By Andrew Cohen
While the anecdotes are harrowing, it’s the data that compelled Berkeley Law’s Henderson Center for Social Justice to confront the rising violence against African-American girls and women. According to a recent study, 60 percent have been sexually assaulted by age 18, and they are 35 percent more likely to be victimized than their white counterparts.
On March 8-9, participants at the center’s spring symposium shared research insights to better understand all aspects of the problem. Scholars, attorneys, health-care professionals, social service leaders, and others gathered to identify the key issues and offer potential solutions.
In organizing the symposium, Henderson Center Executive Director Wilda White ’83 recognized “a disturbing correlation between sexual victimization and the rising incarceration of black girls and young women.” Along with the increase in sexual assaults, African-American females are the fastest-growing population getting suspended, expelled, and imprisoned, said White.
“There’s silence around this issue, which is why we want to bring attention to it before we see a mass incarceration of black women.”
Renowned political activist and author, Angela Davis, delivered the symposium’s keynote address. She is the founder of Critical Resistance, an organization working to reverse the expanding inmate population and the privatization of correctional facilities in the U.S. Davis cautioned the audience not to view incidents against African-American women as one-on-one events; she said that diverts attention from institutionalized violence by police and staff in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and foster homes.
Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney in New York City, echoed that concern, as she described a “troubling cycle” of aggressive policing against African-American females. Ritchie said she regularly receives reports of African-American girls being improperly groped while going through high-school metal detectors; incurring harsher penalties than white peers for identical infractions; and receiving dismissive treatment when reporting assaults.
Law officers tend to enforce ‘zero tolerance policing’ which leads to the toughest discipline even for minor infractions, Ritchie said. “But often what it really means is zero tolerance for minorities who are deemed undesirable.”
Scripps College assistant professor Damien Schnyder said society unwittingly condones aggression against all women by celebrating militarized behavior as the “idyllic representation of what a man should be.” He also explained how African-American girls are discouraged by peers from “snitching” on male classmates who make unwanted advances and are often ostracized if they do.
African-American women eventually lose their incentive to say no, said Julia Oparah, chair of ethnic studies at Mills College. “Even if they do report an incident, the police routinely minimize what happened or blame these women for allowing themselves to be victimized,” she said.
Incidents against African-American women in Section 8 housing in Antioch, CA, were the focus of a disturbing presentation by Priscilla Ocen, a Critical Race Studies Law Fellow at UCLA. Ocen noted that when the housing market crash created a surge in Antioch’s Section 8 homes—mostly occupied by African-American women—“many white residents became part of a surveillance group that extended beyond the police.” Under the rubric of “community policing,” they reportedly confronted the Section 8 tenants and solicited complaints from neighbors in an attempt to have them evicted.
“When the Section 8 tenants complained to police, either about this type of harassment or various assaults in the home, the officers would often look for unauthorized tenants—a violation of the housing terms that could push them out—rather than deal with the complaint itself,” Ocen said. In October 2011, the Antioch City Council approved a $360,000 settlement for five Antioch residents who claimed they were victimized by a pattern of police harassment.
Oparah urged all communities to develop accountability strategies outside of law enforcement and to address the roots of the problem: racism, poverty, and homelessness.