To Discuss The Perception of Black Male Criminality, One Must Discuss the Perception of Black Male Sexuality

If you haven’t read Tom Schade’s posts over the last week, I think you should (especially the modest proposal). This past Sunday, Tom pointed to an article written by John McWhorter in “The New Republic” which talks about the presumption—held by many non-blacks—that many (if not most) black men are criminals.

John McWhorter’s comments are good, as were the President’s, but they didn’t go far enough because they stopped short of going to part of the root of the problem.

Almost from the time the first Africans set foot on colonial soil in 1619, law, as it related to those of African descent has been about mainly one thing…controlling black sexuality (both male and female). Yes, most of the laws regarding those of African descent were miscegenation (or, more technically, anti-miscegenation) laws. To ignore this makes having the conversation about black “criminality” incomplete.

After Reconstruction, black codes were established to regulate every area of black life and the peonage system made sure that black men (and a number of black women) were imprisoned for any real or imagined infraction. (if interested in learning more about peonage read Slavery By Another Name )

Now, in the “post civil-rights” era, drug laws have taken the place of black codes and anti-miscegenation laws.

So to look at black male “criminality” without looking at how it all started by trying to control black male sexuality misses a major part of the equation.

(all of this affects black women as well, it just manifests itself in different ways)


7 thoughts on “To Discuss The Perception of Black Male Criminality, One Must Discuss the Perception of Black Male Sexuality

  1. I think a big part of the issue is simply bad statistics. We keep hearing quotes about 90% of prisoners being Black- but nobody ever looks deeper… those are FEDERAL statistics, not state statistics, and they are deeply skewed by there being so few FEDERAL laws that affect the individual; primarily drugs. State statistics are totally different. In my own state, for example, the offender population runs 55-60% White every year. Cross that with some class and income modifiers, and levels start to match the population of the state. I haven’t studied every state, but I bet it’s the same story. Black “criminality” starts to look a lot like White “criminality” when looking at equivalencies.

    • Joel, not all states are so innocent. Here in Vermont, we have been appalled to see that our heavily-Caucasian profile ends at the prison gate. Our leadership is now investigating what we can do, starting with keeping statistics on stops and such.

    • Hi Joel.
      Those who have studied the numbers have long been trying to get the word out—violence, by and large, is INTRA-racial. So it doesn’t surprise me that the Indiana numbers come out the way they do.

      However, I do think Elz has a point. Depending on the region of the country, those numbers skew wildly. There are reasons for that, and that would be an interesting conversation to have.

  2. The struggle of the immediate postwar era was most visibly over race but incorporated issues of gender as well. In the days of slavery, anti- miscegenation laws could serve simply to channel interracial relationships rather than to eliminate them completely, since black women’s children were slaves regardless of their fathers’ ancestry. This double standard changed in the postwar period. As Mary Frances Berry has argued, controlling whites’ sexual behavior after the Civil War meant more than just curbing any attempt on the part of white women to engage in sexual relations with black men. While actors in the legal system were cautious about limiting white men’s sexual behavior, judges and juries recognized a tension between allowing complete license for white men and upholding norms of support and nurture for white women. The protection of white women, however, was not the only justification for pursuing white male miscegenators. Cheryl Harris’s work on whiteness as property suggests that whites had a common interest in preserving the purity of whiteness as a racial identity for a myriad of concrete legal and economic privileges, as well as for the psychological benefits. As the analysis shows, bans on miscegenation clearly sought to limit white men’s capacity to threaten whiteness by producing with their black partners children who could potentially pass for white.

  3. Kim, as much as I agree with your analysis on this, I then ask WHY there was an emphasis on controlling black male sexuality. For the answer here, I believe we can praise our own Unitarian leader, Dr. William Ellery Channing, for his assertion, in the essay on Slavery, that the root injustice was the deprivation of wages in support of a chosen, dignified, stable family life. Yes.

    So the real issue in black male sexuality is not that the white woman might get raped — we all agree that’s the red herring — but that the mature African-American man, like his counterparts of other races and genders, eventually experiences his sexuality as a desire for a covenant he makes himself with the partner of his choice. His sexuality, healthy, mature, expressive, is an economic threat, not a physical one. Literature on the Underground Railroad makes clear that the labor of African American men in their prime — the folks most able to escape — had the highest value to slaveholders. Since this is when men want to start their own families, pursue their own careers, it follows that their sexuality is an economic threat to the hostage-holders.

  4. Enacted two miscegenation laws in 1867 and 1930 prohibiting intermarriage between whites and blacks, Chinese, Kanaka (Indian tribe) or any person having more than one half Indian blood. A 1953 statute required that adoption petitions note the race of prospective adopting parents. A 1924 statute required electors to read the Constitution in English.

  5. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, also known as Hays Code , explicitly stated that the depiction of “miscegenation… is forbidden.” One important strategy intended to discourage the marriage of white Americans and Americans of partly African descent was the promulgation of the one-drop theory , which held that any person with any known African ancestry, however remote, must be regarded as “black”. This definition of blackness was encoded in the anti-miscegenation laws of various U.S. states, such as Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 . The plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia , Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving became the historically most prominent interracial couple in the US through their legal struggle against this act.

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