Resurrecting Mandingo: Black Sexuality in the White Imagination

Published as a ZNet Commentary,, 8/6/03

When it comes to creativity, you really have to hand it to racists. Indeed, I have always been truly amazed by the twisted logic such folks can muster in order to rationalize their prejudices. Likewise, I am nothing short of stunned by the extent to which they will go to find evidence — any evidence, no matter how pathetically weak — that might serve to reinforce their bigoted worldviews.

Take, for example, the recent allegations that NBA star Kobe Bryant raped a 19-year-old young woman in a Colorado ski resort. While this story shouldn’t have anything to do with race, in truth it does. Bryant is black, his accuser white, and whenever a black man is alleged to have raped a white woman, race is “in the room” so to speak. Always has been, going back to the days when phony allegations of black-on-white rape would result in the murder of the accused at the hands of white mobs, and at the ends of short ropes.

To those who have recently e-mailed me so as to offer their racist spin on Bryant’s alleged depredations — persons for whom “innocent until proven guilty” apparently means about as little as it did to the lynch mobs of yesteryear — such a sexual assault merely confirms their beliefs that blacks are sexual predators, intent on violating white women to satisfy some insatiable “Negro lust.” While some might think it unnecessary to spend time refuting such hate-addled inanities, experience tells me these views are held by far more than just a handful of guys in the local Klan klavern or skinhead gang. Although most whites reject the extreme versions of such racist perspectives, lower-level biases are quite common, such that in survey after survey, large numbers of whites (if not absolute majorities) openly admit to holding negative stereotypes about African Americans, including several unflattering beliefs about their sexual behaviors and proclivities.

One can hardly discuss the AIDS epidemic in Africa with whites, for example, without an undercurrent of racism filling the room. So, I have been told on more occasions than I care to count (and by quite professional, respectable whites at that) that the problem, of course, is black promiscuity. That whites believe this, despite the recent finding that less than a third of AIDS infections in Africa even come from sexual contact, and that two-thirds are the result of unsanitary medical procedures, transfusions and injections, indicates the depths of our stereotypes. Likewise, the fact that sub-Saharan Africans would be especially susceptible to AIDS thanks to having immune systems already compromised by poverty, secondary infections, unclean water and other epidemiological issues, independent of rates of sexual activity, seems not to occur to many whites either.

Or consider the ever-present white panic about the supposedly oversexed nature of black women, who can’t stop having babies out-of-wedlock, and in their teens, according to conventional wisdom. Of course, those sounding this alarm ignore the fact that black female fertility rates have fallen by more than half since 1960, and are hardly different today than the rates for white women. Indeed, college-educated black women have fewer children, on average, than similar whites. They overlook the fact that less than six-tenths of one percent of black babies are born to girls fifteen or younger, or that less than eight percent are born to juveniles overall. They disregard the fact that the black teen birthrate has dropped 31 percent just since 1991.

As for out-of-wedlock births, racists assume that such a phenomenon reflects out-of-control sexual activity, but in fact, the increase in the percentage of black kids born to single-moms has been due to two factors unrelated to sexual behavior. First, married black couples are having fewer children than ever before, meaning that even if the number of kids born to single black moms is relatively small, the percentage of overall black births that are out-of-wedlock will rise. But this is due to the steeper falloff in births to black couples, not a massive increase among single women. Indeed, fully 80 percent of the increase in the share of black births that are out of wedlock in the past thirty years is due to the decline in births to black couples. The remainder can be explained largely by a procedural change in the way the Census Bureau keeps track of single-parent families. Prior to the 1980s, single parents living in extended family settings (such as with their own parents or grandparents), were not counted as separate family units. Since the 1980s, however, they have been counted separately, which means that many “new” single parent homes weren’t new at all, and many that had existed previously simply hadn’t been counted as such.

As for the issue of rape, fears of black male sexual aggression have long occupied the fevered imaginations of racists, and translated into disparate treatment in the criminal justice system. Even today, for example, although blacks commit only 24 percent of all rapes, according to victim reports, they are 35 percent of all persons arrested for rape. In fact, the black share of overall sexual assaults is likely much smaller than 24 percent because victim reports only reflect sexual crimes against persons 12 and older. Yet supplementary crime data on sexual assaults against small children indicate that whites are nearly twice as likely to be involved in such crimes. If child sexual molestation and rape were considered along with the figures for victims 12 and older, the black share of overall rape would likely fall close to their population percentages, while the share committed by whites would skyrocket. Yet despite the disproportionate rate of offending by whites when it comes to sexual crimes against children, one never hears anyone condemn whites as especially deviant pederasts, or imply that white couples should be looked at suspiciously when they seek to adopt, or that white day-care workers should be considered more suspect, or that families should avoid white babysitters.

On the other hand, when blacks commit certain crimes at a disproportionate rate, the racists come out of the woodwork to insist that fearing blacks is rational, that racial profiling is justified, that “those people” are inherently defective and prone to one or another pathology. Which brings us back to Kobe Bryant and the issue of interracial rape.

Several times a week it seems, I receive in my e-mail browser one or another version of a very popular piece of internet based propaganda, claiming that blacks are waging a “crime war” on white America, especially in terms of rape. By using government data out-of-context, or by misreading data tables provided by the Department of Justice, racists claim to have discovered a dirty little secret, which they contend is being covered up by the media.

But in truth, to claim that there is a black-on-white rape epidemic underway is the height of absurdity. In 2000, for example, there were roughly 200,000 white women raped in the U.S. Of these, more than 8 in 10 were raped by other whites, and only seven percent were raped by blacks. Likewise, seven percent of black rape victims were raped by whites, meaning there was no difference in terms of the likelihood of being interracially victimized. Looking at data over several years reveals that white women are nearly eight times more likely to be raped by white men than by black men, and that while at least one out of every 500 white women will be raped by a white man in any given year, for every 10,000 white women, only 2-3 will be raped by a black man. Certainly then, if white women fear black men, they should really be petrified of white men, since it is these who are far more likely to victimize them.

In other words, Kobe Bryant signifies precisely nothing in terms of a larger sociological phenomenon of widespread interracial rape. Not only has he not been found guilty (and so at this stage of the game is not a rapist at all), even if he committed the sexual assault for which he is accused, he will at that point still only represent Kobe Bryant. Not black men generally. After all, according to Census data there are about 13.5 million black males over the age of 12 (thus eligible for consideration in crime data) in the U.S. Of these, in any given year, only about 3/10ths of one percent of them will commit a rape and no more than a third of these will rape a white woman. Meaning that for every 1000 black men walking around in the U.S. in any given year, exactly 999 of them will not rape a white woman. Similarly, for every black man who commits a rape in a given year, there are 300 who don’t, but whose lives and stories are rarely considered as newsworthy as the handful who seem to confirm the distorted images of black men already held in the minds of so many members of the dominant majority.

Such is the one, or perhaps two-dimensional nature of the white gaze at the black male: either we love them as superstar athletes and entertainers, or we fear and despise them as imagined predators, or in the case of Kobe Bryant or O.J. Simpson we experience both emotions together. Neither version of this gaze however serves the interest of ending racism, as neither allows us to see blacks as other human beings like ourselves. After all, most people find it hard to truly identify with either multi-millionaires or criminals, since neither lead lives that much resemble our own. Because our views of blacks are so commonly bifurcated into one or another of these two boxes, it will remain difficult for millions of otherwise intelligent people to grasp that African Americans are not some strange, exotic and fundamentally different specimen of humanity.

But until we indeed grasp this simple truth, the stereotypes will linger and my e-mail inbox will most assuredly remain full.

Leave a Reply