Yes, Investigate… and Believe Black Men and Women

by Stacy

“Lynching is really a phenomenon of a national obsession of Black male sexual aggression against White women. In this history of lynching, there were no Black men lynched for acts of sexual aggression against Black women.” –Adrienne Davis, J.D., Legal Scholar at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“But what we haven’t really ever examined to the extent that it must be is how many of our sisters also endured rape from those who were said to own not only their physical labor but their sexual possessions.” –Johnnetta B. Cole, Ph.D., Education Scholar, author, Former President of Spelman College and Bennett College

Historically, rape was used as one of the many weapons of racism and white supremacy. That is not my opinion, it’s facts…

  1. When it was used in the faux protection of white women from black men.
  2. When it was used by slaveholders that raped black women and girls, to reinforce the authority of ownership (power), force reproduction for slave supply (financial capital), and simply because they could. Black women had no legal protection or rights from the sexual attacks of white men.

Since Bukata & C5Damani expertly addressed the first point, in this blog post, I’ll focus on the second. My post is meant to add a layer to the conversation and is from my perspective, as a Black Woman.

Society has long pushed a destructive narrative of black women and girls, suggesting that we are naturally promiscuous, hyper-sexualized, and immodest; While at the same time being told we are the most unattractive and least desirable. Contrast this with the narrative that white women are the most beautiful and desirable, modest, feminine and pure. Most certainly in need and worthy of protection and saving. Black women are continually denied bodily integrity and personal dignity.

This weapon of terror was used by white men to dominate the bodies and minds of black men, black women, and in some ways white women. Black women continued to be vulnerable to sexual assault in the post-slavery era. This ridiculous myth that Black women were merely sexual objects and not fully human was pervasive throughout the 20th century, and in some respects still today. Learn more here. Countless black women were sexually abused and assaulted, by men of all races, with the perpetrators going largely unpunished. Seriously, in the rare event that white men were arrested and taken to trial, they boldly admitted guilt and still walked away with no consequences. Contrast that to the swift judgment and often life-ending punishment of black men accused of merely looking at a white woman…

In fact, there was a less talked about, but equally important part of the Montgomery bus boycotts that addressed this very issue. In 1955 Rosa Parks, along with Jo Ann Robinson organized a one-day bus boycott to bring awareness and fight for the justice of black women who were sexually assaulted by white men. Black women were literally being raped by white men while waiting for a bus or while riding on the bus. What?!

For black women, sexual assault and violence often functions under misogyny that has its roots in racism. Misogynoir, a term coined by feminist, Moya Bailey, that is defined as the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward black women. It reaffirms hegemonic racial structures, which unsurprisingly disadvantage black women. For example, statistics show that Black women who report crimes of sexual assault or violence are less likely to be believed than their white counterparts. Even more egregious, a study titled Shattering silence: exploring barriers to disclosure for African American sexual assault survivors, documented that men found guilty of raping black women receive shorter sentences than men found guilty of raping white women. Statistically, black women are much more likely to be victims of rape than are white women, and often they are re-victimized by the judicial system. And as far as movements meant to empower women, black women are often left behind. History has shown that white women have been guilty of ignoring the sexual violence toward black women, as they are reluctant to acknowledge their husbands and sons would attack black women.

Let’s pause and sit with all of that for a moment.

Maybe you’ve heard Recy Taylor’s story. No? For the purposes of this post, I’ll give you a short version. I encourage you to learn more, this documentary tells the story.

R Taylor

Abbeville, Alabama (1944), Recy Taylor, a 24 year-old mother and wife, was abducted by six white men while walking home from church. She was blindfolded, taken into the woods, raped and brutally injured at gunpoint. She decided to speak out and go to court. Taylor’s case was tried by an all white, all male jury and dismissed within five minutes of deliberation despite physical evidence and multiple witnesses of her abduction. Including the confession of one of the men who also named all the other men involved. Yet none of them were indicted. In 2011 the Alabama Legislature offered a formal apology, which is very little justice for Ms. Taylor… considering that after the rape she faced a lifetime of hardship, including that her marriage fell apart and she was unable to have any more children.

Now let me tell you about Betty Jean Owens.

BJ Owens

In Tallahassee, Florida (1959), Florida A&M University student Betty Jean Owens was kidnapped and gang raped by four white men. The four men armed with shotguns and switchblades ambushed Owens and three of her friends, her date and another couple. The white men ordered the two men to get in the car and drive away and her female friend was able to run away. Owens was forced into the car and the white men drove her to a different location and repeatedly raped her. She was raped seven times. Seven…

Her friends immediately went to report the incident and when the police found the car they found Owens bound and gagged on the floor of the backseat. The police arrested the four white men and took them to jail. Believing they would not be punished, they confessed in writing. However, students at Florida A&M staged a protest and demanded that Owens be given a speedy and impartial trial. Those demonstrations were widely covered and forced officials to take action. The men were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. This case was monumental, as it was the first case in which white males were convicted of the rape of a black woman.

Note: One of the men was paroled in 1965. In 1969, he attempted to track down Owens to murder her. Instead, he mistakenly murdered another woman named Betty Jean Houston, thinking it was Owens. He was arrested and again sentenced to life in prison.

Recy Taylor and Betty Jean Owens, we should know their names. They showed great courage speaking out despite the danger this presented to them and their families. There were others that spoke out too, and many that weren’t able, but America has rarely seen the value in telling these stories and perhaps the validity. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. Her book discusses 40 cases but she acknowledges there are many more. “Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly. It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.”

Do not misunderstand me, no matter who the victim is, sexual assault and rape are real. And there are far more victims, too many, than false accusers. However, we must be willing to hold both truths. Just as a sexual assault is a life-altering event, a false accusation is just as devastating. Particularly for a black man or boy in our past and current criminal justice system. It must also be acknowledged that racism and white privilege are as ubiquitous as ever, even in this issue. Black women don’t get the same swift force of justice and empathy that is often extended to white women… That societal outrage that is expressed when a white woman’s sexual harassment or assault accusations are overlooked or dismissed, black women should get that same energy! But that is rare. Black men aren’t thought to be innocent until and if proven guilty when accused of sexual misconduct against white women. The default position of our society is to protect white women at all costs, it’s not that they shouldn’t be protected, but it shouldn’t be only them. It shouldn’t matter who the accuser, victim, accused or perpetrator is, we all deserve better and we have a long way to go. #believewomen #believeblackwomen

Black women, the forgotten survivors of sexual assault

Finally, I feel it is important to mention that Native American girls and women are at the greatest risk of sexual violence. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network):

  • On average, American Indians ages 12 and older experience 5,900 sexual assaults per year.
    • American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races.
    • 41% of sexual assaults against American Indians are committed by a stranger; 34% by an acquaintance; and 25% by an intimate or family member.
    • American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races.
    • 41% of sexual assaults against American Indians are committed by a stranger; 34% by an acquaintance; and 25% by an intimate or family member.


“For women of color, reporting crimes of sexual assault are rooted in relationships to institutions of power and commitments to community.” Tarana Burke

T Burke

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