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Rep. Bobby Rush Headshot

The Maid and the Millionaire

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NAFISSATOU DIALLO INTERVIEWS
AP

I have to say it, even if nobody else wants to. I cannot be silent for another day, not as a pastor, not as a politician, not as a person.

In fact, I think we need to have a national conversation about how "we the people" have reacted to the alleged sexual assault of Nafissatou Diallo by Dominique Strauss-Kahn. We need to talk about who we believe, or more to the point, disbelieve, and why. We need to talk about race and power and how America's history of the sexual exploitation of black women by white men came back to haunt us in room 2806 of the Sofitel Hotel on Saturday May 14, 2001.

It's a story as old as humans. Slavery didn't begin in America and it still goes on today. The bodies of enslaved women have always been used by the men who owned them. I believe the legal dehumanization of black women and girls during and after American slavery laid the foundation for many of the stereotypical beliefs, buried in our psyches, about black female sexuality today. The propagandized imagery of black women as over sexualized jezebels was used, historically, to help rationalize the rape of powerless slaves. After the Civil War the rape of black women continued and was used as a weapon of terror and subjugation. American law and white control of the criminal justice system backed that up.

Wayne State University Professor Danielle L. McGuire writes in her powerful book, At The Dark End of the Street:

In the Segregated American south white men raped black women and girls with alarming regularity and stunning uniformity with some victims as young as 7. Women and girls who worked as domestics were most vulnerable.

McGuire includes in her book one woman's striking estimate that "three-quarters of the girls who worked as domestics in her area had been raped by white men."

In her research she found, "Between 1940 and 1965 only 10 Mississippi white men were convicted of raping black women and girls. Although rape was a capital offense in many Southern states, no white man was ever executed for raping a black woman."

It's a fact rarely spoken about by Civil Rights historians but before she helped spark the Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks was an anti-rape activist. The Civil Rights Movement, with strong grass roots leadership from women, was, in part, a continuation of the anti-rape and anti lynching movements.

Today, I realize that the erroneous narrative of the sexually permissive black woman has found its way into contemporary African-American music videos and hip hop culture. Some rap artists make millions and win awards for writing misogynistic lyrics that label black girls and women as bitches and hoes. I worry that too many young African-American women think of themselves in those terms.

It's no wonder then, that judicial and religious scholars at Brandeis University's Feminist Sexual Ethics Project conclude from their research that police, prosecutors and juries disbelieve black women who say they were raped more often than they disbelieve white women making the same claim. One Braindeis scholar Elizabeth Kennedy wrote, that "the legally irrelevant characteristic of victim race does matter, in ways that undercut the law's race-neutral protections for African American victims of rape."

That's why Nafissatou Diallo's story touches a raw nerve with me. Here's a woman who came to America from West Africa looking for refuge from genital mutilation and rape. She came here, as did millions of immigrants before her, because she believed in the promise that America offers equal protection under the law for everyone, rich or poor, black or white.

Diallo has told reporters that she came here believing she would be free and with hard work she could provide a better life for her daughter. What she didn't know was that in America the law still doesn't always protect black women, especially when they are poor, immigrants and the victims of sexual violence.

A lot of people seem to be looking for a reason to disbelieve that Nafissatou Diallo was raped. We're told that she exaggerated on her application for asylum, has relationships with shady characters, lied on her taxes and works not only as a hotel maid but also as a prostitute. The prostitution allegation would be highly damaging if admitted into evidence at trial which New York law does allow. Diallo denies the prostitution allegation and is suing the newspaper that made it.

Since sexual assaults rarely occur out in the open, blaming the victim and attacking her credibility has become an effective defense tactic used to marginalize women and silence their outcry. Nafissatou Diallo refuses to be silenced and her media interviews reveal a shattered spirit that I as a pastor, counselor and student of the human condition, have seen before. I've seen it, far too often, from women who confide in me as their pastor, the stories of sexual violence that, for all the reasons I've cited, they won't tell the police.

Media reports that say Diallo has never changed the story of her sexual assault seem correct to me. Medical evidence confirms a sexual encounter.

Meanwhile, the Manhattan District Attorney seems to be looking for reasons to drop the case against the powerful and wealthy Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in spite of an emerging pattern of allegations of similar attempts by him, against other women.

I'm sure D.A. Cyrus Vance knows all too well what the research shows... that convictions of white men for raping black women in America are extremely difficult to accomplish. Even with the best evidence, he could lose. As a fellow politician I understand how devastating a high profile loss can be.

What I want Mr. Vance and his team and all of America to understand is that this is a difficult case not only because of what happened three months ago but because of what occurred three centuries ago.

It will take courage for District Attorney Vance and his team to take on the rich and powerful Strauss-Khan in behalf of a poor black woman whose life reflects the kind of hard scrabble reality that the Mayflower, Ellis Island and the Middle Passage represent. It will take courage to go into court and try a case where the past is an unseen but ever present plaintiff. But change never happens except through the actions of courageous people. The whole world is watching, especially black women.

Bobby L. Rush is a Civil Rights Activist who has represented Illinois' First Congressional District for 18 years. He has a Master's Degree in Theology and Pastors The Beloved Community Christian Church in Chicago.

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