Racism and misogyny are inseparable everywhere, but their intertwining is exceptionally pronounced in the United States.
During the past few weeks, coverage of nationwide racial justice protests and the fallout of Rolling Stone’s stupendously flawed UVA rape coverage have overwhelmed the media. The fight for racial justice has finally become a large-scale, public, and highly visible one that captures the imagination and strips bare the horrific dehumanization of black people in this country. The focus has been on young men, even though African-American women suffer tremendously from the same harms. Nonetheless, this is now a macro narrative that far exceeds any one individual.
On the other hand, the story of rape on campus has become mired in a microanalysis of one woman and her inconsistent story. In the weeks since Rolling Stone published what is undoubtedly the most widely circulated article about institutional tolerance for sexual assault on college campuses, the story has become a referendum on false rape allegations. It is now almost always entirely decontextualized from the broader fight of the Title IX movement against sexual assault on campus, one that is largely about a diverse group of women fighting against the effects of accumulated and abusive male sexual entitlements.
It is no coincidence that this nationwide campus movement coincides with protests for racial justice around the country. The Title IX movement against institutional tolerance is about more than the act of rape. It is part of a much broader and profound movement, with deep historical roots, seeking to overturn the historic gender and race-based entitlements. Race and gender were reciprocally shaped by the definition of sexual violence in the United States, definitions that continue—because of failures of the criminal justice system—to perpetuate white, male supremacy.
Both movements are catalyzed by crushing failures of our criminal justice system, which is biased as the result of our history, to privilege high status white men. This makes sense since they wrote the laws and continue to govern in disproportion. While this is not difficult to illustrate, what is hard is emphasizing the role that definitions of masculinity play in injustice. One of the greatest challenges we face today is decoupling core ideas about American masculinity from control of women, the dehumanization of dark bodies, and the possession of guns as a signifier of autonomy and power.
Racism and misogyny are inseparable everywhere, but their intertwining is exceptionally pronounced in the United States, which was one of the first places in the world to bring together, in dense proximity, people of very diverse ethnicities.
Prior to the African slave trade, human bondage was defined not by skin color, but more by gender—slaves were understood to be weak, dependent, subject to being confined, in need of “benevolent” protection. In other words, like women. The structure of gender stratification was tessellated in unprecedented ways to justify the African slave trade and discrimination against black men in the United States.
Sally Kitch explains this history in her book, The Specter of Sex, where she describes, with clarity and analytical detail, the ways in which English, largely biblical, gender ideology provided the structure and language of American racism.
Slavery and racist laws consolidating white male colonial power were legal emasculations. During the course of the past 200 years, black men in the United States have been systematically stripped of the ability to achieve patriarchal masculine ideals. Enslaved or free, they did not have the right to own property in equal measure, were not granted property allotments as their white peers were, were banned from owning guns or joining militias, could not bear witness in court, and had legally degraded ability to earn a living and accumulate wealth. In this equation, guns (and their regulation) were particularly important as a defining aspect of white, male independence, control, governance, and what Kitch calls the “prerogative of self-rule,” a connection denied black citizens to this day.
Black men were deliberately unable to properly provide for or protect their families—two pillars of patriarchal power.
This gendered model for race formation not only consolidated slavery, which took precedence over traditional English class-based divisions of labor and wealth, but also served as the framework for colonial expansion and fatally undermined Native attempts to confront a European invasion that posited Native people, closer to nature, bare, illiterate, and “uncivilized,” as “like women.” Stereotypes of Asian men, as small, weak, and feminine, also has historical roots in “masculine” “civilizing” incursions into the “orient.” These ideas were evident in, and may have fatally informed, Elliot Rodger’s rage over being denied race and gendered entitlements to “blonde sorority sluts.”
Which brings us to women, sexual entitlement, and rape.
Free, indentured, or enslaved, women’s bodies, reproduction, and labor have always been central to reinforcing racist patriarchal norms. The exploitation of enslaved black women’s bodies and labor is obvious. However, there were distinctions among free women that illustrate this point. Interracial marriage was permissible and fairly common, for example, in many early colonies. However, this changed after legislators saw economic advantage in dividing black and white female bodies and taxing them differently. Black women were categorized as tithe-able “laborers,” whereas white woman’s labor was legally considered untaxable domestic work. So meaningful was this distinction that by the late 1600s half of the free black men in Virginia were married to English women. Only after white women’s labor was made a racialized economic advantage did anti-miscegenation laws proliferate.
Similarly, “status of the mother” laws were designed to enable white men to aggregate wealth. Laws were designed to make a black mother’s social position inheritable, meaning their offspring would be slaves and not free. On the other hand, white women were not legally allowed to confer their status, so their mixed-race children could not be free. As Kitch puts it, “status of the mother laws were the lynchpin of slave proliferation.”
So, as slavery grew, so did the necessity of controlling women. White women were increasingly relegated to the confined domestic sphere, restricted from being economically productive, and further subjugated to their male authority. This confinement was part of a cult of domesticity and white female purity, which developed hand-in-hand with an exploitable cult of black female hyper-sexuality and dehumanizing bestiality. Women’s bodies became the most visible and controllable route to distributing and regulating patriarchal social power.
The precedents for today’s rape myths and laws were established at the same time as black men were denied economically advantageous access to white women’s bodies.
Our rape laws were never designed to protect rape victims, but are based on the idea that all women were property and that rape was theft. English Common Law, the basis of our law, institutionalized coverture, defined women as property—their husband’s or father’s. Freed black men were not allowed to marry white women, as slaves could not have traditional “dominion” over their wives. Whereas, a white man raping a wife, or a single woman, was a status entitlement, while raping a black woman was a property investment.
Rape was understood as a theft of that property. (Think about the fact that we still say, for example, that a woman who has sex before marriage is “giving it away.” Or that, until last year, a judge overturned a rape conviction based on an arcane 1872 law that said a single woman could not be raped in California.) Legally unrapeable people included, until relatively recently, all black women (who were property), wives (also property), single women (who “give it away”), women who didn’t put up a fight, women who didn’t say “no” (the default female state assumed to be available when men wanted them to be), and men (technically, until 2012, when the FBI changed its definition of rape).
Common law antecedents to our rape laws, and the ideas and myths from which they were derived, were never meant to actually protect the raped, but rather to defend the property rights of those with power. Rape, as an understood entitlement to sexually assault, is something that remains tenaciously relevant today. The words “forcible rape,” like “why didn’t you fight back?” are shaped by this history of racism and sexism.
As Sharon Black, writing about Rape & Sexual Power in Early America, puts it, rape and sexual coercion were “utterly enmeshed in social standing, racial privilege, and household authority.” It was not until 1993 that laws overturning the legality of marital rape in this country were passed.
Centrally important to defining rape, and access to women’s productive bodies, was the portrayal of black men as monstrous, raping, sex fiends. In addition to over-criminalizing black boys and men, it solidified racial, economic, and gendered distributions of rights and power and played a major role in the women’s suffrage movement, in the use of lynching to terrorize, and in key events in the civil rights movement. Raising fears so that white women needed perpetual protection, which white men could provide (as long as no one took away their guns), simultaneously amplified gender hierarchies.
Which bring us to Ferguson, rape, and UVA, a school which was, of course, founded by Thomas Jefferson, a man whose interracial offspring, something people are loathe to admit, stemmed from rape. This continues to spur controversy.
Lost in the past week’s Rolling Stone clusterfuck is the juxtaposition of two UVA-related stories of gendered, sexualized violence. One involves the rape and murder of Hannah Graham, in which a black man unknown to her has been accused. Coverage of Graham’s assault and murder gained national attention in a long-standing pattern of what is called Missing White Woman Syndrome. The second one, of which Rolling Stone’s is but just one story, is decades of institutional tolerance, nationwide, for rapes perpetrated by elite men, mostly but not exclusively white, and usually known to their victims.
The first confirms overemphasized, racialized rape fears and the second challenges under-appreciated, racialized rape entitlements. The slippery slope between them captures the racist, sexist experiences of black women. Consider the tension in critiques of decades of Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults and muted coverage of 13 black women allegedly raped by police officer Daniel Ken Holtzclaw. Black girls’ and women’s rights, needs, and experiences are perpetually subsumed by the race and gender privileges of black men and white women. We see this in schools, at work, and in reproductive injustices.
Nowhere is this reality more viscerally and violently manifested than in the never-ending stream of physical, sexual, and police assaults of black trans women, who are embodied refutations of both gender and racial hierarchies. As Kali Goss put it, African-American women “exist in abstraction in this society, as there is no tidy image or trope that represents the legacy of violence against us, whether by the state, intimate partners, or random violence.”
The public revelation of the arrest made in the Hannah Graham case is something too many people are comfortable “understanding,” whereas the second remains a rude shock to the system that many other people are heavily invested in denying. I can’t tell you how many people told me how worried they were after Hannah Graham was first missing and then found dead, even though the risk that their college-aged daughters would be assaulted by an intimate or peer acquaintance was monumentally higher.
By the early 18th century, black men already made up the majority of those prosecuted for rape and what Sharon Black describes as the “dimunition of white men’s culpability for rape.” This dimunition of culpability is at the heart of so many problems with our criminal justice system. It is what marries the Ferguson protests and the Title IX movement.
There is also a shared aspect, related to another defining aspect of masculinity. It is the idea that men cannot control themselves in certain circumstances, and that they are provoked or tempted into acting. In other words, it’s not a white man’s fault. Have you ever noticed the similarity in this victim-blaming language? And the judicial responses to it?
If I say, “S/he looked older than s/he was,” am I talking about a 13-year-old raped by her 49-year-old teacher, or a young black boy, described as an adult, super-human and monstrous, killed by a white police officer?
When we protest dehumanizing and demonizing language, whether it’s black women calling out white ones, feminists outraged by sexist judges, or activists protesting the killing of boys by the police, it is because we know that it is imbued with this past. The risk in these challenges is that the rights, needs, and experiences of black and Native American women are once again subsumed by the race and gender privileges of black men and white women. I recommend everyone dust off a copy of Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith’s Some Of Us Are Brave.
Rape has always been a signifier for power relations, most of which are explained in Estelle B. Freedman’s “Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.” This legacy culturally and legally informs the biases that result in the over-criminalization of black people and the minimization of harms to women who come forward with their stories of rape and intimate partner violence. It is the failure of this justice system that has led to the staggering racism of our prison industrial complex, our failed military responses to sexual assault, and the untenable “solution” of asking schools to adjudicate a felony crime, something they are not equipped to do and have been attempted spectacularly badly.
What is different now, to the chagrin of huge swaths of our population, is the Obama administration’s investigations into Title IX violations, and its (carefully calibrated) willingness to challenge racial injustices. This marks an historic cultural shift that is deeply unsettling to many.
In response to the mad crush of Rolling Stone criticism and calls for journalistic ethics, it would be nice to see more context and analysis of how thoroughly our past shapes our day-to-day lives. Let me save you some time, here’s the cutest flying pig I could find.
If we could hear our history, the sound would paralyze us.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.