Why are black women less likely to report rape?

City Paper

Five students reported they were sexually assaulted at Morgan State University between 2011 and 2013, according to a federally mandated crime log, the Campus Security and Fire Safety Report.

But among female college students who are raped, 80 percent never report the crime, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report. The reasons vary. Twenty-six percent of U.S. students said they did not report the incident to the police because it was “personal.” Another 12 percent said the incident was “not important enough” to report. Nine percent believed the police couldn’t or wouldn’t be helpful. Because about 80 percent of student victims knew their attackers, another 10 percent did not report the crime because they did not want to get their assailant in trouble with the law.

While information on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is hard to come by, a 2005 Justice Department study, “Criminal Victimization in the United States,” showed that in the general population, black victims reported at much lower rates than white victims. While 44 percent of white victims report the crime, only 17 percent of black victims do.

A 2010 National Institute of Justice report, one of the few that focused specifically on HBCUs, drew on a survey of nearly 4,000 students who were questioned in the fall of 2008. At HBCUs, 14 percent of rape survivors who were physically forced and 7 percent of those who were incapacitated said they did not believe the police would think the incident was “serious enough,” according to the study, “The Historically Black College and University Campus Sexual Assault Study (HBCU-CSA).” Nearly 20 percent of those physically forced and 15 percent of those incapacitated said they did not report the crime because they did not want to get the person in trouble.

Study authors noted that the rate of sexual assaults for HBCU students was slightly lower than non-HBCU students but said, “There are no estimates in the literature on HBCU women to which these figures can be credibly compared.”

Some of the reasons that African-American women underreport rape mirror those of white women—a sense of shame, a belief that they were at fault, fear of repercussions. But some reasons are different and based in history.

Rape of African-American women goes back to before they reached the Americas. Slave women were routinely raped by crew members during the transatlantic voyage. There were few consequences for rapists—regardless of race. In 1859 a Mississippi judge overturned a guilty verdict from a lower court in a case involving two slaves. The victim was less than 10. The judge wrote in his decision: “The crime of rape does not exist in this state between African slaves, [because] their intercourse is promiscuous.” His ruling reinforced the belief that African-American women are naturally hypersexual beings. That myth endures today. “If a black man rapes a white woman, it’s wrong because white is pure,” said Morgan State student Imani Lewis. “But as a black woman, if I get raped it’s because I deserved it.”

There is also the stereotype within the African-American culture that women are to remain strong no matter the circumstance or situation. “As a black woman I’m taught to be strong and not let anything affect me,” said Morgan State junior Zharray Johnson. “If something happens to me I am just supposed to deal with it.”

In her book “Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman,” Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant argues that strength is a core characteristic of Black womanhood, but that it ignores the array of Black women’s real experiences of suffering, anger, or acts of desperation.

“I think it has to do with shame, and the thought of how I let this happen to me,” said Damiah Posey-Williams, a Morgan State student, speculating about why many African-American women don’t report sexual assault.

According to the HBCU-CSA, around 90 percent of victims of sexual assault know their attacker, making them fear the remorse they might feel if they were to speak up and report what has happened to them.

“My friend told me she got raped by someone on campus, when I told her she should report it she told me she wasn’t going to because she didn’t want him to lose his scholarship,” says Lewis.

“I had a friend that reported an incident to campus police, not a sexual assault, but they didn’t really follow through like they should have, so it’s kind of like what was the point?” says Maia Walker, a Morgan State senior.

Police injustice also keeps African-Americans from reporting sexual assault. Rape survivors feel that “police or authority will not believe them, or feel that the victim is lying to retaliate,” says Morgan student Tamisha Hernández.

Similar issues come up at other HBCUs. Last year, during a convocation for the female students at Lincoln University, then-President Robert R. Jennings made comments about how the young women shouldn’t file false reports of rape just because “the relationship didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to.”

According to a YouTube video that was widely circulated, he told the all-women audience: “We have, we had, on this campus last semester three cases of young women who, after having done whatever they did with young men and then it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, guess what they did? They went to Public Safety and said, ‘He raped me.’”

Jennings told the young women that their allegations are harmful to young men and reminded them that men “marry the girl with the long dress on.” He told them, “[m]en treat you, treat women, the way women allow us to treat them. . . . We will use you up if you allow us to use you up.” Under fire not only for the comments he made, but also because students complained that the university was  “discouraging women from reporting assaults,” he resigned in November.

The misconception that a woman deserves to be raped because of what she is wearing is a prominent myth when it comes to the reasoning of sexual assault, according to House of Ruth Maryland, a women’s shelter in Baltimore.

On April 13, students and administrators  gathered in Morgan’s Dixon Auditorium to talk about sexual assault on campus—and the conversation quickly detoured to a discussion about what constitutes “respectable” dress.

“We have to impress upon our young ladies that you don’t have to be a video ho to be accepted,” said Seymour Chambers, the head of student affairs who, as the chief judicial officer, is the one handling sexual complaints from students.

Lorence Edwards, associate professor in the department of behavioral health sciences at Morgan, responded, “when women are celebrating their bodies many people may perceive that as an invitation for violation.” She continued: “If a woman is very exposed or wearing very short shorts people think, ‘well, she asked for it.’ . . . That’s the reality I’ve seen in the community over time.”

Christine Brooks, a Morgan State junior, has heard this comment about women “asking for it” by the way they dress. She doesn’t agree. “I should be able to wear whatever I want and not be seen as a sexual being,” she said. “Just because I’m showing a part of my body that doesn’t mean I’m welcoming assault.”

Morgan President David Wilson stated in an interview with NPR’s Cheryl Corley last year that “preventing sexual violence is our top priority.” He added, “When we have our orientation here we basically talk to students about how they really have to have the other person’s consent.”

However, Maia Walker and Naajia Bacchus, both Morgan seniors, say that the topic of sexual assault never came up in their freshman orientation. “There’s a lack of education about the context of rape here at Morgan,” said Calvin Alston, another Morgan student.

Amelia Cobb, the founder of The Wright Group, an organization that addresses social problems in underserved communities, launched an initiative in 2008 to help HBCUs focus on gender-based violence.

“They want the help, but when it comes to actually addressing violence against women in general and implementing that into their existing system—on a consistent basis, it just doesn’t happen,” Cobb said, speaking with NPR’s Corley on the same program with Wilson.

Morgan’s Title IX coordinator Tanyka Barber has held her job for a year and says she is planning some changes. “We are currently seeking funding for an advocate that would be available on a 24-hour basis to survivors,” she says. “I can’t speak on what has happened here at Morgan in the past, but I know we will be making a change for the future.” 


Allante Adams is a recent Morgan State University graduate. She worked on this piece as part of her Senior Capstone project under the direction of professor Karen Houppert.

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