Major Anti-Rape Group Praises DNA Ruling, But What About its Impact on People of Color?

When it was announced earlier this month that the Supreme Court had ruled, in Maryland v. King, that police officers can collect DNA samples from people who have been arrested for (but not convicted of) a serious crime, many rape survivors rejoiced.

I was not one of them.

Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), praised the decision. As the Huffington Post reported:

“We’re very pleased that the court recognized the importance of DNA and decided that, like fingerprints, it can be collected from arrestees without violating any privacy rights,” he said. “Out of every 100 rapes in this country, only three rapists will spend a day behind bars. To make matters worse, rapists tend to be serial criminals, so every one left on the streets is likely to commit still more attacks. DNA is a tool we could not afford to lose.”

Berkowitz might have been pleased upon hearing of the ruling, but I was not. Here’s what I immediately felt when I found out: frustration at the further eradication of my right to privacy, fear of what this ruling will mean for people of color, and disappointment that people who I thought were my allies were praising such a ruling.

As someone who has used RAINN’s services in the past, I felt slightly betrayed by their unequivocal support of this ruling. But then I look at the organization’s founder, an older white man, and wonder: Do the concerns of people like me, and our communities, matter to the major anti-sexual violence organizations?

I know firsthand the unique challenges that survivors of color face in a racist society. I’ve used my experience to become an activist who has fought for improved policies for rape survivors on college campuses and increased accountability in fighting rape culture in media. Unfortunately, along the way I have found that the “mainstream” narratives surrounding the needs of survivors often lack an intersectional approach. I previously wrote about the near-erasure of survivors of color’s stories in the media, and it looks like the erasure continues.

There has been some coverage about the implications of this ruling for communities of color. As Jason Silverstein wrote in The Nation:

Because people of color are disproportionately stopped, searched and arrested, they will disproportionately bear the burden of this genetic dragnet. And because DNA samples can be used to establish family relationships, it has the potential to widen the surveillance to entire communities.

We already see the consequences of giving police officers wider discretion in policies designed to reduce crime: billions of dollars wasted on racially biased marijuana arrests, thousands of racially targeted stop-and-frisks, and people pulled over to the side of the road for “driving while Black.”

The reason why so few rapists go to jail is not due to lack of a comprehensive DNA database. It’s because rape culture is alive and well in the court systems. The police officers that now have the right to take my DNA even if I’m being wrongly arrested are the same people who refused to enforce a restraining order against my rapist. The backlog of rape evidence collection kits continue to be a serious problem. Victim-blaming defenses are often used in court—and win.

These issues will not be fixed by invading the privacy of millions of innocent people.

This is why intersectionality in the anti-sexual violence movement is of the utmost importance. One of the most important things I thought about in the aftermath of violence was regaining some sort of control over my life. How can I do that when I know that people like me continue to be unfairly violated, monitored, and over-policed, while major organizations like RAINN are celebrating what made it possible?

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  • canaduck

    “The reason why so few rapists go to jail is not due to lack of a comprehensive DNA database. It’s because rape culture is alive and well in the court systems. ”

    Great point. A really helpful perspective on this celebrated ruling–thank you for writing it!

  • John Lindsay

    Thanks…for the work you’re doing to ensure WE have a voice in these policies, Wagatwe!!!

    The only way the collection of DNA –for this purpose– could be fair…is to collect it from everyone…when they’re born….from here on.
    However, that doesn’t answer the present problem.

    I recall this “disproportionate impact on People of Color” (collection of DNA from people arrested) being discussed on 60 Minutes a number of years ago.

    Would people be willing to voluntarily provide DNA for this purpose?!
    If not, then they shouldn’t support this ruling.
    Perhaps the government can order every citizen to donate, and if you don’t…then you’re arrested…and then they can take it.

    • colleen2

      I would be more than willing to provide DNA if in doing so we could hold rapists accountable for their crimes. It is a horrible, vicious dehumanizing and common crime.

      Anyone, even rapists, deserve a fair trial. I am certainly more concerned about the rights of individual rapists than rapists are concerned about their victims. Still, I do not see how we are going to be able to stop rape if we do not hold rapists accountable for their actions. This almost never happens and thus women in this country are forced to pay taxes, live like prey and hope the cops believe us and that is bullshit.

      Does anyone have a plan to change that ? Because without DNA testing I do not.

  • Lauren Mattioni

    This is so true. Unlike with, say, murder, proving who the perpetrator was is very rarely the issue with rape. The idea that rape is primarily perpetrated by scary strangers hiding behind the bushes upon young, virginal, middle class white girls is almost comically false. These just happen to be the stories that get the most media attention because they’re alluring and play to our collective prejudices. The overwhelming majority of rape survivors personally know their attackers which makes most survivors hesitant to even report their rapes in the first place. The issue in court is proving that what happened was, in fact, rape and this is where rape culture and victim blaming come in. Because of what our society believes about rape, it is all too easy for the perpetrator to claim that what happened was consensual and be believed by both the judge and jury. I would be very surprised if any more rapists get convicted because of this. More likely than not, it will just be one more warrantless invasion of privacy that will be directed disproportionately at poor people and non-white people.

    • Travis McClain

      I think a lot of the people who support this ruling envision the detectives from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to go kick down doors and round up a whole underground of rapists who have eluded law enforcement. They’re oblivious to all the important reasons Wagatwe covered and that you’ve just echoed that prevent proper prosecution and conviction of rapists.

      But it’s much easier to choose to believe the real problem is lack of compelling evidence than it is to admit that for all our collective talk about how heinous sexually-based offenses are, when push comes to shove we rarely do anything about them because we just don’t care – whether the police who can’t be bothered to enforce a restraining order or a jury who chooses to believe “she asked for it”, and DNA to establish identity of someone already identifiable is not the breakthrough this ruling’s champions want it to be.

    • imblondeinnottexas

      Well, just to set the record straight the middle class white girls are just like you so get over yourself. You are correct in the majority of rape survivors personally knowing their attackers, usually in the case of the stranger hiding behind the bushes it is because after years of the (insert family member, family friend or neighbor here) has finally got our white girl preggers. So now he has threatened her within an inch of her life and told her that she better find a way to tell her parents that she got pregnant and that he doesn’t want anything to do with it. The entire time this has all been going on he’s made sure she knows that if anyone finds out that he will kill her family. And unless your family didn’t somehow come down the same pathway we did and from my understanding of DNA all of us now came from “Mom” and “Pop,” considering that man put his filthy paws on her since she was about 6 years old with no earthly permissions – she has never actually consensually allowed a man to touch her; you sure as hell can’t blame that atrocity on a child. She is virginal in the eyes of the Lord. Just as all of them are. She would have told them it was a stranger out of fear and of course it sounds comically false, that’s what it should sounds like if a child is not taught to be deceitful and lie about things. If more parents did that you might understand. Growing up in an extremely high black population I can honestly say that most of my black friends were taught to be deceitful when talking to other people and to outright lie, so I’m not just saying that – I know it to be a fact. The sad part is, they consider it to be normal. So if you would like to remove prejudices then don’t create them. Be an upright citizen, be honest with your fellow human beings, be truthful and respectful – that is the only way you will ever gain it in return.

      • Arekushieru

        Really? Maybe the ‘lie’ they told you was that the Earth was round not flat? Sorry, ‘honey’, but that is NOT a lie. That is the TRUTH. See, right-wing Christians like yourself tend to make a bad name for liberal Christians like myself. And I am fucking tired of it.

        Or, maybe, like this article was trying to get through your THICK SKULL, black people are taught to lie because people like YOU have taught them they won’t be believed, no matter WHAT.

        Another thing this article was trying to teach you, but you’re just TOO ignorant to grasp, if women don’t expect to be believed why would they tell the truth? It is just TOO fucking sad that a white woman (like myself) is still victim-blaming the hell out of people because she’s RACIST and MISOGYNIST.

  • Travis McClain

    *applauds* This is the most concise dissection of the practical shortcomings of DNA collection as I’ve seen yet *and* you also made clear why it isn’t a help in the big picture, either. You totally nailed this one.

  • beaton

    Great commentary on a very serious issue.

  • John H

    Spot on.

  • Juleigh

    Having worked in a crime lab in the past I can tell you DNA evidence can be essential on prosecution and freeing the wrongly accused. The comments about evidence to prove who the rapist is as not being a big issue is completely ignorant. DNA is essential to even have a chance in prosecution if the victim knows the rapist or not. I do agree that patriachal views in regards to victim blaming is a giant problem, but that does not mean we should downplay the overwhelming value of scientific evidence. I admit I am unclear how we should form a DNA database, but I believe it is a step in the right direction.

    • Travis McClain

      The power of DNA evidence to be used for exoneration is important, certainly, and I’m glad you mentioned that because it’s an aspect to this ruling that hasn’t been emphasized in any of the admittedly limited coverage I’ve read so far. But it’s still worth asking: Should collecting DNA be as easy as placing someone under arrest?