Commentary Law and Policy

Women and Girls of Color Need Justice Too

Alicia Sanchez Gill, A. Warren, Lucane LaFortune & Shiwali Patel

Many supporters of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposed changes appear to only truly be concerned about the white men and boys who are finally being exposed for their perpetration and held accountable.

A growing number of individuals have expressed support for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ harmful Title IX proposed rules on sexual harassment, including sexual assault, in schools by pitting the rights of sexual assault survivors against efforts to further racial justice.

By doing this, these individualsoften white, self-identified feminists or conservative menerase the experiences of survivors of color, particularly Black women and girls, who are frequently disbelieved and blamed when reporting sexual assault, pressured to stay silent about their assaults, and pushed into the criminal justice system (referred to as the “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline”).

As survivor-advocates of color working at the intersections of racial and gender justice, we understand that women and girls of color are disproportionately targeted for sexual harassment and assault in schools. The blatant disregard for the lives of survivors of color is a common and misguided tactic that creates a false choice between protecting survivors and protecting against racially biased disciplinary practices.

These individuals claim to support DeVos’ plans to undermine rights for sexual assault survivors because of purported inequities faced by named harassers—Black men in particular—under current Title IX guidance. They do so without citing any empirical evidence of how many sexual assault or harassment findings on campuses are made against men of color. While little research exists at the college level, the Department of Education’s own K-12 data shows that 0.3 percent of Black boys and 0.2 percent of white boys are disciplined for sexual harassment, compared to the wide disparity between the proportion of Black boys (18 percent) and white boys (6 percent) who are disciplined for any type of student misconduct. As advocates of color, we believe that our advocacy is better spent addressing racially discriminatory discipline practices—not dismantling Title IX itself.

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Under the guise of concerns about “due process,” many supporters of DeVos’ proposed changes appear to only truly be concerned about the white men and boys who are finally being exposed for their perpetration and held accountable, threatening their social power and assumed rise to greater success. See, for example, the outpouring of support expressed mostly by white men and women for Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner, instead of for the women who came forward to accuse them of assault. It is also telling that these individuals who claim inequities against named harassers in school Title IX proceedings have largely remained silent on—or affirmatively supported—DeVos’ recent decision to upend guidance instructing schools on how to avoid the very real and widespread problem of racially discriminatory discipline, particularly affecting Black and Native American students.

They also ignore the harm of requiring survivors to endure cross-examination, which for many, can be extremely traumatic. Allowing lawyers to cross-examine survivors will likely have a chilling effect on reporting on campuses, especially among students of color. This could be particularly harmful on predominantly white campuses as the majority of sexual assaults are intraracial, not interracial.  Survivors of color may already not want to report and add to the criminalization of men and boys of color, or contribute to long-held stereotypes in the public imagination about Black men, in particular, as predators. Cross-examination may also reinforce racial and class-based inequities if one party is able to afford an attorney and the other cannot. Many schools allow parties to obtain information from each other without subjecting them to cross-examination. In workplaces, we are not required to be cross-examined by our harasser’s attorney when we report sexual harassment to our employer. So why force survivors at schools to endure this unnecessary measure that will deter reporting?

Unfortunately, this is just one of many harmful changes DeVos is proposing to Title IX that would make schools more dangerous for all students. Schools would no longer be required to respond to sexual harassment that’s reported to the vast majority of school employees, would be forced to ignore sexual harassment that occurs outside of a school activity—including online harassment—and would be required to dismiss complaints of harassment not deemed severe and harmful enough. Instead of protecting student safety and well-being, Secretary DeVos’ proposed rules would instead make it harder for students, particularly women and girls of color, to get help after experiencing harassment.

Having worked together years ago at the DC Rape Crisis Center and as current advocates in our respective positions, we will not let race be used to silence important conversations about sexual harassment and assault in schools. Through our work with survivors in our communities, in schools, on campuses, and within the legal and criminal systems, we know firsthand the harms women and girls of color face in being stereotyped, viewed as less deserving of sympathy, blamed when victimized, and not given a fair and equitable investigation into their complaints. Title IX is meant to ensure that sexual harassment and assault won’t be the end of anyone’s education. If anyone truly cares about racial bias at schools, they should also think about the impact of racial bias on survivors who are women, girls and LGBTQ folks of color, particularly Black survivors.

Racial justice does not come at our expense. Women and girls of color need justice too.

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