When White Male Rape was Legal

Slavery in America–horrific work conditions, physical abuse, and lack of power come to mind; rarely do we consider the rape of black women by white men. White fathers and their sons regularly engaged in sexual violence against enslaved black women, often purchasing them for this purpose. This sexual exploitation was frequently allowed by white parents, if not encouraged. Because this behavior was normalized, and permitted by the U.S. legal system, it is no wonder the rape of enslaved black women was commonplace during slavery. Historians have described the rape of enslaved women by white men as a “routine feature” of most Southern slaveholdings. In When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence during Slavery, I analyze this routine rape, focusing on the role of white men and women in sustaining oppression.

White masculinity has evolved over time and is shaped by a variety of factors including class, region, and the institution of slavery. In particular, those traits admired in white men were generally those which whites claimed contrasted with enslaved men and women. For example, dominance, independence, honor and sexual prowess served as standards for white masculinity. Identifying as the “master of others,” including being served by enslaved people and ordering them around, was particularly important for the status of wealthy white men in the South. In this sense, sexual violence against enslaved black women offered a legally accessible and socially acceptable way for white men to achieve many of the traits upheld by white society at the time.

White men experienced many social and legal incentives to engage in the rape of enslaved black women. As opposed to viewing this sexual violence as merely the result of sexual desire, demonstrations of power, or racial domination, it is best to understand this rape as an outcome of all of these components working together as part of the identity of white masculinity during this time period.

Many white boys and men were encouraged to engage in sexual violence against enslaved black women through social norms and parental guidance. For instance, a formerly enslaved man, “Bird” Walton described the experience of a woman Ethel Jane, with whom he was enslaved. Walton explained that the master of the household brought his son, Levey, to one of the cabins where,

They both took her [Ethel Jane]-the father showing the son what it was all about—and she couldn’t do nothing ‘bout it.

White women also had a role to play in encouraging their sons to sexually violate enslaved women. In some cases, they would purchase enslaved women for their sons, such as the example Tirrell notes in 1844 of a white mother in Virginia who purchased three attractive mulatto females, and placed them in a cottage near the family mansion, for the exclusive use of an only son—assigning as a reason why she did it, that it would “make Charley steady!”

The term “mulatto” in this passage, which was commonly used in the 1800’s to associate mixed-race individuals with mules, reflects the way enslaved women were dehumanized in the minds of whites and were thus able to be exploited for the benefit of whites without social or legal repercussions. Moreover, this quote reflects the role that some mothers played in creating a context which encouraged white boys and men to engage in sexual violence of enslaved women.

This is not the only role white women played in the sexual violence against enslaved black women. As mothers, but also as wives, white women played an intricate and noteworthy role in sustaining the oppression of black women under slavery. As a group with an intermediate degree of power and status, white women did not have the financial independence or legal power to fully resist their husbands’ behavior without consequences to themselves. However, their position within an intersectional hierarchy often afforded them some power to punish and blame enslaved women who were subjected to rape and sexual violence, or to ignore the violence altogether, as I describe in a previous post and in more detail in the book. White women’s intermediate status and power highlights the way intersectional oppression functions and is sustained, incentivizing various groups to uphold oppression of those beneath them within the hierarchy even if this also requires sustaining their own repressed status.

Today, a legacy of white male entitlement to the bodies of women and the derogatory white racial framing of black women continues. For instance, Brittany Slatton’s research demonstrates the way many white men today still view black women in terms of their sexual value, as exotic and degraded simultaneously, and as an opportunity for white men to explore their sexuality. Peggy Reeves Sanday has also documented the use of gang rapes by men as a male bonding activity on college campuses, practicing the sexual exploitation and violation of women as a means to foster masculinity. These practices are deeply embedded in the foundation of U.S. society, occurring throughout slavery as a regular, socially and legally accepted behavior for white men for hundreds of years.

Sadly, the lack of legal protection for those who experience sexual violence today continues in a modified form as well, with many white men convicted of sexual violence receiving lenient sentences and many black women being blamed, or even criminalized, for their victimization.

In addition to shedding light on the routine sexual violence against enslaved black women that is foundational to U.S. society, and the legacy this has left behind in terms of white male entitlement and the derogatory white racial framing of black women today, When Rape was Legal offers theoretical insight into the mechanisms that help sustain intersectional oppression broadly.

Rachel Feinstein received her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in 2014 and is currently teaching in the Sociology Department at California State University Fullerton. Her book, When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence during Slavery was published in August 2018.

White Supremacy and Black Athletes’ Protests

With the proliferation of mass media, people increasingly look toward political leaders to make public statements when a tragedy occurs. Tensions often flare, and we look to such leaders to bring our communities together in times of crisis. We know a single statement can’t heal centuries of division, and that leaders are humans and so will always be imperfect. But a leader sets a high standard to which all can aspire—our “better angels,” as several great U.S. presidents have referenced (citing Charles Dickens). By now, unfortunately, hopefully only the most naïve and sheltered among us are still waiting for or expecting the current president Donald Trump to ever do such a thing. Although clearly trusted advisers have attempted to steer him in that direction at times, it was not long before, left to his own devices, his unscripted comments at the next public venue effectively cancelled out any inspiring statement he had previously attempted. This all happening while police officers killing unarmed black civilians are exonerated in courts, while hurricanes are decimating U.S. states and territories, and while white supremacists are marching openly and killing citizens to make political statements.

Is it any wonder that private citizens all over the country—-comedians, actors, athletes, anyone with a public forum with a chance of being heard widely—-are stepping in to fill that vacuum our white president has irresponsibly left open? There is a long tradition in this country of those who would be silenced (and their allies) proverbially “grabbing the mic” to raise the public’s awareness about injustices happening in their midst. They do this because often raising public outcry is the first step toward creating change. If U.S. news camera footage of dogs and water hoses aimed at their own citizens had not been viewed around the world—-just after the U.S. had intervened on the global stage to stop a white supremacist named Hitler, and thereby revealed to be human-rights-hypocrites in front of allies and foes alike—-the US state would likely never have made such bold moves to finally create the civil rights legal reforms of the 1960s. As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) beautifully recreates with statues of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a Black Power fist at the 1968 Olympics black athletes and other public figures outside of politics have at crucial moments in our nation’s history been able to raise awareness and move our national conversations forward on racism issues in productive ways.

Critics dismiss certain athletes who speak out or take a stand as “attention-seeking” spectacles “distracting” from the game—athletes like Colin Kaepernick (NFL player who has been taking a knee during national anthem, along with many other allies, on his team and around the country, to protest continued injustice against African Americans) and Stephen Curry (NBA player who recently spoke about not wanting to visit the White House, prompting Trump to Tweet a “disinvite” in return). What has struck me since I worked on the White Men on Race book with Joe Feagin (based on over 100 interviews with elite white men) is that whites will often speak with decisive authority on people of color they know very little about. It took my 10-year-old son’s school project on Curry, reading biographies, for me to find out, for example, that when Curry beats on his chest after he scores on the basketball court, he’s actually pounding on his heart and then pointing up to the sky to represent his own personal relationship to Jesus. It is actually a humble, reverent gesture, rather than the arrogant strut it has been perceived as by some. As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey point out, whites have routinely perceived identical behavior from whites and non-whites in strikingly different perspectives—-the “white as virtue” frame. As Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly reminds us, there would be no “race,” no “whites” to speak of without “blacks” to contrast them against, because race is a relational construct—-constructed solely to justify the colonization and exploitation of the latter. It did not take long for the public to take to social media to point out how President Trump seems to have this same kind of striking perception contrast between white supremacists (“very fine people”) and athletes kneeling during the national anthem (“sons of bitches”).

Many whites perceive the act of taking a knee during the national anthem as disrespectful. Yet when I see this photo, for example, of the Oakland A’s player Bruce Maxwell (the first in MLB) taking a knee during the national anthem I see anything but disrespect. I see Maxwell with his hat off, holding his hand over his heart, glancing longingly up to the flag. And what I hear through his body language is, “Great country that I call home, when will there truly be liberty and justice FOR ALL? When?!” I see embodied in his posture the words of Cornel West: “America. . .needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine it and re-make it.” These words are etched into the walls of the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC—-and this location would certainly fit the criteria the Golden State Warriors are seeking during their upcoming DC visit:

In lieu of a visit to the White House, we have decided that we’ll constructively use our trip to the nation’s capital in February to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.

To voice their opposition to athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, many whites also cite their family members who have fought and even died in wars. Some even cite their Christian faith. They seem to forget that scores of African Americans are also veterans, are descendants of veterans, are currently serving in war zones or deployed, and have even lost their lives serving our country in the armed forces. And they certainly forget the centrality of Christianity in African Americans’ lives. The most beautiful patriotic statements I have seen lately come from veterans who disagree with kneeling during the anthem, but proudly state that this is precisely why they served and fought in our military—to defend all their fellow Americans (not just veterans) in their right to this very kind of freedom of speech and expression! I have seen several beautiful photos of football teams standing together during the National Anthem, right next to their teammates who are kneeling, with hands on their shoulders-—making a strong statement that they respect each other’s choices, whether to kneel or to stand, and that is what makes our country great, our diversity of thought, viewpoints, and experiences.

There are many ways to serve our country. There are many ways to make personal sacrifices and/or contributions in service of making our country better. Sometimes our racial segregation from each other keeps us from seeing the humanity of others, the sacrifices others have made. Although I personally have been celebrating Kaepernick’s public statement that Black Lives Matter, when my own 10-year old son came home with a plan to sit out the pledge of allegiance at his school, it gave me pause. After all, we’re talking about my baby. I see adults making choices, but when I Google what related actions have been taken by children under-18, I see that high school football players have received death threats for kneeling during the National Anthem and elementary school students have been assaulted by their own teachers for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance. To his credit, it was actually my son’s own idea to call a meeting with the principal, because he expressed a strong desire to take action “without being rude.” He sat there in this big chair that he looked so tiny in, and spoke softly but clearly, “I don’t like the way police officers treat African Americans,” and I thought I could see water in his eyes, but he kept his composure. I am grateful that his principal and guidance counselor are both supporting him, and they will relay to his teacher that he has a right to sit down (according to the student handbook—and according to US law, actually, too). Although the adults around him have a primary concern for his safety, when a teacher suggested he be in a different room away from view (helping with the morning announcements in the technology room—which he loves to do!) he was actually disappointed that his action would potentially not matter. In his words, “but mom, I want to make a difference.” My awe at his bravery and sacrifice of his own personal safety in order to work toward making our country fairer for all stands beside my awe of my stepsister’s (and her husband’s) bravery and personal sacrifice while serving in the Army and being drafted to Iraq and Afghanistan (they are both veterans, as was my father—a Vietnam veteran in the Navy).

My concern is all the “colorblind” comments that divide our country up into “us” and “them”—-the patriotic white heroes who serve our country and stand for the National Anthem and never criticize the President become the “us” while the “ungrateful” people of color who take public actions to draw attention to the continuing injustices in the nation become the “disrespectful” outgroup, “them.” The tone of this (mostly white) public criticism of those who kneel during the National Anthem sounds to me like the critics think people of color should be grateful for, in Malcolm X’s words, the “crumbs from the table.” They should be happy to be playing a sport at all, to be having the right to kneel at all—-meanwhile elite white men (all NFL owners are elite white men, as are all NBA owners but Michael Jordan) are reaping exponential profits off their arduous labor. And selective memory is employed to erase just how hard their forefathers and foremothers fought just to get onto the same playing field at all, just to get the basic constitutional rights to even apply to them at all (to become more than the original Constitution’s “three-fifths of a person”!)

My son’s father is a Desert Storm veteran (Marine Corps), he is African American, and he supports his son’s right to sit out the pledge. He was born in 1966, just a couple days after Christmas in a snowstorm in Virginia, and because the hospital in town even at that late time still did not serve black people, they had to drive an hour in the snow to a bigger city (Richmond, VA) just so he could be born. So there were no family visits in the hospital, no big celebration. Just him and his mom on a quiet cold day. It was not until the year after he was born (1967, in Loving v. Virginia) that interracial marriage was even legally permitted by the US Supreme Court. And this is not a man who is in a rocking chair at a nursing home somewhere—this is a man who will be squeezing himself into a tiny desk chair to attend Back to School night at elementary school this week. When whites talk about the “sacrifices” that they and their families have made in this country, I wonder if they ever contemplate the tremendous sacrifices, and loss of life, loss of children way before their time, that African Americans face every day here– still waiting for “liberty and justice for all.” Parents send their children out into these streets never knowing if they will make it back home. And if they had to play the odds on whether a court would find a police officer guilty when s/he “accidentally” shoots their child because that officer says “I feared for my life,” unfortunately those odds would not be good. Why is it that so many of us whites cannot see another human being’s sacrifice and struggle as just as relevant as our own? That lack of seeing each other’s common humanity is the ultimate disrespect.

As long as there is a lack of moral leadership at the helm of our nation, and as long as there is great racial inequality, white Americans can expect to see people of color and their allies taking much protest action, as they always have. If US history is any indication, one day our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might be celebrating as heroes the very figures some whites vilify now. Elementary schools across the country now include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in their patriotic programs as a hero, but when he was living and breathing, he was jailed like a common criminal, chastised for not being respectful enough and not knowing “his place,” and regularly targeted by many white supremacists with death threats. So, as for me, I am going to be celebrating tomorrow’s heroes now, while I have the chance. I believe this is the ultimate in real US patriotism and respect for liberty and justice.

 

~ Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and the author of several books, including Whites Confront Racism

The Strengths of Being Multiracial

In a recent NYTimes piece, “What Biracial People Know,” Moises Velasquez-Manoff assembles a variety of compelling studies demonstrating that people of mixed heritage—-or even people who have similarly cultivated a “limber-mindset,” perhaps by living an extended period of time in another culture—have sharper mental acuity, and stronger problem-solving abilities, than those with a monocultural background. Even as young as 3 months old, these infants begin having greater facial recognition abilities than their counterparts. When presented with word-association and other creative problem-solving tasks, those reminded of their multiracial heritage performed better than those who were not similarly primed.

The research Velasquez-Manoff reviews echoes other studies done around monolingual vs. bilingual education that reveal that fluent bilingual students tend to perform better in school than either Spanish-only OR English-only students—challenging the advisability of the “straight-line assimilation” admonishments of old. But Velasquez-Manoff goes even further by looking at not just at individual-level outcomes, but societal outcomes—such as “economic prosperity, greater scientific prowess and a fairer judicial process”—to argue that an entire community benefits when groups forge intimate connections beyond just their own tribe.

This piece comes across as much a celebration of diversity as a stark warning—warning to those who would like to turn the clock back to a time when many took solace in the comfort of the uniformly familiar. With facts like these—“multiracials make up an estimated 7 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, and they’re predicted to grow by 20 percent in 2050”—Velasquez-Manoff makes it evident there is no turning back this tide. In the shift from an Obama to Trump administration, he argues, the step back from multiracial to relatively monoracial is evident. And this “closing in” of ranks, as if fearful of an impending multiracial nation, emanates from a grave misperception that “out-groups gain at in-groups’ expense”—the great zero-sum game fallacy. In presenting this collection of studies, Velasquez-Manoff makes an excellent case for those who fear a society where whites are not the majority. He demonstrates that everyone in a society stands to benefit when its members are better able to perceive a situation and solve a problem from multiple vantage points—skills that are clearly heightened in multiculturally fluent individuals. He writes, “cities and countries that are more diverse are more prosperous than homogenous ones, and that often means higher wages for native born citizens.”

Velasquez-Manoff seems to implore—even if diversity scares you and you want nothing to do with it, just on the basis of this evidence that you’d be part of a stronger, richer, smarter society, wouldn’t you want to come on board for the ride?

Yet if it were that simple, of course it would have been done by now. I have two biracial children myself, and several older biracial stepchildren. Recently I asked one of my stepsons, now nearing college graduation, when did he first realize there was this thing called race separating us? Of course he spent nearly every day of his life going back and forth between families of different skin colors, but that never passed the radar. After all, when a rainbow of shades and tones is your daily reality, it’s hard to tell where this dividing line is that everyone’s talking about. I’ll never forget having to explain to my daughter about legal segregation—she was assigned the part of Dr. King in a kindergarten play, and all she was told was he gave a speech and had a dream, so I had a lot of filling in of details to do! I could see her rolling all of her different family members through her head, trying to figure out which ones back then would have been considered black, and the funny thing is she got 99% of them “wrong” by society’s standards—I mean, after all, who do you know who looks “black?”

It’s instructive to see the nonsense logic of “race” through a kid’s eyes. But my stepson told me it was not until he started to notice the differences in the churches he would attend with each part of the family—all the while seeming to be talking about the same God—but doing so very differently. Such a clear indicator that race has so little to do with skin color and so much to do with the way we humans have persisted in organizing ourselves. What once existed by law now continues de facto, because the scars are very deep, because we fear venturing out of comfort zones, because we continue to be excluded subtly rather than overtly—there are so many reasons. (See Gene Zubovich’s thoughtful essay for more on church segregation specifically.)

Our churches and our families are some of our most intimate spaces. We go there to take refuge from the onslaught of pain that the world “out there” throws us. Many of us turn to a spiritual community, or an intimate relationship, to feel safe, to be able to let down our guard, to finally no longer have to worry what everyone else thinks, or what someone might do to hurt us. Velasquez-Manoff cites a study of college roommates (by Sarah Gaither at Duke), matched across racial lines, and in this intimate space, yes -— it was not easy, at first. But after initial discomfort subsides or is worked through, the gains for both parties to the relationship are undeniable.

Velasquez-Manoff writes: “Diversity is hard. But that’s exactly why it’s so good for us,” and quoting Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School, likens it to the pain of muscles in a workout—the hurt is indicative of something growing stronger.

Indeed, research I’ve done with Kathleen Korgen shows that even in close cross-racial friendships, friends tend to avoid the topic of race altogether, or else joke about it without taking racism seriously as a difference between them. Is it any wonder that research shows us many more young people are having cross-racial dating relationships now, but far fewer of those dating relationships actually move onto an interracial marriage —- hence sociologist Zhenchao Qian reminding us this is the “last taboo.”

It is one thing for two people to connect one-on-one, but quite another for them to forge a marriage which bonds their entire social/familial circles —- that will take some hard word, creating conflicts, some of which might never get fully worked out. Those who are already facing the daily pain of racism may not see themselves as able to voluntarily sign themselves up for yet another battle with this monster called race—-after all, so much of it they did not sign up for and is out of their control. And on the flip side, someone like President Donald Trump with a fragile ego and in unfamiliar territory may seek to surround himself with sameness in effort to assuage his own fears—-as might many of his supporters also.

As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey argue in their forthcoming book Elite White Men Ruling, Trump operates from a white-virtuous-arrogance frame. Elite white men often have little to no intimate contact with nonwhites yet boldly attempt to speak with authority about them nonetheless. Diversity can be scary to the monoracials on both “sides,” albeit for quite different reasons.

Yet Velasquez-Manoff’s brilliantly crafted piece demonstrates with a mountain of evidence that facing those fears and struggles will produce a result that is so worth it! And he further shows us that even without interracial marriage or offspring of our own, we can take the plunge to “diversify” our own experiences to similar positive results. But no pain, no gain. So time to get to work to make this a stronger brighter world for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond. Because after all, there is no turning back this tide of multiracials coming up to show us the way!

Dr. Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Chair of Social Sciences at Saint Leo University, Virginia campus. In addition to teaching and writing books on race relations and racism, she leads community workshops on race, including the upcoming “Loving Across Differences.”

Critics of Cornel West: Roasted by Chris Hedges



The usually hard-hitting Chris Hedges has a column at truthdig.com that sharply critiques the critics of Cornel West. Ignoring the big debate over West’s personalizing and supposed ego-tripping in his critique of President Obama, Hedges nails the main point West made:

The liberal class, which attempted last week to discredit the words … West spoke about Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, prefers comfort and privilege to justice, truth and confrontation. . . . It refuses to challenge . . . the decaying structures of democracy or the ascendancy of the corporate state. It glosses over the relentless assault on working men and women. . . . The pillars of the liberal establishment—the press, the church, culture, the university, labor and the Democratic Party—all honor an unwritten quid pro quo with corporations and the power elite . . . on whom they depend for money, access and positions of influence.

Hedges then cites the troubling role of President Obama in this continuing U.S. political drama, much like Dr. West did:

The liberal class . . . functions like a commercial brand, giving a different flavor, face or spin to the ruthless mechanisms of corporate power. This, indeed, is the primary function of Barack Obama. The liberal class . . . will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.

He ends up with a kind of social realism that reminds me greatly of Derrick Bell’s racial realism:

To accept that Obama is, as West said, a mascot for Wall Street means having to challenge some frightening monoliths of power and give up the comfortable illusion that the Democratic Party or liberal institutions can be instruments for genuine reform. . . . It means a new radicalism.

Interestingly, even Hedges does not note just who the leaders of this corporate state and political-economic machine are, that is, elite white men. It is highly significant that even the most radical critiques of this society almost never call out and analyze in some detail exactly who are the elite white men who run almost all our major institutions—and how they view the world, make decisions, and oppress most of the rest of us one way or another. Elite white men make up at least 95 percent of the ruling elite in this country, even though white men are just a third now of the U.S. population. Why and how do they still rule this country so easily and without much sustained attention? What is your take on all this?