Tyson's defenders and the church of silence Who rallies around the accuser?

Karen Baker- Fletcher

April 01, 1992|By Karen Baker- Fletcher

Indianapolis BUT LET justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

So says Amos 5:24, a scripture that has historically been meaningful to black Americans calling for civil rights. And recently there have been rallies and a cry for mercy for Mike Tyson initiated by the Rev. Dr. Theodore J. Jemison, president of bTC the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., the nation's largest black denomination and its third-largest Protestant denomination.

It's certainly in keeping with the Christian tradition for church organizations to make cries for mercy and justice. But isn't it the moral duty of a Christian body to cry for mercy for the entire community, male and female? Accuser and accused?

In rallying around Tyson to the exclusion of Desiree Washington, the 18-year-old woman whom he was convicted of raping, the National Baptists sent a signal that the charge of injustice by one-half of the black community does not count. The message to women who struggle with the question of whether or not to report incidents of sexual abuse is that they cannot expect support from the church.

But how do the National Baptists, who received a $5 million pledge from Tyson two years ago, and those who have rallied around the boxer know that Washington was not raped? The lines are so blurry regarding what happened in the Canterbury Hotel here in August that I cannot see how anyone who was not in the hotel room or the courtroom can come to any firm conclusions.

Like many African Americans I am troubled that the jury in the Tyson case was predominantly white, which was lamentable given America's history of falsely accusing black men of rape. I would also have preferred to have seen more women on the jury. Like many other black women, I find it impossible to separate racism and sexism. Yes, investigation into the justice of a trial of a black man before a mostly white jury is appropriate. But it is also a problem that women were in the minority.

Historically, black Christian women leaders like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Ida B. Wells, who initiated a movement against lynching and false accusations of rape, have demanded social justice for both black women and men.

The black community must confront both race and gender discrimination. Unfortunately, the National Baptists have perpetuated sexism within the black community. If they are really concerned with the fairness of the jury selection, why not raise charges of racism and sexism?

In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper, a black feminist and educator, wrote that black women's voices were a "muffled chord, the one mute and voiceless note" in the American conflict for social justice. She urged the black Episcopal clergy to work for the rights of black women as seriously as for the rights of black men. Today, 100 years later, little has changed. Jemison's support of Tyson over and against Washington means that once more black feminists must approach black clergymen with a similar demand for the church to take women's voices as seriously as men's.

It is discomfiting, however, that when black women like Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Anita Hill and Washington have written or spoken out on the issue of sexual violence within the black community, all too many black men have raised pen and voice to try to discredit them. All these women could not be wrong. Are we to draw the absurd conclusion that sexual violence exists everywhere but in the black community?

Perhaps Mike Tyson is the victim of an unjust trial. Even members of a black women's group from Chicago, some of whom have been raped, think so. And yet the absence of guns and knives forms part of the rationale for their disbelief -- stereotypes about what rape must always be like.

Black clergymen in leadership positions like Jemison's must institute church programs to educate young black men about date rape and sexual ethics. It is a real issue in the black community and it is time to do something about it. At the very least, such programs could protect black men from finding themselves in such tragic, ambiguous situations. At best, fewer black women may find themselves victims of sexual abuse.

Finally, Jemison's support for Tyson would appear less suspect if he addressed all the issues that face the black community: homelessness, drugs, gangs, unemployment, black male-on-male violence, AIDS, racist inequities in the trials and sentencing of black men -- and sexual violence and sex discrimination against black women. Only then can the National Baptists claim to be engaged in a call for justice and a just cry for mercy.

Karen Baker-Fletcher is assistant professor of theology and culture at Christian Theological Seminary.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.