Former International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn loudly declared that he did not rape a maid in his hotel room during his stay in New York. Strauss-Kahn is certainly entitled to proclaim his innocence, and under the law he is just that: Innocent until proven guilty. But the same can’t be said for his alleged victim, who has been tried, convicted, sentenced, and pilloried relentlessly in the press and on the web since the moment her accusations went public.
There’s no mystery why. From the beginning, there were four things that made the accuser ripe for the race baiting and victim bashing now being carried out by the media, French officials, some African writers and the general public: First, she is a low-wage domestic worker. Second, she is a West African immigrant, whose legal status has been subject to question. Third, she allegedly resided in a Bronx apartment building that caters exclusively to the HIV/AIDS afflicted, inferring that she too is HIV positive. Fourth, and most importantly, she is a black woman.
Strauss-Kahn, however, is rich, powerful, politically connected at the highest levels and popular with the French public. His defenders have blithely ignored his checkered history of sexual bad behavior and have dug deep into the apologist bin to claim that he is the victim of an anti-Semitic conspiracy involving everyone from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to unnamed political enemies. Their motive, supposedly, is to derail his bid to become president of France, a post for which he is widely regarded a front-runner. And the conspiracy theory has legs: A recent poll cited by the French public radio service RFI found that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed believe Strauss-Kahn was “set up.”
From a purely legal standpoint, none of these things have any relevance to the actual charge of rape. Either Strauss-Kahn did or didn’t commit the act. But it’s never that simple. Race was bound to cast a long shadow over the accusation — even if Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim had none of the aforementioned strikes against her, and even if Strauss-Kahn was not a rich, politically powerful figure with a history of sexual improprieties.
Women’s groups have waged a relentless and often times frustrating fight to get police, prosecutors, courts and the media to treat rape as a serious crime, especially in scenarios where the victims are poor, black or minority women and the alleged attackers are white males. They have endured a long history of gender and race stereotypes that depict black women as sexually loose, available, and crime prone. In decades past, that stereotype made police hesitant to make arrests and prosecutors reluctant to vigorously prosecute rape cases when the victims were black women. This put women, particularly black women, at greater risk of sexual attack, and virtually assured that authorities would turn a blind eye to the perpetrators.
Strauss-Kahn, in the not-too-distant past, likely would have benefited from the official blind-eye to a rape charge filed by a black woman. If arrested, he would have quickly posted bail and winged his way back to France. His accuser would have been painted as a gold-digging liar of tainted character. Race would have lurked beneath the character assassination and would have been used in order to make the slur against her believable.
This is exactly what’s being done now, even though authorities slapped Strauss-Kahn in a jail cell and initially denied him bail. The battle lines over whether he is truly a sexual predator or an innocent victim of a money scam, a set-up, or a politically motivated attack will heat up in the coming days if and when the name and picture of Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim is “leaked.” It will be plastered over blogs and websites and the rumor mill will churn overtime, feeding on every tidbit of gossip, allegation, and distorted fact about the alleged victim. She will be retried and re-convicted again in the press. The image assault will be dutifully punctuated with a choice quote from Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys that he is a victim and a target, and that it’s incredulous that a man of his name and prestige, with so much to lose, would stoop to have sex with a maid, and — unstated but strongly inferred — a black maid at that.
The case and the subsequent trial will continue to stir passions and resentments, and will be yet another object lesson that when the alleged victim is a black female and the accused attacker is a white male, politics, race and passion always collide. The lines will be deliberately blurred over the question of who is the real victim. In this case, for much of the public, it won’t be Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim.