Recently it seems hardly a day can pass without credible new allegations of sexual assault or abuse leveled against another powerful white man. It’s not that only white men abuse and assault women, but there is something important about women who are believed when standing against powerful white men. I think this moment – when a woman’s word is trusted over that of political or entertainment mogul – is unique in the history of the United States. We are grappling with something new and I wonder whether it can be sustained.
In 1892, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the abandonment of reconstruction, and her own expulsion from Memphis under the threat of mob violence, journalist Ida B. Wells wrote Lynch Law, an investigation into the lynchings then rampant throughout the American South. She also looked into the purported causes of these murdered black citizens. She found one cause to be more common than any other: “[The Negro] is now charged with assaulting or attempting to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us of the sympathy of the world and is blasting the race’s good name.”
In this and later investigations Wells documented case after case of black men standing accused of sexual assault by white women and summarily executed (often after being tortured) by white men. The public history of white men, particularly powerful white men, and sexual assault is one in which we are judge, jury, and executioner. This makes the recent tendency to believe the women who have come forward so surprising. We are used to the deceitful lore of the violent and sexualized black man and the equally fantastical legend of the universally virtuous white man. Seeing so many white men assumed guilty of their crimes is exceptional, utterly counter to the widely accepted narrative that Wells exposed so plainly.
But our surprise should run even deeper. I’m thinking about a horrifying passage in Edward E. Baptist’s masterful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Here Baptist writes about two enslaved women, Rachel and Mary, as they stood before gazing eyes in New Orleans, their bodies offered to the highest bidder.
Rachel watched. She had been leered at, too – when she came through the door, all the way back to the point of her sale in Baltimore. It had been going on ever since she reached puberty, but sale time was when the forced sexualization of enslaved women’s bodies was most explicit. Before the 1830’s, and sometimes after, whites usually forced women to strip…
For white people, seeing Mary up on the bench was one of the rewards of membership in the fraternity of entrepreneurs. Men asked questions of a woman that they did not put to John or Willam, questions that attempted to force her to acknowledge everything that was being bought and sold. Women who refused to play along could expect white anger, as one observer noted: “When answers were demanded to the questions usually put by the bidders to slaves on the block, the tears rolled down her cheeks, and her refusal to answer those most disgusting questions met with blood-curling oaths.” Of course, not all white bidders minded resistance. Some relished overcoming it. It was all part of the game.
The American instinct to impute sexual violence to black men is, as Baptist points out, deeply at odds with our actual history. Rachel, Mary, and countless other enslaved women of African descent experienced this terrorizing history. They lived before the gaze of white men who believed it to be within their power to take land and bodies at will, their right to arrange plundering hierarchies built upon others’ blood and toil. What is today being exposed as sexual predation was for them a birthright so deeply assumed as to remain unquestioned.
The demonic genius of the white gaze was to deflect its own sexual violence, this one terrible representation of its pilfering nature, onto other, darker bodies. Wells saw through the lie. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction.” It seems that more of us are finally beginning to see what was never obscure to Wells or to Rachel or to Mary. Have the powerful white men finally over-reached themselves?
Many of us have been astonished by how frequently these abusing men have been exposed. Our shock, though, shouldn’t begin with the revelation that many powerful white men are also sexual predators, but that it’s taken so long to reckon with this foundational aspect of our troubled history.