Feminists who rallied on the courthouse stairs outside the 1990 trial of five African American and Latino youth accused in the infamous rape and beating of the 28-year-old Central Park jogger made it painfully clear—there was a choice to make: gender or race. With flimsy evidence and an almost immediate indictment by the public, advocates for the teens believed they were easy lynch victims and demanded further investigation and fair trials. But to some feminists, bringing up “the race issue” “muddled” the case and detracted from the bottom-line issue—violence against women and justice for the victim.
Thirteen years after the teens were convicted, DNA evidence and a confession to the crime by Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist behind bars, indicate a strong possibility that the five accused—who walked into prison as boys and emerged years later as men—would have been a worthy cause for any left activist group to champion. In the jogger case, no one even considered their five mothers a cause for feminists, though with little money or proper representation, they saw their sons railroaded, and the media portrayed them as out-of-control ghetto mamas.
Some activists say this case highlights the continuing struggle within the feminist movement, and often, its failure to truly engage the needs and issues facing women of color, or grapple well with situations in which issues of race and gender are intermingled.
“You can’t walk into a case of interracial rape and say, ‘Let’s not make it a race issue.’ Race is the reason it was on the front cover,” says Columbia University law professor and feminist author Kimberlé Crenshaw. Race is the reason, she says, little attention was given to a black woman who was raped and thrown down an elevator shaft the week of the Central Park attack. Race is the reason Donald Trump placed a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the death penalty to be reinstated for this case. Race is what let the district attorney’s office get away with not solving this crime. And racism, Crenshaw says, may be the reason some feminist activists didn’t see this as part of their cause. She also says it’s wrong not to consider “racial intimidation” a factor in interrogation.
In light of new evidence, including the failure of police to link the case with another rape that occurred two days earlier within two blocks of the jogger’s attack—a crime also claimed by Reyes—the National Organization for Women New York City (NOW NYC) is calling for the state to appoint an outside investigative team to take over the Manhattan D.A.’s new probe of the case. “This woman has not gotten justice,” says NOW NYC executive director Alex Leader. The D.A., she says, “didn’t take this investigation seriously enough.”
In 1990, Françoise Jacobsohn, then president of NOW NYC, in demanding justice for the victim—who after a long battle has recovered from her near-death injuries—didn’t see race as a factor. She told Newsday, “This is a crime against women and not anything else.” In a more tempered NOW release that year, she said the teens should not be unfairly judged “because of their color,” and that “rape is indeed not a racial issue unless we make it one.” Leader says that Jacobsohn commented that she had shied away from the case to some degree because it was “sticky and complex.”
It is not clear that NOW NYC is acting on any in-depth analysis of its role, unlike a group of black ministers who, according to Councilman Bill Perkins, recently met to apologize to the young men for having not supported them. Leader says she was moved to release a statement now after a chat with another feminist who said the police are of-ten unresponsive to crimes against women. Leader says, “I was like, you’re right. We should do something.” Asked about the matter of race, Leader says there was an injustice to “people of color as well as women.”
The furor in the gender-versus-race debate in the months after the 1989 attack evolved in an atmosphere of “it could have been me.” Andrea Kannapell wrote in The Village Voice, “The crime was more sexist than racist,” and that it had left “murder in her heart,” while writer Joan Morgan pointed out that being African American would not have “spared her” from the attack. That year, Third Wave feminist and Manifesta co-author Jennifer Baumgardner was becoming politicized at a Wisconsin college. She recalls little activism around the case, maybe because the “brutality was just too much to wrap your brain around.”
In an interview last week, author and activist Susan Brownmiller said she is grateful she didn’t publish writings on this case. She claims any divide was made by the teens’ supporters, who, she says, refused to see the victim’s needs. At the time, she told Newsday the defense lawyers were using race to ring “a bell among liberals.”
Brownmiller says, “They misprosecuted because they had confessions. You can’t fault them for that.” Moreover, it still would not surprise her now if the men were guilty. “They may have been beating her and hitting her, and perhaps we can’t trust the [DNA] reports.” Overlooking the idea of coerced confessions, Brownmiller says the teens caused confusion by describing each other’s involvement, “like in the Scottsboro case.” The 1930s Scottsboro case involved nine black men who were tried three times and spent years in jail for rape based on coerced confessions. People across the U.S. supported them, assuming the justice system was flawed, particularly in Alabama.
Yet some women who felt they could have been the mothers, sisters, or cousins of the Central Park defendants felt pressure from two sides. Like all women, they were intimate with the fear of being attacked, but this country’s haunting history of stringing up black men for alleged rapes of white women was a nagging reality. They worried if the next time their sons were too boisterous they might be rounded up for some heinous crime. And at the same time, they fought those who would overlook the needs of the victim.
“There was a whole different tone with this case than with the [Robert] Chambers case. He was the preppie rapist as opposed to ‘wilder.’ But you don’t have genteel rape,” says author Julianne Malveaux. “I think the main thing for many people of color was to put this crime in context. I don’t think there was enough concern about the race to judgment.” But, according Crenshaw, women who stood in both camps “didn’t make good copy.” In their “private spaces” the “response among women ran the gamut.” Certainly many feminists of color, and white activists, demanded that the two issues not be mutually exclusive, including Gloria Steinem.
Leader accuses the media of creating the race/gender divide. And the media did indeed keep the focus on this educated, well-employed, white victim of rape. When Anna Quindlen said, “This is about gender. . . . They killed this woman, except that her heart is still beating,” she hit a nerve. But the greatest damage done by the hysteria was probably the simple assumption on the part of so many that the system had found the right culprits.
Though some feminists certainly might not stand behind Brownmiller’s remarks today, clearly few have stepped up with their own. Calls to offices and agents for dozens of prominent feminists from Naomi Wolf to Michele Wallace yielded few returns.
The lack of willingness to approach this particular case, according to Malveaux, is a result of the failure of the women’s movement to confront race. Crenshaw says the paralyzing terror Baumgardner described is also a reason it is so hard to build “an inclusive anti-rape movement.”