2. Others


Whether she is plaintiff, defendant, or witness, the African American woman in the courtroom faces numerous obstacles to being considered a believable, reasonable person. Because she is so far removed from the mythical norm, her very existence is deviant. Not surprisingly, African American women's courtroom credibility issues have not gone unnoticed by scholars. Documented juror and judicial attitudes concerning the veracity of African American women reveal that certain stereotypes are persistent, and these extra-legal factors inhibit not only the African American female victim at trial, but African American women in all walks of life. In her book Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, Gerda Lerner described a judge's remarks in a 1912 case. Upon hearing an account of sexual assault on a Black woman by her white employer, the judge declared "[t]his court will never take the word of a nigger against the word of a white man." Almost sixty years later in United States v. McKendrick, an African American man was on trial for assault and robbery. The defendant was identified by several witnesses, one of whom was a thirteen-year-old African American girl. In his closing remarks, the prosecutor discussed the maturity of other African American girls in the community, namely, a fifteen-year-old who had one child and another one on the way. The prosecutor implied in his remarks that all African American girls in that neighborhood knew and were sexually involved with all African American boys. The prosecutor went on to say that this thirteen-year-old knew "the young bucks in that neighborhood and she knew Terry Cox [the codefendant]." Therefore, the thirteen-year-old witness should be considered credible (in this case), because she should be able to correctly identify the defendant, who was also African American. The court found that this statement was prejudicial. Even the dissenting judge found that the prosecutor utilized untrue stereotypes, such as "all black girls are sexually promiscuous."


Four years later in People v. Richardson, an African American man's testimony and a white man's testimony were at odds. The prosecutor made the following assertion in his closing: "We [whites] abide by the law--they [African Americans] do not. That is the difference. . . . [T] hey don't live in the same social structure that we do, that you and I do. . . . [They would lie] if one of their own is being prosecuted by white society." The prosecutor further asserted that the white witness was telling the truth because he had


had intercourse with a black woman. That [was] embarrassing. It is so embarrasing (sic)[;] it is reasonable to believe the rest of [his] story is true. When a man comes up and says "yes, I had intercourse with a black" [he] wouldn't (sic) lie about anything else. . . . [H]e wouldn't admit having intercourse with a black woman. The court found that the prosecutor's entire closing argument was an appeal to prejudice, and it therefore found reversible error. It is telling, however, that in these cases the prosecutors perceived their arguments as appropriate. In our criminal justice system, the prosecutor generally has broad discretion as to prosecution, settlement and the prosecution's witnesses, all in the name of "we the people." Although these examples are twentyyears old, to assume that these stereotypes no longer exist seems naive. Biases of all kinds persist even when it becomes politically incorrect to voice them.


Jurors as well as judges and prosecutors display negative stereotypes regarding African American women in litigation contexts. Professor Linda Ammons, in her path-breaking work on stereotypes of African American women, introduces readers of legal materials to the rich social science literature compiled by researcher Gary LaFree. LaFree states, "perhaps jurors were influenced by stereotypes of Black women . . . ." LaFree cites other examples of alleged rapes of African American women, discounted because of the accuser's race. He quotes one juror who stated, "'[n]egroes have a way of not telling the truth. They've a knack for coloring the story. So you know you can't believe everything they say."'


As noted earlier, courtroom credibility issues impact African American women as rape victims. Because of society's image of African American women as highly sexual beings, there is a lingering myth that they cannot really be raped. This phenomenon is due to the idea that "chastity was thought to bear on the woman's general character, and, hence, on her credibility. A woman's propensity for falsehood was assumed to increase proportionately to her sexual experience. . . ." The concept of chastity has never been race-neutral; stereotypes suggest that African American women could not possess chastity.


When Professor Susan Estrich revealed certain aspects of her rape, she stated, "[w]hen I tell my story, no one doubts my status as a victim." She made this observation in the context of a white woman being raped by an African American man. She also noted that, "[h]is being black . . . probably makes my account more believable to some people. . . ."


In a 1974 article on a study that looked at the attitudes toward rape victims of thirty-eight judges in Philadelphia, the author discloses that several judges admitted that they equated the category of "vindictive women" with females of the Black ghetto. One judge actually stated "[w]ith the Negro community, you really have to redefine the term rape. You never know about them." How many of those judges remain on the bench? How many of those who remain became enlightened in the ensuing years and changed their attitudes?


The public disbelief of Anita Hill, though undoubtedly the most public of the instances, and because of that, probably the most egregious example of this phenomenon, is not an isolated incident. Numerous very public examples of contemporary African American women deemed incredible in their claims of abuse come to mind. Joanne Little, the then twenty-year-old North Carolinian who killed her jailer when he tried to rape her, would have remained invisible had the Southern Poverty Law Center not come to her defense. Young Tawana Brawley, accused of defiling or participating in the defilement of herself, was condemned as the perpetrator of an enormous and hideous lie. Desiree Washington, the demure beauty queen, was denounced as a Jezebel for entrapping Mike Tyson and as a Sapphire for trying to bring him down.