We Don’t Take Violence Against Black Women Seriously—So Why Should the NFL?

The punishment is harsher for abusing white women, dogs and other players.

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Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife, Janay, at the Ravens training center on May 23, 2014, in Owings Mills, Md. Rice spoke publicly for the first time since facing felony assault charges stemming from a February incident involving Janay at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

To understand our dirty little secret of a national crisis called domestic violence means to look no further than the perverted lack of a serious conversation about it. No more tragic is that observation than the abject silliness of popular discourse within the African-American community when the subject comes up. Deeper is the invisibility of those black women who are three times as likely the victims of it. 

Something in the very gut of the American social fabric appears to trivialize the broken bones and busted faces of black women in distress. In her 2001 Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal submission—an essential read—then-law student Lisa M. Martinson argued that racism was “the additional obstacle for the African-American victim of domestic violence in obtaining adequate resources to leave an abuser and continue a life free from abuse.”

It explains the wholly inadequate top-of-the-season two-game slap on the wrist handed down by the NFL to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after knocking his wife unconscious in an elevator. And, in turn, if the NFL doesn’t take the issue seriously, it likely explains why ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith—never known for rhetorical restraint—would feel cozy enough to suggest that Rice’s conduct could have been the result of female “provocation,” and then to double down and defend it in a tweet.

Sports commentators are pulling their hair out trying to understand why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is missing in action on Rice. He dropped a six-game (later reduced to four) suspension in 2010 of beloved Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—but it wasn’t like Ben beat up any sisters, right? Goodell handed down an eight-game suspension to Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito for bullying fellow lineman Jonathan Martin with bigoted taunts and murderous tweets—and at this rate, there’s suspicion he would have received less and salvaged his career had it been a black woman. And when pointing out the racially muddled treatment of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick—who suffered both league exile and prison term for dogfighting—we wonder what would have happened in an alternate universe had Vick laid his hand on a black woman.

And it’s hard not to conclude, after these punishments meted out in these various episodes, that the NFL doesn’t value the life of a black woman as much as it values the life of white women, dogs and other football players. Society, after all, really doesn’t take violence against black women seriously. So why should the NFL?

It’s not as if the popular conversation on domestic violence within the African-American community warrants any real consideration from the commish. Don’t think he’s not watching the “who hit who first” circus of a mainstream conversation black folks openly have about celebrity acts of brutality against black women. Goodell even sends out his lieutenant, discipline czar Adolpho Birch—who’s African American—on a clumsy explanation tour. Not because it’s awkward for Goodell to explain it himself, but because Goodell—like most powerful white men in authority—is loath to get tied up in disputes between black men and women whom they view as beneath them. In this instance, Goodell essentially pulled a Palumbo, as in Maryland District Court Judge Richard Palumbo, who, after scolding a battered Yvette Cade for filing too many protective orders, dismissed her case and allowed her to eventually get doused in gasoline and savagely burned by her estranged husband. 

There is no substantive, policy-focused or data-driven public debate on the impact of domestic violence on black women and its devastating impact on our larger African-American community. Instead we have confused onlookers by blaming victims. As a society—and as a community—we foolishly pass on opportunities to know more about the abused black women who die at three times the rate of their white counterparts, or the 30 percent of sisters overall who have suffered violence at the hands of intimate partners, according to the Violence Policy Center.

Rarely do women of color, who serve more time for self-defense, see justice, and rarely do we hear our elected officials talk about it unless pushed by tragedies that capture headlines. In the meantime, we’re happily venerating celebs like Chris Brown onstage and Ray Rice on the field, and yet we’re not taking time to reflect on, study and truly recognize the broader destruction to our women, families and children. Sadly, we’re not forcing that conversation. And if we’re not, we shouldn’t expect the rest of the world to, either.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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