Post Classifieds

Hill and Brooten host sexual violence panels

By Alana Abramson
On March 20, 2012

Profs. Anita Hill (Heller) and Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) hosted a conference yesterday to explore the issue of sexual assault of African-American women, which featured panel discussions with several outside professors who research various aspects of sexual violence and race.

The conference, which was an all-day affair that took place in the Levin Ballroom, was designed to foster discussion about the "multi-layered legal, religious and cultural histories which have created myths and stereotypes that add up to a 'script' that determines who will be readily believed as a victim, who will be doubted and what impact that has on who reports rape and who does not," according to BrandeisNOW. It included two panels and a short play.

Hill opened the conference by saying that its goal was to "expose slavery's enduring legacy and give definition to the terms 'justice' and 'fairness' in the lives of African-American women who are victims of sexual assault."

Hill also explained that an enhanced understanding of sexual assault could ultimately produce better enforcement of equal protection laws.

"Courtroom dramas, ... as evidenced by plays like 12 Angry Men and television shows like Law and Order, resonate with the public and can effectively communicate nuanced legal and moral issues to a broader audience," she explained. "And creative expression of the racialized experience of sexual assault could elevate a general audience's understanding of the subject in ways that ultimately result in better enforcement of the law."

University President Frederick Lawrence, who also addressed the event, used the opportunity to speak about the broader implications of criminal law and the immorality of targeting someone because of his or her racial or ethnic background.

"The aspirations of the criminal justice system are to announce the values of society and what the basis of the circle is. That means if we do not describe the essence of a crime properly, we are losing the opportunity to announce the society's values, and we are delegitimizing the pain that certain communities feel," said Lawrence, after he congratulated Brooten and Hill for formulating and convening the conference.

Brooten also lauded Hill for her passion in combating sexual assault. She emphasized the importance of community in this issue, saying, "We are not leaving women alone to deal with an assault; we're thinking what we can do as a community to support, have a vision of a better future."

Brooten continued that it was particularly important for African-Americans to unite on this issue because of the discrimination they still face under the law.

"According to meta-analyses of social scientific and legal research, ... black women who experience rape and other forms of sexual assault are less likely to report to law enforcement," she said. "If they report, prosecutors are less likely to prosecute, and if the prosecutor does move ahead, and the case goes to trial, the jury is less likely to convict than if the rape complainant were white."

Supporters of the cause also expressed their support.

Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush wrote a letter to the conference, in which he stated, "We know that changing belief is extremely difficult, but changing behavior ... is a vitally important first step."

Prof. Faith Smith (AAAS) hosted a panel discussion as part of the conference about cultural perceptions of sexual violence.

In the panel, Professor Adrienne Davis, vice provost and professor at Washington University in St. Louis Law School, talked about the claims of sexual assault at Duke University in 2006. The lacrosse players accused were ultimately acquitted in that case.

Davis used this example as a microcosm of the challenges African-Americans face in the law. She said that the roots of this extend back to slavery, which took control of both African-Americans and their sexual lives.

She said this type of behavior continued even after slavery was abolished, as a white man was not convicted of raping a black woman until the 20th century.

Professor Régine Jean-Charles of Boston College discussed how rape is understood in Africa and the Caribbean. She talked about the activism of women there and explained that she is writing a book that will provide a new framework for how violence is understood in a global age.

Professor Traci West of Drew University explained that the focus of her work was mainly on religion and the "traps and resources it offers for black women who are victims and survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence." She subsequently talked about her current research, in which she is exploring what it means for Americans to learn from Africa and African diaspora sources how to end sexual violence.

The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session.
In an email to the Justice, Brooten thanked the Brandeis community for its support.

"I am deeply grateful to all of those who gathered together at Brandeis today to make a real difference in the lives of Black women and of their families," she wrote. "The performer and the speakers, whether courageous pioneers in the field or innovative younger voices, energized the audience to action."

-Sam Mintz contributed reporting. 

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