On Rape: A Particular, Historical Dogwhistle

In 1905, America was 40 years post-slavery and Jim Crow–a system of unequal everything, from train seats to schools to jobs, and which was held in place by brutal violence–was well-ensconced. Lynching threatened African Americans for damn near everything they did, and Reconstruction–the period post-Civil War that initially held such promise for freed people–came under sharp fire by southern whites as a time of tyranny and lawlessness. That year, Thomas Dixon published The Clansman, a book that gave many white southerners exactly the image it wanted of itself: the South, it said, had been a romantic, chivalrous place destroyed by Reconstruction. Reconstruction, it continued, led to an epidemic of sexual violence by black men against white women, an epidemic the KKK fearlessly righted by lynching those men. The Clansman was a dogwhistle–though purely fiction, it justified racist brutality both in the past and going forward. Yesterday we heard that dogwhistle again as The Man in the High Office (what I’m calling our president now) doubled down on a campaign claim that immigrants coming to America from and through Mexico are rapists–implicitly, of white women, and needing to be stopped.

Our History is Ugly
It’s not even subtle.

Dixon’s monstrosity was so popular that it was made into a film, Birth of a Nation, in 1915. And that film was so popular that Woodrow Wilson, then president, showed it in the White House–the first film there ever.

By the time we get to the early 20th century, America had “reconciled” its Civil War differences and accepted the “Lost Cause” narrative of the south. That narrative argued that the war had been about states’ rights (the particular right, to own humans, left out of the conversation) and that their cause in the war had thus been just. Both sides, reconciliation argued, had fought valiantly, and that shared valiance could knit the nation back together again. Of course, that narrative left out slavery and freedpeople altogether, making them easy targets for the sh*t that came post-Reconstruction. [this is mostly pulled from my most favorite book on Reconstruction, David Blight’s Race and Reunion.]*

Ida B. Wells by Mary Garrity
Ida B. Wells should be one of your heroes.

So once you had reconciliation, Jim Crow became easy to enforce. Already in the works immediately postwar, the combination of Klan (and other group, like the White Rose) violence and sharecropping let newly-freed blacks know exactly what position the south expected them to hold. And those who refused to hold it–who sought citizenship rights, who sought a better life, who sought to do more than farm on another’s land–faced the noose. Lynching, however, was often couched in very particular terms. Many black men were lynched because, the claims went, they’d assaulted white women. Ida B. Wells, a remarkable, brave woman, documented this unspeakable awfulness and spoke about it internationally, even as America refused–multiple times–to pass an anti-lynching statute at the federal level. Violence against white women was a paramount crime, and justified all manner of other crimes against those who allegedly perpetrated such violence.


Those crimes didn’t, largely, exist (though the crime of white men raping black women was common and unprosecuted). Instead what we had were decades of rampage against black men in the name of protecting white women. And what this phenomenon did is multifold in terms of a larger narrative with consequences:

  1. It labeled black men as vicious, animal-like, undeserving of either judicial process or more general doubt–and many, many people believed both the allegations of rape against them and this stereotype. The latter still lurks in our public discourse. References to “violence in Chicago” contain this stuff at its core.
  2. Because white men were not prosecuted for raping black women, the crime of rape became almost exclusively one alleged against black men, reaffirming point 1. A consequence of point 2 here is that black women were not believed when they (if they were brave enough to even make the claim) alleged rape by white men. They were treated as (sexual) property, and assumed to be highly sexual, animal-like people who couldn’t be raped, since they were hyper-sexual to begin with. Again, you can still find this sh*t in our world.
  3. Implicitly (and often legally), white women were white men’s property: the outrage about rape of white women by black men was less about rape, and more about white men’s perceived threat to “our women.” I don’t know stats for rape cases against white men in the south, as filed by white women–I’d be surprised if there were many and I’d bet dollars to donuts they’re stratified by class.
  4. Rape itself lost all meaning, legally speaking, as it was a political football and dogwhistle rather than an actual crime committed primarily against women. So women end up in a sh*t position as a consequence of all of this, even as some truly awful women wielded rape claims as a tool to hide their own infidelities. (Note, too, how that action by white women is a foundation for our current narrative in which people allege rape claims are largely false and made up to hurt men, or that we cannot assume most women are telling the truth because of the small percentage who don’t).
So here we are.

Yesterday, the Man in the High Office said this:
“They’re not putting their good ones,” Trump said. “And remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened. Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough.’ And I used the word ‘rape.’ And yesterday it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.” (from WaPo)

Once you get past the pure word vomit nature of what he’s saying (seriously, if a student handed me this I’d give it back to them on lack of substance and unclear syntax alone), the content here is appalling. He’s stating that in the “caravan” of migrants that was making its way to the US border, members of said caravan were raping women en route, evidently because of their particular viciousness. “At levels nobody has ever seen before” suggests the caravan’s sexual violence is epidemic, worse than, say, wartime, when rape is often used as a weapon by an invading force. Worse than what we’ve seen in the US under slavery.

The further implication of what he’s saying is that the rapists are coming here to rape “our women.” Like in the past, there’s no evidence of these claims, but lack of evidence doesn’t matter. What he’s saying makes his base, who assumes the worst about brown immigrants, happy, as it confirms to their stereotypes. His claims demonize immigrants and imply, at the least, that they should be imprisoned; at the worst, he’s suggesting people keep those immigrants from getting in, legally or otherwise–and that means violence could be a suggested possibility.

Much like in the past, the man making these ridiculous accusations has himself a history of sexual assault. He has treated most women as property. You don’t need me to read you the litany of awful things he’s said. We know, given how many votes he got, that those things were not a turn-off to lot of voters. We know, by implication, that rape (or the varying assaults that fall short of actual rape ) is not a dealbreaker for these folks. So then by further extension, we know that when he alleges immigrants are rapists, he’s saying “not our women.” Much like the white men before him who saw women–white and black–as their property, his two claims, that he can “grab them by the pussy” and that Latin and South American rapists are coming, suggests women in America are objects, property of men like him. Only he can kiss them when they don’t want to be kissed. Men of color cannot. What women want doesn’t matter.

Who would be surprised to find a modern version of The Clansman on a platform like Reddit these days, given a dogwhistle like this? Not I.


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7 thoughts on “On Rape: A Particular, Historical Dogwhistle

  1. I’ve recently been thinking about these questions from the 17th C perspective, and what I see from the early days of slavery in the Caribbean is that because white men did not see enslaved women as *women*, they could not imagine that enslaved men desired them. And of course men had to control women. So the only women available were white women. Ergo, enslaved men would rape white women.

    This has helped me see why it’s so hard to put Black women into the narrative.

    1. It’s pretty horrific, particularly given the white men’s habit of raping enslaved women. Woman as sexual object, to the fullest extent. My students have been working with Ida B. Wells’s Southern Horrors as a way of learning not just about the past but intersectional identities. They’re having some startling revelations.

      But these days, I am enraged seeing hints of these patterns replaying.

  2. When I look at Theresa May in isolation, I can’t help be disappointed in her weakness on equality, and especially gender equality and women’s rights. But when I look across the pond at the “leader” of the free world, perpetuating hate towards migrants and objectifying women, someone with whom you cannot reason…. sigh. And as you point out, people (included women) actually voted for him. It’s hard to believe we’re in 2018 sometimes.

  3. It’s examples such as this that make me so depressed about history…. a lot of really dodgy stuff has gone on, and we are still dealing with the overspill from it. It’s all so dog eat dog and one massive power struggle.

    Away to hide back in my feminist utopia now.

    1. My students often feel as you do–finding out how dark the past is can be a difficult experience. I use it as a launchpad for understanding why the present is as it is. History skills help you better cope in a confusing world and find paths for moving forward.

      We spend a lot of time dissecting past ideologies so that we understand them. Our inkling to just judge and reject doesn’t get us far, and limits our understanding of how and why people act even currently. We wrapped up the Vietnam War last week and my students were dead silent, and had been increasingly pissed about how America’s war on communism lead to death and dictatorships. “Why would they do this? Why would people support it?” they asked about overthrowing democratically elected leaders, clearly angry and implying they would never be a part of such things. And I said look, I get your anger. I too see this as a horrible past. But if you were in their context–think about the pressures of the fear of communism, the cultural norms, all these other pieces–would you see this so clearly?

      When I teach women’s history it’s especially the case. Students are always floored that women shared patriarchal norms. They’re always looking for “progress” as they define it–independence and rejection of those norms. I have to shake them of that way of thinking and those expectations, as most women, most of the time, share the dominant cultural norms in a time and place (gestures widely at white American women who voted for Trump…)

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