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Perspective: Why are we letting men off the hook when it comes to abuse?

R. Kelly’s conviction is looking like the exception rather than the norm

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In this June 30, 2013, file photo, R. Kelly performs at the BET Awards in Los Angeles. In September, Kelly was found guilty of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, and kidnapping, among other counts.

Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP

The recent news of rapper R. Kelly’s conviction on charges of sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, racketeering and sex trafficking seemed to produce a kind of rallying call among Black women that some progress had finally been achieved. “This is culmination of the movement of so many women who (have been) trying so long to have their voices heard,” Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, told The New York Times. “We have never had full ownership of our bodies. And we’re at a moment where Black women are no longer accepting that as the price of being Black and female in America.”

A number of commenters suggested that this conviction was really the moment when the #MeToo movement started to include Black women (despite the movement being started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman). Treva B. Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University, noted how egregious R. Kelly’s behavior had to be for people to pay attention: “If we need this level of sexual predation to get an acknowledgment that Black women and girls are enduring a disproportionate amount of sexual violence compared to the broader population, I think that’s actually a really sad sign.”

She may be right about how unseriously we are taking sexual violence against Black women. After all, no sooner did the conviction come down than NBC announced that the rapper Dr. Dre — who was accused but never prosecuted for punching women in the mouth, dragging them around by the hair and throwing them down flights of stairs — would be performing at the Super Bowl halftime show. Sure, Dr. Dre apologized a few years ago for his bad behavior, saying he drank too much when he was younger and was “in over my head with no real structure in my life.” But who cares? If you don’t get canceled — or at least get forced to take a few steps back from public life — for breaking a woman’s ribs, when do you get canceled?

Of course, Dr. Dre is not the only powerful man to get a pass for his bad behavior. But if we are supposed to be particularly concerned about the effects of sexual assault and domestic violence on Black women, then we should probably stop giving a pass to Black men. 

In the wake of the news a few years ago that football player Ray Rice had punched his then-fiancée Janay until she was unconscious, Feminista Jones wrote a piece for Time magazine chronicling the depressing statistics:

Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of (domestic violence or intimate partner violence) than white women. And while Black women only make up 8% of the population, 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to Black women and 29% of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for Black women ages 15 to 35. Statistically, we experience sexual assault and DV/IPV at disproportionate rates and have the highest rates of intra-racial violence against us than any other group.

In other words, these numbers are not being driven by white men. As of 2010, less than 4% of Black women were married to a white man. We cannot have a discussion about disproportionate levels of violence against Black women without discussing the disproportionate level of violence being committed by Black men. 

The same is true among American Indians. There is a lot of talk now about the thousands of “missing and murdered” Native women in the U.S. and Canada, many of whom are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. But instead of having a conversation about how the vast majority of these crimes are being perpetrated by people in their own communities and families, how a culture of lawlessness and violence pervades in large swaths of Indian country, activists suggest that tribes need more power to prosecute non-Natives. Most crime in this country is intraracial, and domestic violence is no exception. 

Apparently, though, in this particular intersection of identities, race trumps gender. Another recent Times piece suggested that police should stop getting involved in domestic violence so much because — you guessed it — doing so will have a disparate effect on Black men and will probably make them even more violent. 

The author writes that “mandatory arrest laws, which require the police to make an arrest whenever they suspect an act of domestic violence ... increased the incidence of domestic violence against women of color.” She notes that “numerous studies have shown that retaliatory violence after arrest is linked with poverty, unemployment and drug and alcohol use — factors that disproportionately afflict Black and Latino communities. Indeed, male joblessness is linked with domestic violence against women the world over.” 

So we shouldn’t arrest Black and Latino men for domestic violence because arresting them will only make them more angry and more likely to beat their girlfriends and wives again? And the fact that they are beating these women should be blamed on joblessness and poverty? In other words, we can’t really hold them responsible. She concludes: “Mandatory arrest laws were born out of a concern for women’s safety. But they have sometimes had the effect of making marginalized women worse off and have served as a cover for the deep conditions — poverty and precarity — that make certain groups of women especially vulnerable to violence.”

What? If this line of argument doesn’t make you long for some good old-fashioned radical 1970s feminism, nothing will. Have we really talked ourselves into a corner where we let men off the hook for domestic violence and sexual assault because they are disproportionately victims in society? So much for progress. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”