Black girls and women are more likely than any other group of people in America to become victims of sexual violence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Another crushing reality is the vast majority of sexual assault victims don’t see their offenders brought to justice in a court of law. It’s even harder for Black girls and women to get the justice they deserve. There’s a crucial reason for this: Black girls and women are not believed in court.
During my legal career, I’ve served as a public defender and private defense lawyer. I’ve represented clients in criminal matters including murders, rapes, high volume drug cases, sex crimes, and federal offenses. What I’m going to lay out here may be disheartening, but one of the most important aspects in any trial is believability. The judge or jury’s ability to believe one side versus the other is often the determining factor between a guilty or not guilty verdict. In the law, we use the term believability interchangeably with the term credibility. As for Black women and girls, believability and credibility are not assigned to us the way it is for others. This may sound anecdotal, but research proves it.
A 2017 study from the Center on Poverty and Inequity at Georgetown University Law School, found that Black girls are viewed by adults as more sexually mature than white girls, in the same peer group. This means when Black girls are victims of sexual assault, they are less likely to be believed because adults view them as older than they actually are. Black girls are robbed of their presumption of girlhood, innocence, and sexual virtue. This is problematic on a humanitarian level and carries a significant legal consequence.
In Lifetime’s recent airing of its‘Surviving R. Kelly’ docu-series, we heard from a juror in R. Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial. The juror said he dismissed testimony from young Black girls simply because he didn’t believe or like them. He flat out admitted to dismissing their accounts and their identification of the victim. The juror said he didn’t like the way they looked, dressed, or sounded. Essentially, they were dismissed, disbelieved, and deemed not credible on-sight. The juror met them with unreasonable scrutiny because they were Black. This is a horrific acknowledgment. It’s important to note — the juror featured in the docuseries happened to be an older white man. However, in the Center on Poverty and Inequity study (and in similar studies) it’s not only white, older, or male demographics who discount, dismiss and disbelieve young Black girls. To varying degrees, all demographics engage in the same biased behavior around young Black girls’ believability.
You may also remember Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, who testified in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial. Jeantel was subject to intense scrutiny and herself tried in the court of public opinion. A Stanford University study titled Language and Linguistics looked at how Jeantel was received in court because of her vernacular. These biased presumptions robbing Black girls and women of our right to be believed and deemed credible must be rebutted. Prosecutors must work to do the unfair, infuriating, but legally savvy work to counter the knee-jerk assumptions we know many people in our society are making about us. Black women and girls who are victims or witnesses are owed this in order to fully participate in our legal system.
It’s somewhat unconscionable that legal strategies must involve reversing ignorant and/or unconscious bias against the believability of Black girls. But it’s the world we live in and prosecutors should attack this bias against Black girls’ credibility with judges and jurors head-on. Rebuking these biases is not as simple as putting young Black girls in pigtails, hair bows, pink dresses, and Mary-Jane shoes. But thinking along the lines of overstating their girlhood, innocence, and honesty is a place for prosecutors to start.
With all of the bias and undue scrutiny to their reputations and girlhood, it’s no wonder why many Black girls and women don’t testify against their abusers in court. Our girls and women also don’t testify because their offenders often make threats of physical violence, emotional abuse, financial manipulation, or even threaten their lives. It’s a horrifying choice many victims have to make between ensuring their safety or pursuing justice. It’s a choice no one should ever have to make.
As we consider how to support and empower our Black girls and women who are victims of sexual violence, we must start with an acute awareness of the particular obstacles we face. The challenge we face on the issue of credibility and believability is not of our own making, but if we are to obtain the justice we seek, we have to let the criminal justice system, our own communities, and greater society know, times up on not believing Black girls and women.
Eboni K. Williams is an attorney, author, and TV Host. She is also on the Board of Directors for Safe Horizon, a New York City-based nonprofit supporting victims of abuse and violence.