Few statements from an elected official characterize the amount of ignorance surrounding domestic violence as Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman’s loss for words when asked what the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was. “I’m not sure what that is because I’m not serving right now,” was Steelman’s response to a reporter’s inquiry only days before a critical VAWA reauthorization vote in the Senate.
Interestingly enough, while the Senate vote passed 68-31, Democrats were quick to point out another front in the “War on Women:” all 31 votes against the bill were Republicans. Hence, as critics tell it, yet another example of the modern GOP’s entrenched insensitivity towards women.
But, Republicans aren’t the only ones. When the story of Marissa Alexander, a 32-year old Black women stuck in a Jacksonville, FL jail for defending herself against domestic violence, spread viral throughout the web, few were willing to seriously examine one of the core issues of the case.
While it’s true the Alexander case raises doubts surrounding the application of Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, it’s not like this is an isolated incident. Yet, activists, bloggers and talk show hosts focused on the story are only moved by the outrage over George Zimmerman. In talking with Politic365 during background interviews, Alexander’s current husband and alleged abuser made a good point: she was using Stand Your Ground as a strategy to get out of jail.
But: why not?
The unfortunate reality of Alexander’s predicament is that spotlighting her prosecution within the context of a major national issue was the only way to make a breakthrough. Because while everyone from Michael Baisden to Rev. Al Sharpton offers media calibrated outrage at the thought of a double-standard in comparison to the system’s treatment of Zimmerman, they care very little about the reason she ended up in the Duval County detention facility in the first place: domestic violence.
Apparently, no one wants to touch that aspect of her case, even those reporting on it. It’s treated as something foreign or irrelevant – barely mentioned. This despite the fact Alexander had, allegedly, been beaten before. One prior beating was, reportedly, so severe she ended up in the hospital while pregnant. Even though the current husband counters all claims of abuse, the facts prevalent to Alexander’s case bear out an alleged pattern of violence before the incident in which she was able to retrieve a gun and fire it in the air in self defense.
That attitude drives general indifference when high profile cases of domestic violence are spotlighted. The widely publicized and brutal assault of Rihanna by Chris Brown in 2009 was one of the more prominent examples. What could have been a teachable moment, particularly for the African American community, on the top public health issue for Black women instead turned into a Twitter-fueled rant of ignorance about how the incident reflected a larger problem.
When commentators and scholars attempted to use the attack as an opening for a broader discussion on the public policy and socio-economic implications of domestic violence, the response was vicious. Popular thought at that time (and to this day) ranged from loyal fans of Brown who drank the Kool Aid to many in the Black community who felt like Brown was being unfairly targeted because he was a Black man. “Why not pick on Charlie Sheen then?” was a common retort referencing the White, former star of Two and a Half Men who went through a public meltdown and allegedly attacked his ex-wife.
But, we weren’t talking about Sheen. And neither are scholars on the subject engaging in unwarranted stereotypes of violent Black men. That’s not the point when, clearly, there are men who engage in this sort of behavior. What we needed to talk about then – and what we need to talk about now with the case of Alexander – is that there is a very serious problem with domestic abuse in many African American communities. And there is the general conversation of how Black men and women are treating each other – not just in terms of reality show antics and romantic comedies, but the more serious instances where violence in the home is having a devastating impact on Black kids, particularly Black boys.
Unfortunately, the response to the Rihanna/Brown incident was not at all unusual. In a 2001 Wisconsin Law Journal analysis by Lisa M. Martinson, the Black woman is typically stereotyped as “the sexual wanton woman and the pious churchwoman, between the opinionated, bossy woman and the subservient woman to her African American husband or boyfriend.” That partly explains it. Another reason is that many, particularly in the Black intelligentsia, don’t want to touch the subject out of deference to a Black male dominated advocacy culture that accuses them of victimizing brothers. And there is the issue of many who are victims themselves or were victims who feel too embarrassed to talk about it.
“The problem of not recognizing African American women as victims as immediately as White women impedes their ability to utilize resources,” adds Martinson “and may put the African American victim in a more imminent position of danger.”
That’s problematic considering Black women are 35% more likely to be victims of domestic violence than White women. Adding further insult to injury is the implementation of mandatory arrest laws in states over recent years in which both the accused abuser and the victim are placed under arrest. Recent studies suggest domestic violence victims, the overwhelming majority women, are being arrested nearly 30% more after the implementation of those laws. While research continues for more solid date, the general conclusion is that women of color are disproportionately impacted.
In essence, while many express shock and outrage over Alexander’s prosecution (vigorously led by none other than Angela Corey, the state’s attorney leading the Zimmerman case), few are either willing to admit or even know that it’s been a quiet rule for quite some time rather than an isolated exception. Most people who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of the court often assume it plays out like a good Law and Order. Justice seems to always find its way to the victim’s favor. But, the real American justice system is often times extremely cruel and political, especially to Black women. Just ask Marissa.