Years ago I listened to an NPR interview with a sociologist. I think he was African American, but I’m not sure. He and the interviewer were discussing Jim Crow legislation and he said something that stuck in my mind long after his name and university affiliation slipped away: “Jim Crow laws were designed to keep black men from white women and to make black women accessible to white men.” These laws of course came about, as I’m sure every DK reader knows, in a desperate effort to preserve the ante bellum status of the races as poor whites and blacks were beginning to find common ground and “mingle.”
Before and after the Civil War, the value of a white woman’s word in any sexual situation involving a black man was absolute, even if it was a lie, while a black woman’s was absolutely worthless against a white man’s. The tragic story of Emmett Till — among hundreds of others — tells us that the merest whisper from a white woman could be a death sentence for a black man or boy, while the sufferings of black women went unheard, if indeed they were ever even voiced.
This brings us to Roy Moore via a path that may not be obvious. We have a white man whose targets, so far as we know, have been white women and girls, not black. What do the sexual politics of Jim Crow have to do with that? Well, underlying the whole system — and something that the sociologist left out of his description — is that women of both races and classes are to be accessible to the white man, or at least to those with money or power. In this calculus, the ostensible virtue and purity of the white Southern belle is formulated against the supposed immorality of the black woman: the belle is to be everything the black woman is not — and vice-versa. The characterization of the one found its complement in, and was dependent upon, the other. The white woman is meant to produce “legitimate” children for the upper echelon white man, so had better remain “pure”; the black woman, to be available for his pleasure.
And that is why, until now (and let’s hope we’re witnessing the beginning of a major shift), the word of a white woman, as potent as it has been vis-a-vis black men, has been largely valueless against white men, at least powerful ones. The position of white men has been supreme, bolstered by the subordination in different ways and to different degrees of those beneath them.
The situation is far more complicated than what I’ve described. Feelings of sin and shame play their roles, as well, and the class dynamics are certainly more complex: a wealthy white woman might well feel empowered to accuse a poor white man, and a powerful black man like Bill Cosby might well succeed in silencing the voices of his targets, black and white. In the case at hand, Roy Moore clearly improved his odds by pursuing young girls and women with no idea of how to defend themselves or to retaliate and who may have felt that, having been “sullied,” they were no longer worthy of defense.
This basic dynamic is not peculiar to the South, by any means: it has its Northern version(s), where the racial aspect may be more hidden, but is certainly present nonetheless. But of course Roy Moore’s actions did take place in the South, and it’s worth noting that his staunchest defenders come from precisely those sectors who, at least demographically speaking, are the most likely to defend the values and traditions of the Old South. Some have expressed surprise that they, with their religious and “family values,” would not, on the contrary, be the first to condemn Moore. But Moore’s actions and the official silence that gave them rein (he was banished from the mall but why was he never arrested?) have rested on the bedrock of male dominance and white supremacy, the mutually re-enforcing values that are at the heart of the Old South.
It’s encouraging to see some of Moore’s home turf defenders — many of them women, one notes — begin to turn away from him in the light of the most recent accusation of violent assault. And many Southerners of course have never supported Moore to begin with, politically or with respect to this sordid saga. I am myself a transplant to the South, though my home state of Delaware is sort of Southern-lite. I’ve been encouraged by the frankness with which people here are willing to discuss race and racism, whereas my Northern white friends seem to believe that all the racism in America can be found in the South. We now, I think, need to explore more than we tend to do the intricacies of how male dominance and white supremacy are interwoven.
While we pursue enlightenment, let’s not fail to take the important political step of supporting Doug Jones in his battle to win this crucial Senate seat!