HBCUs face even more complicated issues when dealing with campus sexual violence than the average higher education institution
As at any other college or university, sexual violence is also pervasive on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). However, unlike at other institutions, for HBCUs, this problem is compounded by barriers that are unique to survivors of color and to survivors on predominantly black campuses. The experience of non-white survivors is rarely talked about, and The media rarely covers the experiences of non-white survivors in general, and in talking about the issue of campus sexual assault at large, it neglects to draw attention to these issues at HBCUs along with the many hardships that student survivors of color face as a result.
Most studies of sexual violence on college campuses leave out students from HBCUs from the studied sample. There are even fewer studies focused specifically on sexual violence at HBCUs as a unique population. According to a study from the National Institute of Justice (NJI), this lack of research has resulted in “a substantial gap in the literature and knowledge base about the magnitude of the problem, what is being done to reduce the problem, and what more can be done to prevent sexual violence and meet the needs of victims of sexual assault on HBCU campuses.”
Lack of reporting is just as much of an issue on HBCU campuses as it is on other college campuses. Based on a 2003 Department of Justice study on reporting crime to police, for every one black woman who reports her rape, at least fifteen other black women do not report theirs. Meanwhile, only seven percent of women on HBCU campuses reported their assaults to the police, compared to twenty percent of women at colleges in general, according to the aforementioned study by NJI. The same study revealed that fourteen percent of rape survivors at HBCUs who were physically forced or threatened with the use of physical force and seven percent of those who were too incapacitated to consent said they did not believe the police would think the incident was “serious enough.” The report also found that nearly twenty percent of rape survivors at HBCUs who were physically forced and fifteen percent of those who were incapacitated said they did not report the crime because they did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble.
However, the motivation for not reporting to police may be different. According to the Washington Coalition for Sexual Assault Programs, a variety of other factors prevent many survivors of color, both on- and off-campus, from reporting the violence they experience, including “inequalities, from historical to contemporary racial discrimination, and other variables [that] contribute to a distrust of formal systems in spite [of] the need for assistance.” One such variable is the long history of police mistreatment of black individuals and over-policing of black communities. Black women also face numerous racial stereotypes, including the widespread belief that they are sexually promiscuous and therefore “always consenting” and incapable of being assaulted. Harmful stereotypes like this and the multiple levels of oppression that black women face have led to a widespread belief that any reports of sexual violence will be minimized, ignored, or even used to worsen the situation.
The first major news coverage of sexual violence on HBCU campuses in recent history came in 1996 when a student from Spelman College, a women’s HBCU, reported being gang-raped by four students from Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU. While this sparked discussion at Morehouse about sexual violence, widespread support for the accused men greatly overshadowed any productive conversations. The administration refused to support the survivor and instead announced in a handout that it was considering providing a defense fund for the four men, while the dean of the campus chapel at the time engaged in victim-blaming rhetoric.
A decade later, in 2006, two students from Spelman individually reported that they had been raped by students from Morehouse. In response to these allegations, Spelman students organized a walkout, march, and protests. The Student Government Association at Morehouse issued a statement, denouncing the protests and demanding an apology from the Spelman students who participated for “disturbing their intellectual atmosphere.”
The most recent stream of news coverage about the issue of sexual violence at HBCUs largely began in the spring semester of 2013 when one Spelman student accused three members of the Morehouse basketball team of gang rape, while a separate Spelman student accused a Morehouse football player of raping her. The response from those within the AUC and beyond was “‘very hostile, very violent,’” and with the increasing widespread usage of social media, people “quickly took to Twitter to air their opinions, with many rushing to defend the men.”
In 2015, the Department of Education announced investigations into both Morehouse and Spelman for potential Title IX violations. Following this, Morehouse announced in 2016 that the school was overhauling its sexual assault policy and Title IX enforcement program.
These recent news stories provide only a rudimentary look into the problems, both institutionally and culturally, that HBCUs and their students face when dealing with campus sexual violence. According to Inside Higher Ed, activists and experts say that HBCUs “have notoriously been slow to respond to sexual misconduct” and thereby failed survivors of color. While a lack of funding and other resources presents challenges to many higher-education institutions when trying to address sexual and relationship violence on their campuses, these problems tend to affect HBCUs the most. Over the past few decades, HBCUs have faced “unequal government funding, declining enrollment, and poor leadership,” according to Peter Jacobs of Business Insider. This crisis results in insufficient resources for various needs, including the investigation of sexual assault reports and addressing the issue of campus sexual violence overall.
Resource shortages also affect HBCUs’ required Title IX offices. Lack of personnel in these offices tends to result in prolonged, inefficient investigations that diminish students’ trust in their institutions. Additionally, Title IX staff frequently lack training that could make investigations faster, fairer, and less frustrating for all involved. According to Dr. Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard University School of Law, “victims services” centers or units are “unheard of” in HBCU spaces. Even when these spaces are available on campus, lack of funding can lessen effectiveness “as staff often performs multiple roles and responsibilities.” Without adequate staffing for these resources, HBCUs cannot sufficiently address campus sexual violence school-wide or in a one-on-one setting with student survivors.
Survivors of color, especially black women, “encounter campus sexual assault from a perspective based on the many unique obstacles they face.” One of the greatest challenges stems from the expectation that members of the black community must always protect each other from issues such as rampant racism, mass incarceration, and the expectation that the students at HBCUs represent the best of the best in the black community, which makes them even more worthy of protection. These expectations, as well as the “culture of unity and belonging at HBCUs can make it hard for students to report experiences of sexual misconduct at their schools.” According to Kirsten West Savali, a Clark alumna, “Wherever there is masculinity, privilege and power—and a perceived responsibility to protect all three—there will be rape.” The sense of unity and family on HBCU campuses also makes reporting especially difficult.
In order to properly and effectively address sexual violence on HBCU campuses, there first needs to be additional research, both involving and focused solely on students at HBCUs. It is nearly impossible to correct a problem if the pertinent facts related to the problem are not fully known. Once there is a better understanding about the details of this issue, administrators at HBCUs can better formulate a plan for addressing it so that students feel more comfortable reporting their experiences to administrators. Survivors of color also face an understandable distrust of law enforcement based on their historical treatment, which means that Title IX offices, campus police, and local police must go above and beyond to build students’ trust and faith in these institutions. Finally, the media must publish stories about sexual violence at HBCUs. Bringing more attention to the issue of sexual violence on HBCUs and the unique challenges black survivors face is crucial to acknowledging systemic oppression and its effect on the reporting and handling of sexual violence on campuses. Survivors of color have every right to feel safe on campuses, which is why the unique challenges faced by survivors of sexual violence at HBCUs must become an important topic of discussion and not left behind in the #metoo conversation.
SurvJustice is committed to making the anti-sexual violence movement a safe and intersectional space which is inclusive of those who have been historically marginalized and aware of ongoing systemic dynamics of privilege and power. We encourage survivors of color to consider getting involved or applying for one of our organizational positions.
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