ground. Here, we see that white supremacy perpetuates violence against Black women and supports the white man’s back door escape from accountability.
Concern has arisen over a need to highlight violence against Black women alongside the violence against Black men. Some have stated that silence about Black female victims actually weakens the movement against police brutality. Yes, we should talk about violence against Black women. Further, the violence endured by Black men isn’t more significant than the violence experienced by Black women — each form of violence is equally abhorred. However, the focus on violence against Black men doesn’t necessarily undermine or minimize the violence against Black women. Society should be aware of the instances of police brutality against Black women, but not by drawing attention away from the plight of Black men.
And so in the process of analyzing inequality, comparisons must be made between the experience of Black women and white women. Only through participation in this comparative analysis, a comparison between the Black and white experience, can we make statements demanding equality for Black women. Without this comparison, we can still condemn violent acts for being intrinsically wrong, but to fully realize the magnitude of inequality experienced by Black women, we need to compare the ways in which Black women are treated differently from white women.
Instances of police violence against Black women are terrifying. Tanisha Anderson, 37, died after being physically restrained by police; Rekia Boyd, 22, was shot in the back of the head by an off-duty detective; London Colvin, 21, was attacked by a police dog while two police officers held her down; Marlene Pinnock, 51, sustained head injuries after being beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer; Natasha McKenna, 37, died after she was placed in handcuffs with her legs shackled, and was shot four times with a Taser, and 19-year-old Kenisha Gray was brutally assaulted and Tasered by police in St. Louis — the assault left Gray with missing teeth and multiple broken bones. A Facebook page titled “Killed by Police” tells the story of Yvette Smith, 47, who was shot dead by police. The list goes on.
What if a white woman had her teeth knocked out by police? Would this be acceptable?
And when the evidence points to the occurrence of rape, Black girls are still oppressed. This was the case for 18-year-old Danielle Hicks-Best, who at 11 years old reported being raped twice. Her reports were given limited attention by police, and the second report resulted in Hicks-Best being convicted for making a false report.
How can a child report that she has been raped and receive a criminal conviction instead? Where is the humanity?
Violence against Black women is easier to accept in the presence of dehumanization. Dehumanization functions as an anesthetic, which stops people from identifying with the pain experienced by Black women. And in this desensitized state, empathy becomes extinct, critical thinking turns into a struggle, and society propels itself closer to the gates of hell.
Dehumanization has its roots in slavery where Black women were not only seen as subhuman commodities for labor, but tools for sexual gratification by slave masters. As white men exercised their power and control over Black women, many were forced into sexual relationships. Despite efforts to hide these relationships, they were revealed time and time again with the birth of interracial children.
Desensitization is linked to stereotypes about Black women. These stereotypes characterize Black women as being “strong,” “tough,” or “unruly.” It seems a woman who is “unruly” may need to be “disciplined” by law enforcement to keep her out of trouble. Such stereotypes contrast with beliefs about white women who are seen as “pure,” “sacred” and “precious.” But when Black women are weakened and overpowered by police brutality, these stereotypes are shattered.
In comparison to white women, Black women experience police brutality and violence to a greater degree and are placed further down the hierarchy of social status. This hierarchy is mirrored in other areas where Black women on average earn less than white women, are exposed to greater levels of poverty and are more likely to be imprisoned.
There are many who use political activism to draw attention to these disparities. On May 21, protesters in San Francisco participated in a National Day of Action to bring attention to the murders of unarmed Black women by police using the hashtag #SayHerName. The protesters, made up of predominantly Black women, blocked streets bare-breasted, and in doing so they used their bodies as tools for empowerment. Protesting while topless served to contradict the “sexualization” of Black women’s bodies, and contest the ways in which Black women’s bodies are devalued and commodified. Here, Black women reclaimed power over their bodies. Many activists took to Twitter admiring the beauty of these women. But it was a beauty that ran deeper than aesthetics, it was a beauty immersed in a laudable determination to secure justice and resist inequality through the rhetoric of political protest. In this crucial moment, protests of this kind — which challenge the status quo and present the world with the painful facts — are required and necessary.
We must understand that the suffering of Black men and women within an oppressive criminal justice system are equally relevant, and their stories should occupy media outlets. We must continue to fight for liberation with the awareness that violence is intrinsically wrong and never justified. We must reject the belief in the “vulnerability” and “preciousness” of white women in contrast with the “toughness” and “dehumanization” of Black women. Instead, we should look for comparable instances of police brutality against white women and demand justice when we learn that Black women aren’t shielded from police brutality in the way that white women are.
And in support of Morrison’s statement, it should be understood that white men cannot be innocent when their hands are stained with blood.
Jacqueline Bediako is a writer, teacher and activist currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She describes herself as a Black British-Ghanaian and has called New York City home for the past seven years. Her work focuses on race, politics, immigration and the education of students with disabilities. Follow her @jb2721.