Commentary Race

Major Anti-Rape Group Praises DNA Ruling, But What About its Impact on People of Color?

Wagatwe Wanjuki

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers can collect DNA samples from people who have been arrested for (but not convicted of) a serious crime. Many rape survivors rejoiced. But I was not one of them.

When it was announced earlier this month that the Supreme Court had ruled, in Maryland v. King, that police officers can collect DNA samples from people who have been arrested for (but not convicted of) a serious crime, many rape survivors rejoiced.

I was not one of them.

Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), praised the decision. As the Huffington Post reported:

“We’re very pleased that the court recognized the importance of DNA and decided that, like fingerprints, it can be collected from arrestees without violating any privacy rights,” he said. “Out of every 100 rapes in this country, only three rapists will spend a day behind bars. To make matters worse, rapists tend to be serial criminals, so every one left on the streets is likely to commit still more attacks. DNA is a tool we could not afford to lose.”

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Berkowitz might have been pleased upon hearing of the ruling, but I was not. Here’s what I immediately felt when I found out: frustration at the further eradication of my right to privacy, fear of what this ruling will mean for people of color, and disappointment that people who I thought were my allies were praising such a ruling.

As someone who has used RAINN’s services in the past, I felt slightly betrayed by their unequivocal support of this ruling. But then I look at the organization’s founder, an older white man, and wonder: Do the concerns of people like me, and our communities, matter to the major anti-sexual violence organizations?

I know firsthand the unique challenges that survivors of color face in a racist society. I’ve used my experience to become an activist who has fought for improved policies for rape survivors on college campuses and increased accountability in fighting rape culture in media. Unfortunately, along the way I have found that the “mainstream” narratives surrounding the needs of survivors often lack an intersectional approach. I previously wrote about the near-erasure of survivors of color’s stories in the media, and it looks like the erasure continues.

There has been some coverage about the implications of this ruling for communities of color. As Jason Silverstein wrote in The Nation:

Because people of color are disproportionately stopped, searched and arrested, they will disproportionately bear the burden of this genetic dragnet. And because DNA samples can be used to establish family relationships, it has the potential to widen the surveillance to entire communities.

We already see the consequences of giving police officers wider discretion in policies designed to reduce crime: billions of dollars wasted on racially biased marijuana arrests, thousands of racially targeted stop-and-frisks, and people pulled over to the side of the road for “driving while Black.”

The reason why so few rapists go to jail is not due to lack of a comprehensive DNA database. It’s because rape culture is alive and well in the court systems. The police officers that now have the right to take my DNA even if I’m being wrongly arrested are the same people who refused to enforce a restraining order against my rapist. The backlog of rape evidence collection kits continue to be a serious problem. Victim-blaming defenses are often used in court—and win.

These issues will not be fixed by invading the privacy of millions of innocent people.

This is why intersectionality in the anti-sexual violence movement is of the utmost importance. One of the most important things I thought about in the aftermath of violence was regaining some sort of control over my life. How can I do that when I know that people like me continue to be unfairly violated, monitored, and over-policed, while major organizations like RAINN are celebrating what made it possible?

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