Fighting for Survivors of Sexual Violence Is a Racial Justice Fight
For the past few months, I’ve seen several articles—mostly written by white women—saying that we shouldn’t enforce Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault because they believe Black men are more likely to be accused. The narrative has been picked up by several media outlets and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The idea that survivors’ rights are a threat to Black men leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Let me be clear: that’s not because I’m not worried about race discrimination in school discipline. We have no data to support the argument that Black men are more likely to be accused of or disciplined for sexual assault. Most schools don’t make this data available, and The Department of Education doesn’t release the racial breakdown of suspensions by offense-type. But we know that, in general, Black boys and men are more likely to face unfair discipline in school, a fact that DeVos and anti-Title IX critics have shown no interest in addressing outside of the arena of dismantling survivors’ rights. (In a startling show of hypocrisy, DeVos’s Department has recently threatened to withdraw crucial policy guidance instructing schools how to avoid racially discriminatory discipline, while using the specter of racial disparities in sexual harassment discipline to justify withdrawing sexual assault guidance.) So we shouldn’t immediately dismiss concerns about fair discipline.
But attacking civil rights protections for student survivors in the name of racial justice is a flawed setup. Because racial justice isn’t just about Black men—it’s also about Black women.
The tendency to erase Black women from racial justice conversations is not new. Just look at Anita Hill, plucked from obscurity in 1991 to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about sexual harassment she endured from then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. The rhetoric surrounding the hearing was both sexist and racist. Most of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent their time asking Hill why she would “target” a successful Black man. Was she lying? Politically motivated? Vengeful? Or just delusional? Clarence Thomas capitalized on this narrative by calling the investigation a “high-tech lynching.” Suddenly, supporting Clarence Thomas became a matter of racial justice, which is why the Senate and the public quickly rallied to his side and he was confirmed within three days. Never mind the fact that Thomas was accused by a Black woman who deserved both racial and gender justice.
We’re seeing the same flawed arguments today. Is it not also a matter of racial justice to support and believe Black women? Because we face high rates of sexual harassment and violence all over the country, and it’s largely unseen. Just look at Harvard, Howard, and Spelman where Black women have been speaking out for years about the violation of their Title IX rights. Their right to learn free from sexual violence is a matter of racial and gender justice, but because they sit at the intersection—just like Anita Hill— they’re slipping through the cracks.
So what if, instead of pitting groups against each other, we simply centered Black women in Title IX and sexual violence policy? Think of how different our policy fights would be. We’d focus on enforcing civil rights laws for gender-based violence and racial discrimination, and we wouldn’t act like those two things are in conflict. We’d want fair and equitable sexual assault investigations for both parties, which Title IX already requires. We’d be cognizant of the way Black women are criminalized when they report sexual violence. And we’d recognize that both racial and gender justice are served by robust federal civil rights enforcement, which DeVos and Trump are on a mission to end. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be forced to choose between racial justice and supporting survivors of violence– we’d see those goals as connected.