We Let White Celeb Domestic Violence Offenders Off the Hook Far More Than Their Black Counterparts

A new study reveals that racial bias in celebrity domestic abuse reporting has consequences for every victim.

Actor Sean Penn, attending a charity function in New York last month. The Oscar-winner had a public showdown with a former co-star at the Los Angeles airport over his support for Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

I’m not an avid follower of Chris Brown’s seemingly endless list of public hijinx and screwups (for starters, who has that kind of time?), but I'm well aware of his status as a man who has beat up at least one woman. Brown’s awful 2009 assault on his then-girlfriend Rihanna made the news, complete with leaked photo evidence of the injuries she sustained, many times over.

Seven years later, when Brown’s name comes up in the media, that horrific incident is often referenced, and in 2015 kept the singer from getting the visa he needed to tour in New Zealand and Australia. Few of us who care about domestic violence are likely to see the continuing condemnation of Brown—which hasn’t been helped by his subsequent public meltdowns over the year—as undeserved. What’s more, it’s about time domestic violence was recognized as the terrible crime it is.

But Brown is far from the only celebrity to be accused of domestic violence. So why do we hear about other stars’ despicable behavior with so much less frequency? A new study suggests that the level of media outcry about domestic violence is colored by the race of the offender. And while no one is suggesting we should forget about the abuse and violence carried out by any celebrity, it does raise questions about racialized double standards in deciding who is and isn’t held accountable for his behavior.

According a report by the University of Maryland, researchers reviewed, “330 news articles, covering approximately 66 celebrities between 2009 and 2011, to extract disparities between the reporting of celebrity offenses.” They found that white celebs embroiled in domestic abuse scandals received less harsh news coverage than their black counterparts, and were not as likely to be treated as criminal subjects.

“The racial differences are attributed to two mechanisms,” Joanna Pepin, lead author of the study, states. “First, when the media reports on domestic violence, men’s violence is more likely to be portrayed as a criminal act when the celebrity is black than when the celebrity is white.”

In keeping with previous studies finding black men are overrepresented as criminals in the news, Pepin says that when both white and black men engage in domestic violence, black men are portrayed as criminals, while white male celebs rarely are.

“Black men were presented as criminals (citing arrest information, details of official charges, and mentioning law enforcement officers’ involvement) more often than white men…[T[hese mentions occurred three times more often when authors reported on black male celebrities than when they reported on white male celebrities,” a UMD summation of the study reports.

Media reports on white celebrities and domestic violence were also two and a half times more likely to make excuses for their violent behavior, Pepin found. The study observed that news stories often “suggest white men’s violent behavior resulted from a mutual conflict and to excuse their violence due to mitigating circumstances, such as inebriation.”

“White celebrities benefited by highlighting substance abuse and anger as an excuse for violence while escaping the stigmatization of being deemed an addict or criminal,” Pepin says.

There are disturbing implications of this tendency to absolve white, overwhelmingly male celebs of responsibility for their domestic violence. In addition to furthering racist assumptions, it leads to a form of victim-blaming that hurts survivors.

“Racial bias in the media coverage of celebrity domestic violence perpetuates myths about abuse, and can also negatively impact the resources and responses available to victims,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence stated in a related story on the organization’s website. “When the media reinforce destructive racial stereotypes, where white celebrity abusers are coddled and celebrity abusers of color are vilified, all victims lose.”

Domestic violence accusations have been made against white celebrities including Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, and in multiple instances, Charlie Sheen, among many others. There has been some attention paid to those charges. But this study suggests much more coverage may have resulted were race not an influencing factor.

The fact is, there are plenty of celebs whose domestic abuse warrants more digital ink. The charge remains one that is stubbornly underreported, a reflection of culturally pervasive issues around misogyny and sexism. Race affects everything in our country, and our media is no exception. When anti-black racial bias combines with our attitudes about violence in the home and our worshipful celebrity culture, it fails to effectively call domestic violence out where it sees it. And visibility is critical in addressing a problem that affects so many.

“Domestic violence can be perpetrated against anyone, regardless of race, age, socioeconomic class, sex, religion, culture or any other factor,” Gandy adds. “It is critical that the media recognize this truth and hold all offenders equally accountable.”

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.