BLACK VOICES
01/21/2016 05:09 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2017

What Daniel Holtzclaw's 263-Year Prison Sentence Means For Black Women

Black women's lives matter.
Holtzclaw at his sentencing on January 21, 2016. 
POOL New / Reuters
Holtzclaw at his sentencing on January 21, 2016. 

Daniel Holtzclaw has been sentenced to 263 years in prison for the rape and sexual assault of 13 women while he was an officer with the Oklahoma City Police Department. He has been sentenced to 263 years. Of course, this sentence should have been a given, but in a judicial system where justice for black victims often seems like a sheer impossibility, it feels like a minor miracle. 

In moments like these, I keep coming back to this 2013 quote from journalist Jim DeRogatis in an interview with The Village Voice: "The saddest fact I've learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody." It's almost painful how perfectly it encapsulates part of what it means to be a black woman. Yes, DeRogatis was referring to singer R. Kelly's alleged history of sexually abusing underaged black girls without consequence -- but it's a sentiment that, sadly, can be applied to so many other instances.

It can be applied to Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, and the countless other black women who have died in police custody and will likely never receive justice. It can be applied to the 15-year-old girl restrained by Officer Eric Casebolt at a McKinney, Texas pool party last summer. Or 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock, beaten and punched repeatedly by a California highway patrolman in 2014. Or the teen girl body-slammed by a school officer at Spring Valley High in October. 

And it can certainly be applied to the 13 black women who Holtzclaw stalked, manipulated and assaulted while purporting to be a public servant. His ability to commit his crimes over and over again is a testament to rape culture and the way society, on the whole, feels about black women. Holtzclaw sought out victims who were predominantly black, poor and had criminal histories. With purposeful calculation, he targeted them because he presumed that they would feel powerless in seeking out justice against a police officer. But he also targeted them because he knew these were women that nobody cared about. 

Indeed, many of the women who testified against him in court Thursday (including a young women who was just 17 years old when he raped her on her mother's front porch), only stepped forward after detectives personally reached out to them during an investigation. Like too many black female victims of sexual violence, they were convinced that their trauma was theirs to bear alone. They were convinced that the justice system was not designed for people like them. 

And yet, an all-white jury has decided that Holtzclaw will have to answer for his actions. This sentencing, of course, doesn't actually change anything. It doesn't change the fact that poor black women are still victims of abuse, that they are largely neglected and ignored. But the sentencing is still, one small, good thing. It's a step forward. Its impact on justice for black women in the courtroom remains to be seen. 

But its impact on further establishing the worthiness and significance of black life, of black women's lives in particular, is monumental. What this tells black women who face abuse is that they have the right to come forward, if they choose to. It tells those who brutalize black women that our silence shouldn't be assumed.

It reminds us all that like black women matter. 

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