This article previously appeared on Pop
Matters and Prof. Neal's blog, NewBlackMan.
In the interim since the article was written, two young white men
have been charged in connection with the alleged crime against a
"As a black female, you go to a party, you're
expected to dance, you're expected to be sexually provocative. You
[are expected to] want to be touched, to be grabbed, to be fondled...
As if they're re-enacting a rap video or something. As if we're
there to be their video ho, basically. We can't just be regular
students here. We can't just go to a party and enjoy ourselves."
– Audrey Christopher and Danielle Terrazas Williams (The
Independent Weekly, "Not your video ho," 29 March
"Because the intersectional experience is
greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does
not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address
the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated."
– Kimberle Crenshaw, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race
When a young black women was allegedly raped, sodomized,
robbed and beaten by members of the Duke University Lacrosse team
on 13 March of this year, it was initially treated as little more
than another case of "(privileged) boys gone wild". As
word began to spread about the specifics of the case, various communities
mobilized to lay claim to its significance. These groups include
Durham, North Carolina residents with long-standing grievances against
the University, activists rightfully protesting yet another incident
of alleged sexual violence related to a college campus, members
of various black communities who wanted to highlight the racist
implications of the alleged assault, and of course, those who felt
that too many people were rushing to judgment about the alleged
rapists, well before the true facts of the case were established.
At the center of all of these claims and allegiances
is the body of a young black woman, who in many ways has been continually
assaulted since 13 March. This time the assaults, arising from various
narratives surrounding the case, include the inability to take seriously
the realities of racialized sexual violence against women of color.
In spite of all the discussion, to date no charges
have been filed in the so called "Duke lacrosse rape case."
[Two white males have since been charged, as explained, above.]
The results of a DNA analysis taken afterc the alleged attack suggest
that the members of the Duke lacrosse team were not involved in
the attack, though the local district attorney will continue to
pursue the case. As such, I am less interested in trafficking through
declarations of guilt and innocence in the case, but rather, I am
interested in illuminating the various perceptions that have been
and will continue to be projected onto the body of the black woman
who is the focal point of this case.
As has been reported so far, the accuser is a full-time
student at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and a single
mother of two. The young woman and a friend were purportedly hired
to dance at a bachelor party at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. in Durham
– a residence shared by several of the lacrosse team players.
Though some have downplayed the significance of race
in this case – violence against women is violence against women
– the intersection of race and gender is palpable. As Greg Garber
notes in his fine coverage of the case for ESPN.com
("Turbulent Times for Duke and Durham," 3 April 2006),
the default request for exotic dancers at mainstream escort agencies
is for white women (preferably blonde and big-breasted). Thus in
all likelihood, regardless of what happened inside of 610 N. Buchanan
Blvd, the young men were hoping to consume something that they felt
that a black woman uniquely possessed. If these young men did in
fact rape, sodomize, rob, and beat this young woman, it wasn't simply
because she was a woman: but because she was a black woman.
UCLA and Columbia University Law professor and critical
race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw explains the uniqueness of discrimination
against black women in her seminal essay, "Demarginalizing
the Intersection of Race and Sex" (from The Black Feminist
Reader, eds. Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Blackwell
Publishers, 2000). According to Crenshaw, "Discrimination,
like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction
, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection,
it can be caused by cars traveling in any number of directions,
and sometimes, from all of them." Using the traffic intersection
as a metaphor, Crenshaw argues that black women often "experience
double discrimination – the combined efforts of practices which
discriminate on the basis of race and on the basis of sex. And sometimes,
they experience discrimination as black women – not the sum of race
and sex discrimination, but as black women."
Of course there are historic discourses that have
constructed black women as hypersexual, insatiable, and exotic;
such discourses have often been employed as the rationale for racialized
sexual and rhetorical violence against black women. Contemporary
examples of such discourses can be found in the flippant and hateful
on-air comments by national radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and
Neil Boortz, who described the alleged victim in the Duke lacrosse
case and US Representative Cynthia McKinney, respectively, as a
and a "ghetto
slut" (Media Matters, "Limbaugh called alleged Duke
rape victim a 'ho'", and "Boortz Issues apology over McKinney
smears" 3 April 2006). Though it is often the music videos
of hip-hop artists that are targeted for criticism over the degradation
of black women's bodies, these videos – like the syndicated shows
of Boortz and Limbaugh, television networks like BET and MTV, and
recording labels – are simply the vehicles for the corporately controlled
circulation of black women's bodies.
The message is clear: black women and their bodies
have little value, little protection, and are accessible to anyone
who feels entitled to them. Thus, it should not be surprising that
a generation of young white men, for whom the consumption of hip-hop
has been second nature, would find a black exotic dancer desirable
or in the worse case scenario, sexually available to them, even
if she resists their advances. But the Duke lacrosse rape case is
not simply about centuries old dramas across the color line. It
also about the tensions within black communities about which black
bodies deserve protection and defense.
As the "identity" of the young black woman
in the case began to be constructed in the media, it was revealed
that she was an "exotic dancer" and un-wed mother of two.
These facts should be irrelevant in a sexual assault case, but as
is well known, defense attorneys often seek to demonize rape victims
– in the courts and in the media – so that the integrity of the
victim is called into question. The goal is to convince the public
and juries that rape victims bear the burden of responsibility in
their assaults. As scholar Wahneema Lubiano recently opined, this
is part of the tenuous status of being a women in American society;
if you are not "at home" under the "supervision"
of a father or a husband, it is open season on your body. Already
there have been attempts to portray the young woman who was raped,
sodomized, robbed and beaten as immoral on the basis that she was
a "stripper" and an unfit mother, who left her two children
home while she performed.
But such demonization takes on another dynamic within
the world of "black respectability." It was clear from
the outset that for some black communities in Durham, the young
women was not a "respectable" victim. The concept of "black
respectability" can be traced back to the struggles of African-Americans
in the early days following "emancipation," when so many
of the former enslaved sought to find common ground – a shared humanity
– with the white citizenry. The strategy behind "black respectability,"
exemplified in the late 19th and early 20th century by the Black
Women's Club Movement and the New Negro Movement and much later
by the NAACP Image Awards, was to put the "best face"
of the race forward.
Accordingly, it also meant that less savory black
bodies and antics had to be reduced to so-called "dirty laundry,"
never to see the light of day. It was a logical strategy, given
the pervasiveness of white supremacy in the century after emancipation
and the desire of many black leaders to fight racism, disenfranchisement,
and racist violence on moral grounds. But it also created the context
where those black bodies and practices that were not thought to
be respectable enough were jettisoned to the margins of black life
Ultimately the desire was to find the most "respectable"
victims to help animate black communities to struggle against racism,
segregationist practices, and disenfranchisement. The late Rosa
Parks embodied such a "victim." As noted scholar Aldon
Morris notes in his book, The
Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (Free Press, 1986),
Parks galvanized blacks in Montgomery, AL and nationally, in part,
because she was a "quiet, dignified woman of high morals."
The same could not be said for 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who
more than 8 months before Rosa Parks' historic act, refused
to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Unlike Ms. Parks, Ms. Colvin
loudly protested the request that she move from her seat and was
eventually charged with assault and battery on the bus driver who
made the request and the police officers who were called in to intervene.
When it was eventually revealed that Ms. Colvin was an un-wed, pregnant
teen, black activists in Montgomery backed off of her case, waiting
for a more respectable candidate, such as Ms. Parks, to emerge.
Though the Duke Lacrosse case occurs in a different
historical context than the Montgomery bus boycott, the silence
and ambiguity emitting from some black communities in Durham and
elsewhere resembles the efforts of Montgomery's black leaders to
distance themselves from Colvin. Even more profound are those who
would distance themselves from the alleged victim in the Duke lacrosse
case because she was involved in "immoral" behavior at
the time of the alleged assault. Such a point was made by Herald-Sun
columnist John McCann – in many ways the "voice" of Black
Durham – who suggested that the case was about the "consequences
of violating moral laws." ("Thin Line Separates Criminal,
Immoral", 29 March 06) He later added in a subsequent column
that the young woman was at 512 Buchanan Blvd. to "arouse and
titillate young men who allegedly stumbled the same way she did
-- inappropriately using the body and mind" ("Criticism
comes with my territory" 4 April 06).
In McCann's world a "thin line separates the
criminal" (rape) and the "immoral" (exotic dancing).
McCann's comments are reflective of a deep social conservatism that
offers little protection to those who are thought to be immoral.
Thus, had the alleged victim in this case been a gay black man or
a black lesbian – such as the late Sakia Gunn (and far too many
like her) who was randomly assaulted – their assaults would likely
be met with the same level of silence and moral scrutiny in the
black community (as compared to your run-of-the-mill gang-banger,
who gets shot by a law enforcement officer).
real immorality here is the way that "silence" makes so
many black folk complicit in sexual attacks against black women
and girls. For every media spectacle which highlights sexual violence
across the color line, there are numerous black women who are assaulted
in their own communities and even homes by black men. This is the
point that Aishah
Shahidah Simmons's poignant documentary NO! makes throughout.
Black male sexual violence against black women and girls is more
often than not met with blatant silence and denial or in the case
of black celebrities, what University of Florida law professor Katheryn
Russell-Brown calls "black protectionism."
In her book, Protecting
Our Own: Race, Crime, and African-Americans (Rowman &
Littlefield, 2006) Katheryn Russell-Brown defines black protectionism
as "what happens when the African-American community rallies
around its fallen heroes – those prominent blacks who have been
accused of wrongdoing." Black protectionism figures prominently
in issues of rape and sexual abuse in the black community given
the number of highly visible black men, to name a few, who have
been accused (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas), convicted
(heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson and former congressman Mel Reynolds)
and recorded (R. Kelly) of/in acts of sexual abuse and harassment
against black women and girls. In each case, to varying degrees,
these men benefited from black protectionism. As Russell-Brown notes,
"black protectionism splits the Black community by gender.
It treats prominent black men as a unique class."
The Duke lacrosse rape case has generated so much
attention and media coverage because it traffics in the time-tested
spectacles of race relations and white privilege gone awry. Regardless
of whether or not anyone is indicted and convicted in the case,
the reality is that women will continue to be raped and those sexual
assaults will continue to be met with silence and a degree of dismissiveness
that holds the victims accountable for attacks on their bodies.
If anything should come of the human tragedy that is unfolding in
Durham, it should be to challenge us as a nation to take very seriously
the incidences of sexual assault – in all of its forms – and to
construct responses to those crimes that are reflective of a society
concerned with all assaults on our humanity.
Mark Anthony Neal is Associate Professor of African-American
Studies at Duke University and the author of four books, including
the recent New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.
He can be contacted at [email protected].