African American Attitudes toward
Domestic Violence and DV Assistance

Vetta Sanders Thompson, Ph.D. & Anita Bazile, Ph.D.

Current data indicate that despite a more than two-decade decline, African American women continue to experience a higher rate of intimate partner homicide compared to women of other races. In addition, African American women's rates of intimate partner violence are higher than every other group's, except American Indian women (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001). Contrary to expectation, African American women are more likely to make reports of intimate violence to the police than women of other racial/ethnic groups (Rennison, 2001). National surveys of prevalence and a growing body of literature on domestic violence among African American women have highlighted the need for data on attitudes toward DV services, perceptions of treatment/intervention needs, and evaluation of DV programs in the African American community. Advocates and practitioners have voiced concern over the lack of research that addresses why African American women are less likely to access victim services (National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, 2001).

There are few studies examining the needs of African American women experiencing domestic violence. Studies suggest that African American women do use domestic violence services (Thomas, 2000; Sullivan & Rumptz, 1994; Gondolf, Fisher, McFerron, 1988). Gondolf, et al. (1988) noted that most women, regardless of race or ethnicity, sought the same amount but different kinds of help, such as financial support from social services agencies or family, shelter services, counseling from ministers, friends, or agencies; as well material items from friends, family, or agencies. This early study using Texas shelter data (N=5708) indicated that African American women were more likely to call a minister or the police. Sullivan & Rumptz, (1994) suggest that African American women may seek services at the point that violence becomes life threatening, with African American women reporting more severe abuse in the 6 months prior to entering a shelter than European American women.

African American women benefit from domestic violence services. For instance, Sullivan and Rumptz (1994) indicated that African American women who received advocacy services were more satisfied with their stay and had a higher quality of life at follow-up. These services included assistance with education and acquisition of household items. After services were received, African American women expressed intent to continue receiving advocacy services (Gondolf, et al., 1988).

African American women's ability to escape a violent relationship has been compromised by the effects of discrimination, economic hardship, and social inequity (Sullivan & Rumptz, 1994). Sullivan & Rumptz found that African American women were more likely to live below poverty level, to have more children living with them, to be the sole provider for their family, and were less likely to have a car. They noted that health issues, material goods (furniture, household goods and supplies), and financial issues were most likely to be listed as needed resources in the first ten weeks of a shelter stay. Furthermore, financial and social issues affected African American women, as well as other women of color, more adversely than European American women (Sorenson, 1996). For example, African American shelter residents participating in focus groups complained that shelters did not provide food that acknowledged different cultural preferences or appropriate grooming aids for African American women.

The National Black Survey, which examined African American help seeking behaviors for mental and emotional distress (Jackson, Neighbors, & Gurin, 1986), is the most comprehensive study of help seeking in the African American community. Study findings indicate that services were sought as a result of a physician, family member, or friend's referral. In the absence of more specific data, it seems important to carefully examine the beliefs, attitudes, understandings and expectations of the African American community at large regarding help seeking, including assistance in cases of domestic violence. The authors of this study consider community attitudes toward help seeking in cases of domestic violence in the African American community through the use of focus groups.


The focus group is a qualitative research strategy that uses a semi-structured discussion format. The group facilitator begins the process and moves the discussion along with the aid of discussion questions. However, the specific content and order of content are driven by participants' responses (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). It is a technique used to explore understudied issues or topics.


Twenty-seven, mixed sex focus groups were conducted in an urban, Midwestern city from May 2000 through mid-November 2000. Groups ranged in size from 3 to 12 members. Participants were volunteers. Recruitment was via newspaper advertisement and posted announcements. Participants received a twenty-dollar stipend for their participation. Participants were not permitted to participate in more than one group. A total of 201 African Americans (134 females and 66 males, one participant did not provide information) participated in discussions.

A brief demographic questionnaire was administered prior to participation. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 74 years, with a mean age of 35.8 years (SD = 12.9 years). They reported an average of 14 years of education, with a range of 8 to 22 years; and reported income ranging from 0 to $150,000, with a mean of $19,322 and a median income level of $18,000.


An African American female, psychologist with eight years of experience conducting focus groups with African Americans led the sessions. A counseling graduate student assisted. The discussion of domestic violence was conducted in the context of mental health in the African American community; therefore participants did not necessarily have personal experience with domestic violence. Focus groups were 1 1/2 hours long and examined the mental health and domestic violence service utilization in the African American community. Four probes focused on domestic violence:

  1. Participant perceptions of attitudes toward domestic violence in their community.
  2. Barriers to seeking assistance and services.
  3. Perceptions of needed services,
  4. Knowledge of existing services.

Discussions were lively and participants appeared to share their thoughts, knowledge and experiences candidly. Several participants discussed personal experiences with domestic violence. Other participants discussed DV experiences of friends and family members. In general, participants had encountered domestic violence and were aware of its prevalence.

All discussions were audiotaped. The audiotapes were transcribed and independently reviewed by the authors. Shortly after group discussions, an assistant completed detailed field notes based on the sessions and debriefing discussions. Based on review of the transcripts, field notes, and debriefing notes, impressions were consolidated into a list of themes and issues.

Key Findings

Lack Knowledge of

  • Long term consequences of DV experience (everything is fine once a woman leaves)
  • Services (their location and costs)
  • Warning signs that violence is escalating

Cultural Values and Beliefs That Inhibit Disclosure

  • African American women are strong (pride) - deny violence, vulnerability
  • African Americans are responsible for themselves and others around them; as African Americans we take care of ourselves - self-blame, self-sacrificing, embarrassed, ashamed if unable to control or endure situation
  • African American women are responsible for keeping family together - avoid leaving (Have to consider effect of leaving on the children. How can you stop him from seeing his children?)
  • African Americans "don't tell their business" - deny, or avoid disclosure
  • Religious views (God will take care of it; pray; The Lord will change him)

Community Attitudes That Inhibit Disclosure and Intervention

  • Definitions of abuse (pushing and shoving are not serious)
  • Distrust of institutions (concerns related to police response to AA women, legal system involvement, and agency attitudes)
  • Loyalty issues, family pressure that inhibit self-disclosure and action (How can I (you) have him arrested? How could you leave him?).
  • I did nothing wrong. Why should I leave?
  • Rely on family, friends, and church for resources and referrals

Financial Concerns

  • How can I (you) survive?)

Treatment Needs

  • Community based, self-help support groups and networks
  • Self -esteem building to assist in leaving
  • Support and advocacy services to assist with issues after leaving (housing, job training, children's psychological needs)
  • Treatment, designed specifically for AA men, without stereotypes

Cultural Sensitivity

  • Sense that advocates and shelter workers understand that violence is not more acceptable in the African American community
  • Advocates and shelter workers who are perceived as comfortable communicating with AA women in a respectful, non-paternalistic manner
  • Diversity among advocates and shelter workers
  • Awareness of expectations sometimes incongruent with safety and well being based on community attitudes and values
  • Awareness that AA women respond to shelter rules within the context of a history of a controlling oppressive relationship and an oppressive society.


There is a need for education on domestic violence. Issues related to definitions, warning signs, behavioral cycles, and resources are required. The media outlets and institutions prominent in the African American community must be targeted. Because African Americans rely on family, friends, and the church for information and referral, outreach must be broad. Women will likely consult with one of these sources for support prior to action. Advocates must find ways to facilitate this social support system throughout a woman's effort to address her domestic violence experience.

Diversity and sensitivity require ongoing awareness and action. Shelters must systematically examine staff composition and training. Advocates and shelter workers must be knowledgeable of cultural values, community attitudes, and social experiences that may affect reactions and responses to domestic violence. This knowledge should be differentiated from myths and stereotypes related about domestic violence in the African American community. Communication strategies that facilitate positive and supportive interactions between advocates/workers and African American women, who have experienced DV, should be included in training modules. Shelter rules and policies should be examined to discern how they might impact diverse populations, and how explanations or implementation can be made more culturally sensitive.


Participants were aware of the need for services that addressed domestic violence in the African American community. Despite this recognition, lack of knowledge, cultural issues, and community attitudes were noted to impede action by abused women and support from friends and family. These barriers can and must be addressed.


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Hampton, R. L. and Gelles, R. J. (1994). Violence toward Black Women in a Nationally Representative sample of Black Families. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 25, 105 _ 119.

Jackson, J. S., Neighbors, H. & Gurin, G. (1986). Findings from a National Survey of Black Mental Health: Implication for Practice and Training. In M.R. Miranda & H. L. Kitano (ed.). Mental Health Research and Practice in Minority Communities: Development of Culturally Sensitive Training Programs. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Press.

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Sullivan, C. M. & Rumptz, M. H. (1994). Adjustment and needs of African American women who utilized a domestic violence shelter. Violence and Victims, 9, 275-286.

Thomas, E. K. (2000). Domestic Violence in African American and Asian American communities: A comparative analysis of two racial/ethnic minority cultures and implications for mental health service provision for women of color. Psychology: A Journal of Human Behavior, 37, 32-43.

U. S. Department of Justice (2001). Criminal Victimization Bureau of Justice Statistics

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