Why the British justice system continues to fail black women

United Black Women's Action Group

27th July 2020

The British Library

Misogynoir is a continuing issue for black women in Britain. When considering any woman within a justice system where sexism exists, race adds another dimension to their experience. The interlocking systems of oppression that black women face is compounded by their gender and race, both of which affect their access to justice. The legal system as experienced by black women has an undeniably different dynamic to white women who encounter it. Discussions about gender discrimination within the legal sector, especially in rape claims, tends to have specifically white women in mind. And yet, black women disproportionately use rape crisis centres in comparison to white women. I have found a substantial lack of information surrounding these issues when conducting research. This itself is a persistent issue when trying to access the full scale of the problem; it makes change difficult to happen.


The Society of Black Lawyers has commented on the lack of trust black people have in the justice system: ‘the poor image which black people have of the courts leads to the sense that if one is black in court one has to prove one’s innocence rather than the court prove one’s guilt’ (Helena Kennedy, 2019). Agenda and Women in Prison’s 2017 report into the experiences of BAME women in the criminal justice system reinforced The Society of Black Lawyers’ statement, as it disclosed that many women felt that their gender and ethnicity had affected their sentence. There is a general belief that their sentences were unfair, or they did not properly understand the reasoning behind the conviction. Either reason suggests an endemic lack of trust in the system, stemming from police and judges’ abuse of power. 


The general societal discontent felt towards single mothers feeds into the justice system. The Lammy Review, written in 2017, details how black women are more likely to be single mothers than white women (Helena Kennedy, 2019), and it is this absence of a patriarchal ‘structure’ and ‘discipline’ that provides another symbol of their lack of obedience. Some judges consider a traditional nuclear family structure to be a measure of stability and therefore trustworthiness. This is also fuelled by media stereotypes of black single mothers as ‘welfare queens.’ Assertiveness and independence, often seen as inherently masculine traits, can become blurred with meaning criminal. These traditionally male characteristics when displayed by black women in court are considered to be troublesome. In contrast, the stereotypical innocence of white women who are in need of saving by (white) men is in direct opposition to black women’s display of confidence, which is mistaken for aggressiveness. 


Stereotypes black women face are perpetuated by a combination of racism, misogyny and classism. Consistently compared to the ‘desirable’ white woman, black women are penalised by the justice system for this lack of conformity. These stereotypes first originated from slavery and are still perpetuated by present-day mainstream media and popular culture. For instance, popular films often portray black women and girls as the ‘sassy’ background characters to white protagonists. 


We must delve further into history to trace where these stereotypes originated from. The ‘Jezebel’ was created by slave owners who shunned black women as sexually promiscuous and hyper-sexualised individuals. It portrayed black women as instinctively sexual, they could not be victims of rape, as they weren’t white. The continuation of these stereotypes has allowed black women’s mistreatment to be deemed as an inevitable part of everyday life: and thus, a justifiable societal and legal norm. The stereotypes influence the validation of excessive over-sentencing and further the distrust between the black community and the justice system. In court, being black and female is equated to masculinity and aggression, while simultaneously being contrasted to an idealised perception of ‘worldly’ white, middle-class women. White women have benefitted from their westernised stereotype in the legal world as the standard of womanhood, while historic oppression continues to shape the violence and injustice which black women face today.


Black women’s experience when reporting rape cases and court proceedings are particularly horrific. Statistically there are a low percentage of rape cases that make it to court, and even when it does make it to court there is a low chance of conviction. Of the cases which go to trial, the conviction rate is just 37%, in comparison to 73% for other types of crime (Helena Kennedy, 2019). However, for black women the entire process’ failure is magnified. Myths and stereotypes about black women being naturally sexually promiscuous merge with those about black aggression. In court, black women are either consciously or subconsciously contrasted to the fragile depiction of white women in need of protection. The idea that only white women can experience sexism and only black men experience racism eradicates the dual oppression black women endure, which must be recognised in legal analysis. The default inclination to blame the victim as partially responsible combined with the stereotype of black women as promiscuous ‘Jezebels’ is detrimental in ensuring black women can access justice for crimes committed against them. 


Discussions around the failure of the British justice system specifically in relation to the appallingly low levels of rape conviction often centres around the experiences of white middle-class women, rendering black women invisible. This fails black women as it excludes them from the fight against injustice. It also marginalises the ‘feminist’ struggle against rape as one primarily concerned with the wellbeing of white women who fit into the universally accepted standard of white innocence and victimhood. ‘All inequality is not created equal’, and without a full understanding of intersectionality, feminism cannot claim to be anti-oppression as it continues to uphold the hierarchical systems it aims to reform. The lack of attention focused towards black women’s struggle has normalised violence towards them which undoubtedly influences the minds of those responsible for helping them. 


Whether the victims or perpetrators of crime, the British Justice system persistently fails to ensure these women have access to a fair trial and appropriate justice. The lack of political commentary and resources available concerning some of the issues mentioned in this article is disappointing and reinforces the view that black women’s issues are consistently not at the forefront of legal debate or reform. The justice system must adopt an interdisciplinary approach in order to begin to unravel some of the sexist and racist practices which are in place throughout the system. However, the harmful and entrenched stereotypes which have been associated with black women must also be eradicated. Confronting how age-old racial stereotypes affect our institutions must occur in conjunction with visible and real change from within the system itself.



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