District Attorney Satana Deberry always wears a red beaded bracelet with a little white elephant. On its own, this might seem like an odd choice for a progressive Democrat. But Saturday, as a sea of red sweaters, Greek letters, and all forms of elephant decor filled the conference room in the Durham County Human Services Complex, the bracelet made a lot more sense.
The elephant is the unofficial symbol of the historically black Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which Deberry and Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis are both alumnae. The sorority’s Durham Alumnae Chapter hosted a panel discussion called “Sister to Sister: A Talk on Sexual Assault.” The discussion was moderated by fellow sorority sister Jasmine McGhee, who is special deputy attorney general and director of the Public Protection Section at the North Carolina Department of Justice.
Deberry lauded her sorority sisters and fellow panelists for their accomplishments, and emphasized the significance of them holding those positions as women of color.
“The chief and I are unicorns almost,” Deberry said. “It is rare that you are in a jurisdiction in which the chief of police and the district attorney are not just women, but black women.”
She said that this is particularly significant in a conversation about sexual assault in a southern state, where sexual politics have been deeply intertwined with racial discrimination. The history of the American South is rife with the sexual exploitation of black women – free and enslaved – and their inability to access the protections of the criminal justice system. Deberry emphasized that the South is also a place where false accusations of sexual assault have been used to justify the lynching of black men.
Davis said, “Being an African American female in this work I think is quite relevant. I think we are lucky when we have African-American women who don’t just know what they are doing, but they can also make their work personal.”
According to Deberry, black women today are typically those who pay bail, visit people in jail or prison– and are increasingly incarcerated themselves.
“To the extent that the criminal justice system has a customer, it’s black women,” she said.
“But the dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that black and brown women are also the people most likely to be victimized,” Deberry said. “And we are the least likely, especially when we are children, to be believed.”
In 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Durham Public School students, black high school students were nearly twice as likely as white students to report being raped; Latinx students were almost three times as likely.
The audience included educators, social workers, public health advocates, and survivors of sexual assault. Their questions ranged from what to do in situations when a child is sexually assaulted to how immigrants who are living in the country without legal permission should handle an assault.
Deberry responded that when survivors come through her office, she will not ask about their citizenship status. “It does not matter one bit to us,” she said.
Another audience member asked about the statute of limitations for criminal sexual assault in North Carolina. The panelists said that, unlike other states, there isn’t one.
Before ending the talk, the panelists emphasized this issue concerns men and boys, too.
“We talk about believing women and girls, but also talk to your sons,” Deberry said. While more than one in three women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence, almost one in four men have too, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
While the audience was mostly women, there were some men too — most notably Clarence Birkhead, the Durham County Sheriff. He was invited to say a few words to introduce the panel and he stayed until the end. “It is a really awesome team of law enforcement officials that you all have here in Durham, with me being right here with them working hand in hand,” he said.
As the panel concluded, Deberry emphasized that her office is working with the Sheriff’s Office and the Durham Police Department to address sexual assault. The Special Victims Unit of her office now works closely with Chief Davis’ Special Victims Unit.
“That has not generally been how it works,” Deberry said. “But that trust goes a long way in getting your cases dealt with.”