Friday, March 13, 2009

Emmett Till, lynching and white women (by Suzie)

Racism and sexism are intertwined, sometimes in ways that aren’t apparent or can’t be discussed without angering people. I was reminded of that when reading an old Ms. magazine that mentioned Emmett Till being lynched for "flirting” with a white woman.

A lot of people blasted Susan Brownmiller for her 1975 commentary on the case, some accusing her of suggesting the 14-year-old deserved to be tortured and murdered for harassing a woman. Brownmiller has denied this, writing in 1999 that: “Till and the men who lynched him shared something in common: a perception of the white woman as the white man's property."

Some critics don’t consider what Till did harassment and think any mention of his actions is an attempt to blame the victim or lessen the monstrosity of his murderers, who were never brought to justice.

Others criticized Brownmiller for "centering" a white woman. Kimberle Crenshaw wrote in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” published in “Feminist Legal Theories” in 1997:
While patriarchal attitudes toward women’s sexuality played a supporting role, to place white women center stage in this tragedy is to manifest such confusion over racism as to make it difficult to imagine that the white antirape movement could be sensitive to more subtle racial tensions regarding Black women’s participation in it.
Till was murdered in 1955, and the case had a huge impact on the civil rights movement. When Brownmiller wrote two decades later, she didn’t have the power to make the white woman more important than the boy, even if she had wanted to do so. Even though it’s taboo, I still think talking about her commentary helps people understand how white male supremacy has worked to control white women and people of color.

In “White Man Falling,” Abby Ferber notes how sexuality continues to be integral to the thinking of white supremacists.
Defining black women as promiscuous and oversexed, combined with the belief that all women were the property of white men, meant that the only form of rape that was actually considered such was the rape of white women by black men. In this case, rape is seen as a violation of white male property rights.
In English law, rape was a crime against men's property rights, explains Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson in "A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America." They note that, after the Civil War, African Americans saw the rape of black women by white men as an affront to the manhood of black men.

Karen, in the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, wrote about her research into rape cases in the antebellum South. She said enslaved black women had no legal recourse if they were raped, nor did any wives against husbands, although attitudes against both of these actions existed.

In the 19th century, all-male juries were skeptical of rape claims in general, and a woman had to prove that she was physically forced. If she couldn’t, she was seen as licentious. If she could prove rape, a white woman from a “proper” background would still be seen as tarnished. Before the Civil War, Karen found, enslaved men accused of raping white women usually were not brought to trial or convicted because white men wanted to protect their economic investment in slaves.

After the war, that changed, of course. White men feared black men would infringe on white men's rights to white women, and the protection of white women was used as an excuse for the political and economic domination of black men. Into the 1900s at least, the perceived morality of the white woman affected the treatment of black men accused of assault, according to Lisa Lindquist Dorr in "White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960."

During witch-burning times, women had been seen as earthy temptresses. Slavery was one strong impetus for white women to be recast as good and pure, with black women being seen as bad. "White women had to pretend to be the former, and black women were doomed to be seen as the latter," Hine and Thompson wrote. The authors also quote Hazel Carby:
The institutionalized rape of black women has never been seen as powerful a symbol of black oppression as the spectacle of lynching. Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting sexual attack.
While fighting lynching, Ida B. Wells-Barnett capitalized on this thinking about rape when "she declared that no one really believed black men were raping white women," Hine and Thompson wrote. Instead, she suggested, accusations cast aspersions on the morality of white women.

Nevertheless, she and Frederick Douglass noted that most lynchings did not stem from white women's accusations of sexual assault. Even when assault was the excuse given, the motivation often was economic, and almost all of the lynchings were committed by white men.

That brings me back to the Emmett Till case. Roy and Carolyn Bryant owned a store whose customers were mostly black sharecroppers. Roy Bryant was often on the road, leaving his 21-year-old wife alone, or with her sister-in-law and their children. She saw Till as big as a man, and she said he grabbed her and talked about dating her. If this was true, then it wasn’t flirting; it was intimidation. She didn’t tell her husband initially, but word got out in the small town.
Others say she lied, and I find that just as plausible, but it’s hard to know the truth because testimony conflicted. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the Bryants were racist, and Roy Bryant committed murder.

But racism would have to work differently if sexism was taken out of the equation, if men no longer used women as proxies to fight each other, if men didn’t see women as property, if men no longer tied their status to women’s sexuality.