Accused serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw may be enjoying the fullness of the American system of justice, but his 13 African American female accusers are not.
The former Oklahoma City police officer faces 36 felony counts of rape, sexual battery, indecent exposure and forcible oral sodomy in front of an all-White jury chosen this week, a composition of his legally guaranteed peers. But will those peers fully value the humanity of the Black women he is accused of forcing into his squad car and driving them to secluded locations to sexually assault? He is also accused of coming to their homes late to assault and harass these women.
“For anyone who thought that Black women were full U.S. citizens, here’s the reminder that we’re not,” says Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Rape has been one of the defining experiences of Black women for so long that we can’t imagine ‘Black woman’ and ‘rape victim’ as separable categories.”
Seating an all-White jury in a case clearly motivated by race is a special kind of tone deafness that afflicts the country right now. Individuals and agencies that refuse to understand the perfect logic of #blacklivesmatter continue to choose to ignore the facts and deal with cases of police brutality and conduct as separate incidents totally unrelated from an historical, institutionalized way of dehumanizing Black bodies, especially those belonging to Black women. The persistent inability to see the humanity of Black women is also what leaves Black transgender women so vulnerable to not only violence, but death.
Failure to seat a racially diverse jury actually perpetuates the violence against these women, according to Dr. Kali Gross, author of Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (Duke University Press, 2006). The manner in which the Holtzclaw case is proceeding is the very definition of violence, behavior meant to “hurt, damage or kill,” a “destructive natural force.”
Many argue this case continues the erasure of Black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety. Sexism and patriarchy refuses to acknowledge the vulnerability of Black women, so much in fact, there’s a term for it: misogynoir.
This case is also infected by class considerations, too. Gross, who writes frequently about erasure of Black women’s bodies, says Holtzclaw seems to have trolled for poor women without a voice or ability to be seen an credible witnesses to their own torture. In fact prosecutors say the ex-cop would stop Black women and run their names to see if they had records our outstanding warrants, according to media reports. That is until one woman, a middle-class Black woman, 57, reported her assault. Perhaps endowed by the agency and moral authority of her class status, she stood up for herself, though she reportedly wasn’t so sure anyone would believe her.
Let’s forget our problems with fairness in the justice system for a second and consider the lack of fairness in covering this case. Or as Gross puts it, “What’s with the media blackout?”
If 13 White women were serially assaulted, raped and sodomized in a concentrated geographic space like Oklahoma City, the trial and minute details of each woman’s case would be on the news 24/7. Yet this case has gotten a rote sort of procedural coverage with none of the fanfare of a nation concerned with losing something or someone they’ll truly value and miss.
And that’s why this case must be closely watched: To insure the poor optics of an all-white jury and a system insistent that it can get it right — when it gets it so wrong so often — can and will.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer.