Last October, as revelations about Harvey Weinstein snowballed into a massive public uprising by women against male sexual harassment in every walk of life, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said:
“When I was a kid growing up… women were sacred and looked upon with great honour. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases.”
Those cases could include Kelly’s own decisions to protect and consider promoting a wife-beater, Rob Porter, who couldn’t get a security clearance, but was allowed to handle all classified documents sent to the president, as we discovered last week. They could include Kelly’s past willingness to vouch in court for the character of a Marine colonel accused of sexually harassing subordinates. Sexual harassment and assault are rampant in the US military, as is a history of male violence against women among the campaign and White House staff of the administration Kelly currently serves. Kelly pines for the past, but the story he tells glosses over his — and other men’s — institutional role in women’s degradation today.
Claims about women’s mythical status as holy, with the implication that men were their protectors, is one I’ve grown up hearing from American white men in media and in person for decades. But it’s a false narrative; contradicted every bit as much by the recent actions of enablers like Kelly as by American history.
It was still effectively legal for white men to rape black women in the US in 1944, six years before Kelly was born, when Recy Taylor was abducted by six white men and gang raped. Mrs. Taylor reported the crime and Rosa Parks drove a national action and awareness campaign. Still, prosecutors twice failed to get all-white grand juries to indict the men who were seen taking Taylor away in a car, in broad daylight, in front of witnesses who corroborated her story.
This is a true story of America. It wasn’t rare. Historian Danielle L. McGuire brought these narratives from the apartheid South to light in her book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
During the Jim Crow era, white rapists made life hell for black women, and roving gangs of white serial killers — sick, Jeffrey Dahmer types, who enjoyed torturing their victims first and even taking trophies from their bodies while they were still alive — targeted black men, women, and children, whenever they wanted.
They could do it because law enforcement wouldn’t investigate (if they weren’t in on it, themselves). Even if you were someone who was willing to risk your life and report these crimes, there was no one to report them to who either would or wanted to put a stop to it. In the worst case, a report to the police might lead to violent retaliation. In the best case, bringing the rapists and murderers to trial would lead to a not guilty verdict from an all white jury, and there might still be retaliation. And where murder isn’t taken seriously, rape isn’t taken seriously.
White people today like to think they would have done the right thing, rather than joining the mob or staying silent. But would you tell on a neighbor who was a member of a gang of hobbyist serial killers? How about if you thought the local police chief might be a member of the gang, himself? What if you were a woman who knew that your father or brother was one of these murderers? What if you had a serial killer husband who was friends with law enforcement, and they were his buddies in racialized crimes, from vandalism to rape and murder? I’m glad not to be faced with this choice today; and even if I want to do better now, I’m not going to pretend that I know what I’d do if I had lived back then.
Eventually, the federal government had to get involved, once again, in reining in white supremacist vigilantes so that black people could begin to participate in public life with some expectation of safety. From Reconstruction, to the passage of the Klu Klux Act, to Civil Rights era enforcement of the law against white terrorists, to school desegregation, and through the 48 years that the Voting Rights Act was enforced, black safety and political rights have depended on consistent federal enforcement of the law. From the abolition of slavery in 1865, to the present day, every time that such federal insistence on racial equality and integration has been rolled back, the safety and rights advances of black Americans have been rolled back.
That is a true story of America.
White men’s story of America after the Civil War is that black men had to be lynched to protect the honour of sacred (white) womanhood. This is a narrative lifted directly from the KKK, the country’s most infamous gang of civilian serial killers, and popularized even in classic “family” movies like Gone With The Wind.
The system of white governance that the Civil War had swept away was, moreover, not solely a system of coerced labour, but also one of coerced reproduction. Enslaved black women were forced to have intercourse and children with black men according to their owner’s wishes. White masters raped enslaved women at will, then treated the children as further property. The antebellum South was a grotesque slave harem, where white slave masters treated every woman or girl on their property like a sexual possession, either for their own use or for her trade value. Dorothea Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, has written extensively on this subject.
While white men could do whatever they wanted (as long as they didn’t want to respectably marry a black woman), consensual relationships between white women and black men were regarded as egregious crimes. The black man might be falsely accused of rape and castrated or lynched, in order to save the white family’s honour. As for the women, Roberts explains:
“Labeling a young woman feeble minded was often an excuse to punish her sexual immorality. Many women were sent to institutions to be sterilized solely because they were promiscuous or had become pregnant out of wedlock. A review of sterilization in California found that three out of four of the sterilized women had been judged sexually delinquent prior to their institutional commitment. One sign of the trait was a patient’s failure to display ‘the normal aversions of a white girl to a coloured man who was perhaps nice to her.’”
Being sacred in the context of white men who believe in sacred womanhood clearly doesn’t mean being accorded respect so much as it does being an object of ritual sacrifice… Emphasis on “object.”
Seven years before Taylor was attacked, a white woman, Patricia Douglas, was raped at a 1937 MGM Studios-sponsored party in Hollywood. She’d been bussed to to a remote ranch, along with 119 other dancers — aspiring actresses — who were told it was a film set.
It turned out to be an MGM-sponsored “stag affair” for 282 studio salesmen who were offered these women in “reward” for record annual profits. Her story demonstrates that Weinstein was operating from a very old Hollywood script, and didn’t invent this system of pressuring women to submit to sexual contact in order to access work in the film industry himself.
Further, marital rape wasn’t a crime anywhere in the US until 1979. A rapist could theoretically just marry a prospective victim and do what he liked with her for decades. White men who wanted to rape black women could be a lot more brazen and casual, and they were.
Would a country where any women had ever been respected have had 11,341 untested rape kits, holding evidence about 821 serial rapists, sitting around in a police warehouse in just one city (Detroit)? This is not an anomaly, either. As of 2015, the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Compare all these cases and circumstances, not directly to each other, but instead to the simple — and unfortunately enduring — story that white men are white women’s protectors.
This white protector story hides the victims and portrays the perpetrators as heroes, as the trailblazing black journalist, Ida B. Wells, proved 118 years ago by carefully tallying and investigating lynching reports from around the country. What Wells found in tallying up these reports, culminating in 1892, was that a crime against a woman was only even alleged in roughly a third of cases. In most of those, the charges against black men who were condemned to lynching were either transparently false or the result of something as mundane as a black man startling a white woman (as detailed in Philip Dray’s book, At The Hands Of Persons Unknown). W.E.B. DuBois added his voice to these efforts to report on the injustice of lynching, and found similar results.
Lynching was generally a crime of economic jealousy or political terror, wherein successful black businesses might be burned and their owners killed or driven off, or black communities would be terrorized or driven off before elections. Black voters and veterans were especially targeted because they were seen as a source of political strength and resistance. McGuire writes:
“Black activists in the post-World War II period often joked that ‘the closer a black man got to a ballot box, the more he looked like a rapist.’ However, African-American men did not actually have to vote or threaten political overthrow to be accused of rape. As Frederick Douglass noted nearly a century earlier, the myth of the black man as a rapist was an ‘invention with a well defined motive’…
… For example, in August 1946, police in Minden, Louisiana, arrested and jailed John C. Jones, a 28-year-old black veteran, and his 17-year-old cousin, Albert Harris, for acting ‘uppity’ after they protested an unfair land deal. However, police claimed the two men were ‘prowling’ around a white woman’s window, though she refused to press charges. After several days in jail, police released them into a mob of armed white men. The mob drove Harris and Jones down a country road, where they tortured and beat Harris until they believed he was dead. Then the mob mutilated Jones with a meat cleaver and a blowtorch. When they were satisfied with their work, the mob left the mangled men in a ditch, ostensibly dead. Jones died, but Harris managed to survive and eventually identified five of the murderers in court, though an all-white jury quickly acquitted them.”
In truth, when white women need protecting from rape, it is mostly from white men. Most rape and sexual assault happens within racial groups, by men the woman knows. The law has also mainly seen it as a property crime against men; the seriousness depending on the status of her husband or father vs. the status of the attackers.
Black men are slandered through the implication that they are more likely to rape than other men, and their freedom from terror is presented through the “white protector” narrative in opposition to white women’s freedom from rape. This is contrary to the strong anti-violence stance of the Civil Rights movement, and it’s false to paint them as posing a different level of risk to women than other men.
Black women are absent in this story about “sacred womanhood” and their need for safety. They are absent as consistent victims of white men who terrorized them and their families, white employers who defrauded or assaulted them, and white rioters of both sexes who routinely ransacked their communities when they managed to build prosperity.
Native women are also absent from the story, as the one group of women more likely to be raped by men outside their ethnicity in the US (mostly, though not only, by white men). In fact, white men in the US know that tribal authorities can’t prosecute them for rape and they give each other advice on how to hunt women on reservations. Or they can buy them from traffickers, who disproportionately target and recruit Native women throughout North America.
The story that white men are protectors of women — and that white women are ourselves protected — rests also and finally on the implied assumption that white men aren’t sexist to white women.
Because it isn’t true that white men are the least sexist or violent towards women, it makes no sense for white men across the political spectrum to point to men of colour and critique the behavior of those men in faux-feminist terms, by way of unfavorable comparison to themselves. Think of all the white men in the international aid community who think they’re swell fellows for giving refugee women or women recovering from natural disasters a bit of food or cash in order to then sexually exploit them.
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 10, 2015
White men obviously do think that they’re better to women than other men — we all know that because they tell us so all the time.
Dear entitled millenials who whine about "white male privilege" all day.
– We gave women the right to vote.
– We ended slavery.
Millions of us sacrificed our lives for freedom and democracy, fighting the evils of Nazism and Communism.
I don't want to hear about "privilege"
— PeterSweden (@PeterSweden7) February 3, 2018
But the story that the group of men who most frequently invaded, enslaved, raped, and committed genocide across the world, are the greatest protectors of women is false, and we owe it to each other to stop allowing them to speak as if it’s true. It’s false if you understand how they have treated women of colour. It is false if you understand how they have always treated white women.
White women are treated better in the US, on average, than racially marginalized women. We are still rape victims, but we are paid better at work than women of colour, on average. We’re better fed domestic violence victims. Our children often live in better houses, and are far less likely to be killed by police, while we are harassed and insulted on the job. Wealthier men, on average, are grabbing our genitals without our permission, or covering for their friends who do the same. When we go shopping for makeup to cover the bruises, the store clerks won’t assume we’re shoplifting. Sometimes we are taken to dinner before being assaulted.
The wealthiest, most conventionally attractive, blonde, white woman — a married mother, even — can still be raped and tortured by a white man, virtually without consequence. How a woman like that can be treated is the absolute ceiling on women’s expectation of human rights backed by the courts in this society.
I can still see that being an improvement on the situation that some women face. I empathize with the desire to seek incremental improvements on the way to somewhere better, and know that white women have a responsibility to work against the racism and racist systems that benefit us. But we should all be able to agree that being a well-fed torture victim isn’t a liberatory aspiration. We should all be able to agree that the man who would torture a woman, because she is a woman, through sexual means, or who would sanction that behavior in his male peers, is no ally to women or feminism.
Don’t ever let a white man tell you that women are sacred in the US. Don’t ever let one tell you that the serial murder clubs and racial pogroms of the past or present are for women. Don’t repeat his claims about how great he’s been for (at least some) women, who he may have needed to have around to raise the children or file things for him.
It is time to stop reflexively believing white men and repeating their stories about how things are.