Brooten and Hill discuss history of denial of justice to black women who survive sexual assault

Conveners of March 19 conference have worked on the issue since 1997

Bernadette Brooten (left), the Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, and Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law and women's studies in the Heller School

BrandeisNOW: Many people think that, for women and for black people, problems may remain but things have gotten a lot better in recent times. Is one of the reasons for your focus on injustices in society’s dealing with sexual assaults of black women the progress is not really as great as people think?

Anita Hill: I think that there has been an assumption that well, it’s 2012, we have all these civil rights laws, the world is an entirely different place; we don’t have the same ideas about race that we once had, we don’t have the same ideas about women and their sexuality that we once had. And so it’s a whole new day, there’s no problem. The numbers tell a different story. And we want to know what the full story is. That’s why we’re having the conference.  

Bernadette Brooten: We’re hoping to promote more research by giving the subject prominence. Part of the problem is that so many women are not reporting assaults, because they think from the beginning, nobody’s going to believe me, look what happens to others, see how they’re dragged through the press, I don’t want that to happen to me, I don’t want to be harassed.

Hill: The most troubling thing, of course, is the numbers. Then there are the high profile cases and some of the public reactions to those, starting with the Duke case.

Brooten: Yes. What I’ve found in my teaching, in my speaking, is that white people very frequently will say “But what about the Duke lacrosse case?” In other words, sometimes black women do lie. I find that many white people are willing to take one case to stand for all black women, whereas they would not assume that all white men lie, based on one white politician’s or Catholic bishop’s lies. 

Hill: I think we have to explore why they took it to be the story. Why would very bright people with scientific minds be willing to extrapolate the entire truth from one well-publicized anecdote, to assume that, well, black women lie, based on one very notorious and poorly handled episode? What is it that convinces them? They wouldn’t rely on one case if they were working at this from a scientific point of view, they’d say “you need more evidence.” So is it stereotypes, is it racism? Is it hidden racism, unconscious racism, racial stereotypes? How do we really get at what convinces intelligent people that they know the entire truth based on news reports about one incident? We, as a society, have a difficulty accepting the fact that women are in real danger, that sexual assault is prevalent in our society and that women are at risk, their safety is at risk, so we have created a whole series of myths about how sexual assault occurs — this whole idea is that it’s a dark, scary stranger attacking a pure, innocent virgin in some place where we would find it acceptable for her to be. We have myths around the whole history and persona of people who should be allowed to claim they have been raped. We have myths about who is a rapist and who isn’t, in terms of the men who commit these kinds of crimes, and all of this works to the detriment of African-American women, because they are written out of the script of what is a plausible rape story.

Brooten: That’s right. For me, the history is really important also, because one of the ways that I came to this was learning that in the period of legal slavery in this country, with very few exceptions, it was simply not illegal to rape an enslaved woman. It was just not illegal; it wasn’t a crime in any way. And after slavery, the Ku Klux Klan employed sexual terror against the African-American community with impunity. So, there’s a long history here. How does a society that supports that slavery and that claims religious support for it, live with this issue? Well, you project onto the enslaved woman the image that she’s licentious, you say she’s at fault because she’s immoral to start with and she’s the one who initiated it and so therefore we can be moral, support slavery, allow this to happen and live with ourselves. Even in the absence of legal slavery, this attitude lives on.

Hill: The attitude lives on and I think it becomes culturally embedded in ways that we may not be conscious of. It’s not as though I think district attorneys or the public in general are deliberately saying “oh well, we know that a black woman can’t be raped.” But we are all a part of a history where a black woman couldn’t be raped.  The legacy of slavery endured well into the 20th century. Any of us who have taught law and history and legal history know that this aspect of women and sexual access was present during slavery, it was also present during Jim Crow, and we also know that the legacy of Jim Crow has not entirely left us. Within my lifetime, within my family, segregation has been a reality.  And that is true of a lot of people, even though most people today don’t talk about that. So, that, we can’t really escape that kind of upbringing and thinking that has been a part of our own families. It is a part of our own racial memory as well.  And it’s a part of our gendered memory  

BrandeisNOW: Where does religion, organized religion, fit into this picture?

Brooten: Religion is implicated in the legacy of slavery. Religious communities supported, argued for slavery.  

Hill: And they failed to react to the atrocities of slavery that they knew existed, including the rape of black women.

Brooten: Exactly. They knew it existed and sometimes it would even come up in within the church, that they knew somebody had sexually abused an enslaved woman. In addition, we have found through our research that black women may be more likely to report to a clergy person than to the police, and so the clergy are hearing this and then the question is how are the clergy responding. Some clergy are being very helpful and encouraging and so forth.

Hill: I have actually interviewed black women who are ministers, and they have said that they feel very violated by the church, by clergy historically, because they have come to talk about sexual assault and received the same kind of mistreatment that they might have expected from the rest of the world. So, that’s another way that religion has sheltered and collaborated, even within black churches, collaborated with sexual assault. If you go back historically, the norm was for the church to be complicit. Another way that religion plays a role comes from religious ideas about virtue. The rape victim must be the virtuous woman, and that idea of virtue comes from our religious ideas about purity. So religion contributes to our myth about who is believable as a rape victim. 

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