Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Social Studies

Racial Politics in the US and the Figure of the White Lady

One way to understand the senseless killings of Black men is through the "lady"

Posted Dec 06, 2014

The senseless and ceaseless killing of Black men by White police officers in this country is being discussed everywhere: network news, political speeches, college campuses and, of course, demonstrations around the country.

Many commentators have pointed out how the fear of Black men has been so deeply engrained in White culture that White police officers like Darren Wilson really can see a 17 year old kid like Michael Brown as a "demon."  It is also why Treyvon Martin seemed "suspicious" or why Eric Garner's shouts of "I can't breathe" were ignored.  

After all, memory is historical and the history of constructing Black men as dangerous and a threat dates back to Jim Crow days. It is everywhere in American culture and history. Go back to early American movies, to 1915's cinematic "masterpiece" Birth of a Nation and there is Gus, a White man in blackface portraying a Black rapist intent on having his way with the lily white Flora, a woman so pure and so unwilling to have her purity besmirched by Gus that she throws herself off of Stone Mountain. This movie scene was so compelling to White audiences that President Woodrow Wilson described it as "history writ with lightening" while the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists used the film as an excuse to attack Black citizens.  

Fast forward to 1972 and Richard Nixon's "tough on crime" policy.   "Tough on Crime" was not a response to actual crime, but rather part of the GOPs "Southern Strategy." This now tried and true Republican strategy for winning elections does so by mobilizing Southern white voters by playing on their fear of Black beasts. That's why Nixon and other conservative politicians created a whole set of policies that led to the mass incarceration of Black Americans.  As Nixon said:

"Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for (the) war on poverty."  

He said this as a way of winning a national election. What Nixon meant was probably closer to what his former chief of staff, H.R. Haldemann said: 

"...the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

And so rates of mass incarceration exploded, quadrupling since 1980. As a result, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. 1 out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. Blacks, who make up only 13% of the population, account for 40% of American prisoners. And developing alongside systems of mass incarceration have been policing and sentencing policies that have consistently dehumanized Black Americans. That's why  

About twice a week, or every three or four days, an African American has been killed by a white police officer in the seven years ending in 2012, according to studies of the latest data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That number is incomplete and likely an undercount, as only a fraction of local police jurisdictions even report such deaths – and those reported are the ones deemed somehow “justifiable”.

Mass incarceration and the resulting policing practices in this country assume Black guilt. But none of this could occur without the racial innocence of Whites. Within the myth of the Black male beast lies the story of the innocent White victim, the delicate Flora running away from the newly freed (and therefore dangerous) Gus.

This uniquely American creation myth-- writ not with lightening but a gender binary that marked White women as victims, Black men as dangerous, Black women as excessively sexual and White men as heroic saviors-- planted the seed for everything we are seeing today. And therein lies the real danger for not bringing what feminist theory calls an "intersectional analysis" to the history we are witnessing.

An intersectional analysis insists that this is not just about the construction of Black men as beasts, but White women as needing saving by White men and Black women as never innocent.  The seemingly innocent images of White female sexual purity- the white wedding dresses on white women that mark  "perfect weddings," the always White "good girls" who pledge purity till marriage on Reality TV, the White pop stars that utilize all of this to create images of themselves as "nice" and "sweet" not "nasty" and "slutty"- are not just part of our imagination of the nice girl/slut dichotomy, but also part of what allows violence against Black men and women without consequence. Beasts who threaten the innocent deserve to die; sluts who are not pure do not deserve protection from assault. 

And so the story of Michael Brown and Treyvon Martin gets wrapped up in the story of sexual assault at the University of Virginia which gets tied up with the story of Ray Rice beating his then girlfriend/now wife Janay. And like Gus, the White actor in blackface, it haunts the American cultural imaginary as White kids, just kids after all, don blackface to dress as Ray Rice and Janay Rice and Treyvon Martin and no doubt next year Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  

The images haunt us, the Black beast rapist, the Black woman so "funny" for her black eye, and the White man, always there, always armed, always willing to kill to protect the racial innocence of the White lady. 

If we are going to really get at the roots of this problem it is not enough to talk about White supremacy. We must also talk about patriarchy. And how the two work together and always have.


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