By Tess Fox
This story may contain triggers for survivors of sexual assault or rape.
“The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.” – Jim DeRogatis
Between Sandra Bland, whose mysterious suicide following a traffice violation resulted in protests, and the countless young women who have been victimized by R. Kelly, it is clear that society does not view black women as a priority. But there is a possibility that’s changing.
Daniel Holtzclaw, a police officer with Oklahoma City Police, was sentenced in January to 263 years for the rape and sexual assault of 13 women while he was on duty.
Holtzclaw preyed on women who lived in high-crime areas with rap sheets and a fear of police. Some were convicted felons, sex workers, drug abusers with histories of lying to the police. He used the police database to find women who would be considered unreliable witnesses and would be afraid to report him.
You can read their testimony here. It is graphic and may contain triggers.
Holtzclaw was convicted on 18 of 36 counts, including four counts of first-degree rape and four counts of forced oral sodomy. This is an important court victory.
An all-white jury decided that this man should serve several lifetimes worth of jail time for their mistreatment of these black women. Ten years ago, this case might not have seen the light of day. However, times are changing. The victory over Holtzclaw could mean more black women feeling confident in the justice system. Confident enough to come forward and report assault.
Bill Cosby, popular television sitcom actor, has been accused of over 60 cases of sexual assault by white and black women. The statute of limitations has expired on most of these cases. Several lawsuits and one case have been filed. The claims date back to the 1960’s and span 10 U.S. states and one Canadian province.
Jewel Allison, one of Cosby’s victims, wrote a piece for the Washington Post about the difficulties black women face when they report rape. Even though her story would bring justice to Cosby, she also felt it would undermine the African-American community. By accusing a black man of such a crime it could further the stigma of black men being criminals.
Allison couldn’t decide whether to side with the other women who had be sexually victimized or with black America who has spent many years struggling. She had a friend who told her to keep quiet—that black America would not support her. Another friend said she didn’t trust all the white women coming forward, that they were just trying to bring down a black man.
The Cosby Show represented a better version of the African-American community during a time when AIDS deaths and crack addictions were happening often.
Even after being assaulted by Cosby, Allison did not want to view him or his character, as a criminal.
Cosby’s respected, celebrity status put his accusers under a magnifying lens. Rather than scrutinize Crosby’s behavior, many celebrities took his side. They indirectly supported his behavior.
When respected actors, politicians and athletes do wrong, it makes us uncomfortable, because we have put them up on a pedestal. Cosby’s character on The Cosby Show, is a doctor and his wife is a lawyer. The family represented a better version of black America, a more optimistic version. One that many black Americans, like Allison, hoped to emulate one day.
Or, in the case of Allison, it is hard to decide which is more important: your right to justice or the public image of your entire race.
Both of these cases prove an important point: not all women are equal.
While in the midst of heavy social critique surrounding the justice system, these stories of convictions and accountability bring hope. Maybe one day, black women, even those with records, will be able to report a sexual assault without fear, worry over disappointing their race or not being taken seriously.