Politics

Black Woman Privilege

In 1985, a 19-year-old black woman named Donna participated along with six other perpetrators – three of them women – in the abduction, gruesome torture, and murder of a 60-year-old real estate broker, Thomas Vigliarolo. After gaining access to Vigliarolo by claiming to be prostitutes, the perpetrators drove him to a Harlem apartment, stripped him naked, tied him to a bed, and tortured him to death for over two weeks while demanding a ransom of $430,000.

One of the women explained why she shoved a yard-long metal rod up Vigliarolo’s rectum: “He was a homo anyway . . . When I stuck [it in] he wiggled.”

The NYPD detective who interviewed the perpetrators said of Donna, who was chosen to deliver the ransom note: “I couldn’t believe this girl who was so intelligent and nice-looking could be so unemotional about what she was telling me she and her friends had done. They’d squeezed the victim’s testicles with a pair of pliers, beat him, burned him. Actually, I thought the judge’s sentence was lenient . . .”

Donna was sentenced to 25 years in jail.

In 1995, approximately ten years into her sentence, an interviewer from Psychology Today described how “[t]here were times I was certain Hylton was lying to me; other times I was certain I was hearing truth.” For example:

there was [a] moment, on our second day together, when she slipped verbally, and said in an almost irritable way, “He [the victim, Vigliarolo] was going to die anyway, so . . .” and then she caught herself. I just looked at her. All her previous protestations that when arrested she’d had no idea Vigliarolo was dead were clearly lies.

A different interview tells how Donna and other women routinely worked together to con men with money in order to be able to pay for drugs. When the idea of kidnapping of Vigliarolo came up, it wasn’t new territory for her (despite the fact that some of the articles on the subject portray it as such):

I would pick up some guy I knew had money connections and say to him, “Let’s go to your place.” And they always went. I would go to their place, scam them till I found out where the money was, where the hiding places were, or whatever. I would say goodnight and then Theresa would go back a few nights later and take whatever stash there was. She was the burglar and I was the con. We played so many con games, you wouldn’t believe it . . . We were taking crazy chances. We were doing a lot of crazy things . . . We needed drugs and were going to do just about goddamn anything to get what we needed.”

Where is she now?

Why, leading the Women’s March on Washington in protest against President Trump’s inauguration, because she is now a “women’s rights activist [who] advocates for women who have been victims of . . . the criminal justice system,” of course. Victims of the criminal justice system – this is how she sees herself.

Her Website doesn’t contain a single reference to the actions that actually caused her imprisonment, although her biography does explain that her memoir, A Little Piece of Light, tells the story of the “spiral of events that lead to her incarceration.”

As if this “spiral of events” had just spiraled all of their own accord, like a hurricane that had struck randomly and could just as easily have struck someone else instead. There but for the grace of God go I to a world where a spontaneous “spiral of events” could cause me to shove a metal rod up a kidnapped man’s asshole for drugs.

Let’s be perfectly clear: this isn’t just about the fact that choosing Donna Hylton as a representative for a women’s movement was a bad tactical choice. This is about the fact that Donna Hylton’s story exposes serious flaws at the core of the feminist narratives even if they hadn’t been so lacking in self-reflection as to then choose her as a representative.

“We are criminalized for our color,” she claims in that CGTN interview. There is an astounding lack of self-reflection in this comment. She was criminalized because she committed actual crimes! Yet, she goes so far as to flirt with denying this, too: in a documentary promo for Inside Out: The State of Womens’ Incarceration, she can be heard to say, “A lot of the crimes that people are in prison for, especially women, are not crimes. They’re situations.”

“We are criminalized for our color . . .” I’m willing to bet that she, and most of her followers, are well aware of the race gap in prison sentencing whereby whites receive approximately 10% shorter sentences than blacks for committing apparently identical crimes with apparently identical criminal records.

I’m even more willing to bet that she, and most of her followers, are completely unaware that the gender gap in prison sentencing is six full times as large as the race gap: women receive 60% shorter sentences than men for committing apparently identical crimes with apparently identical criminal records, according to the same researchers who uncovered the race gap in prison sentencing employing exactly the same research methodology.

Thus, while a black woman like Donna Hylton receives a small penalty because of her race, she then receives a much larger advantage because of her gender. The upshot is that, according to Sonja Starr’s pioneering studies, black women are about on par with white women in terms of receiving the most “privilege” in prison sentencing of all. By statistical average, a crime that would land a white man in jail for twenty years would put a black woman in for only thirteen and a half. The “institutional” advantage that gives “privileges” solely according to demographic criteria belongs to Hylton.

Let’s look at a few other facts about gender in the criminal justice system, shall we?

  • Men are put to death for their crimes more often:

In the United States, women have historically hovered around 2-9% of the prison population, which means men correspondingly represent the other 91-98%. In 2007, women were at 7% of the U.S. prison population. Yet, from 1973 to 2005, women represented just over 1% of those given the death penalty – which means men represented the other 99%.

Many countries, including the Soviet Union in 1991, even explicitly exclude women from subjection to the possibility of the death penalty, no matter how heinous or violent their crimes, even as these countries retain the death penalty for men, which means their opposition towards the death penalty is not one of principle.

Globally, the median percentage of prison populations which are female is about 4%. Yet according to some estimates, women may represent less than 1% of those executed for their crimes.

  • Men are raped more frequently in prison:

According to studies (1, 2), the sexual assault rate for men in prison is over 20%, while for females it is under 10%. It is also noteworthy that rape by a fellow male prisoner is more likely to transmit HIV – and thus convert a jail sentence into a life sentence – than rape by a fellow female prisoner.

Furthermore, we also know that the vast majority of this male-on-male prison rape is both black-on-white and racially motivated:

The fact remains that blacks continually and almost exclusively rape whites in prison. The evidence is based on studies conducted over the last 40 years (Davis 1968; Nacci 1978; Lookwood 1980; Starchild 1990). Why does this white victim preference prevail? Whites continue to be raped more severely and frequently and at a disproportionate rate than any other racial or ethnic group (in Gones 1967; Bowker 1980; Lookwood 9180). This racial inequality may be the largest in any violent crime committed in the United States. Rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but one of violence, politics, and acting out power roles (Rideau and Wikberg 1992, p. 75). The act of rape in the ultra masculine world in prison constitutes the ultimate humiliation visited upon a male by forcing him to assume the role of a woman.

In American prisons, studies by sociologists suggest that more than 90% of rapes are inter-racial and may be motivated more by a need for sexual dominance over another race than by sexual passions (Starchild 1990, p. 145). Many rapes are by blacks on whites, suggesting that it gives the lower–class black, who has felt trod upon all his life, his one chance to dominate a white person (Starchild 1990, p. 145). Consequently, the victims are almost always young white prisoners. Scacco (1982, p. 91) has also noted a disproportionate number of black aggressors and white victims in studies of sexual assaults in jails and prisons. Even if the minority of prisoners are black, the majority of victims are white (Sacco 1982, p. 91). When Lookwood (1980, p. 28) asked “targets” to identify their aggressors at the time of their rape, most were black (80%), some were Hispanic (14%), and a few were white (6%). . .

Although many causation factors have been suggested for prison rape, they are all overshadowed by the racial categories of the victims and the rapists. Prison rape has been shown throughout this study to be racially motivated by predominantly black inmates specifically against white inmates who in turn are the victims. Although more studies need to be conducted to confirm this theory, racial hatred of whites by blacks appears to be the main force driving prison rape. In fact, the US Department of Justice (1991, p. 15) noted that black (57%) and Hispanic (51%) violent inmates were at least four times more likely than white (11%) violent inmates to have victimized someone of a different race or ethnic group.

  • Men have substantially fewer rights to “bodily autonomy” and privacy in prisons:

As Rebecca Jurado writes in a review published in the Journal of Gender, Social Policy, and the Law titled The Essence of Her Womanhood: Defining the Privacy Rights of Women Prisoners and the Employment Rights of Women Guards:

The course of these histories are parallel in that female guards successfully use the equality theory to gain access to the leadership and career building assignments formerly available only to men. At the same time, reliance on equality theory provides female prisoners with access to the types of programs and services previously available only within men’s prisons . . .

In the case of women’s employment, the courts have ultimately held that gender cannot matter because women are professionals and can perform their duties without invading the privacy rights of their male charges. In the case of female prisoners’ expectation of privacy, the courts have held that gender and gender differences must matter because the courts imbue women with a sense of modesty and a greater need for privacy than men . . .

In both instances, the courts return to the stereotype that at her essence, in her rightful role, a woman is a mother or a wife, and in the particular circumstance in which she finds herself, she is either to provide nurturing or be protected. As a result, female guards are afforded more employment opportunities because their mere presence can calm the aggressive nature of male prisoners. Similarly, female prisoners are afforded a higher expectation of privacy because they are, after all, women and therefore are modest and vulnerable.

In Smith v. Fairmann in 1982, courts ruled against a male plaintiff who complained that he was humiliated by a female guard who was allowed to perform pat-down searches, including in the groin area, and petitioned for the practice to be stopped. In Jordan v. Gardner in 1993, courts ruled in favor of a female plaintiff who made exactly the same complaint, with genders reversed. In Robino v. Irano in 1998, the courts ruled against the male guards who complained that preventing them from working in women’s prisons was a form of sex discrimination which unjustly limited their employment opportunities. Yet, when female guards made exactly the same complaint in Bagley v. Watson in 1983, the courts ruled in their favor.

Other practices demonstrate clearly that the reason for these discrepancies is simply that male privacy is generally valued less by government institutions across the board. When military personnel at high risk of capture undergo SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) training, the procedure involves training for evading invasive searches. In Australia, female soldiers are allowed to perform the most highly invasive forms of bodily searches on male trainees, while male soldiers are not allowed to perform them on female trainees at all (see p. 216 of Martin van Creveld’s Men, Women and War, in which he cites personal communication with Lieutenant Colonel Ian Wing).

Across the board, where these double standards exist, they benefit women – including violent women who violate and abuse the rights of others. Cases like these can be seen as very clear demonstrations of the “Women are wonderful” effect: we are innately biased when it comes to issues pertaining to gender, but that bias actually favors women rather than men. The fact which these cases so clearly demonstrate is that we are actually wired to see women as the victims even when they are the violent perpetrators. One could even argue that this tendency largely explains the very existence of third-wave feminism in First World countries today.

Donna Hylton’s own story simply debunks the notion that women are a unique class of victims in modern society, the very message that she spreads at women’s marches. From engaging in continuous theft and extreme violence and being able to get away with it as easily as she was, to being given a prison sentence that was shorter than that which a man would have received for the same crime, to being released before it was even halfway over, to spending time in women’s prisons where she enjoyed privileges and privacy that inmates in men’s prisons do not, to being released early only to become a welcome voice for “women’s rights,” where she garners sympathy for telling (and even selling) a version of her story in which she never refers to the horrific crimes and lack of remorse that landed her in jail in the first place – all of this undermines her victim status. Do I even need to ask if you can imagine a white man getting out of jail after torturing a black woman to death only to become a celebrated voice in conservative and men’s rights circles? Hylton has been the recipient of privileges that the dreaded white male could never receive.

Close