REFLECTIONS ON RACIAL DIFFERENCES IN PERCEPTIONS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: BLACK WOMEN HAVE TO BE TOUGH*

By R.L. McNeely, Ph.D., J.D.**

Attorney and (Former) Professor of Social Welfare
Bader School of Social Welfare
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Tel: (414) 442–3775

R.L. McNeely is a professor of social welfare, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a practicing attorney. He has published books as well as articles appearing in professional journals focusing upon work and family issues, aging issues, racial issues, and on numerous aspects of domestic violence. He is a Research Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, he has testified before Congress on the issue of domestic violence, he serves as a domestic violence consultant for the U.S. Army and, as an attorney, he has successfully represented individuals falsely accused of domestic violence.

____________________________________
* A paper presented at the Global Health and Social Justice Conference: Violence as Disease,” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, College of Nursing, Milwaukee, WI, (March 29 and 30, 2007).

** The author wishes to express appreciation to Judith M. Baity, Beverly Goudy, Earlean Gilmer, Pauli Taylorboyd, John L. Erlich, Georgette Williams, and Stan Stojkovic, for their assistance in the preparation of this essay.

Race-related perceptions and opinions, on many issues, including domestic violence, often are divided sharply in this country. Sometimes this cultural chasm becomes well known to the general public, as was the case with the violent murder of Nicole Simpson, allegedly at the hands of O.J. Simpson. (1) Whites were stunned and amazed at the reactions of many African Americans who cheered, ecstatically, when Simpson’s trial ended with a not guilty verdict. (2) More often, though, European Americans have little idea of the depth of the divide separating opinions held by many black and white Americans. Most whites, for example, I suspect, would find it absolutely incredulous to know that, at the time of trial, the general sentiment among many African Americans regarding Mike Tyson’s rape conviction was that Tyson was not guilty. (3) As exclaimed, even to this day, by many whites, how could a notorious brute such as Tyson, a man who later bit off part of opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear during a prizefight, (4) and who had been accused of domestic violence by his first wife, actress Robin Givens, years before the alleged rape of Washington, (5) not be guilty?

Many Blacks have a standard retort. The retort is straightforward. They exclaim: “What can any woman expect who goes to a man’s hotel room at 2 or 3 a.m.?” Put differently, Ms. Washington must have known and agreed to sexual contact before going to the room because, otherwise, why would she have gone to his room, at that time of night, in the first place? Others, knowledgeable of some of the circumstances of Tyson’s trial, point to reports that Tyson’s chauffeur, who reportedly was not allowed to testify at the trial, had indicated that Tyson and Ms. Washington were “going at it hot and heavy” in the back seat of Tyson’s limousine, before they arrived at Tyson’s hotel. Indeed, as noted by Tyson chauffeur, Rudy Gonzalez, he witnessed many sexual back-seat limousine encounters involving Tyson’s admirers, including frequent trysts between Tyson and super model Naomi Campbell. (6) Also recounted are stories of the many women who sent their underwear to Tyson via mailings to his fan club. An additional argument, thus, is why would Tyson need to rape Desiree Washington when so many women, including movie and modeling stars, were either at Tyson’s beck and call or, at least, accessible to him?

Whites tend to reply by emphasizing the following: (a) A man must respect a woman’s right to say “no” at any point during an encounter; (b) rape is not about sex, it is about power; and © Washington was in “over her head” when she unwisely consented to consort with Tyson, and was incapable of avoiding her own victimization at the hands of a larger, stronger, controlling, and more powerful male. They may also assert that any other view amounts to blaming the victim. Usually, these point-counterpoint arguments, meant to be illustrative of differing views by race, “play out” without probing reflection. Ultimately, both groups, whites and blacks, end up maintaining their contrasting views, thinking of the substance and logic of their arguments while ignoring possible sources, such as very different historical circumstances, from which those arguments may derive.

I assert that the landscapes of each group’s arguments may be grounded in discordant cosmologies that neither group consciously recognizes. In other words, blacks and whites may tend to have differing ways of looking at the world of domestic violence. Indeed, I saw the fruit of those differing cosmologies when I published, with co-author Gloria Robinson-Simpson, in 1987, an article declaring that males were no more likely than females to perpetrate domestic violence. (7) Reactions by whites often were not just disbelieving, but vitriolic. (8) And, today, I see those cosmologies often, especially in courtroom settings. Particularly in domestic violence cases, but also in divorce matters, it has become clear to me during years of observation as an attorney that many judges, especially many elderly judges, district attorneys, and members of juries, simply cannot contemplate the possibility that women may be equal with males in their aggression against mates, and this has been clearly so in respect to black men as perpetrators.

I do not think this is due, exclusively, to pre-conceived notions that black males are inherently aggressive, although this certainly plays a role. Large black men, in particular, walk into courtrooms with a foot in the grave. (9) As noted by prominent Milwaukee defense attorney, John McNally:

“In Milwaukee County, the complexion of a jury often determines the outcome of a case. Out of 12 jurors, seven or eight will be women, and five of the women will be white. The majority will be over 50 years of age. If you are a black male charged with domestic assault, rape or sexual assault of children, what do you think your chances are? Black males start out with a foot in the bucket to begin with. And juries in Milwaukee County are more racially mixed than most juries elsewhere.” (10)

Indeed, that perceptions of the social environment and of criminality differ sharply by race has been shown, unequivocally. Allport and Postman’s seminal work, for example, involved pictures being displayed to black and white subjects of a white man holding a razor while arguing with a black man. White subjects to whom these pictures were described tended to recall the black man as brandishing the razor. (11) In another study, Secord et al., showed pictures of 15 adult faces to white subjects whose attitudes about blacks were known. Ten of the faces were of blacks with widely varied physiognomic features. Other faces were of whites. Once subjects characterized faces as those of blacks, they proceeded to ascribe behaviors that were consistent with their stereotypical conceptions of blacks, often paying no further attention whatsoever to differences among the individual faces portrayed in the pictures. These findings were consistent for those less prejudiced against blacks as well as those more strongly prejudiced against blacks. (12) Additionally, jurors are more likely to convict alleged rape assailants based on racial similarities/dissimilarities between jurors and defendants. (13) Miller and Hewitt, for example, showed subjects a videotape depicting the onset of an actual rape case involving a black male defendant. Both black and white simulated jurors were significantly more likely to vote for conviction when there was juror/victim similarity. (14) Even children are not immune. Eight- to ten-year old children, when asked to select from a bi-racial set of photographs those individuals they believed to be murderers, were found to evidence a strong bias toward perceived black male violence. Black males were perceived primarily as murderers while white males were not, suggesting the possibility of “cognitive schemas” that predispose individuals to attribute criminality based on race-related stereotypes rather than observable truth. (15) Consider the implications of these perceptual differences for black men accused of non-stranger rape or murder in domestic disputes. (16)

But could there be more at work than pre-existing cognitive schemas in the way domestic violence is perceived across the races? This author believes that more is involved, and that the difference, in large measure, flows from societal differences in the historical treatment and present- day circumstances of black women. Unlike the reactions of generations of white men to their women, as being docile, subservient and weak, and as in need of chivalrous protection by men, most black men have had to take the prowess of their women, seriously. This is because the reality of black women’s lives, from slavery to the present day, has been so acutely distinct from that of white women. As noted by Angela Davis:

“She was not sheltered or protected; she would not remain oblivious to the desperate struggle for existence unfolding outside the “home.” She did not have the stunted awareness of a woman confined to a home… The alleged benefits of the ideology of femininity did not accrue to her…She was there in the fields, toiling under the lash from sun-up to sun-down…When mothers who had sucking children could not keep up in the fields with other slaves, they would be whipped with raw hide so that the blood and the milk flew mingled from their breasts…And when she did do housework, cooking and cleaning in her own cabin, she was performing the only labor of the slave community which could not be directly and immediately claimed by the oppressor…And this helped to lay a foundation for some degree of autonomy, both for herself and her men…These survival-oriented autonomous activities were, themselves, a form of resistance…She was, therefore, essential to the survival of the community.” (17

But the words of ex-slave, Sojourner Truth, delivering her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in 1851, perhaps are more pungent:

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

And the history of black women is replete with images both of their independent self-reliance, and toughness, as well as psychological equality with their men. Underground Railroad “conductor”, and later Civil War spy and nurse, Harriet Tubman, for example, made 19 trips into the pre-Civil War south, leading over 300 slaves to freedom. (18) Tubman, never lost a “passenger,” in part because she backed up, with the barrel of a gun, her warning to exhausted fleeing slaves, including males: “You’ll be free or die… a dead runaway slave can tell no secrets.” Among other achievements, Tubman, who had been whipped, even as a small slave child, was responsible for guiding black Civil War soldiers while stationed in South Carolina. Or what of Mary Fields, also known as “Stagecoach Mary,” “Black Mary,” or “Shotgun Mary”? An ex-slave, Mary made her way to Montana, in 1885, where she toted two guns (one under her apron) and a shotgun, at virtually all times. (19) She had a standing bet that she could knock out any man with just one punch, and she never lost a bet. As noted by one observer: She broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.

So, what about today? Are there remnants still at play of this tradition of self-reliant independence and toughness that distinguish black women from white women? One possible indicator has to do with the fact that, whereas white women tend to receive “slap the cad” instructions from their mothers as appropriate responses to male aggression, black women, especially lower-class black women, are more likely to receive specific instructions from their mothers in the use of disfiguring lye or the use of hot water, hot cooking oil, boiling grits, etc., for scaldings. (20) One apparent manifestation of this training occurred, in 1974, when pop singer Al Green was scalded with boiling grits by his girlfriend, Mary Woodson, who had broken into Green’s Memphis home while he was bathing. (21) Reports following the incident denied prior aggression by Green, asserting, instead, that Woodson was obsessive and had been upset about their relationship. Too, when a study was performed involving female homicide perpetrators, many of whom were black, the investigator found that 40 percent had past arrest records for committing violence against people other than their spouses or male intimates. She also found that, whereas 38.9 percent claimed self-defense, only 3.1 percent of the homicides were justifiable acts of self-defense. She concluded that many of these women were simply tough women. (22)

None of this means that tough white women do not exist, or have not existed, historically. But, there are very different cosmologies at play between the races. Both previously discussed historical factors, as well as present-day circumstances, influence how blacks and whites perceive social reality. One current reality has to do with the fact that, in 2003, only 28.8 percent of black women, aged fifteen years or older, were married (64 percent were married in 1970), compared to 54.2 percent of white women. (23) And prospects for black women to secure eligible mates with stable employment are far less optimistic than is the case for white women. For one thing, black males, born today, have a one in three chance of going to prison during their lifetimes, (24) which is up from one in five in 1987, (25) whereas only one in seventeen white males will likely go to prison. In fact, in some cities, the black male population in prime childbearing and childrearing ages would have to increase by 40 percent, or more, to be comparable to the number of black females of equivalent age. (26) Indeed, nationally, seven out of ten (68%) black children are being born to single mothers, (27) but in some large cities the figure is closer to 85 percent. (28) These are stark realities. And one consequence of these stark realities, as well as of historical factors, is that black women are more likely to attribute to themselves feelings of independent self-reliance and toughness.

One of the ways in which this can be observed is in the belief, held by many white women, that women should go out of the home in order to pursue careers or, at least, in order to secure employment, with the idea that it is a bit demeaning and disempowering to be just a housewife. But black women have a different take on this. Black women are more inclined to subscribe to the view that one pursues a career or outside-the-home employment in order to avoid dependence on a man because it might not be possible to find a stable and employed man, or that a found (stable and employed) man might not always be around. At the same time, it is the fondest view of many black women that they be taken care of by a spouse. Simply put, many black women would be only too happy to have a situation where they are being financially taken care of so well by a black man that they would not need to go out and earn a living. Also, many black women would be enthralled if on a pedestal, but more in the spirit of a Nubian Queen or Princess (royalty without demeaning attributions of defenseless) rather than a Southern Belle.

One reason for this is because black women are not starting out having to overcome the woman-on-a-pedestal idea, which causes many white women to feel a need to prove their autonomy and independence to their men, and to themselves. Not surprisingly, many feminists have attacked the chivalry notion. These are very different cosmologies at work.

But the woman-on-a-pedestal idea is still, despite political incorrectness, very much alive, not just in many courtrooms and in the general public but, ironically, in feminist circles as well. Some feminists, for example, attribute, in sine qua non fashion, power and control to men in marital or intimate relationships. Thus it is the brutish male who is responsible, exclusively, for aggression directed against essentially weak and defenseless women in need of protection like, say, Desiree Washington. Many black women, by contrast, rejecting the docility required either by a chivalrous outlook or by an arguably demeaning view of women as defenseless victims, are likely either to assume that they have more control over their own circumstances, or to assume responsibility for a greater role in their own victimization, hence: “What did Desiree Washington expect when she went to Mike Tyson’s hotel room at 2 or 3 a.m?” Attributing power and control to men while also being devoid of pre-conceived defensive or attacking tactics involving weapons such as hot cooking oil or grits, again ironically, lodges power in the hands of men. Thus: “But she didn’t deserve to be raped just because she went to his hotel room.” And, of course, Washington did not deserve to be raped, if that is what occurred. But this latter mindset appears spawned by deeply-rooted chivalrous cultural beliefs, among whites, of women being essentially defenseless, non self-reliant, in need of being taken care of by males and in need of male protection, as well as needing help from males when required to cross mud puddles. These deeply internalized views of women as defenseless victims make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that women can be just as violent as men in domestic situations, perhaps explaining some of the vitriolic reactions referred to previously. And this tradition of chivalry, rooted as it is in the notion of women’s inherent weakness and defenseless, is likely, in courtrooms, even to protect, or afford comparatively benign treatment, unfairly, to younger women who have inflicted violence on physically weaker, frail or infirm older spouses. (29)

Black women, and men, on the other hand, as noted more than a century ago by Sojourner Truth, have not had the luxury of benefiting from societally-prescribed chivalrous beliefs. As a consequence of having to form their characters in what historically has been, and often continues to be, a hostile environment, many have had to forge very different ways of looking at the world, such as eco-system distrust, (30) in order to ensure their own survival, (31) (and this same eco-system distrust explains why blacks, more than whites, were more likely to believe that L.A. police officers framed O.J. Simpson). Unlike many whites, who tend to view women as victimized by helplessness, whether learned or otherwise, blacks have taken the capabilities of their women, seriously, and have generally admired and respected their women’s strength. Thus, women are not likely to be regarded by blacks as being philosophically non-violent, physically weak, defenseless, or predisposed to passivity. In the end, and for the variety of reasons discussed herein, many blacks and whites are likely to view instances of domestic homicide, non-stranger rape, and other forms of aggression among intimates, quite differently, as the Gallup figures, reported in this essay’s first footnote, substantiate.


Footnotes

1. Former star NFL player and, later, Monday Night Football sports commentator, African American, O.J. Simpson, was acquitted, in 1995, of having murdered his wife, European American, Nicole Simpson, in what was then referred to as “The Trial of the Century.” A Gallup-CNN/USA Today poll, conducted October 19–22, 1995, found that 73 percent of Blacks agreed with the verdict, but only 36 percent of whites agreed.

2. Blacks, who are more likely than whites to evidence “eco-system distrust” [cf: Harry C. Triandis (ed.), Variations in Black and White Perceptions of the Social Environment, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976], trusting neither whites, white officials, nor white institutions, or even other blacks, were more receptive than whites to arguments by Simpson’s defense counsel that L.A. detectives had tried to frame Simpson. Additionally, many cheered the freeing of a black man for allegedly murdering a white woman given knowledge of many historical instances involving false accusations and lynchings, or guilty verdicts, for innocent black men, such as the “Brownsboro Boys” [James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro, N.Y: Pantheon Books, 1994; cf also: R. Ginzburg (ed.), One Hundred Years of Lynchings, New York: Lancer, 1969].

3. Pugilist and then heavy weight champion, “Iron Mike” Tyson, was found guilty, on March 26, 1992, of having raped Miss Black America pageant contestant, Desiree Washington, in Indiana, following which he was sentenced to serve six years in prison. He was released on March 25, 1995.

4. Tyson claimed that Holyfield engaged in intentional head butting during this (June 28, 1997) fight, also saying that he had “addressed” Holyfield’s alleged head butting during the fight by biting off a portion of Holyfield’s ear. Tyson had lost a previous (November 9, 1996) fight to Holyfield, in part due to head butts.

5. After only eight months of marriage, Robin Givens, in 1988, filed for divorce from Tyson, claiming he had abused her and that she was frightened of him. Tyson denied having abused Ms. Givens, also claiming that she absconded with one million dollars of his money, drawn without his authorization from one of his bank accounts.

6. Rudy Gonzalez and Martin A. Feigenbaum, The Inner Circle, Miami, FL: Oliver Publishing Group, 1995.

7. R.L. McNeely and Gloria Robinson-Simpson, “The Truth About Domestic Violence: A Falsely Framed Issue,” Social Work, 32(6) 1987. See also the numerous letters to the editor, as published in Social Work 33(2) 1988, that assailed authors McNeely and Robinson-Simpson. Indeed, the journal’s editor, in the same issue of the journal, noted that the journal had been challenged for publishing the McNeely and Robinson-Simpson article. Perhaps in deferential response to the hundreds of letters sent in opposition to the article, the journal failed to publish even one letter supporting McNeely’s and Robinson-Simpson’s article, although many supportive letters were received.

8. R.L. McNeely, Phil Cook, and Jose Torres, “Is Domestic Violence a Gender Issue, or a Human Issue?,” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 4 (4) 2001.

9. Cf: Erin Texeira, “Black Men Quietly Combating Stereotypes,” N.Y: Associated Press, July 1, 2006.

10. R.L. McNeely and Gloria Robinson-Simpson, “The Truth About Domestic Violence: A Falsely Framed Issue,” Social Work, 32(6) 1987: 488.

11. G. Allport and L. Postman, “The Basic Psychology of Rumor,” Pp: 47–58 in E. Proshansky and B. Seidenberg (eds.), Basic Studies in Social Psychology, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.

12. P.F. Secord, W. Beven, and B. Katz, “Perceptual Accentuation and the Negro Stereotype,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, V. 53, 1956: 78–83.

13. D.C.E. Ugwuegbu, “Black Jurors’ Personality Trial Attribution to a Rape Case Defendant,” Social Behavior and Personality, V. 4., 1976: 193–201.

14. M. Miller and J. Hewitt, “Conviction of a Defendant as a Function of Juror-Victim Similarity,” Journal of Social Psychology, V. 105, 1978: 159–160.

15. J. M. Mayas, “Perceived Criminality: The Attribution of Criminal Race from News-reported Crime,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1977.

16. Cf: R.L. McNeely and C.E. Pope, “Socioeconomic and Racial Issues in the Measurement of Criminal Involvement,” Pp. 31–47 in R.L. McNeely and C E. Pope, Race, Crime, and Criminal Justice, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1981.

17. Angela Davis, “Reflections on The Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” The Black Scholar, 3(4) (December) 1971.

18. Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, N.Y. and Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 2004.

19. J.W. Ravage, Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002.

20. R.L. McNeely, Phil Cook, and Jose Torres, “Is Domestic Violence a Gender Issue, or a Human Issue?” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 4(4) 2001.

21. Al Green and Davin Seay, Take Me to the River, N.Y: HarperCollins, 2000.

22. Coramae Mann, When Women Kill, Albany, N.Y: SUNY Press, 1996. Cf: S. Sarantakos, “Deconstructing Self-Defense in Wife-to-Husband Abuse,” Journal of Men’s Studies, V. 12, 2004: 277–296.

23. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2003 (Annual Social and Economic Supplement).

24. Mark Mauer, “The Disparity on Crack Cocaine Sentencing,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 2006.

25. R.J. Sampson, “Urban Black Violence: The Effect of Male Joblessness and Family Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 2, 1987: 348–381.

26. R.L. McNeely and M.R. Kinlow, Milwaukee Today: A Racial Gap Study (monograph), Milwaukee Urban League, 1987: 72 pp.

27. Jason De Parle, “To Have and to Hold,” The New York Times Magazine, August 22, 2004: Pp: 27–31, 48–49, 52
54; Jason DeParle, American Dream, N.Y: Penguin Books, 2005.

28. Bureau of Health Information and Policy, “Percent of Live Births to Unmarried Women by Race/Ethnicity: City of Milwaukee 2000 and 2004,” Wisconsin Interactive Statistics on Health (WISH), April 16, 2006.

29. R.L. McNeely and Philip W. Cook, “Notes on Newspaper Accounts of Male Elder Abuse,” In J.I. Kosberg (Ed.). Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect., V. 19 (1&2) 2007: 99–108.

30. Please see footnote number 2.

31. But eco-system distrust is but of many cosmological contrasts between blacks and whites. Consider, also, for example, the survival-related cosmological contrast between many blacks and whites on the issue of spanking children. As noted by one black mother: “Spanking is part of a long, historic continuum…During slavery, a black person’s pout or backtalk could not only get him whipped, it could get him…killed…black mothers and, by extension, the entire local community, had a vested interest in keeping their children alive…Swift physical retribution for even minute transgressions tended to reinforce the rules, and adhering to the rules meant you were able to live to raise another generation — who, in all probability, spanked, too, but not as hard as the previous one.” Karen Grigsby Bates, “Mothers Who Think: A Black Mother’s View on Spanking,” Salon Newsletter, San Francisco, CA: Salon Media Group, Inc., October 7, 1998. See also, the empirical work of Marjorie L. Gunnoe and C.L. Mariner, “Toward a Developmental/Contextual Model of the Effects of Parental Spanking on Children’s Aggression,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 151(8) 1997, showing beneficial effects of spanking for black children. Race-related cosmological differences also may explain differences in the reactions of children to a mother’s serial intimate relationships. Black children have been found to respond more favorably than white children to changes in a parent’s intimate relationships, possibly due in part to optimistic hopes for new financial contributions being made to impoverished or near-poverty female-headed African America households, particularly considering another present-day contrast: About seventy percent of all black children are being born to single mothers, and the same percentage (70%) of all black children, seventeen years of age and younger, are growing up in poverty or near-poverty, whereas only twenty-three percent of white children are being born to single mothers. Cf: Paula Fomby and Andrew Cherlin, “Family Instability and Child Well-Being,” American Sociological Review, (April) 2007, and R.L. McNeely and David Pate, “Neighborhood Convenience Stores and Drug Paraphernalia,” Pp: 491–500 in J. Erlich, J. Rothman, J. Tropman (Eds.), Strategies of Community Intervention, Peosta, Iowa: Bowers Press, 2008.

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