Reparations: White Women Crying Rape
The 90’s show, Law and Order: SVU, is still going strong with their 23rd season on NBC. SVU tackles sexual harassment and sexual assault every episode as well as incorporating hard topics like race, religion, sexual orientation, poverty, and so much more. This show continues to stay relevant and loved by fans by continuing to champion for sexual harassment and sexual assault survivors.
Season 12: Episode 21 - “Reparations"
At the beginning of the episode, a young, white, woman, Catherine, says she has been raped. At the hospital, Catherine described her room to detectives, Stabler (white) and Finn (Black), as being dark and not being able to see the perpetrators face. However, she then tells the detectives that her Black roommates’ older brother, Kevin (Black), is the one that raped her.
The detectives arrest Kevin, but subsequently releases him due to lack of evidence. The detectives circle back to Catherine, and she remembers that a new worker, that delivers the vegetables, at the public school she works at called her an “effin bitch”. The detectives arrest the worker, named Dwight, because they found a shoe print in Catherine’s room that had vegetable residue on it. Dwight turns out to be another Black man.
Long story short, Dwight did break into Catherine’s room to scare her because Catherine’s white grandfather gang-raped and beat Dwight’s Black mother in front of him more than 30 years prior. However, Catherine falsely accused Dwight of raping her because her grandfather told her to. Catherine is arrested for perjury for falsely accusing Dwight of raping her while testifying. Dwight gets 15 years in prison for burglary and assault.
This episode is packed with racial undertones and stereotypes. The main takeaway is that a white woman falsely accuses two Black men of raping her. Historically, Black men have been painted as predators and rapists of white women.
“when the most common reason for public lynching was the perception that white women needed to be protected from African American rapists and attempted rapists. Black men were painted as sexually deviant monsters.”
Dwight’s lawyer, played by Terrance Howard, sarcastically says while cross examining Catherine in court, “Because that’s what Black men do. We rape white women.” Once Catherine admits she lied about Dwight, she tells Detective Stabler and Casey that her grandfather has been telling her whole life that, “Black men rape!” This narrative is what has caused innocent Black boys and men, like the Groveland Four and Central Park 5, to be imprisoned due to false accusations of white women for generations. While Black men have been portrayed as rapists, the rape of Black women is forgotten. It’s only a crime when white women get raped, but not when a Black woman does. This is shown in the episode when Dwight's mother's rape is not taken seriously and is written off by the detectives. Catherine's grandfather got away with her rape.
Most of what happens in the episode is realistic. Dwight seems to be in pre-trial detention which is par for the course for a low-income Black man. The white female prosecutor offers Dwight a plea deal that he refuses, so they go to trial. Once Catherine confesses to falsely accusing Dwight of rape, that charge is dropped and Casey, the white prosecutor, and Dekker, Dwight’s defense attorney, work out a plea deal for 15 years for burglary and assault. Catherine is arrested for perjury because she lied in her testimony about Dwight raping her.
There are several unrealistic aspects of this episode. It is not likely that Dwight had a cousin who happened to be a prosecutor that could be his defense attorney. Most low-income, Black, criminal defendants cannot afford a private attorney, so they receive a court-appointed public defender. With the charges that Dwight was facing – rape, burglary, and assault – he more than likely would have taken the plea deal initially, as 95% of cases are resolved through plea deals and not trials. Either way, trials don’t happen as soon as a person is arrested and arraigned, but rather months to years later. The trial takes place in their Supreme Court which does not happen as often as this show portrays. Most criminal trials start in their respective state’s trial court, not automatically in the Supreme Court. Lastly, if Catherine had simply falsely accused Dwight of raping her, but did not have to testify to that, she more than likely would not have been arrested or charged for the false accusation.