[Marxism] Racial hysteria in NYC

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Fri Mar 10 12:27:18 MST 2006

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
Part 3

Thirty years after Ida B. Wells had initiated the anti-lynching
campaign, an organization called the Anti-Lynching Crusaders was
founded. Established in 1922 under the auspices of the NAACP and
headed by Mary Talbert, its purpose was to create an integrated
women's movement against lynching.

What will Mary B. Talbert do next? What next will
the colored American women do under her leadership?
An organization has been effected by colored women
to get ONE MILLION WOMEN of all kinds and colors
united by December, 1922 against lynching.
Look out, Mr. Lyncher!
This class of women generally get what they
go after.57

This was not the first time Black women had reached out to their
white sisters. They were struggling in the tradition of such
historical giants as Sojourner Truth and Frances E. W. Harper.
Ida B. Wells had personally appealed to white women, as had her
contemporary, Mary Church Terrell. And Black clubwomen had
collectively attempted to persuade the white women's club
movement to direct some of their energies toward the
anti-lynching campaign.

White women did not respond to these appeals en masse until the
Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching was
founded in 1930 under the leadership of Jessie Daniel Ames.58 The
Association set out to repudiate the claim that lynching was
necessary for the protection of Southern womanhood:

The program of the Southern women has been directed
to exposing the falsity of the claim that lynching
is necessary to their protection and to emphasize the
real danger of lynching to all the values of home and

The small group of women, who attended the Atlanta meeting where
the Association was formed, discussed the role of white women in
the lynchings of the recent period. Women were usually present at
the mob gatherings, they pointed out, and in some instances, were
active members of the lynch mobs. Moreover, those white women who
permitted their children to witness the murders of Black people
were indoctrinating them into the racist ways of the South.
Walter White's study of lynching, published the year before the
women's meeting, argued that one of the worst consequences of
these mob murders was the warping of Southern white children's
minds. When White traveled to Florida to investigate a lynching,
a little girl of nine or ten told him about ". . . the fun we had
burning the niggers."60

Jessie Daniel Ames and her co-founders of the Association of
Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching resolved in 1930 to
recruit the masses of Southern white women into the campaign to
defeat the racist mobs bent on killing Black people. Eventually
they obtained over forty thousand signatures to the Association's

We declare lynching is an indefensible crime,
destructive of all principles of government, hateful
and hostile to every ideal of religion and humanity,
debasing and degrading to every person involved....
(P)ublic opinion has accepted too easily the claim of
lynchers and mobsters that they were acting solely in
defense of womanhood. In light of facts we dare no
longer to permit this claim to pass unchallenged, nor
allow those bent upon personal revenge and savagery to
commit acts of violence and lawlessness in the name of
women. We solemnly pledge ourselves to create a new
public opinion in the South, which will not condone,
for any reason whatever, acts of mobs or lynchers. We
will teach our children at home, at school and at
church a new interpretation of law and religion; we
will assist all officials to uphold their oath of
office; and finally, we will join with every minister,
editor, school teacher and patriotic citizen in a
program of education to eradicate lynchings and mobs
forever from our Land.61

These courageous white women encountered opposition, hostility
and even physical threats on their lives. Their contributions
were invaluable within the overall anti-lynching crusade. Without
their relentless petition drives, their letter campaigns and
their meetings and demonstrations, the tide of lynching would not
have been reversed so swiftly. Yet the Association of Southern
Women for the Prevention of Lynching was a movement that was
forty years late in coming. For four decades or more, Black women
had been leading the anti-lynching campaign, and for just about
as long, they had appealed to their white sisters to join them.
One of the major weaknesses of Susan Brownmiller's study on rape
is its absolute disregard of Black women's pioneering efforts in
the anti-lynching movement. While Brownmiller rightfully praises
Jessie Daniel Ames and the Association of Southern Women, she
makes not so much as a passing mention of Ida B. Wells, Mary
Church Terrell or Mary Talbert and the Anti-Lynching Crusaders.

While the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of
Lynching was a belated response to their Black sisters' appeals,
these women's far-reaching achievements dramatically illustrate
white women's special place in the struggle against racism. When
Mary Talbert and her Anti-Lynching Crusaders reached out to white
women, they felt that white women could more readily identify
with the Black cause by virtue of their own oppression as women.
Besides, lynching itself, as a terrifying tool of racism, also
served to strengthen male dominance.

Economic dependence, contacts with none save "polite,
refined, womanly" pursuits, mental activities in no
other field than home life - all these man-imposed
restrictions have borne more heavily upon women in
the South and have been maintained more rigidly, than
in any other part of the country.62

Throughout the anti-lynching crusade, the critics of the racist
manipulation of the rape charge did not intend to excuse those
individual Black men who actually committed the crime of sexual
assault. As early as 1894 Frederick Douglass warned that his
pronouncements against the myth of the Black rapist were not to
be misconstrued as a defense of rape itself.

I do not pretend that Negroes are saints and angels.
I do not deny that they are capable of committing the
crime imputed to them, but utterly deny that they are
any more addicted to the commission of that crime
than is true of any other variety of the human
family.... I am not a defender of any man guilty of
this atrocious crime, but a defender of the
coloured people as a class.63

The resurgence of racism during the mid-1970s has been
accompanied by a resurrection of the myth of the Black rapist.
Unfortunately, this myth has sometimes been legitimized by white
women associated with the battle against rape. Consider,
for example, Susan Brownmiller's concluding passage of the
chapter of her book entitled "A Question of Race":

Today the incidence of actual rape combined with
the looming spectre of the rapist in the mind's eye,
and in particular the mythified spectre of the black
man as rapist to which the black man in the name of
his manhood now contributes, must be understood as
a control mechanism against the freedom, mobility
and aspirations of all women, white and black. The
crossroads of racism and sexism had to be a violent
meeting place. There is no use pretending it doesn't

Brownmiller's provocative distortion of such historical cases as
the Scottsboro Nine, Willie McGee and Emmett Till are designed to
dissipate any sympathy for Black men who are victims of
fraudulent rape charges. As for Emmett Till, she clearly invites
us to infer that if this fourteen-year-old boy had not been shot
in the head and dumped into the Tallahatchie River after he
whistled at one white woman, he would probably have succeeded in
raping another white woman.

Brownmiller attempts to persuade her readers that the absurd and
purposely sensational words of Eldridge Cleaver - who called rape
an "insurrectionary act" against "white society" - are
representative. It seems as if she wants to intentionally conjure
up in her readers' imaginations armies of Black men, their
penises erect, charging full speed ahead toward the most
conveniently placed white women. In the ranks of this army are
the ghost of Emmett Till, the rapist Eldridge Cleaver and Imamu
Baraka, who once wrote, "Come up, black dada nihilismus. Rape the
white girls. Rape their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats." But
Brownmiller goes further. Not only does she include men like
Calvin Hernton whose book is unequivocally sexist - but also,
among others, George Jackson, who never attempted to justify
rape. Eldridge Cleaver's ideas, she argues,

... reflect a strain of thinking among Black male
intellectuals and writers that became quite
fashionable in the late nineteen sixties and was
taken on with astonishing enthusiasm by white male
radicals and parts of the white intellectual
establishment as a perfectly acceptable excuse of
rape committed by black men.65

Susan Brownmiller's discussion on rape and race evinces an
unthinking partisanship which borders on racism. In pretending to
defend the cause of all women, she sometimes boxes herself into
the position of defending the particular cause of white women,
regardless of its implications. Her examination of the Scottsboro
Nine case is a revealing example. As Brownmiller herself points
out, these nine young men, charged and convicted of rape, spent
long years of their lives in prison because two white women
perjured themselves on the witness stand. Yet she has nothing but
contempt for the Black men and their defense movement - and her
sympathy for the two white women is glaring.

The left fought hard for its symbols of racial
injustice, making bewildered heroes out of a handful
of pathetic, semi-literate fellows caught in the
jaws of Southern jurisprudence who only wanted to
beat the rap.66

On the other hand, the two white women, whose false testimony
sent the Scottsboro Nine to prison, were

. . corraled by a posse of white men who already
believed a rape had taken place. Confused and fearful,
they fell into line.67

No one can deny that the women were manipulated by Alabama
racists. However, it is wrong to portray the women as innocent
pawns, absolved of the responsibility of having collaborated with
the forces of racism. In choosing to take sides with white women,
regardless of the circumstances, Brownmiller herself capitulates
to racism. Her failure to alert white women about the urgency of
combining a fierce challenge to racism with the necessary battle
against sexism is an important plus for the forces of racism

The myth of the Black rapist continues to carry out the insidious
work of racist ideology. It must bear a good portion of the
responsibility for the failure of most anti-rape theorists to
seek the identity of the enormous numbers of anonymous rapists
who remain unreported, untried and unconvicted. As long as their
analyses focus on accused rapists who are reported and arrested,
thus on only a fraction of the rapes actually committed, Black
men - and other men of color - will inevitably be viewed as the
villains responsible for the current epidemic of sexual violence.
The anonymity surrounding the vast majority of rapes is
consequently treated as a statistical detail - or else as a
mystery whose meaning is inaccessible.

But why are there so many anonymous rapists in the first place?
Might not this anonymity be a privilege enjoyed by men whose
status protects them from prosecution? Although white men who are
employers, executives, politicians, doctors, professors, etc.,
have been known to "take advantage" of women they consider their
social inferiors, their sexual misdeeds seldom come to light in
court. Is it not therefore quite probable that these men of the
capitalist and middle classes account for a significant
proportion of the unreported rapes? Many of these unreported
rapes undoubtedly involve Black women as victims: their
historical experience proves that racist ideology implies an open
invitation to rape. As the basis of the license to rape Black
women during slavery was the slaveholders' economic power, so the
class structure of capitalist society also harbors an incentive
to rape. It seems, in fact, that men of the capitalist class and
their middle-class partners are immune to prosecution because
they commit their sexual assaults with the same unchallenged
authority that legitimizes their daily assaults on the labor and
dignity of working people.

The existence of widespread sexual harassment on the job has
never been much of a secret. It is precisely on the job, indeed,
that women - especially when they are not unionized - are most
vulnerable. Having already established their economic domination
over their female subordinates, employers, managers and foremen
may attempt to assert this authority in sexual terms. That
working-class women are more intensely exploited than their men
adds to their vulnerability to sexual abuse, while sexual
coercion simultaneously reinforces their vulnerability to
economic exploitation.

Working-class men, whatever their color, can be motivated to rape
by the belief that their maleness accords them the privilege to
dominate women. Yet since they do not possess the social or
economic authority - unless it is a white man raping a woman of
color - guaranteeing them immunity from prosecution, the
incentive is not nearly as powerful as it is for the men of the
capitalist class. When working-class men accept the invitation to
rape extended by the ideology of male supremacy, they are
accepting a bribe, an illusory compensation for their

The class structure of capitalism encourages men who wield power
in the economic and political realm to become routine agents of
sexual exploitation. The present rape epidemic occurs at a time
when the capitalist class is furiously reasserting its authority
in face of global and internal challenges. Both racism and
sexism, central to its domestic strategy of increased economic
exploitation, are receiving unprecedented encouragement. It is
not a mere coincidence that as the incidence of rape has arisen,
the position of women workers has visibly worsened. So severe are
women's economic losses that their wages in relationship to men
are lower than they were a decade ago. The proliferation of
sexual violence is the brutal face of a generalized
intensification of the sexism which necessarily accompanies this
economic assault.

Following a pattern established by racism, the attack on women
mirrors the deteriorating situation of workers of color and the
rising influence of racism in the judicial system, the
educational institutions and in the government's posture of
studied neglect toward Black people and other people of color.
The most dramatic sign of the dangerous resurgence of racism is
the new visibility of the Ku Klux Klan and the related epidemic
of violent assaults on Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Native
Americans. The present rape epidemic bears an extraordinary
likeness to this violence kindled by racism.

Given the complexity of the social context of rape today, any
attempt to treat it as an isolated phenomenon is bound to
founder. An effective strategy against rape must aim for more
than the eradication of rape - or even of sexism - alone. The
struggle against racism must be an ongoing theme of the anti-rape
movement, which must not only defend women of color, but the many
victims of the racist manipulation of the rape charge as well.
The crisis dimensions of sexual violence constitute one of the
facets of a deep and ongoing crisis of capitalism. As the violent
face of sexism, the threat of rape will continue to exist as long
as the overall oppression of women remains an essential crutch
for capitalism. The anti-rape movement and its important current
activities - ranging from emotional and legal aid to self-defense
and educational campaigns - must be situated in a strategic
context which envisages the ultimate defeat of monopoly

Part 3 of Rape, Racism And The Myth Of The Black Rapist by Angela


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