Sorry Mrs. Rice, We Just Don’t Care: Hypocrisy and Domestic Violence

Sorry Mrs. Rice, We Just Don’t Care: Hypocrisy and Domestic Violence September 23, 2014

janayDear Mrs. Rice:

I thought I would write to tell you how sorry I am for your troubles. I am not even sure if “troubles” really sums up where you are right now in your life’s journey. Compounding the horror of being knocked out and dragged about like a piece of trash by a man who says he loves you is the fact that the act is forever documented by the wonders of technology for your children, friends, family, and total strangers to see. The restraint it must take to remain silent as pundits, TV shows, sportscasters, coaches, and the Facebook intelligentsia debate your culpability, naiveté, state of mind, or emotional state is unimaginable.

But what could you say in the face of that tape and the reality that you married Ray in spite of the incident? Gold-digger? Savvy businesswoman? Battered woman? A combination somewhere in between? I won’t add my own assessment, but it really has to suck when your entire life and significant relationship gets whittled down to a hash tag.

If there is any good news, it is that, in the end, we, the American public, don’t really care. I know, I know. We have talked about it for weeks. But seriously, our attention spans are about 14 days. After all, it only took that long for us to move on from Ferguson. We don’t even care about the missing Malaysian Airplane any more (seriously, how can we completely lose a plane?). We are a fickle people. We love a good cause, especially when it is right in our face. But like our ministry to those who deal with the sorrow and grief of death, there is a time limit on the amount of time we can really spend on the messiness of life.

You see, if America really cared, the National Football League would have lost viewers instead of seeing its brand have the top three television shows in all of America over the last two weeks. Sunday night’s game starring Peyton Manning captured 22 million viewers, making it the most watched West Coast game in television history. Most surprisingly, the NFL did not and has not lost a single sponsor–including Cover Girl and PepsiCo–both of whom have women in prominent decision-making positions. After all, if the 11 women who are group presidents at Proctor & Gamble can’t make a statement on your behalf by pulling the plug at least temporarily, then who can? Or who will?

Anyway, right now we are more interested in Roger Goodell and whether he will keep his job or not, so sadly you are not even THE focus of the Ray Rice case. Although domestic violence touches all races and classes, you are right to point out that violence at the hand of an intimate partner is the #1 cause of death for African American women. You are right that we are likely to experience it 37% more than our white sister counterparts and 22 times more than any other race on the face of this earth. Yes Mrs. Rice, those are great points AND exactly the very reasons why “we” don’t care. Don’t get me wrong. There are good people staffing the shelters, providing safe havens, and trying to bring attention to the plight of survivors like you and me. Heck, my own Bishop Mike McKee has been a leading advocate against domestic violence for over a decade and dozens of my friends volunteer and fundraise for Genesis Shelter here in Dallas. But that does not diminish the fact that WE don’t care.

You see, the fact that African American men and women remain the most visible face of domestic violence, coupled with the complexity of our experiences in America only complicates an already complicated matter. Academics love to theorize about the prevalence of domestic violence within the African American family. There have been a number of studies that have sought to correlate unemployment and financial stress with cases of domestic abuse. The reasoning is that when men are unemployed, their masculinity is under threat and they lash out. So there are those who argue that if we addressed the underlying socio-economic and educational disparities Black men would be secure enough in their masculinity that they would not need to use the women in their lives as heavy punching bags of therapy.

There are others who say that our culture of women being “sassy” and willing to fight back only exacerbates the problem. That rather than being a preventative to further abuse, our actions only diminish a man’s masculinity even more because the only thing worse than being an unemployed black man is an unemployed black man who gets beat up by his partner. So rather than solve a problem, our defense makes the problem worse. So even though the violence that strikes 1 in 4 African American women is a constant source for scholarly rumination…we don’t care.

Maybe part of the problem Mrs. Rice is that your husband is a bifurcated object. On one hand he is a physical specimen that is to be admired and celebrated when his body is in the service of his masters. On the other hand, his body is feared because it represents everything whiteness fears about blackness as embodied in black men. Either way, he is an animal in their eyes: tamed for purposes of entertainment or wild requiring incarceration. That’s why commentators and pundits have no problem calling him a “beast” as easily as they can call him a “thug.” His wealth and income are subject to their desire for his financially viable attributes. However, this week Ray found out the lesson that every objectified being does—you are replaceable when you no longer serve the function of your master. Hell, even Shonda Rhimes made that point clear to Columbus Short, writing him off “Scandal” before he was even convicted.

Which brings me back to the point that Americans don’t really care about you or domestic violence. If we really cared, since Ray has to lose his job for hitting you, then we should be demanding that every person who is beating or emotionally terrorizing his or her partner be fired. There have been ministers of every denomination who preach every Sunday even though their history of abuse is widely known. Oh, sure they are required to take time away—but lose their job? Uh, No. Are you a US District Court Judge who beats your wife after she accuses you of having an affair? Don’t worry about it. Get some counseling and come back stronger than ever. Are you a factory worker, doctor, postman, or vet and beat your partner senseless? We will never know because we won’t shame you; we won’t fire you; we won’t even pay attention to you. Domestic violence didn’t kill the careers of Glen Campbell, Mickey Rourke, or Sean Penn. William Koch remains a political king- maker despite the fact that he punched his wife in the stomach and threatened to beat her with a belt.

Sadly, as egregious as Ray’s actions have been, the only reason we paid attention to them is because the media focused our attention there. Ray was the NFL’s sacrificial lamb, slaughtered on the hypocritical altar of Roger Goodell and 32 owners who must appear to be outraged by what in the “good old days” was a private matter. Ironically, beating up on Ray allowed us not to focus our attention on valuable projects like the Purple Handbag project or on training faith and legal professionals in effective methods of communication with survivors of domestic violence.

By placing our sins on Ray, we don’t have to think about the fact that we need to do more to confront the abusers in our pews, in our high school hallways, and our college dorms. Ray’s willingness to be the poster boy of dysfunction allows us to obscure our moral obligation to hold the NFL and its corporate sponsors equally responsible in the creation of a long-term culture when no player was held accountable for beating his partner. Applauding Ray’s suspension makes us feel better for supporting college football where violence against women is so rampant that we have learned to hold our noses as we enter the collective sewage we have allowed to collect from years of neglect and accountability.

I would tell you to go see your pastor but… nah, he probably doesn’t have the resources to handle your needs and would have to start a ministry to support you. Budgets are tight, Mrs. Rice and frankly your situation makes the church uncomfortable. Its best you don’t expect to much of us on this one. But if you ever need a potluck, sign us up!

Mrs. Rice, I am truly sorry for all of this. But I am sadder to say that the public acknowledgement of your plight will fade more quickly than your private struggles. There is nothing we can do about this. After all, this is America, and we have to move on to the next scandal.

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