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Why the Rhetoric of the Past Is Still Present

7 minute read

This month, members of the Ku Klux Klan plan to rally in South Carolina in support of the Confederate flag. Claiming that the flag should not be taken down because “it is part of white people’s culture,” James Spears, the head of the Loyal White Knights chapter of the KKK set to host the rally, expressed support for Dylann Roof as well.

Spears told the South Carolina television station WHNS that he thinks Roof “picked the wrong target. A better target for him would have been these gang-bangers, running around rapping, raping and stealing.”

While Americans are now split on whether the flag is a racist symbol that should be removed from public spaces, the KKK’s defense of its values comes as no surprise. What is equally frightening but more surprising, however, is the return of an age-old stereotype that people of color, particular men of color, disproportionately and uncontrollably rape white women. Like the Confederate flag, this stereotype reproduces a violence that is not only racist but also deeply sexist.

On June 17, before Roof murdered nine African American members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., including six women, he allegedly told a witness that “you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

A mere day before, when Donald Trump declared his bid for presidency, he invoked a similar refrain of scare tactics against Latinos: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Despite losing a series of endorsements and business partnerships due to his comments, Trump has doubled, if not quadrupled, down on this rhetoric. Just last night on CNN, he told Don Lemon, “Well if you look at the statistics of people coming, you look at the statistics on rape, on crime, on everything coming in illegally into this country it’s mind-boggling!” Trump went to ask, “Well, somebody’s doing the raping, Don! I mean somebody’s doing it! Who’s doing the raping? Who’s doing the raping?”

The success of Trump’s diatribes, which has quickly earned him the No. 2 spot among GOP presidential candidates according to recent polls, is not only happening because his outbursts play well with the far right today. It also pulls on our nation’s history, in which these racial and sexual stereotypes of men and women have served a dual purpose: as a rhetorical shorthand to determine who and who does not deserve to be counted as an American citizen and as a longstanding justification for domestic terror against people of color.

In her book, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, Stanford historian Estelle Freedman reveals that cultural and legal understanding of rape have always been tied to “the very meaning of citizenship in American history.”

According to Freedman, the rhetoric that African American men were disproportionately rapists became solidified in the late 19th century, while a similar typecasting occurred for immigrant men, Asian men, southern European and particularly Mediterranean men, whose cultures were depicted as threatening to both white women and young white boys alike. Perpetuated by court cases, news media, and racist popular culture, many African American men and immigrant men were unfairly criminalized in these trials and effectively shut out of the rights and benefits of full citizenship.

By contrast, many of the white men who wrote rape laws, determined who would be arrested and charged with these crimes, and served as judges and jurors on sexual assault cases, not only perpetuated these stereotypes but used them to protect their own status as full citizens. Consequently, rape laws, as Freedman writes, actually “contributed to the immunities enjoyed by white men who seduced, harassed, or assaulted women of any race,” and by doing so, reinforced their own “sexual privileges.”

The result of this double bind was another double harm: to those men who were disproportionately accused of rape because of their racial or cultural “otherness” and to the women, but particularly women of color, who remained vulnerable to sexual violence with little recourse for legal protection or public complaint.

Anti-lynching activist and suffragist Ida B. Wells most forcefully sought to expose and redress this double bind almost a century ago in the pamphlet “The Red Record” when she exposed how the myth of the black male rapist served to justify the widespread lynching of economically and politically mobile African American men and to safeguard white men who sexually assaulted African American women impunity from prosecution or public persecution.

Those who will gather this month to protest the removal of the Confederate flag will likely not be thinking of this history when they do, but its legacy seems alive and well. This double vulnerability was especially true as Roof invoked the stereotype of the black rapist as he murdered his victims, but Trump’s easy application of it in a press conference to other vulnerable groups – undocumented workers from the Caribbean and Central and South America and by extension, Latino Americans themselves – shows that neither the myth nor the violence that it once served to justify is a relic of the past.

Today, as more survivors come forward and politicians, activists, and students organize to reform sexual violence on college campuses and in U.S. military culture, the image of those accused of rape is slowly changing.

It would be easy to pair this progress with the rapid fallout in response to Trump’s dangerous remarks and Roof’s violent actions and conclude that these individuals are mere hangovers from a bygone era of racial and sexual terror.

But, that would be a misread of where we are as a society. Just this weekend, feminist comedian Amy Schumer took to Twitter to stave off criticism from piece in The Guardian that took her to task for a set of racially insensitive jokes. This was on the heels of another piece in the Daily Dot by Anne Thériault that took Schumer for task for a bit where she says, “‘I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual!’” Thériault wrote, “No matter how you parse this joke, it’s racist and awful. It’s not a smart critique of rape culture. It’s a white woman blithely saying that all Latino men are rapists.”

In response to these critiques, Schumer tweeted, “I ask you to resist the urge to pick me apart. Trust me. I am not a racist. I am a devout feminist and lover of all people. My fight is for all people to be treated equally.”

Given Schumer’s comedic repertoire and its progressive politics, we can assume that she believes that her off color remarks were taken out of context and were simply meant to be funny and not exclusionary or incendiary. Maybe.

But like just like the tired Confederate flag in which Roof draped himself, this rhetoric—in any context—continues to marginalize and harm people of color, particularly the women with whom Schumer claims solidarity. That these tired stereotypes came out of the mouth of racist killer shows how little we have progressed, that a wannabe conservative president and feminist comedian continue to stand by their own similar comments, shows how far we have to go.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination” and is currently working on a book about Nina Simone. She is also the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based national nonprofit organization that uses art to empower, educate, and mobilize young people to end violence against all girls and women.

This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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