Cyntoia Brown and the sickening criminalization of Black Women
Why does justice more often than not come up short for Black folks?
From the police, to the prosecutors, the jury to the judge, the criminal justice system in America continues to oppress Black and brown people at a disproportionate number in comparison to our white counterparts. Justice has seemingly come up short for Black folks as the institutional racism that drives our system of mass incarceration continues to destroy the Black family.
Last week, social media galvanized around the story of Cyntoia Brown, another young Black person is dealt an unfair hand in an unjust system. Despite a long history of being repeatedly raped and abused as a victim of sex trafficking, Brown’s heroic attempt to escape her existence as a sex slave, Brown landed her a life sentence in prison.
At 16, Cyntoia Brown was picked up by Johnny Mitchell Allen, a “43-year-old Nashville real estate agent” who solicited her for sex. According to Essence.com, “They drove to his home, went into his bed and soon after, Brown shot him in the back of the head with a .40-caliber handgun as he lay naked beside her.” Brown was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole at the age of 67.
Brown’s story has now resurfaced, with celebs from Rihanna to Kim Kardashian weighing in to raise awareness, and offer services of lawyers as they urge the Tennessee state governor to give Brown a new trial.
Brown’s story was first chronicled in a documentary on PBS released in 2011 by producer and director, Daniel Birman. The documentary “details how Brown came from a family with a long history of sexual and physical abuse toward women, and how she was forced into prostitution by a man she was living with named Kutthroat.” According to Birman, “We started the conversation, this is a young girl who’s at the tail end of three generations of violence against women. She had no chance.”
The sentiment of having “no chance” in this justice system is a common one shared by Black women who resist their abusers. The story of Marissa Alexander also comes to mind as another example of the criminal justice system perceiving Black women who are victims as violent offenders. After being subjected to years of domestic violence, Alexander fired a single warning shot at her abuser, never making contact with his body. She was later charged and convicted for aggravated assault, and was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison before she was eventually released on a plea deal in 2015.
Alexander’s case is one that typified just how the law provides unequal application of the law for African-Americans, particularly Black women.Black women are also marginalized in the court of public opinion, as is evidenced by the disparity in treatment they have received in this recent spate of sexual harassment outings in the entertainment and political arenas. Black women who share their stories are being met with disbelief while white women are being elevated into sainthood.
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, multiple white women accused him of sexual harassment and abuse over his extensive career in Hollywood. Actress and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o joined the list, chronicling her story of abuse in effort to tell her story. Of all the accusers, Nyong’o’s is the one account that was disputed by Weinstein. As if this were not enough, Girls actress, Aurora Perrineau, was also met with doubt when she detailed her alleged sexual abuse at the hands of the shows’ Executive Producer, Murray Miller, accusing him of assaulting her when she was only 17. In an immediate response, Girls’ showrunner and star, Lena Dunham, a self-proclaimed feminist, wrote a response defending Miller and attempting to discredit Perrineau.
The violence against Black women is systemic. According to the CDC, “Black women are killed at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people, and indigenous women at a rate of 4.3 per 100,000; every other race has a homicide rate of between one and two per 100,000.” In terms of sexual assault, nearly 40 percent of Black women report they have had an experience by the age of 18; for every Black woman who reports a rape, 15 don’t report theirs. Therefore, there are thousands of Black women whose abuse goes unreported and unpunished.
Cyntoia Brown’s story is that of every Black woman who has been treated unjustly because of the intersection of their race and gender. We, as a community, must begin to support and uplift Black women who are victims of a system that continues to marginalize their voices while criminalizing their resistance. Or we are no better than the oppressor who continues to silence us all.
George M. Johnson is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.