Day 4 of White History Month: Criminalizing Blackness, Part 3 - Blackness as Criminality, Whiteness as Virtue and Innocence
[Images: “Criminal Penalties by Race in Virginia” from The Color of Crime, Amnesty USA [x], “Report on Stand Your Ground Laws Highlight Racial Disparities”]
“Whiteness” was created in opposition to “blackness,” in comparison to which it was not only different but quite superior. Indeed, from the seventeenth century forward black women, men, and children were “constructed as lazy, ignorant, lascivious, and criminal; Whites as industrious, knowledgeable, virtuous, and law-abiding.” - Joe Feagin, Racist America
While Black Americans have been cast as criminals and sentenced unfairly throughout history, this is not only a result of the strict criminal justice system in the United States. Black Americans have rarely been considered legitimate victims, even in a legal sense; white Americans have benefitted from this. Many white Americans who are viewed in a positive light today, including the Founders and many Presidents of the United States, are celebrated for the unspeakable acts they committed.
In nearly all cases of white racial mob violence and lynching of Black Americans, no one was punished. The victim simply died “at the hands of persons unknown." despite the fact that the perpetrators were often known (and police officers were often involved in this mob violence themselves). Lynching was extremely common, yet efforts to pass anti-lynching laws were ignored by white congressmen and when introduced, failed. When the victims were Black, and particularly when the perpetrators were white, legal interventions were virtually unheard of.
During slavery, Black women were considered unrapeable: white men could rape Black women without punishment. Black men could rape Black women with no punishment except in cases where a Black woman was injured severely enough to prevent work. The unpunished rape of Black women was not limited to Southerners, as Northern soldiers during the Civil War also sexually assaulted Black women. This continued after slavery, all while a Black man could be lynched for (fabricated) rationalizations of protecting white womanhood.
An accurate account of historical sexual violence during slavery would be that of the white male rapist and Black female victim (and occasionally white women implicating innocent Black men). Instead, the stereotypes that emerged (and continued on today) are those of the Jezebel, the Black male rapist, and the virtuous, chaste white woman.
For many years, Black women could not be considered victims of rape. White men continued to assault Black women. Unlike white women, Black women largely worked outside the home and were vulnerable to assault by both white male employers and white supremacist groups such as the KKK.
In The Birth of a Nation, racial oppression was glorified. White supremacists, particularly the KKK, were turned into heroes. Black people were reduced to harmful anti-Black stereotypes in order to justify white supremacy.
Black women are sexually assaulted at a higher rate than white women. When Black women are sexually assaulted and the case is reported and goes to trial, white juries and judges do not take it seriously. As a result, rapists of Black women received lighter sentences than when the victims are white. Additionally, the testimony of Black female rape victims is taken less seriously than that of white rape victims.
The majority of death row defendants have been convicted for murdering white victims even while Black Americans make up approximately half of homicide victims.
Stand Your Ground
Stand Your Ground laws have resulted in cases with white murderers and Black victims being ruled as justifiable homicides. Much of the focus in these cases was not on the adult white men who had murdered, but on the character of the victims. The recent case of Trayvon Martin is an example of this - even when the white offender has a criminal history, he is privileged over a Black victim. The focus shifted to make Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin appear as justifiable or even as beneficial. Similarly, Michael Dunn murdered Jordan Davis after he refused to turn down his music. There is no situation in which this would be acceptable, yet the jury could not even decide on a murder charge.
In many publicized cases where white men killed innocent Black victims, the police were hesitant to even pursue the criminal, and the prosecution was not eager to proceed. Many white Americans instead suggested to focus on “Black-on-Black” crime. White supremacist groups and even conservative commentators took this a step further by suggesting that white victims of Black crime are overlooked.
Compare these cases to that of Marissa Alexander - a Black woman who fired warning shots in self-defense and injured no one - and the racial differences are clear.
"Looking first at race of alleged perpetrators, we find approximately an equal number of Blacks and Whites (173 versus 179). At one level this equivalence seems reasonable, since Blacks do commit crime far in excess of their population proportions. At another, however, representing Blacks far more often in criminal roles than Whites effectively makes them into symbols of threat. A related signal arises from the portrayal of victims. By a 1.5:1 (241 to 160) ratio, White victims outnumbered Blacks in news reports—even though Blacks in Chicago and most core cities are more likely to be victimized. Another way of comparing news of victimization is length of time devoted to the story: the average story featuring Black victims was 106 seconds long; those featuring White victims, 185 seconds long. Using total story time as a measure, the ratio of time spent on White victims to that on Blacks exceeded 3:1. - Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, The Black Image in the White Mind
Thus, the more socially valuable the “players” in a crime story are, the more newsworthy the story is. The factors associated with finding a “good” crime story result in the devaluation and invisibility of many victims. Media researchers Carolyn Byerly and Karen Ross point out, “As with other kinds of crime reporting, issues of gender are further complicated by issues of race.” Not only are marginalized and disenfranchised female victims deemed less interesting than white middle-class women (meaning that their victimizations receive less news coverage), but the media also depict them in stereotypically unflattering ways (i.e., black women as “Jezebels”) and project blame and culpability onto them. Michelle L. Meloy and Susan L. Miller, The Victimization of Women: Law, Policies, and Politics