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March 29th, 2007

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02:35 pm - "Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist"
This is a section of Angela Davis' book "Women, Race, and Class" that I found for an lj discussion, which later disappeared. I found an archived version of it, and i'm going to post it here for archives/reference. It's quite long and involves several sections. It also may be triggering for some. This first part is a public post.

Excerpted From "Women, Race, & Class"
Paperback - 288 pages (February 12, 1983)
Vintage ; ISBN: 0394713516
by Angela Davis
Chapter 11: Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist

Some of the most flagrant symptoms of social deterioration are
acknowledged as serious problems only when they have assumed such
epidemic proportions that they appear to defy solution. Rape is a
case in point. In the United States today, it is one of the
fastest-growing violent crimes.l After ages of silence, suffering
and misplaced guilt, sexual assault is explosively emerging as
one of the telling dysfunctions of present-day capitalist
society. The rising public concern about rape in the United
States has inspired countless numbers of women to divulge their
past encounters with actual or would-be assailants. As a result,
an awesome fact has come to light: appallingly few women can
claim that they have not been victims, at one time in their
lives, of either attempted or accomplished sexual attacks.

In the United States and other capitalist countries, rape laws as
a rule were framed originally for the protection of men of the
upper classes, whose daughters and wives might be assaulted. What
happens to working-class women has usually been of little concern
to the courts; as a result, remarkably few white men have been
prosecuted for the sexual violence they have inflicted on these
women. While the rapists have seldom been brought to justice, the
rape charge has been indiscriminately aimed at Black men, the
guilty and innocent alike. Thus, of the 455 men executed between
1930 and 1967 on the basis of rape convictions, 405 of them were

In the history of the United States, the fraudulent rape charge
stands out as one of the most formidable artifices invented by
racism. The myth of the Black rapist has been methodically
conjured up whenever recurrent waves of violence and terror
against the Black community have required convincing
justifications. If Black women have been conspicuously absent
from the ranks of the contemporary anti-rape movement, it may be
due, in part, to that movement's indifferent posture toward the
frame-up rape charge as an incitement to racist aggression. Too
many innocents have been offered sacrificially to gas chambers
and lifer's cells for Black women to join those who often seek
relief from policemen and judges. Moreover, as rape victims
themselves, they have found little if any sympathy from these men
in uniforms and robes. And stories about police assaults on Black
women - rape victims sometimes suffering a second rape - are
heard too frequently to be dismissed as aberrations. "Even at the
strongest time of the civil rights movement in Birmingham," for

young activists often stated that nothing could protect
Black women from being raped by Birmingham police. As
recently as December,1974, in Chicago, a 17-year old
Black woman reported that she was gang-raped by 10
policemen. Some of the men were suspended, but ultimately
the whole thing was swept under the rug.3

During the early stages of the contemporary anti-rape movement,
few feminist theorists seriously analyzed the special
circumstances surrounding the Black woman as rape victim. The
historical knot binding Black women - systematically abused and
violated by white men - to Black men - maimed and murdered
because of the racist manipulation of the rape charge - has just
begun to be acknowledged to any significant extent. Whenever
Black women have challenged rape, they usually and simultaneously
expose the use of the frame-up rape charge as a deadly racist
weapon against their men. As one extremely perceptive writer put

The myth of the black rapist of white women is the twin
of the myth of the bad black woman-both designed to
apologize for and facilitate the continued exploitation
of black men and women. Black women perceived this
connection very clearly and were early in the
forefront of the fight against lynching.4

Gerda Lerner, the author of this passage, is one of the few white
women writing on the subject of rape during the early 1970s who
examined in depth the combined effect of racism and sexism on
Black women. The case of Joann Little,5 tried during the summer
of 1975, illustrated Lerner's point. Brought to trial on murder
charges, the young Black woman was accused of killing a white
guard in a North Carolina jail where she was the only woman
inmate. When Joann Little took the stand, she told how the guard
had raped her in her cell and how she had killed him in
self-defense with the ice pick he had used to threaten her.
Throughout the country, her cause was passionately supported by
individuals and organizations in the Black community and within
the young women's movement, and her acquittal was hailed as an
important victory made possible by this mass campaign. In the
immediate aftermath of her acquittal, Ms. Little issued several
moving appeals on behalf of a Black man named Delbert Tibbs, who
awaited execution in Florida because he had been falsely
convicted of raping a white woman.

Many Black women answered Joann Little's appeal to support the
cause of Delbert Tibbs. But few white women - and certainly few
organized groups within the anti-rape movement - followed her
suggestion that they agitate for the freedom of this Black man
who had been blatantly victimized by Southern racism. Not even
when Little's Chief Counsel Jerry Paul announced his decision to
represent Delbert Tibbs did many white women dare to stand up in
his defense. By 1978, however, when all charges against Tibbs
were dismissed, white anti-rape activists had increasingly begun
to align themselves with his cause. Their initial reluctance,
however, was one of those historical episodes confirming many
Black women's suspicions that the anti-rape movement was largely
oblivious to their special concerns.

That Black women have not joined the anti-rape movement en masse
does not, therefore, mean that they oppose anti-rape measures in
general. Before the end of the nineteenth century pioneering
Black clubwomen conducted one of the very first organized public
protests against sexual abuse. Their eighty-year-old tradition of
organized struggle against rape reflects the extensive and
exaggerated ways Black women have suffered the threat of sexual
violence. One of racism's salient historical features has always
been the assumption that white men - especially those who wield
economic power - possess an incontestable right of access to
Black women's bodies.

Slavery relied as much on routine sexual abuse as it relied on
the whip and the lash. Excessive sex urges, whether they existed
among individual white men or not, had nothing to do with this
virtual institutionalization of rape. Sexual coercion was,
rather, an essential dimension of the social relations between
slavemaster and slave. In other words, the right claimed by
slaveowners and their agents over the bodies of female slaves was
a direct expression of their presumed property rights over Black
people as a whole. The license to rape emanated from and
facilitated the ruthless economic domination that was the
gruesome hallmark of slavery.6

The pattern of institutionalized sexual abuse of Black women
became so powerful that it managed to survive the abolition of
slavery. Group rape, perpetrated by the Ku Klux and other
terrorist organizations of the post-Civil War period, became an
uncamouflaged political weapon in the drive to thwart the
movement for Black equality. During the Memphis Riot of 1866, for
example, the violence of the mob murders was brutally
complemented by the concerted sexual attacks on Black women. In
the riot's aftermath, numerous Black women testified before a
Congressional committee about the savage mob rapes they had
suffered.7 This testimony regarding similar events during the
Meridian, Mississippi, Riot of 1871 was given by a Black woman
named Ellen Parton:

I reside in Meridian; have resided here nine years;
occupation, washing and ironing and scouring; Wednesday
night was the last night hey came to my house; by "they"
I mean bodies or companies of men; they came on Monday,
Tuesday and Wednesday; on Monday night they said they came
to do us no harm; on Tuesday night they said they came
for the arms; I told them there was none, and they said
they would take my word for it; on Wednesday night they
came and broke open the wardrobe and trunks, and committed
rape upon me; there were eight of them in the house; I do
not know how many there were outside. . . .8

Of course, the sexual abuse of Black women has not always
manifested itself in such open and public violence. There has
been a daily drama of racism enacted in the countless anonymous
encounters between Black women and their white abusers - men
convinced that their acts were only natural. Such assaults have
been ideologically sanctioned by politicians, scholars and
journalists, and by literary artists who have often portrayed
Black women as promiscuous and immoral. Even the outstanding
writer Gertrude Stein described one of her Black women characters
as possessing ". . . the simple, promiscuous immorality of the
black people." The imposition of this attitude on white men of
the working class was a triumphant moment in the development of
racist ideology.

Racism has always drawn strength from its ability to encourage
sexual coercion. While Black women and their sisters of color
have been the main targets of these racist-inspired attacks,
white women have suffered as well. For once white men were
persuaded that they could commit sexual assaults against Black
women with impunity, their conduct toward women of their own race
could not have remained unmarred. Racism has always served as a
provocation to rape, and white women in the United States have
necessarily suffered the ricochet fire of these attacks. This is
one of the many ways in which racism nourishes sexism, causing
white women to be indirectly victimized by the special oppression
aimed at their sisters of color.

The experience of the Vietnam War furnished a further example of
the extent to which racism could function as a provocation to
rape. Because it was drummed into the heads of U.S. soldiers that
they were fighting an inferior race, they could be taught that
raping Vietnamese women was a necessary military duty. They could
even be instructed to "search" the women with their penises.10 It
was the unwritten policy of the U.S. Military Command to
systematically encourage rape, since it was an extremely
effective weapon of mass terrorism. Where are the thousands upon
thousands of Vietnam veterans who witnessed and participated in
these horrors? To what extent did those brutal experiences affect
their attitudes toward women in general? While it would be quite
erroneous to single out Vietnam veterans as the main perpetrators
of sexual crimes, there can be little doubt that the horrendous
repercussions of the Vietnam experience are still being felt by
all women in the United States today.

It is a painful irony that some anti-rape theorists, who ignore
the part played by racism in instigating rape, do not hesitate to
argue that men of color are especially prone to commit sexual
violence against women. In her very impressive study of rape,
Susan Brownmiller claims that Black men's historical oppression
has placed many of the "legitimate" expressions of male supremacy
beyond their reach. They must resort, as a result, to acts of
open sexual violence. In her portrayal of "ghetto inhabitants,"
Brownmiller insists that

(c)orporate executive dining rooms and climbs up Mount
Everest are not usually accessible to those who form
the subculture of violence. Access to a female
body-through force-is within their ken.11

When Brownmiller's book "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape"
was published, it was effusively praised in some circles. Time
magazine, which selected her as one of its women of the year in
1976, described the book as ". . the most rigorous and
provocative piece of scholarship that has yet emerged from the
feminist movement."12 In other circles, however, the book has
been severely criticized for its part in the resuscitation of the
old racist myth of the Black rapist.

It cannot be denied that Brownmiller's book is a pioneering
scholarly contribution to the contemporary literature on rape.
Yet many of her arguments are unfortunately pervaded with racist
ideas. Characteristic of that perspective is her reinterpretation
of the 1953 lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. After this
young boy had whistled at a white woman in Mississippi, his
maimed body was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.
"Till's action," said Brownmiller, "was more than a kid's brash

Emmett Till was going to show his black buddies that
he, and by inference, they could get a white woman and
Carolyn Bryant was the nearest convenient object. In
concrete terms, the accessibility of all white women
was on review. . . . And what of the wolf whistle,
Till's `gesture of adolescent bravado?' . . . The
whistle was no small tweet of hubba-hubba or melodious
approval for a wellturned ankle.... It was a deliberate
insult just short of physical assault, a last reminder
to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in
mind to possess her. 14

While Brownmiller deplores the sadistic punishment inflicted on
Emmett Till, the Black youth emerges, nonetheless, as a guilty
sexist-almost as guilty as his white racist murderers. After all,
she argues, both Till and his murderers were exclusively
concerned about their rights of possession over women.

Unfortunately, Brownmiller is not the only contemporary writer on
rape who has suffered the influence of racist ideology. According
to Jean MacKellar, in her book "Rape: The Bait and the Trap,"

Blacks raised in the hard life of the ghetto learn
that they can get what they want only by seizing it.
Violence is the rule in the game for survival. Women
are fair prey: to obtain a woman one subdues her.15

MacKellar has been so completely mesmerized by racist propaganda
that she makes the unabashed claim that go percent of all
reported rapes in the United States are committed by Black men.16
Inasmuch as the FBI's corresponding figure is 47 percent,l7 it is
difficult to believe that MacKellar's statement is not an
intentional provocation.

Most recent studies on rape in the United States have
acknowledged the disparity between the actual incidence of sexual
assaults and those which are reported to the police. According to
Susan Brownmiller, for example, reported rapes range anywhere
from one in five to one in twenty.18 A study published by the New
York Radical Feminists concluded that reported rapes run as low
as five percent.19 In much of the contemporary literature on
rape, there is nevertheless a tendency to equate the "police
blotter rapist" with the "typical rapist." If this pattern
persists, it will be practically impossible to uncover the real
social causes of rape.

Diana Russell's "Politics of Rape" unfortunately reinforces the
current notion that the typical rapist is a man of color - or, if
he is white, a poor or working-class man. Subtitled "The Victims'
Perspective," her book is based on a series of interviews with
rape victims in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of the twenty-two
cases she describes, twelve - i.e., more than half - involve
women who have been raped by Black, Chicano or Native American
Indian men. It is revealing that only 26 percent of the original
ninety-five interviews she conducted involved men of color.20 If
this dubious process of selection is not enough to evoke deep
suspicions of racism, consider the advice she offers to white

... (I)f some black men see rape of white women as an
act of revenge or as a justifiable expression of hostility
toward whites, I think it is equally realistic for white
women to be less trusting of black men than many of
them are.21

Brownmiller, MacKellar and Russell are assuredly more subtle than
earlier ideologues of racism. But their conclusions tragically
beg comparison with the ideas of such scholarly apologists of
racism as Winfield Collins, who published in 1918 a book entitled
"The Truth About Lynching and the Negro in the South" (In Which
the Author Pleads that the South Be Made Safe for the White

Two of the Negro's most prominent characteristics are
the utter lack of chastity and complete ignorance of
veracity. The Negro's sexual laxity, considered so
immoral or even criminal in the white man's civilization,
may have been all but a virtue in the habitat of his
origin. There, nature developed in him intense sexual
passions to offset his high death rate.22

Collins resorts to pseudo-biological arguments, while
Brownmiller, Russell and MacKellar invoke environmental
explanations, but in the final analysis they all assert that
Black men are motivated in especially powerful ways to commit
sexual violence against women.

One of the earliest theoretical works associated with the
contemporary feminist movement that dealt with the subject of
rape and race was Shulamith Firestone's "The Dialectic of Sex:
The Case For Feminist Revolution." Racism in general, so
Firestone claims, is actually an extension of sexism. Invoking
the biblical notion that ". . . the races are no more than the
various parents and siblings of the Family of Man,"23 she
develops a construct defining the white man as father, the white
woman as wife and mother, and Black people as the children.
Transposing Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex into racial
terms, Firestone implies that Black men harbor an uncontrollable
desire for sexual relations with white women. They want to kill
the father and sleep with the mother.24 Moreover, in order to "be
a man," the Black man must

... untie himself from his bond with the white female,
relating to her if at all only in a degrading way. In
addition, due to his virulent hatred and jealousy of
her Possessor, the white man, he may lust after her as
a thing to be conquered in order to revenge himself on
the white man.25

Like Brownmiller, MacKellar and Russell, Firestone succumbs to
the old racist sophistry of blaming the victim. Whether
innocently or consciously, their pronouncements have facilitated
the resurrection of the timeworn myth of the Black rapist. Their
historical myopia further prevents them from comprehending that
the portrayal of Black men as rapists reinforces racism's open
invitation to white men to avail themselves sexually of Black
women's bodies. The fictional image of the Black man as rapist
has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of
the Black woman as chronically promiscuous. For once the notion
is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible and animal-like
sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality. If
Black men have their eyes on white women as sexual objects, then
Black women must certainly welcome the sexual attentions of white
men. Viewed as "loose women" and whores, Black women's cries of
rape would necessarily lack legitimacy.
Current Mood: accomplished

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 29th, 2007 10:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting these chapters. I read this book a long time ago, and it's good to reread something this incisive. Also, something tells me you (or someone else) will probably need to reference it again, though I hope not.
Date:April 2nd, 2007 05:12 am (UTC)
Also, something tells me you (or someone else) will probably need to reference it again, though I hope not.

yes, when some bizarre congruence of events happens, like a day ending in 'y'.


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