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On R. Kelly and how we fail black girls

Earlier this month, two million viewers tuned in for the premiere of Lifetime’s six-part documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly”. The docuseries chronicled the R&B musician’s reported legacy of alleged abuse, predatory behavior and child pornography charges throughout the late 90s and early 2000s. Episodes prominently featured the testimony of R. Kelly’s victims, as well as clinical specialists and activists like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. Among this wide swath of voices, a common observation was situated at the center of nearly every interview. Survivors and commentators alike remarked that Black women and girls aren’t seen as victims in situations of sexual violence as a result of societal misogynoir. This documentary reveals a disturbing pattern of racist institutional failings endemic to the American criminal-legal system—failures only further complicated by the state violence that Black citizens routinely face from the same law enforcement officials that claim to protect the public from abusers like R. Kelly.

Rising to prominence in the 90s with a slew of major hits such as “Honey Love” and “Bump N’ Grind,” R. Kelly captured popularity due to his musical prowess and intimate lyrics. It wasn’t long after he gained notoriety for his talent that R. Kelly became embroiled in controversy. In 1994, he illegally wed protégé songstress Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old. While the wedding was annulled a year later, this wouldn’t be the last time he was in headlines for alleged involvement with minors. Kelly’s scandals came to a head when he was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. The artist strategically delayed his trial for several years, releasing one of his most popular songs, “Ignition Remix,” while awaiting trial. Ultimately, the charges were dropped as the judge presiding over the case ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove the allegations. Other victims who came forth in the docuseries, spoke of numerous other repeated alleged instances of Kelly’s coercion of minors, involving either sexual or physical abuse.

The fact that R. Kelly’s career thrived both during and after his abuse and sexual misconduct allegations were exposed, speaks to the systemic devaluation and perceived disposability of Black women and girls. One cause of the racially disparate attention paid to survivors is that black women and girls are viewed as promiscuous or less innocent. This fabricated notion of hypersexuality and adultification has its roots in European colonization and historical figures like Sarah Baartman—known in the 19th century as Hottentot Venus. Colonists overtly sexualized African women’s bodies and constructed racist theories of sexual primitivism that still linger to some degree in the modern public imagination. In 2017, the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law released a report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” that analyzed adult perceptions of black youth. Findings showed that, compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants perceived of black girls as knowing more about adult topics and sex. These racially-influenced perceptions have dire implications for the outcomes of Black women in the criminal justice system if they seek to report sexual assault or abuse.

Black women also face an additional burden when dealing with sexual violence: police brutality. In the era of Black Lives Matter and social media, the violence and discrimination faced by Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement around the country can’t be denied. In 2015 alone, 1,146 people were killed by police; the same data set also found that young Black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by an officer. With this reality staring down survivors, the risks of reporting abuse can often outweigh the unlikely potential benefits.

Finding a solution for dealing with perpetrators of sexual abuse are complicated by the realities of state violence as well. While imprisonment is the common call to action for bringing people like R. Kelly to justice, prisons are racist, violent institutions that employ punitive measures which often fail to deter future criminal behavior, leaving the root problem unaddressed.

It’s clear Kelly’s alleged actions were heinous and his victims deserve long overdue justice. The harm he caused is incalculable and many—understandably—feel an instinctive desire to demand incarceration. However, if we truly are invested in preventing sexual violence, we can’t rely on contemporary flawed and racist models of punishment. We must develop new, effective modes of confronting violence in our communities and homes.

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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