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.

Making Black Lives Matter

Once again, an unarmed young African-American man has been killed by the police under very questionable circumstances. That latest name added to that long and growing kill list is Stephon Clark; who was recently gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California by two police officers who fired at him twenty times. And once again the initial reports of what happened by police on the scene do not jive with video evidence.

How can we make sense of the pervasiveness, disproportionality, and persistence of such killings in a way that can help us make black lives matter? In my soon to be released Killing African Americans book I argue that to do so we must place them within the context of the long history of the use of violence in the United States to control African Americans — especially during those historical moments when we are perceived as getting out of our proper racial “place” such as after the abolition of slavery, the more recent white backlash to the successes of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, and the still more recent racial backlash to the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president which a couple years ago fueled the election of an overtly racist president, Donald J. Trump. Such killings function as a violence-centered racial control mechanism, which along with other violence-centered racial control mechanisms like the racially-targeted death penalty and mass incarceration, sustains today’s systemic racism; just as in the past the fatal violence associated with lynchings, the death penalty, and mass incarceration were deployed to preserve the racial control systems of slavery, peonage, and Jim Crow.

By examining those killings through such a political lens, it becomes clear why piecemeal criminal justice reforms do not, and cannot, work. Because they serve important economic, social status, and political functions for members of this nation’s dominant racial group they can only be seriously addressed through fundamental racial and economic changes. Such change can come only through African Americans and other people of goodwill mustering sufficient political pressure through social protests, economic boycotts, and other means to make it clear that those killings will no longer be allowed to happen with impunity. Viewing such violence through the lens of racial politics reveals that the ultimate–bottom line–reason the police and vigilantes kill so many African Americans is because they can; and the only way to stop them from doing so is by changing oppressive power-relationships. This means that both ameliorative and radical solutions to the problem, should focus on political and economic solutions; solutions that either stop the targeting of African Americans or ensure that there is sufficient accountability to prevent such killings from happening with impunity when they do. A good place to begin, of course, is by joining social movement organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

In Killing African Americans, I start by suggesting some ameliorative solutions. I present a list of some things I believe can be done to help reduce the number of police and vigilante killings of African Americans by making those responsible more accountable. That list includes: establishing local, state, and national data centers and archives for all police and vigilante killings; creating a legal defense hotline of pro-bono lawyers to advise people of their rights; monitoring the policies and pay-outs of companies that provide local governments with insurance that covers police misconduct; monitoring, and when possible, becoming involved in the negotiation of police union contracts to ensure that they don’t provide unreasonable protection for officers who use lethal force; monitoring and making public the records of the handling of local police and vigilante killings by mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, and judges; and developing police and vigilante accountability political platforms to be endorsed by candidates for elected office at every branch and level of government.

Other possible actions are: distributing smart phone apps to advise those confronted by the police and vigilantes and to record those encounters on cloud-based servers; pressuring local police departments to establish civilian review boards; forcing state and local governments to appoint special prosecutors to handle all police killings; bringing lawsuits that challenge existing laws and court rulings regarding when the police may use lethal force; organizing neighborhood “Copwatch” groups to monitor police and vigilante activity, and petitioning the United Nations to investigate and monitor the persistence of the disproportionate police and vigilante killings of African Americans as a violation of our human rights and its anti-genocide pact.

Ultimately significant changes can come only through major transformations in U.S. racial and economic relations. To make that happen we can begin with: massive and sustained protests that disrupt every aspect of American life (e.g., work, politics, transportation, religious services, and sporting events); economic boycotts that target all economic activity in communities that tolerate the lack of police and vigilante accountability; and programs of non-cooperation including jury nullification, refusal to pay taxes, and the refusal to serve in the military. Such actions can also include general strikes and slowdowns in which African Americans and our supporters refrain from making our normal contributions to society (e.g., work and school); and when necessary, the establishment of armed militias for self-defense.

To sum up, both the cause of and the solution to these killings is captured in one word, power. And when it comes to how power relations are changed no one has said it better than Frederick Douglass: “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
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Author note
Noel A Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism is scheduled to be released in June.

Racism and Family: Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Book

As the nation—and even the world—approaches yet another Rev./Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, some will be reflecting on how far we’ve come since King’s time. Others will be calling for renewed vigor toward activism and social justice, noting how far we still have to go toward King’s “dream.” Last year I was one of those voices. This year, however, I am instead overwhelmed by tremendous grief. The racism King deplored and gave his very life to combat simply will not leave us. It seems no sooner can I experience the joy of connecting to another person than it is cut short by the cold hard truth of what racism does to relationships, and to our inner beings. And just as I am grieving personal loss, I too am grieving the loss for all of humanity. That too many of the human species are condemned to lives far dimmer than what the bright light of their spirit could hold, if it weren’t for the invention of race and its rules of division.

Between the world and me book cover

One analyst who shares my grief is Ta-nehisi Coates. I was deeply moved this summer after reading his new book Between the World and Me. After noticing some reviewers accuse Coates of overgeneralizing about whites and/or police officers (see here for example) I knew I had to get a copy to read for myself. I’m all too familiar with my students and others reading things that aren’t there when it comes to racism. Not surprisingly, I found Coates was not the mythical creature he was purported to be. (You know, the one that hates all white people and won’t give even them a chance–e.g., like the black person “who took your job,” or the “close” black friend you have). However, we still have yet to have a documented/verified sighting of such a black person!

No, far from being exclusionary or categorically dismissive, Coates places the blame exactly where it should be:

‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. . . . without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for a want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all of history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us. . .(p. 42)

These very fences are directly responsible for many of the losses I am grieving. I connected so deeply to Coates’ writing because he wrote as a parent torn between the beauty of a child who believes he can dwell above the veil, beyond the veil (see W.E.B. Du Bois), and the harsh reality that one’s job as a parent is to protect one’s children of color from being slaughtered by these fences—-all the while knowing in the end we will have little to no control when the unfairness of it all crashes down onto them. I am the one they look to, to tell them they can be anything they want to be when no one else will, but as a person who values honesty, I cannot lie to them. And as a parent who wants them to succeed, thrive, and prosper, I cannot ill-equip them by shielding them from these truths.

Comedians make jokes sometimes about the different parenting styles of whites and blacks—-as if they are simply differences in regional dialect or those color/hue palette variations like eye color that make the world go round and keep it interesting. But Coates so astutely implicates the very white power structure above for the perceived harshness of some black parenting styles. Just underneath that gruffness is nothing but racism-instilled fear:

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you to contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. . . .This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. . . It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.(pp. 90-1).

These many costs of racism that take grave tolls on black bodies and minds have been documented empirically in Joe Feagin and Karyn McKinney’s book, The Many Costs of Racism — high rates of hypertension, workplace-induced carcinogens (i.e., much environmental racism), and other factors all ultimately resulting in lower life expectancies. Thus, one piece of my grief, for example, is that my children will never know their African American grandmother, who died at only 52, and was one of the most hardworking, loving, giving, caring, and musically talented members of the family. Yet many African Americans might only dream that their children had been able to see the age of 52—instead, their children, such as (most recently) Prince Jones, Michael Brown, Trayvon Brown, Tamir Rice, and far too many others must be mourned before they can even be parents themselves, much less barely finish their childhood.

Coates wrote Between the World and Me in the form of a letter to his son, who cried in his room inconsolably after learning of the Michael Brown verdict. Coates knew that telling his son everything’s going to be all right was not an option. After the book’s printing, no doubt Coates would not be surprised there would be no justice for Tamir Rice either. Racism literally takes away life, which is bad enough. But for those of us who remain, while we remain, racism does damage to our lives as well.

So I am grieving today that I had to have “the talk” with my 8-year old black son. Much as I wanted to put it off longer–the child still believes in Santa Claus–a well-meaning white family member forced my hand, by giving him the toy gun he asked for for Christmas. I had to tell him that a police officer might shoot and kill him with the justification that he thought he was holding a real gun. Lest his naïve white mother be talking about something she was clueless about, he turned to his older sister for some sort of confirmation or denial. When his sister–with hair like his and skin like his–told him, “yes, it’s true,” at that moment he knew that all the nice refrains in school about the police officer being his friend were but one version of the real story.

I am grieving that “the talk”–that was once associated with getting one’s driver’s license and becoming a young man–is now a talk for little ones who still take their steps down a staircase two feet at a time.

And while I shoulder this, I am also grieving a three-year relationship with the beautiful African American man I thought was my soul mate. Though each of us was raising children of our own, it was mentioned that my parenting was perhaps too optimistic. “We did not choose our fences” (Coates 2015:42), but those fences inevitably mean we only could connect but so much, and but for so long. Imagine how much more energy one could devote to strengthening one’s relationships if one’s body were not constantly drafted into the war of fighting racism. Perhaps fortuitously, a skilled and talented DJ chose “Footprints” as part of the soundtrack to our first date. It begins with a mother saying a routine “hurry back” goodbye to her son, only to lose him forever in a shooting—-much akin to the grief Coates chronicles in his interview with the mother of Prince Jones.

Some have told me Coates’ book was so painful, they had to put it down. While decontextualized excerpts from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech have been used at times as some kind of “Kumbaya, why can’t we all just get along anthem,” Coates instead uses the concept of the “dream” to refer to the deluded whites who think the world is a meritocracy, the world is their oyster, and when and if problems arise, justice wins out in orderly fashion. Those whites and others who buy uncritically into the “dream” still understand racism as an aberration to an otherwise ethically grounded society, much as the occasional natural disaster. Coates notes that

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’. . .But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. . . [whiteness] has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power” (pp. 7-8)

Those who subscribe to the “dream” are usually ignorant of the fact that racism in the form of slavery and Jim Crow forms fully 83 percent of our nation’s history so it’s foundational and ongoing, as opposed to a temporary hiccup. When Michelle Alexander reviewed Coates’ book for The New York Times review of books, she read it twice–the first time she was so disheartened that he offered no optimistic, visionary, inspirational vision for the future, that she had to read it again a second time with new adjusted expectations. Coates does not provide a way out of the mess. And although I do not share Coates’ atheism/agnosticism, what lover of justice among us has not questioned why a benevolent God would allow the ugliness of racism to continue to rage with no end in sight?

I led two community discussions on Coates’ book in Fall 2015, and I asked my fellow readers whether they thought Coates was a pessimist. Though we did not find him to be offering optimism, we agreed that what Coates prescribes is instead consciousness. He calls us to be fully aware, cast off the denial, and pay attention. Indeed, to his son he wrote:

My wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (pp. 107-8).

If one listens closely, there are moments of beauty of this world Coates celebrates throughout these pages. Those are the moments when one dwells outside the veil, when the fences have been temporarily lifted, when the softness dares to emerge despite the inevitable risk of pain that looms just behind. Coates eloquently shares with the reader the moments when he is bowled over by the bold no-holds-barred confidence of his son or his wife, or the way his fellow students groove to the music at a party. They exude a soulfulness and a zeal for life that he cherishes in those moments. Those snapshots in time become all the more beautiful when you are fully conscious of how rare they are, and how inevitably they will be interrupted.

In a bereavement workshop after the passing of my father, I was reminded that grief is an indicator of once having loved and being loved in return. Toward the end of his life, this man sent me a card every year on MLK day to acknowledge and honor my work. He would also remind me of the Buddhist teaching on impermanence–everything, whether wondrous or painful, too shall pass. Coates brings us face to face with the kind of pain that is like fire or looking into the son-—at some point, many readers feel compelled to put the book down and look away, it is too heavy to bear. Yet, even though he is a skeptic, he is fully conscious. His eyes are wide open, and he does not want to miss a moment.

So on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, while the national focus on race and racism only calls to mind the sadness and pain it inflicts upon my relationships with those I love most, I am also challenged to follow Coates’ lead: as I grieve, I will keep conscious. I will cherish the moments my love and I got lost in the music and there were no fences between us. I will cherish the moments my children played with abandon without a care to how boisterous they were, and no one was there to invoke our fear of sanctions that might befall them when their “race” trumped their youthful innocence in someone’s eyes. Most of all I will keep telling the truth, and I will not keep silent, about the racism that keeps us all from being able to enjoy so many more of those moments with each other.

~ Eileen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair of Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia campus). She is currently researching race and hip hop (with Nosh McTaggart) and race/gender in military families (with Stephanie Byrd). Her books include The Racial Middle, and Race Ethnicity Gender and Class (with Joseph Healey).