“Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” said U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announcing changes to the Title IX policy today. 
Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Opinion: Rolling back Title IX threatens racial and gender justice

In a guest column, Fatima Goss Graves, the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, and NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson condemn the changes announced today by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in programs receiving federal funding.

DeVos released new regulations on how schools and colleges respond to allegations of sexual misconduct.  The new rules bring a more courtroom-like approach to the process, tightening the definitions of sexual harassment and allowing cross-examination of alleged victims. 

“Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” said DeVos in a statement today. “This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process. We can and must continue to fight sexual misconduct in our nation’s schools, and this rule makes certain that fight continues.”

With that background, here is the guest column: 

By Fatima Goss Graves and Derrick Johnson 

Today, Betsy DeVos finalized rules that would gut Title IX’s protections for survivors of sexual harassment, which includes sexual assault, in schools. 

DeVos’s Title IX rules would make it harder for students who are sexually harassed to receive vital support and protection, while mandating unfair processes for investigating and addressing sexual harassment. All these changes would particularly hurt black women and girls, who face even higher stakes when reporting sexual harassment.  

When the #MeToo movement went viral, many institutions publicly promised that they would take steps to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault. But DeVos and other lawmakers have reneged, choosing instead to further curtail survivors’ rights. On top of it all, these policymakers have tried to capitalize on a painful racial history, hoping to fracture coalitions committed to fighting systems of inequality.  

And that is why we write together today. We recognize that the perceived tension between racial justice and survivor justice did not develop in a historical vacuum. This country’s cultural and legal understanding of rape was shaped by a history of black men who were lynched following false accusations of sexual harassment and violence against white women. And, throughout history, white men have used sexual violence to harm and terrorize black women, a reality that still requires widespread acknowledgement. While these legacies have yet to be fully addressed, pitting racial and survivor justice against one another is a dangerous error—one that harms black survivors most of all.  

We are not counting on DeVos and her allies to lead this country through a process of healing and truth-telling, particularly about the continued horrors of racism. Betsy DeVos and her peers have no interest in promoting racial or survivor justice. Over the past two years alone, our organizations have spent countless hours fighting their efforts to destroy the civil rights of black students and student survivors.  

Both of our organizations have stated, again and again, that an attack on Title IX is an attack on all civil rights. DeVos’ rules would forbid schools from proactively addressing sexual violence, forcing too many student survivors into a broken criminal legal system in order to hold their abusers accountable. While some may choose to report their assaults to law enforcement, this cannot be the only option for survivors.

For too many people, the criminal legal system has been a tool of oppression, such that reporting to law enforcement is not a viable option for many in the black, LGBTQ or immigrant community. If DeVos’ rules—or the similar ones currently being considered by state legislatures—go into effect, the consequences will be a blow to both the racial justice and survivor justice movements. 

But we can and must do better by black people.  

It’s up to all of us to tell the truth about our history—and our present. When named abusers like R. Kelly and Bill Cosby compare having to respond to credible allegations of sexual violence to being lynched, we must band together to reject their narrative, and focus on believing and supporting black survivors.  

When Title IX opponents claim without evidence that Title IX procedures are unfair to black men, we must re-center the needs of black women and girls who are often overlooked as survivors.  

The truth is that few people face any meaningful consequence for sexual violence, no matter their race. But focusing on consequences for accused students alone misses the opportunity to discuss how schools can prevent violence in the first place, repair any harm suffered by the survivor, and create a culture of respect and consent among students.

Title IX’s mandate to address harassment and prevent its recurrence not only ensures all students feel valued and safe in school, but also helps students unlearn practices that perpetuate gender-based violence. Thus, Title IX can be restorative for black students of all genders. 

Sexual abusers are the only ones who benefit when we artificially divide our causes. It is well past time to prioritize the safety of black survivors, who are largely women, girls, and non-binary people. They should be centered in discussions of racial justice, not pushed to the side. And black men, whose experiences as survivors are scarcely acknowledged, also belong in the survivor justice movement.  

Racial justice is gender justice is survivor justice. They go hand in hand, and we cannot have one without the other. And Title IX’s mandate to end sex discrimination in schools could not be more crucial now.  

Title IX exists to give students rights, not to take them away. It can provide the pathway for our schools to truly be spaces where students can learn with safety and dignity. But only if we protect it. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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