These Challenges Are Why Sexual Assault at HBCUs Isn't Talked About Enough
Over 150 colleges are currently under Title IX investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for possibly mishandling sexual violence complaints, according to Michigan Live. But the pure pervasiveness of this horrifying phenomenon should not be confused with homogeneity: Sexual assault happens in a variety of ways to survivors of diverse identities in myriad contexts.
It's a distinction well-demonstrated by two of the most recent schools to face investigation. On Nov. 19, the Department of Education opened an investigation into two historically black universities: Complainant Chardonnay Madkins alleged on behalf of another student that the affiliated schools Spelman College and Morehouse College "failed to promptly and equitably respond to complaints, reports and/or incidents of sexual violence of which it had notice," according to a statement the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights sent Madkins informing her of the decision to open the investigation.
Survivors at other HBCUs have had similar experiences, too, revealing not only that sexual assault itself is a varied, complex phenomenon, but also that it's one uniquely experienced by survivors of color even on campuses supposedly devoted to the complexity of their experiences.
Black women are unique survivors. Survivors' experiences cannot be reduced to a single narrative. But survivors of color — specifically, black women — encounter campus sexual assault from a perspective based on the many unique obstacles they face.
For example, many female HBCU students likely will have experienced sexual violence before they even get to college. BET reported in 2011 that 60% of black women report being sexually assaulted before the age of 18, according to research conducted by the organization Black Women's Blueprint. Some say they are also raised to guard their own experience and urge silence among others.
"In the African-American community, we're really hush-hush about [sexual violence] that happens," Kristin McCovery, a recent graduate of Howard University, told Mic. McCovery said she was assaulted during the spring semester of her freshman year in 2012. "We sweep it under the rug."
Statistics back her observation up: Fifteen unreported rapes of black women occur for every rape reported by a black woman, according to For Harriet.
The frequent coexistence of rampant sexual violence and cultural denial within some black communities is compounded by the enduring stereotypes about black women's sexuality. Specifically, "racist stereotypes" popularize the idea that all black women are "sexually promiscuous," Madkins, who claims she was assaulted multiple times at Hampton University from October 2013 through March 2014, told Mic.
The myth of their inherent promiscuity encourages some assailants to view black women as "always consenting," and therefore incapable of being assaulted, Madkins, who is a sexual assault activist, said. Black women are frequently viewed by their male peers as "overly sexual beings," McCovery said.
"What we see in the media, how we're portrayed, guys approach us differently," McCovery said, "even though we're just women like everyone else."
This damaging stereotype not only contributes to black women's experiences with assault itself, but the aftermath, too: Both Madkins and McCovery said they felt these stereotypes influenced the way authority figures handled their pursuit of recourse. Police officers blamed Madkins, as well as other survivors she knows, "for being raped," she said. This treatment, she added, has led survivors to conclude they're "not going to be believed when [they] go to local authorities."
What's more, the sexual assaults both women had experienced before stepping foot on campus were wielded as evidence against them in their current cases, they said. Both women told Mic that administrators purposely victim-blamed them for, as Madkins put it, "already having gone through a traumatic experience."
Black survivors often face pressure to protect their assailants. Survivors of all backgrounds face disbelief and efforts to discredit their testimony, and the decision to publicly identify one's assailant is a difficult decision for many survivors. It's something many opt not to do at all for a variety of reasons. But considering that about 90% of rapes are intraracial, and given the context of rampant police brutality and a racist system of mass incarceration that black men disproportionately face, black women's choice to name and pursue charges against their rapists is one with which they often grapple.
"There's an added pressure to remain silent because this is someone who was able to make it to college," Madkins said. The black community, she said, imparts the message that black survivors shouldn't "put another black man in prison. ... This is your brother, your friend, somebody who is trying to make it, and you're trying to make it with them. Don't do anything to jeopardize that. Don't be another person to get a black man in jail. ... Don't be another person to victimize them."
This focus on the long-term well-being of black men generally obscures the crime these individuals committed as well as the well-being of the survivors of their crimes. While "it's unfortunate that another black man would be put in jail," McCovery acknowledged, any individual who assaults another — no matter their socioeconomic background — "deserves to be in jail."
HBCUs often perpetuate these dynamics. In 2014 NPR reported Howard University had received about $600,000 in grant money over four years from the Justice Department to create programs combatting sexual violence. But McCovery said she didn't see any evidence that these funds were effectively spent.
"My freshman year, I didn't know about the Title IX office," McCovery said. "I didn't find out about the student counseling center until my senior year."
Howard University, which did not respond to Mic's request for comment, handled her sexual assault claim dubiously, she added. When she filed her complaint in the spring of 2012, she said, the school claimed she told the police she didn't want to press charges — an assertion McCovery said she had no recollection of making. While the administration didn't actively discourage her from pursuing action, she said, "They definitely didn't help," and, she added, she was forced to withdraw from a class after one professor refused to let her make up tests or quizzes she missed in the immediate aftermath of her assault. It wasn't until she publicly discussed her experience with NPR last spring, the final semester of her senior year, that administrators investigated McCovery's case and offered her therapy services, she said.
Melanie Schwartz, a Spelman College student who says she was also assaulted on campus, similarly felt that administrators failed to generate "urgency and attention to sexual assault cases" or pursue "justice for their students," prioritizing its relationship with brother school Morehouse College instead, she told Mic.
"The procedures used are negligent and incomplete," she added.
"Spelman College treats incidents of sexual misconduct and assault seriously," a representative told Mic in an emailed statement. "The college's policies and procedures for reporting and reviewing complaints of violations, as well as support systems for those involved, are designed to ensure the safety and well-being of our community members."
Neglect of sexual assault cases is abundant at campuses of all types nationally, as the reported 185 open investigations into colleges across the country demonstrate. But the attitudes toward assault on HBCUs are unique, according to Madkins, based in no small part on the rhetoric of family common on such campuses, which teaches students to "protect each other" and "have each other's backs," she said. When violent incidents do occur, they're therefore "brushed under the carpet" to keep the ethos alive, she added.
Administrators ignore the problem not only for the sake of private community dynamics, but also their institution's public reputation, she said. Because HBCUs are already "discredited as real institutions" and face misconceptions such as that they're "easier" schools than others, "they want to make their image squeaky clean to the best of their ability," Madkins said.
Negative perceptions about HBCUs themselves are only compounded by broader negative conceptions of black people in the U.S., McCovery added.
"We only have so many HBCUs, and then with everything going on in the media — with black men being shot and boys and the riots that are happening — we have to protect our institution because it's the one place we feel safe," she said.
This places survivors in a difficult paradox: On the one hand, they don't want to pursue justice after being assaulted "because we want to keep the school safe," but on the other, they recognize these same institutions are "breeding criminals. ... They know they can get away with it," McCovery said. "It's a double-edged sword."
Schools need to be schooled. Despite experiencing these horrifying acts on HBCU campuses, these survivors have not lost faith in HBCUs themselves. They simply want their administrations to do better for their students.
HBCUs must first and foremost "admit their wrongdoing," McCovery said, adding they should more actively "help students and not make it so difficult to find resources."
Madkins agreed, adding that raising awareness among students that sexual assault is happening on HBCU campuses is also crucial. HBCU students, she said, are "less educated" about campus sexual assault "because HBCUs just aren't in the news." When they are, she added, the media tends to focus on issues of racial justice rather than issues born from the intersection of "race and gender."
Because survivors "aren't in the narrative," she continued, "they don't know how to connect the trauma they're processing to something larger than what's happening to them, that this is something systemic."