- Brittany Williams
Face the Music: R. Kelly, Young Black Victims, and Fair Access to the Criminal Justice System
Making a song with R. Kelly was a mistake. I did not value the accusers’ stories because they were black women. I made a mistake”. – Chance the Rapper
In 2008, recording artist Robert Kelly, also known as “R. Kelly” was acquitted of all twenty-one counts of child pornography. At the center of the trial was a video that included R. Kelly engaged in a sexual encounter with a minor, who was believed to be thirteen at the time the video surfaced. A decade after his trial, the key question lingers as to how R. Kelly, who filmed a sex tape of himself and a minor was able to escape all forms of prosecution. Additional questions include why sexual abuse was not raised during the initial trial and why did Chicago law enforcement not conduct an investigation in to kidnapping. In January of 2019, Lifetime released an explosive and telling six-part documentary series titled Surviving R. Kelly. The series shared the voices and stories of victims of his alleged predatory conduct, abuse, and child pornography. The voices of the victims had gone ignored over the course of two decades.
According to the docu-series and those of whom have shared their accounts of the interactions with the singer, a frightening pattern emerged, all of R. Kelly’s victims are Black girls. In addition to sharing the stories of those who had disappeared within the background of the singer’s reputation, the series highlighted a disturbing conclusion, our criminal justice system has fallen behind in finding and protecting black minors. A number of studies suggest biases that have become ingrained in the minds of judges across the nation and therefore impacting black girls and their right to justice within the legal realm.
“We suspect that when a judge looks
at a girl in front of them and is seeing
in their mind’s eye a mature person
who knew what they were doing, they
will be less likely to extend them the
hand of leniency…” –
Rebecca Epstein, Georgetown University
Per a report by the United States Department of Justice, Black girls, twelve years and older experience higher rates of rape and sexual assault in contrast to White, Asian, and Latinx girls. As a whole, Black females are disproportionately affected by sexual assault. Additionally, in kidnapping and missing children cases, Black children are not provided the same or sustained coverage in contrast to their white counterparts. Children of color are also accountable for approximately forty percent of the missing population. When black girls enter the American criminal justice system as victims, additional obstacles have been constructed and affect the way our legal system listens to black girls. When biases such as black girls are more sexually mature
and therefore a factor in their sexual assault make their way into the courtroom is incredibly dangerous. This can be particularly problematic in that in the eyes of a juror, black girls are considered more adult-like versus a presumed child-based innocence. Additionally, such a bias degrades black girls voices and can result in certain crimes, particularly sex-based crimes going unpunished. Furthermore, as a result of a bias, black girls are less likely than their white counterpart to report sexual assault in fear of not being believed. The critical failure on part of the criminal justice system to acknowledge and accept a black girl’s innocence is detrimental to a black girl’s right to seek justice against an abuser.
Overall, Surviving R. Kelly highlights that this default skepticism surrounding the black female voice is hindering a large population from fair access and protection within the criminal justice system by silencing them with biases that must be evaluated to ensure that the criminal justice system is not only accessible by everyone, but also to protect those who are the most vulnerable within society. It is also critical that the criminal justice system believe survivors.