Race, Health Care and the Law 
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The Plight of Black Battered Women

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 Linda L. Ammons,

excerpted From:  Babies, Bath Water, Racial Imagery And Stereotypes: The African -American Woman And The Battered Woman Syndrome , 1995 Wisconsin Law Review 1003-1080, 1017-1030 (1995) (275 Footnotes omitted)


"She is a Negro; look at her skin; if she is not a Negro, I don't want you to convict her."


Women in America are violated by their current or former partners at such an alarming rate that domestic violence is considered epidemic. Annually, women, as compared to men, experience over ten times as many incidents of violence by an intimate. According to the National Institute of Health, in the mid-1980s homicide was the leading cause of death among African-Americans. Some studies indicate that black women rank second in the frequency of arrests for murder. The typical victim of a black female who kills is a black male with whom she had a relationship.

Until recently, the public, criminal justice agencies, and the courts have ignored the plight of the battered woman. Battered women are not believed either because society has historically been in denial about the terrorism that occurs in the home, or because abused women who do not leave their partners are thought to be lying about the seriousness of the abuse they suffered. Black women face similar hurdles, but additionally they must overcome the presumption that their race predisposes them to engage in and enjoy violence. "(P)olice trainees are frequently told that physical violence is an acceptable part of life among .ghetto residents."' In other words, blacks are "normal primitives," or violence-prone. African-American women who are battered face unique challenges in getting relief and support. For example, when black women are treated for domestic violence related injuries in inner-city hospitals, protocols for wife beating are "rarely introduced or followed." Trusting health-care providers with their stories of abuse is difficult because black women have often felt that systems do not have their best interests at heart. However, when the provider is sensitive to their needs they will reveal their stories of abuse. Julie Blackman, a psychologist, illustrated how the mental health system deals with black and white women in abusive relationships by contrasting the Hedda Nussbaum-Joel Steinberg case with that of Frances and Herman McMillian. Nussbaum was the battered lover of Steinberg. Lisa, Steinberg's daughter, was also abused. When Lisa was killed in a battering episode, Nussbaum turned state's evidence against her lover. Steinberg was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree, and sentenced to a maximum term of eight and one-third to twenty-five years. Nussbaum was never charged and was given the psychiatric and social services support she needed.

On the other hand, Frances McMillian, a poor black woman who was arrested for endangering the welfare of her children, was denied treatment by the same facilities. McMillian and her nine children lived in a two-room apartment in the Bronx with an abusive husband and father, Herman McMillian. The family was discovered because of a fire. When Blackman attempted to get Mrs. McMillian admitted to the treatment facilities that had treated Nussbaum, they would not accept her. Blackman says:

I tried repeatedly to reach the psychiatrist who had been most directly involved in Hedda's treatment. Hedda's lawyer encouraged him to take Frances and reminded him that he ought not exclude Frances just because she was Black. I never did speak to Hedda's psychiatrist about Frances, but his treatment facility decided to reject her anyway.

The district attorney took nine misdemeanor counts to a grand jury even though he was "sympathetic to her condition." McMillian was indicted.

Battered African-American women are also particularly vulnerable because of the lack or the underutilization of resources. For example, African-American women hesitate to seek help from shelters because they believe that shelters are for white women. Because the shelters are associated with the women's movement, and many black women are estranged from women's politics, they may feel that only white women's interests are served in the shelters. African-American women are not totally mistaken in this assumption. A study of the shelter movement in America led a researcher to conclude that black women are ignored in the policymaking, planning and implementation of shelter services. The lack of community outreach in black neighborhoods by the shelters also contributes to the perception that the safe havens are not for women of color. Finally, black women have found the shelter environment inhospitable to their cultural differences.

When leaving shelters, black women are more likely to need health care, material goods and help with their children. A National Institute of Health funded study of sixty battered African-American women over an eight month period found that black women remained in shelters for a significantly longer time than their white counterparts before they could get the necessary resources to start over. Racism also affected the ability of some black women to leave. For example, African-American women would be quoted an apartment rental price over the phone, only to have that price raised when the landlord met the women. White social service personnel would sometimes patronize, ignore or exhibit hostility toward black women.

African-American women depend on informal networks and seek support through prayer, personal spirituality, and the clergy. The African-American church is a traditional source of strength. Pastors (typically male), are a central authority figure in many black communities. However, misinformed ministers may overemphasize the value placed on suffering as a test from God. Further, some clergy have misconstrued biblical principles of love, forgiveness and submission to reinforce sexism and subordination which can be used to justify abuse. Black female parishioners are often told from the pulpit to protect the black male because he is an endangered species.

The inconsistency of police intervention and the lack of other community resources, including hospitals, contribute to the acuteness of violence in African-American neighborhoods. Black women may have to resort to more extreme violence to resolve a battering situation because the police are not interested. African-American women have no historical basis for believing that the world is just and fair and therefore traditional institutions are viewed with great skepticism. Professionals who work with black, battered women provide a unique perspective on how race affects the issue. Kenyari Bellfield, a shelter worker, describes the predicament of battered African-American women:

(A)long with the actual experience of psychological and physical abuse, women of color suffer from the complex phenomenon of racism. The translation of racial oppression to women of color who are battered stems from the basic assumption that people of color are inherently more violent. For a woman of color who is battered, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and low self- esteem are the result. The effects of racism and sexism seem too great to tackle in the face of having been victimized by a loved one. The very system which has historically served to subjugate and oppress her is the only system which can save her from the immediate abusive situation.

Cooperating with authorities in prosecuting her abuser could result in community abandonment or scorn because of the perception that black men are selectively penalized. Further, black battered women may connect the physical abuse with racism. Some feel that they become the object of their partner's rage triggered by the persistent maltreatment of black males by the greater society, and therefore the abuser is less culpable. Novelist Alice Walker describes the motivation and rationalization of an abusive male character in her work, The Third Life of Grange Copeland:

His crushed pride, his battered ego, made him drive Mem away from school teaching . . . .It was his rage at himself, and his life and his world that made him beat her for an imaginary attraction she aroused in other men, crackers, although she was not a party to any of it. His rage and his anger and his frustration ruled. His rage could and did blame everything, everything on her.

The loyalty trap affects the ability of black women to seek protection and effective counseling. For example, African-American women do not feel comfortable discussing their problems in integrated settings. The fear is that disclosure in some way may hurt the community. Therefore the prohibition against airing dirty laundry becomes more important than healing. Emma Jordan Coleman describes the dilemma abused black women face as a "Hobbesian choice between claiming individual protection as a member of her gender and race or contributing to the collective stigma upon her race if she decides to report the . . . misdeeds of a black man to white authority figures."

The justice system has not rushed to protect black women who have been beaten. Analogies to rape and other gender discriminatory practices illustrate how black female victimization has been and remains unimportant. White men have had carte blanche access to all women. Heinous crimes have been committed in the name of protecting white womanhood. Interracial sexual or physical assault (e.g., minority male/white female) still produces outrage that is not comparable to any other kind of inter- or intra racial adult abuse. For example, the same week that the highly-publicized rape of the affluent, white Central Park jogger by several Hispanic and black males took place, twenty-eight other first-degree rapes or attempted rapes took place in New York City. Donald Trump purchased full-page ads in the New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post, and New York Newsday to denounce the men who had committed the violent acts. Trump spent $85,000 for the advertisements. In response to Trump, black clergy published their own ad, stating that Trump was trying to divide the city into two camps with a thinly veiled polemic. Another article reported that two weeks after the Central Park incident, a thirty- eight year old black woman was forced off a Brooklyn street at knife- point by two men, taken to a rooftop, raped, beaten, and thrown fifty feet to the ground. The woman sustained abdominal injuries, two broken ankles, and a fractured right leg. This attack did not receive the national notice of the Central Park jogger case and there was no ad from Donald Trump. Three men went to prison for the crime.

Assumptions about sexual stratification explain why reactions to sexual assault differ. Criminologist Anthony Walsh provides the following analysis:

1. Women are viewed as the valued and scarce property of the men of their own race.

2. White women, by virtue of membership in the dominant race, are more valuable than black women.

3. The sexual assault of a white by a black threatens both the white man's "property rights" and his dominant social position. This dual threat accounts for the strength of the taboo attached to inter-racial sexual assault.

4. A sexual assault by a male of any race upon members of the less valued black race is perceived as nonthreatening to the status quo, and therefore less serious.

5. White men predominate as agents of social control. Therefore they have the power to sanction differently according to the perceived threat to their favored social position.

In other words, black women's bodies are not as valuable as their white female counterparts. . . .

Related Pages:
Home ] Up ] Domestic Violence Victims and Insurance Companies ] Mapping a Global Pandemic: Sexual Violence Against Women ] Mandatory Arrest for Domestic Violence: A Universial Solution? ] [ The Plight of Black Battered Women ] Domestic Violence in Indian Country ] Domestic Violence and Child Abuse ] The Effect of Racism on Domestic Violence Resources ]
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Professor Vernellia R. Randall
Institute on Race, Health Care and the Law
The University of Dayton School of Law
300 College Park 
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Email: randall@udayton.edu


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