Recent news of the $40 million settlement in the Civil Rights Lawsuit for the wrongful conviction of five men in the Central Park Jogger rape case forces me as a law student and social justice advocate to confront the institutional failures of our legal system. The incarceration of these young men did not happen absent powerful social forces influenced by deep-rooted racial biases. Sadly, many of these conventions and fears are as alive today as they were then, and people of color continue to be treated differently by our courts.
Who is responsible for this tragedy? Although it may be easy to blame the police dept. or jury, vilifying any one person or institution to the exclusion of others diminishes the true scope of this injustice. The overly ambitious prosecutor and the hasty detective played their respective roles within a larger system that tolerated racial prejudice and perpetuated systematized discrimination. It is this system that needs to be addressed.
The highly publicized murder trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn have brought Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws to the forefront of public debate. In 2005, Florida was the first state to pass a SYG statute, and two dozen other states have since followed suit. But the black and white nature of these laws had been largely overlooked by the public until the Florida killings of two teenage boys. The killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are merely illustrative of how SYG laws have institutionally legitimized a fear rooted in racism.
We have all heard and may love the song, “Bump N Grind,” may have anticipated the release of R. Kelly’s most recent album, Black Panties, and may enjoy listening to his other albums, including Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. What we may not have heard are the reports and outcries from the numerous young women whose lives have been allegedly ruined by R. Kelly’s sexual predation. In a recent issue of the Village Voice, Jim DeRogatis, former music journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, offered his reason as to why no one has given attention to allegations around R. Kelly’s criminal behavior: “nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”
It has been 15 years since DeRogatis first reported about R. Kelly’s alleged violent sexual acts upon teenaged girls of color in Chicago, including reports about the videotapes purportedly showing the rapper with one teenaged girl; yet, R. Kelly continues to avoid criminal sanctions while headlining major music festivals. In April 2014, over 200 school-aged girls were kidnapped in Africa and likely forced into slavery, yet received almost no media attention until activists demanded it. The violated girls in Chicago and the missing girls in Africa have two things in common: one, their dark skin; and two, no one seemed to care. Disappointingly, neither R. Kelly’s victims nor the missing African girls have become household names like those of JonBenet Ramsey and Elizabeth Smart. DeRogitis’ candid statement, “nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” seems to ring true not only as a distinctly American problem, but as a global one.