Chris Brown’s February 8th assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna, has put the problem of intimate partner violence in the media spotlight (Chris Brown photo credit: O.M.Gee!). From Oprah Winfrey to Larry King to numerous entertainment and news websites, talk show hosts, commentators, bloggers and others have examined the incident from multiple angles, spinning off questions about abusive relationships more generally. One of the most frequently raised issues is the social class of the couple. As a writer for CNN recently noted:
Both singers are young, apple-cheeked, immensely talented and squeaky clean – the last couple you’d imagine as domestic violence headliners. Perhaps the only good that will come from the Rihanna/Brown publicity is destruction of our culture’s misconception that abusers and their victims can only be universally poor, uneducated and powerless.
Certainly this is an important lesson to be learned and one that domestic violence advocates have been emphasizing for more than 30 years: Intimate partner violence affects individuals in all social classes and racial/ethnic groups; no one is protected by virtue of their class or race privilege. That said, one of the most consistent findings from research is a strong inverse relationship between social class and intimate partner violence: As social class goes up, rates of intimate partner violence go down. Analyses of large, national surveys, for example, show that women living in households with the lowest annual incomes were five times more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than women in households in the highest income category, and three times more likely than women in the middle income category (Rihanna photo credit: Trangdepp).
Poor women, of course, are not a homogeneous group. For instance, some poor women are homeless or living in temporary shelters, while others are housed. Some are employed, even if only in low-paying jobs without benefits, while others are unemployed or receive public assistance. Although poor women overall are at greater risk of intimate partner violence victimization, studies show that the poorest of the poor have the highest rates. Consider, for example, that nationally representative surveys of the general U.S. population estimate that about 25% of women are victimized by an intimate partner at some time during their lives. That is an unacceptably high number, but appears slight when comparing it to studies of women on welfare, which report a range of 28% to 63% lifetime victimization rates; the majority of estimates from these studies are 40% to 60% (Richard Tolman, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Violence Against Women, 5:355-369).
Research also indicates that poor women have higher lifetime rates of all forms of violent victimization. In a Massachusetts study, for instance, researchers found that among their sample of 216 housed, low-income, single mothers and 220 homeless single mothers in which the average age was 27, only 16% had not been physically or sexually abused in their relatively short lifetimes. Nearly 33% reported severe physical violence by a current or former boyfriend, 60% reported physical violence perpetrated by a male partner during adulthood, 63% reported severe physical violence by a parent or caregiver during childhood, and over 40% reported that they had been sexually molested during childhood. As the authors of this research point out, the majority of the women in this study had experienced only brief periods of safety during their lives (Angela Browne, Amy Salomon, & Shari S. Bassuk, “The Impact of Recent Partner Violence on Poor Women’s Capacity to Maintain Work,” Violence Against Women, 5:393-426).
One issue that has not been mentioned in the Rihanna/Brown case is the fact that the couple is black. Since the early 1980s, large national surveys have shown that black women are at greater risk of being violently victimized by their intimate partners than white women are. Some researchers have argued that the higher rate of intimate violence among black couples is the result of culturally specific factors that include beliefs about marriage and fidelity along with negative stereotypes of black women. But in studies that have examined both race and social class, differences in rates of intimate partner violence between black and white couples are significantly reduced or disappear completely when social class is controlled. The higher rate of intimate partner violence victimization – and, indeed, all types of violent victimization – among black women, then, is another outcome of racism: the result of the disproportionate number of black people who live in poverty. In her recent research on gendered violence in the lives of urban black girls, the vast majority of which is perpetrated by peers and acquaintances, criminologist Jody Miller informs readers:
This book should not be read as an indictment of young Black men and their treatment of their female peers. . . . [W]e, as a society, have created the circumstances that lead to cultural adaptations to situational contexts that shape urban African American young women’s risks. The indictment is of all of us. (Getting Played, New York: New York University Press, 2008, p. xvii)
Thus, while the attention given to intimate partner violence because of the Rihanna/Brown case is important and welcome, the emphasis being placed on the couple’s social status and how intimate partner violence happens even among wealthy couples should not allow us to overlook the fact that the greatest burden of this violence falls on poor women. And, as a direct result of racism, women of color are disproportionately poor and have the fewest resources available to them to cope with this problem.