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R. Kelly Case Reveals a Disturbing Truth

When victims are Black women and girls, justice often comes late or not at all
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 28, 2021 8:52 AM CDT
R. Kelly Case Reveals a Disturbing Truth
R. Kelly leaves the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago on June 6, 2019.   (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky, File)

(Newser) – In the wake of R. Kelly's conviction as a sexual predator, one question is common in the assessments: What took so long? Accusations first surfaced decades ago, and somehow Robert Sylvester Kelly kept going. At the New Yorker, Jim DeRogatis (whose reporting helped break the case) suggests the answer involves an uncomfortable truth: Of all the prosecutions in the #MeToo era, this is the first "on behalf of victims who are primarily women of color." More:

  • 'Who cared?' DeRogatis begins his piece by noting that a woman named Tiffany Hawkins of Chicago went to the Illinois State's Attorney Office 25 years ago and told them Kelly sexually abused her as a minor. Hawkins herself summed up the reaction when speaking to DeRogatis in 2019: "I was a young Black girl," she says. "Who cared?"

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  • Not hopeful: Treva B. Lindsey remembers first hearing about a sex tape with R. Kelly and a Black teenage girl back in 2001. Bootleg versions circulated, but the girl was viewed more as a punchline than a rape victim. "I do not wish to minimize the significance of this moment," Lindsey writes at CNN, referring to Monday's verdict. "And yet, the fact that it took this much effort and dozens of allegations—many of which eerily mirrored each other—gives me little hope that this trial and conviction will significantly change how we as a society treat Black girls and women who are sexually violated." The case could be a "galvanizing moment," but only if that change happens.

  • The victims: At Forbes, Maia Niguel Hoskin explores the same problem, citing stats showing that 60% of Black girls are sexually assaulted before age 18 and about half of all sex-trafficking victims in the US are Black girls. "Perhaps, because Black women and girls are a member of two marginalized groups, sexual predators know that there is a good chance that their abuse will go unnoticed and that their accusations will more than likely not be taken seriously," Hoskin writes. "Similar to how decades of allegations against R. Kelly were overlooked and silenced."
  • Perceptions: An AP story by Deepti Hajeli notes that it's hard enough for anyone to speak out publicly about sexual abuse allegations. "Those who work in the field say the hurdles facing Black women and girls are raised even higher by a society that hypersexualizes them from a young age, stereotyping them as promiscuous and judging their physiques, and in a country with a history of racism and sexism that has long denied their autonomy over their own bodies." A study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality in 2017 shows that adults perceived Black girls as more adult than white girls their same age, needing less protection and being more knowledgeable about sex.
  • Perceptions, II: “No one allows us to be something worthy of protection," says Kalimah Johnson of the SASHA Center in Detroit, which helps survivors of sexual assault. The perception is that "there’s nothing sacred about a Black woman’s body."
  • Blinded by celebrity: At the Daily Beast, Ernest Owens focuses more on Kelly's celebrity status than race. He calls out fellow entertainers such as Dave Chappelle who helped foster the perception of Kelly as a "dirty uncle" rather than a predator after accusations of child pornography arose in the early 2000s. Kelly was eventually acquitted, but stars including Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Usher, and Lady Gaga collaborated with him in the interim. "If any good can come out of these last 20 years, it would be a renewed commitment to treat claims of sexual abuse and misconduct against popular entertainers and other public figures with the seriousness they deserve—and not let those accused expand their fan bases without being held to account."
(Read more R. Kelly stories.)

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