By Aaron Allen
Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, or class, but statistics show that the justice system has criminalized Black women for being victims of domestic violence and protecting themselves from violence and abuse. Many women who should be treated as victims have found themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, as incarceration rates among them have spiked.
A Department of Justice report found that more than half of Black women in jails or prisons were victims of the abuse they were arrested for.
Additionally, a study of the California prison system concluded that Black women are disproportionately criminalized for survival strategies and defending themselves, are three times more likely to die at the hands of a current or former partner, and the majority of Black women incarcerated for killing someone close to them were abused by that same person.
According to Doris O’Neal, Director of Gender Based Violence Specialized Services for the YWCA, “between 71 and 95 percent of incarcerated women have experienced some sort of physical violence and intimate partner violence.” And despite intimate partner violence being 35 percent higher for Black women than white women, the stereotype of the angry Black women, and not appearing to be a victim, makes them more likely to be arrested rather than be connected with supportive domestic violence resources than white women.
“Some believe anger can be the impetus to domestic violence,” says O’Neal, “Domestic violence is about power and control. Anybody can be angry, but we don’t go beat our partners. So, anger and power and control are separate. You can be angry but that still doesn’t say you have to go and assault or abuse someone. Let’s not get it twisted as far as how [domestic violence] is perpetuated. I am talking about power and control.”
Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. It can occur within a range of relationships including couples who are married, living together or dating. Unfortunately, there are far too many instances where women, in particularly Black women, are unlikely to report the abuse.
“Often times African American survivors are reluctant to call law enforcement to protect themselves,” says O’Neal. “What we need is more education surrounding domestic violence because we know African American women and women of color are less likely to call the police. We know that African American women and women of color have a fear of the system and systemic racism and because of that they are the ones getting arrested. Victims want the abuse to stop but they don’t want to see the Black man killed and so in protecting themselves greater numbers of women aren’t seen as the victims but the aggressor.”
According to O’Neal, many Black women expressed that their experience of getting arrested for defending themselves and mandatory arrest laws – where someone must be taken to jail, either the man or the woman, when police respond to a domestic violence call – is traumatizing, degrading, and shocking. Statistics show women reported that the consequences of getting arrested were severe. These consequences can include the involvement of child protective services, loss of financial support/employment, and incurred legal fees.
For many of these victims, the aftermath of being arrested can be devasting.
Dr. Ben Johnson, a clinical psychologist who spent 20 years servicing both victims and perpetrators, says that if people are not educated properly about domestic violence and its consequences, particularly the victim/defendant, the loss of family, employment, property and freedom can be the end result.
“I would rather people re-educate themselves about domestic violence, the legal system and the consequences,” says Johnson. “So, that you don’t get into that trouble, lose your houses, go to jail, get separated from your kids, the aftermath is so big, and we as a community keep walking through the same door with the constant loss of stability, with homes that are not secure, safe and stable.”
“Jumping from one mate to another only to find that we do the same stuff with next one [is not a good option either],” added Johnson. “The re-education is important if we are going to end that cycle.”
“We know that survivors may not even identify with term of “domestic violence,” says O’Neal. “In that violent intersection, that cycle of violence, physical, verbal, financial, medical, legal there are so many types of abuses. When women try to protect themselves, well now they look like the “angry Black women” and the perception of victim is lost.”
“When we look at whose being incarcerated it is Black women,” O’Neal continued. “Black women are being criminalized for protecting themselves and they are being charged, they go to jail, the defense attorney tells them to “plea and you’ll get out” but they don’t tell them the repercussions of having a conviction on your record.”
Domestic violence has proven to be learned and even a generational curse as the cycle can be perpetuated from one generation to the next.
“I will tell you this about domestic violence,” says Johnson. “It’s best if we could interrupt it earlier on in the chain than later. Second, it is highly modeled so that it becomes multi-generational. If a child sees his father act in that way that promotes [to the child that they] are supposed to act that way when they get that age.”
While there is not one solution to the problem of domestic violence, O’Neal says that she is committed to helping women eliminate the devastating cycle of abuse that is plaguing our community.
“The type of difference I am working towards is supporting our Black women,” says O’Neal. “What do we need to be safe, what do we need to be self-sufficient, are we caring for ourselves, are we loving ourselves, those are conversation we have with our black women. What do you need to be independent and try to support that process.”
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