The Credibility Gap: If Nobody Believes Us, Are We Even Making a Sound?
As I consider the tapestry of injustice that is the backdrop to US history, I often endeavor to find the thread that binds it all together, the thread which, if pulled upon, would unravel it in its entirety. The hope is not only to find ways to undermine the various systemic and brutal forms of abuse perpetrated by our society, often with the support of our government, but also to find ways in which we are bound in our various struggles that is more than the struggle itself.
One such thread is the “Credibility Gap.” Specifically, it is the way women, black people, and immigrants are routinely robbed of their credibility merely by virtue of their membership to such groups. Let me explain.
My starting point, because of my life experience and my work, is the abysmal way in which women are treated when they report domestic abuse or rape. Very simply, their credibility is immediately at issue. Why did she stay? Who did she tell? But he’s such a “nice guy”? She’s just trying to hurt him! The list of excuses and alternate “storylines” is immediate, regardless of who reports and how. This, simply, does not happen with car break-ins or robberies or other types of assaults: just with gender-based crimes, overwhelmingly affecting female victims. The data backs this up.
Only 5.75% of incidents result in an arrest, 0.7% of reported rapes result in a felony conviction and 0.6% of reported rapes result in incarceration. While this can be chalked up to any number of factors, experience shows us that women are overwhelmingly not believed when they report. There is also solid evidence that rape in the real world looks vastly different from rape as imagined in the collective mind: the identity of the perpetrator (stranger v. known person), the extent of injuries (none other than the rape v. bruising, broken bones, and visible lacerations), the victim’s reaction (screaming and fighting v. fear-induced passivity), and the way victim’s behave after (reporting v. non-reporting) are just a few examples. All of these, though, are just ways in which women’s “version” is tested to see whether it is believable. Their credibility is tested when they report crimes perpetrated against them, overwhelmingly by men and uniquely premised on women’s membership in their own sex. The basis for such questioning? The specter of “false accusations.” Because of course, women lie, right? Of course. The message is clear: women cannot be trusted, women are liars. And if you think this only affects gender-based violence, you are wrong. This attitude impacts every aspect of women’s fight for equality.
Women want to be paid the same as men. The fight for pay equity continues to rage, some would say incomprehensibly stalled, across the nation. But if we understand that women are viewed as inherently untrustworthy, the stalling becomes logical. To pay women equally to men we have to believe them. Believe the pay gap exists. Believe women’s work is equal to men’s. If women are liars, there is no reason to believe either statement.
Women want to be treated equally when they apply for jobs. And we know they don’t. Identical resumes with a man’s name will get callbacks at much higher rates than resumes bearing a female name. Again, this makes sense if we understand the way society paints women as unbelievable. A job search process demands that candidates, to a certain extent, be taken on faith. An employer has to believe the employee and has to have faith they will perform well. If women are not believable, that unmeasurable factor will not break in their favor. As explained by the Harvard Business School in 2017, ““With statistical discrimination, you have certain beliefs about men versus women and what they can do, and given those beliefs, you choose the person who you think is the best person to hire. You are simply acting in a way that you think will maximize your profits.” Why Employers Favor Men. For more, review the AAUW’s article In STEM Fields, Many Employers Hire “John” over “Jennifer,” “Gender bias contributes to scenarios in which women like ‘Jennifer’ are evaluated as less competent, less hirable, and less valuable than identically qualified male counterparts.” In other words, men’s tacit statement they will be profitable and a “good hire” are believed, at face value, but women’s tacit statement to the same effect is not.
So why is this a common thread in the “tapestry of injustice”? Because the same theme is applied to black women, black men, and non-white Latino & Hispanic communities, to name a few.
When I walk around, I tacitly ask the world to believe certain things about me. One of them, a very basic one I don’t even think about, is that I am not a threat. I don’t have to think about it because I am white. (I also don’t have to think about it because I am female, which raises other issues, but that is beyond the scope of this particular article). In the context of my whiteness, that is privilege. When I enter a store, I tacitly ask the storekeepers and managers to believe certain other things about me: that I am not a threat and that I am not there to steal. Again, I don’t usually have to think about that, because I am white. Again, that is privilege. If I accidentally walk out with an item without paying (it once happened with a baguette!) or if I forget something in my cart, I ask others to believe me when I say I just made a mistake. As a mother, I ask others to believe, again, that I am a good and competent mother. As a mother of white children, I ask others to assume that if my children have trouble at school, it is because they are growing, or immature, or need additional support, but that they are fundamentally good kids. These, and many more, are requests that I tacitly make throughout my life and are, for the most part, granted. That is white privilege, and, in those contexts, people believe me. But that is not the case for communities of color and is certainly not the case for black communities.
Once we view racism as perpetrated by a fabricated “credibility gap” the methodology (and its results) become clear.
Black men are incarcerated at higher rates than white men, for the same crimes. Black Men Sentenced to More Time for Committing the Exact Same Crimes as a White Person, Study Finds. (“Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20 percent longer, according to a new report on sentencing disparities from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).”) Why? Because the judicial system does not believe black men. It does not believe them when they say they will improve, it does not believe them when they say they need treatment rather than imprisonment, it does not believe them when they express remorse, and it does not believe them when they say they will return to court for their hearings. The list goes on. I’ve sat through criminal proceedings and the extent of “soft considerations” is immense. Judges routinely make judgments regarding people’s credibility, in a myriad of ways: intent, mitigating factors, likelihood of relapse or recidivism, and remorse. Where do you think those judgment calls fall in a society with a history like ours? And yet, the patently unjust way in which black communities are treated is justified, reinforced, and perpetuated by this very simple statement: “We don’t believe you.”
Black children are criminalized for youthful behavior while their white counterparts are, well, treated like children. See, for example, the February 2019 expose Not separate, and yet unequal: The criminalization of black children in public schools: “Yet, increasingly, all around the country, schools are criminalizing behavior that was once deemed merely, well, childish.” Why? The explanations and analyses abound, but, at its core, the methodology is obvious: white children and their parents are believed when they ask the world to see their offspring as children, as able to grow, as able to improve, as fundamentally innocent. However, black children, and their parents, are not afforded that luxury. They are not believed.
Once I saw this, the existence and effect of the credibility gap became stunningly evident. From abortion laws to immigration, from kneeling athletes to allegations of sexual harassment, communities other than straight white men are systematically robbed of their legitimacy because they are not given the benefit of credibility. If nobody believes what you say, if nobody believes your ability to make good decisions, if nobody believes your statements about your life experiences, what good are you as an agent of change for yourself? How effective can you be at holding those who hurt you accountable? How can you truly ever be a victim if the “other side” of the story is always just a little bit more credible?
This is the gap into which our human rights disappear. This is the gap that swallows our bodies and our very existences.