On Monday, prosecutors in Brooklyn, N.Y., charged four teenage boys with first-degree rape after the sexual assault of an 18-year-old black girl at a park late last week. The name of the victim hasn’t been released. Police have revealed the identities of the alleged perpetrators, however: Ethan Phillip, 15; Denzel Murray, 14; Shaquell Cooper, 15; and Onandi Brown, 17. A fifth suspect was charged Tuesday.
It’s difficult to imagine what it must feel like to be a black girl having to face the world a few short days after being sexually assaulted and terrorized by a group of boys in a public space meant to be safe grounds designed for play.
How painful it must be to wake up a nameless victim of gang rape in a society where the names and reputations of rapists—alleged or convicted, well-known and less famous—are so often protected and even celebrated by the public. How heavy is the weight of a culture seemingly more supportive of male rapists than it is of female victims.
The unnamed black girl sexually assaulted in a Brooklyn playground must now try to heal even as she witnesses the public lauding of those accused of being rapists, like Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and David Bowie, at the same time. To rape is to ruin the victim. To celebrate the perpetrators is a type of violent worship.
Even now, salacious news reports are being churned out to erase her victimization by, instead, focusing on hearsay, innuendo and what role she could possibly have played in her own attack—as if a story about a black girl being raped warrants caveats and qualification.
The laws governing our proximity to power and dominance—those that operate at the level of our social relationships—prevail. More powerful than the laws enacted to protect victims of sexual assault are the authoritative operations of patriarchy.
The prevalent acceptance of male dominance impacts all racial groups. Among black communities, however, it requires us to believe and push the fraught notion of “black male exceptionalism”—a concept that legal scholar Paul Butler uses to get at the idea that some people view black men as an “endangered species” faring more poorly than others.
The prevailing logic is simple: Black men need the protection of the collective. And while it is true that black men and women are affected (similarly and differently so) by white supremacy and require collective care, the idea that black men alone need protection, even if the consequence of such protection dismisses and excuses the violent violation of black girls and women, is detrimental.
The reputations and bodies of black cisgender men should not be protected with more ferocity than those of black girls, women, and queer and transgender black people. Because of this, Cosby ends up being held up as a black philanthropic saint, a victim, and not an accomplished celebrity accused of harming many women. R. Kelly is caricatured as another victim of the white racial supremacist media and not a singer who is both genius and violent toward black girls.
And through the lens of anti-black racism, both Cosby and Kelly are viewed as monsters, while white men accused of sexual assault, like Bowie, are held up as gifts in the public sphere. In none of the instances above do the experiences and lives of girls and women who are victims, black or otherwise, factor as worthy of our collective protection.