How CeCe McDonald’s Plight Exemplifies The Criminal Justice System’s Institutionalized Racism And Transphobia

CeCe McDonald

This week, Ebony magazine’s Marc Lamont Hill asked, “Why aren’t we fighting for CeCe McDonald?

McDonald, a trans woman of color, was out with some friends when they were assaulted with racist and transphobic epithets (“n*ggers,” “faggots,” and “chicks with dicks”) by two white women and a man. One of the women escalated the confrontation physically by striking McDonald with a cocktail glass that punctured her cheek and salivary gland. Fearing for her life, McDonald sought to defend herself, but at the end of the ensuing fight, it was the white man, Dean Schmitz, who was dead. McDonald was arrested, left with little choice but to plead guilty, and ultimately sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison for second-degree manslaughter.

Hill painstakingly documents the many ways McDonald was unfairly treated from the moment the fight ended through her sentencing last week. Here are some examples from Hill’s retelling:

  • McDonald was the only individual arrested after the fight, and her claims of self-defense were ignored. As Hill writes, “McDonald was legally punished for surviving a transphobic hate attack.”
  • “Throughout the trial, the judge and prosecution consistently and intentionally misgendered McDonald, referring to her by masculine pronouns.”
  • McDonald’s claim of self-defense was dismissed despite medical evidence, toxicology reports, eyewitness accounts, and unrefuted testimony that Schmitz initiated the altercation — not McDonald.
  • The court refused to consider Schmitz’s past criminal record or the swastika tattooed on his chest, fairly obvious confirmations of his hateful intent.
  • Given the incredibly high rates of trans abuse in the prison system, “CeCe McDonald has been sentenced to 41 months of sexual violence.”

McDonald’s case exemplifies the worst biases in the criminal justice system, and in particular the many ways the Black trans community is criminalized for their identities, as Hill concludes:

In the final analysis, CeCe McDonald is a transgender Black woman who had the courage to “stand her ground” and defend herself from a hate attack. As a punishment for surviving, she has been sentenced to 41 months of torture inside of a men’s prison.

Though McDonald’s case is substantially different from Trayvon Martin’s, Hill’s allusion to “stand your ground” laws is a reminder that the criminal justice system continues to disfavor members of minority groups.

There are still ways to help CeCe, such as writing her letters of support or donating to her support fund. The biggest imperative is to share her story and call out the blatant injustices that she has suffered. The Black trans community faces some of the highest rates of discrimination of any population, as documented in a large study last year:

  • 34 Percent of Black trans respondents lived in extreme poverty, with yearly household incomes under $10,000.
  • 20 percent of Black trans respondents were HIV-positive.
  • 49 percent of Black trans respondents reported having attempted suicide.
  • 15 percent of Black trans respondents had been physically assaulted in the workplace.
  • 32 percent of Black trans respondents had lost a job due to bias.
  • 48 percent of of Black trans respondents were denied a job due to bias.
  • 41 percent of Black trans respondents had experienced homelessness.

By not identifying and correcting egregious mistakes like those committed against CeCe McDonald, society is doomed to repeat them.