When They See Us: Feminism[s] Role in the Central Park 5 Case

By now if you haven’t seen Ava Duvernay’s Netflix film “When They See Us” your timeline has probably been inundated with commentary surrounding the film. Most of the response has been visceral, largely because as much as Hollywood has covered on Black life the trauma projected on screen never becomes easy to bear. Most of us either watched it and set ourselves up to only be pissed off about the stuff we are already pissed off about, while others are hesitant to even watch the docufilm because this story, although unique in its own right, has an all too familiar ending; Black men are falsely accused and unjustly incarcerated…..again. Although the online reaction has been homogenous for the most part, most of us have not considered a glaring but ugly truth in the case of the Central Park Five, and that’s the role feminism played in the incarceration of each of these young men.

The biggest rift that many Black feminists have with White feminists is their inability to see the intersection of race and gender that works in concert to oppress and discriminate against Black women. At the height of this case, the surrounding discourse was whether or not the public should consider the idea of if race played a role in how this case was handled.

Since White feminists typically don’t have to consider the idea of race and gender working in concert, statements such as this are inevitable:

“this is a crime against women, and nothing else”- Francoise Jacobsohn President of the biggest women’s rights organization (NOW) 1990.

If you believe that this was just the background noise of the day and didn’t play a role in the unjust incarceration of each of these men, don’t miss the fact that public sentiment (especially expressed by feminist) was just as strong as online public sentiment is today that can influence the way we think about things and the outcome of events.

Then there were feminist voices that dismissed the role race played not in terms of its interplay with the court case, but, under the premise that race played no role in the attackers choice of victim. This is to imply that the group of men (all of them of African descent) had a proclivity to rape women regardless of race, but Black men overwhelmingly internalized that proclivity more than any other racial demographic.

Popular feminist scholar and author Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost said, being African-American would have not spared her from the attack. Morgan rightfully deals with the trauma inflicted on the women of the case but in her seminal work she’s silent on the glaring loopholes in this case that were brought out during the trial and there was no advocacy for the release of the Central Park Five.

Popular feminist scholar Bell Hooks writes in her book Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics:

“No one can truly believe that the young black males involved in the Central Park incident were not engaged in a suicidal ritual enactment of a dangerous masculinity that will ultimately threaten their lives, their well-being. If one reads again Michael Dyson’s piece “The Plight of Black Men,” focusing especially on the part where he describes the reason many young black men form gangs—“the sense of absolute belonging and unsurpassed love”—it is easy to understand why young black males are despairing and nihilistic. And it is rather naive to think that if they do not value their own lives, they will value the lives of others. Is it really so difficult for folks to see the connection between the constant pornographic glorification of male violence against women that is represented, enacted, and condoned daily in the culture and the Central Park crime?”

This dangerous trope is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Hooks’ feelings toward Black men-we are hyper-sexual deviants. Hooks has republished the book twice since the five men have been exonerated and in neither edition does she revise or retract her thoughts.

There were dissenting voices within feminist circles such as Kimberle’ Crenshaw who felt that the either/or divide of race and gender only exacerbated the case. Crenshaw would state that she both empathized with the victim but saw herself in the eyes of the accused mother’s who had to watch their sons go through a racially charged case.

The sentiments held by White feminists and even some Black feminists surrounding this case isn’t without historical precedence. Black men and young Black boys have lived under the specter of criminality since Reconstruction. In fact, after slavery it was White women who promulgated the idea of the Black male rapist to justify Black imprisonment, Black Codes and even the lynching of Black men. It is the protection of White women that many scholars believe precipitated the era during Reconstruction where Black men were lynched at a high rate.

Tommy Curry, author of The Man-Not chronicles how the women rights movement of the late 19th and early 20th century germinates from the creation of Jim Crow and works appositionally with White Patriarchy not opposed to it. In much of the feminist thought mention above, White and Black feminists often miss how gender plays a role in the racial domination of Black men. For many people, race is the only thing Black men have to worry about, but the history of Black male trauma shows that a Black man’s maleness can also be weaponized against him. From the Scottsboro 9 case, to Emmitt Till and to the Central Park Five case the Black male rapist is just as harmful a trope as any Black stereotype and has caused lives to be lost by incarceration or by lynching when Black men are falsely accused. When They See Us reveals how Black men are not architects of patriarchy but its victims.

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