Target Practice: Victim Blaming and the Cross-Sections of Race and Gender

By: Tierra M. Ragland

Victim blaming is a devaluing act that occurs when the victim of a crime is held responsible in whole or in part for the crime committed against them. Victim blaming can occur in the form of negative social responses from the media, society, legal professionals, medical professionals, and immediate family members. Some victims of crime receive more sympathy from society than others. Often, the responses toward victims of crime are based on negative societal stereotypes. These responses may lead others to believe that the victims deserved what happened to them.

Victim blaming can happen to anyone, but it overwhelmingly affects victims of rape, indigent populations, and victims of domestic violence. When victims are African-American, they may also become the subject of victim blaming.  Victim blaming can occur from media coverage that focuses on a victim’s unrelated or alleged criminal past, the physical attributes of the victim, how the victim was dressed, and any actions they may have taken that led them to becoming a victim. Victim blaming is problematic for a variety of reasons. Societal tendencies to victim blame encourage crimes to go unreported. Often, victims of crimes do not get adequate assistance and the accused go unprosecuted, leading them to get away with the crime they committed.

Domestic Violence

Recently, National Football League “NFL” running back Ray Rice was suspended from the NFL for domestic abuse against his then fiancé, now wife, Janay Rice. TMZ released surveillance footage of the incident, which sparked a media frenzy. Social debate soon followed with conversations surrounding the actions of the victim.  Conversations in the media speculate as to why she married him, what she did for him to hit her, and how and why she would defend him. This example of victim blaming is problematic because it places all of the blame on a victim of domestic violence and attempts to justify the actions of the alleged abuser. High profile victim blaming such as this can lead to future incidents of domestic violence not being reported, and potential cycles of violence to continue.

Rape

Last year the Steubenville Rape investigation was a constant fixture in the news media.  A 16-year old girl was raped at a party by two local high school football stars. After the rape, pictures of the victim being violated were sent throughout the high school and social media. During the trial of the two young men, the focus of many local and national new broadcast consisted of victim blaming. There were questions surrounding what the victim was wearing, whether she was drinking, and how the accusation would affect the promising football careers of the young men.  Instances of victim blaming such as this contribute to rape culture, which focuses heavily on policing the actions of victims and not the actions of predators.  Even after the boys were convicted of rape, the community, her peers, and the news media harassed the victim and her family.

Earlier this year, one of the rapists was released from detention and returned to playing on his high school football team. Upon his release, there was a press release about how this incident has affected him and his family but there was no apology to the victim. When the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate, what message does it send to the victim when her convicted rapist serves less than a year in juvenile detention and gets to pick up his life right where he left off? A victim has to spend the rest of her life with the reality of public humiliation through pictures on social media, harassment by the community, and blame for ruining the promising future of her rapist.

Race

In a country that has a history of discrimination, brutality, racism, and systematic oppression against African-Americans, Blacks are often blamed for the crimes committed against them under the guise that race no longer matters in “post-racial America.” This becomes problematic because the United States is far from, if ever, being post-racial. We, as a country, have not effectively dealt with the consequences and vestiges left behind from slavery, segregation, and disenfranchisement. Our history of systemic oppression makes the cross-section between race and victim blaming a tense and complicated issue.

In February 2012, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.  During the media coverage of Zimmerman’s trial, the focus quickly turned to race. The media coverage focused on the physical size of Martin, his alleged prior drug use, and whether a black hoodie is or is not suspicious. This type of victim blaming is problematic because it suggests that if you look a certain way, dress a certain way, or have participated in certain activities, murder is justifiable. This instance of victim blaming is also interesting because much of the focus was on the actions of the victim and very little focus was on his age: Martin was still considered a child in the eyes of society and the law.  Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of all charges.

In August 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American man, was shot six times, including twice in the head, by Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.  The shooting occurred during an encounter with Wilson, while Brown and a friend were walking down the street. This shooting sparked protest in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri, and received national media coverage. While the topic of the media coverage did focus on the “trend” of shooting deaths surrounding unarmed black men, elements of victim blaming still occurred. Media coverage and police statements made it seem as if Brown may have been involved in the theft of a cigar from a convenient store earlier that day, and accusations were made that Brown’s physical size may have intimidated the officer.  There were additional comments by the community and media that Brown was starting college soon, therefore his death was more tragic, suggesting that being shot while unarmed and surrendering is not tragic enough. Victim blaming as related to this incident is problematic because it devalues the life of the victim, and focuses on the actions of the victim, suggesting that his or her death or injury could have been preventable if only he had acted differently.

Protests surrounding Brown’s shooting also received media attention. The protestors were described as rioters and met with Ferguson police equipped in military gear. The protestors were gassed, harassed, and categorized in the media according to the actions of only a small number of looters.  Protest and civil unrest is still continuing in Ferguson. Darren Wilson has not been charged for the shooting of Michael Brown.

The above instances are a just few examples of victim blaming and the damaging effects that it can have on recovery and justice for the victim.  Racial aspects of both of the young men’s victim blaming consists of the physical size of black man, which is seen as intimidating, and their actions as criminal even when they have not been convicted. Many more victims of domestic violence, victims of rape, and unarmed black men have been the subject of victim blaming by the media and society.  Since the shooting of Michael Brown, thirteen African-Americans have been fatally shot by police. An entire book could be written on the subject.

The media and society have not only constructed socially acceptable victims but also socially acceptable alleged perpetrators of crimes and other forms for wrongdoing.

In comparison to the protest in Ferguson, similar protests have been categorized sympathetically by the media. For example, after the firing of long-time coach Joe Paterno by Penn State, thousands of students stormed the campus to express their outrage. Students gathered in the streets, overturned a media news van, tore down lampposts, and threw rocks and fireworks at police. The police responded with pepper spray. At no time were the protestors met with tear gas or police in military gear. In the media, the students were described as hurt by the firing of their beloved coach.  The media described demonstrators as “filing down into the streets.” The media expressed empathy and understanding as to why the students were outraged. Comparing this to the protesting in Ferguson where the protestors were arrested and met with tear gas and police in military gear, it begs the question of why such a vast difference in media coverage exists when, at the core, both protestors were expressing their outrage using their first amendment rights.

In July 2012, James Holmes opened fire into a crowded movie theater killing twelve people and injuring fifty-eight.  The media coverage surrounding the shooting described Holmes as mentally ill and a disturbed young man. In contrast, Martin and Brown, the victims of shootings, were described in the media negatively to justify the crimes against them, whereas Holmes is accused of committing the deadliest shooting since the Columbine school shootings and his actions are described as the result of mental health issues.

In a society ruled by social perceptions, victim blaming can be used as a tool to describe victims as worthy and unworthy. When this occurs, real social issues based in race and gender get lost in the conversation. There is little to no solution on how to effectively address these issues. However, the first step to end victim blaming is to allow victims to be victims and not condemn them in media

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