The Historical Context of Rape in Black Communities
For centuries in America, rape was largely defined and conceptualized as a sexual act perpetrated by a black man against a white woman. In fact, any accusation against a black man by a white woman would lead to severe punishment or lynching of a black man. America’s legal system provided black men with no protection against false accusations of rape and no justice to any black woman raped by a white man.
White-on-black racial hoaxes are frequently effective because they receive massive institutional support from whites who control major institutions, such as police departments and judiciaries. Because anti-black stereotypes make claims about the fundamental nature and character of all black people, the white public and white-run institutions react to hoaxes by effectively considering all black people as suspicious and criminal. Hoaxes in which people of color falsely blame whites do not have this effect because negative stereotypes about the general character of white people are uncommon, and because people of color do not have the institutional power to effectively criminalize all whites. Instead, hoaxes initiated by people of color are often met with initial suspicion and, when taken seriously, result only in limited searches for guilty individuals rather than general searches through entire white neighborhoods.
The importance of unequal institutional power is even more apparent when one considers the history of racial hoaxes in the United States. During the slavery and Old Jim Crow periods (1619–1965), whites had complete control over every government institution, including the police and the courts. During the New Jim Crow period (1966-2017), whites still have complete control over every government institution, including the police and the courts.
Extensive and overt white racism allows whites to completely disregard the testimony of blacks and the objective evidence of cases. Mere accusations from whites are sufficient to convict people of color in a court of law. Often, black people never even reached a courtroom, while white mobs lynched unknown numbers of black men (official estimates are over 6,000), usually as scapegoats after whites accused them of petty theft or sexual promiscuity with white women, as occurred in the Rosewood, Florida, massacre of 1923. In this case, a white mob burned down the black community of Rosewood after a white woman falsely claimed that a black man had raped her.
THE SLAVE ERA AND BEYOND
For white males, cross-racial sex was a mark of ‘‘manhood’’; for black males, the same action mandated as gruesome a death as possible. Any cross-racial sexual encounter by black males was interpreted as ‘‘assault’’ or rape requiring vigilante vengeance, the intention of either party being irrelevant.
From the slave era until the mid-twentieth century, interactions between blacks and whites were colored by a complex racial and sexual ideology that contributed to complicated attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors surrounding rape. For example, during the slave era, some black women consented to sexual relations with white men in order to lessen the inherent brutality of slavery. As they sexually exploited black women, slaveholders also utilized rape as a tool for increasing the slave labor force. Some black women consented to sexual relations with black men at their master’s command. Thus, sexual assault—in various forms—was a part of the political economy of American slavery. The sexual exploitation of black women workers remained a persistent practice, challenging black women’s sense of respectability for centuries. For example, black domestic workers, who worked in northern cities during the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, experienced rampant unwanted sexual advances while employed in white households. These women—who had fled the South in search of economic opportunities and freedom from legal racism—often had to make choices that compromised their images in the black community.
In the documentary Freedom Bags, a film recounting the hardships of black domestic workers in the 1920s, one woman indicates that many black women ‘‘had babies by their employers.’’ Thus the complexities of interracial rape were further problematized by what appeared to be black women’s willingness to be complicit in their own sexual exploitation. However, black women who consented to unwanted sexual relationships did so because they lacked the power to refuse. These women unwittingly perpetuated the notion of the promiscuous black woman by prioritizing survival over morality.
In 1892 Ida B. Wells turned her attention to the institutionalization of racial violence, particularly in the American South. Deeply angered by the lynching of three black store owners in Memphis, Tennessee, Wells began to reconsider the beliefs that she and most other southerners had about lynching. One was that black men were justifiably lynched for raping white women. Realizing that the three store owners had not committed rape, Wells concluded that lynching was a racist strategy to prevent black economic and political progress. She realized that in the post-Reconstruction South, whites could no longer claim blacks as property, but they could still control blacks by threatening violence. Using her newspaper as a platform, Wells stated unequivocally that many sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual and that charges of rape against black men were often false. Wells also indicated that rape by white men was far more prevalent, yet white men’s sexual brutality went unpunished. Although Wells was forced to flee the South because of her anti-lynching activism, she continued her campaign in New York and eventually brought international attention to her cause.
THE MODERN ERA
Lynchings decreased in the American South as a direct result of Wells’s activism. Through her campaign she also underscored the sexual victimization of black women by white men. However, it was not until the 1970s that rape—as a form of patriarchal oppression—became a part of the public consciousness, primarily through the activism of white feminists. Although these activists reconceptualized rape as an act of violence specifically directed at women, most ignored the complex racist underpinnings of rape in America. In 1977 the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group, identified rape as a black feminist issue and championed the need for rape crisis centers in black neighborhoods. Understanding the historical vulnerability of black women, these activists spoke out against sexual violence perpetrated by both white and black men.
Despite antirape activism that has led to more substantive legal protection for women, race-based inequities in arrests, prosecution, and in attitudes toward rape victims are difficult to eliminate. Studies show that black women are less likely to report rape than white women. When black women do report rape, they are less likely to be believed than white women in similar situations. In court, jurors are more likely to believe that the assailants of white women are guilty than they are to believe a black woman has been sexually assaulted. Across every aspect of the criminal justice process, racial bias can play an influential role.
Sexual harassment is a form of institutionalized rape in that it implies an element of sexual exploitation, particularly in the workplace.
Throughout America’s history, black people have lived with two sources of racist shame: black women’s humiliation through rape and various forms of public violence targeting mostly black men. This legacy ripped through the very core of black America when Anita Hill accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment before a congressional committee in 1991. Sexual harassment is a form of institutionalized rape in that it implies an element of sexual exploitation, particularly in the workplace. Many African Americans were more appalled at Hill’s public accusations against a prominent black man than they were at the possibility that the accusations could be true. Referring to the congressional hearing as a high-tech lynching, Thomas unearthed shallowly buried racial skeletons and secured his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, both Hill and Thomas could be viewed as victims of a rape ideology that simply assumes new forms from one century to another.
- Combahee River Collective. 1982. ‘‘A Black Feminist Statement.’’ In All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 13– 22. New York: Feminist Press.
- Kennedy, Elizabeth. ‘‘Victim Race and Rape.’’ The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. Available from http:// www.brandeis.edu/projects/fse/Pages/victimraceandrape.html
- Nelson, Stanley, and Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. 1990. Freedom Bags. New York: Filmakers Library. Film.
- White, Deborah Gray. 1985. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton.
- Cheryl R. Rodriguez