The Black Male/White Victimhood Narrative

For many blacks, every black man is on trial. O. J. Simpson has be­come the proxy not because the black man is a criminal but because the black man is increasingly seen as a criminal by virtue of his sex and color.

—Eleanor Holmes Norton55

O. J. Simpson. . . was not about to take any chances on a rational jury decision. The wealthy celebrity who lived white, spoke white and married white wrapped himself in the rags of social injustice and told his black counsel to move black jurors to vote black.

—William Safire56

In the Black Male/White Victimhood Narrative, O. J. Simpson’s gender matters but Nicole Brown Simpson’s does not. As a Black man defending himself against the criminal justice system, Simpson repre­sents what is Black,57 and Blackness is essentialized to represent who and what he is.58 He became, as it were, "the race"—and a symbol for racial injustice.59 In this context, Black people view Simpson as an­other Black man being put down by the system,60 or another famous Black man being put down by the system. Simpson was persecuted because of or despite his class. Like Michael Jackson, who was accused of child molestation, and Mike Tyson, who was accused and convicted of rape,61 Simpson was targeted specifically, perhaps by the media, the police, or both62 because he was an economically successful Black man.63 "Even if Simpson is rich and famous, he is still a Black man.”64 As Dorothy Gilliam, president of the National Association of Black Jour­nalists, observes, "there is still a sense that, despite all his wealth. . . [Simpson] is still subject to the same kind of maltreatment experi­enced by any other African-American.”65

The statement "another Black man being put down by the sys­tem” is a male-gendered racial signification. It rigidifies the impres­sion that the history of Black Americans is the history of Black men, but not Black women, being "put down by the system.” To appreciate the sexist implications of the statement, one must examine it in a con­text of competition between Black men and Black women for the sup­port of the Black community, where its invocation has an important political function.

The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings pro­vide such an example: Anita Hill was unable to represent the Black race in way that Clarence Thomas could.66 Notwithstanding the his­torical sexual abuse of Black women in this country, few Black people saw the Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, in spite of Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, as an indication of a Black woman’s being abused by the system67—being denied her right to be free from male sexual aggres­sion.68 She could not use her race to muster support from the Black community because Clarence Thomas, as a Black man, held the polit­ical ace,69 or what Cornel West refers to as the "claim to racial authen­ticity,”70 the ability to invoke a cultural narrative that is heavily asso­ciated with Black subordination—the lynching narrative. The grand­son of a sharecropper, he was born in Jim Crow Georgia and had raised himself up by his bootstraps to achieve political and economic success.71 Certain segments of the Black community were not about to see a group of old, white men "politically” lynch "another Black man” whose life was an American success story, Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment notwithstanding.72 Indeed, Thomas received more support from the Black community subsequent to Hill’s allegations of sexual misconduct,73 "suggesting that he appeared to those support­ers to be a Black man in trouble, which is perennially a cause for high levels of Black mobilization."74

Like Thomas, Simpson held the political ace; as a Black man, he had access to cultural and political narratives invoking the subordi­nation of Black men that resonate politically with the Black commu­nity. But because Nicole Brown Simpson was not Black, the ace is played differently in the context of his case than it was played in the context of the Clarence Thomas hearings. In the Thomas Senate hear­ings, the ace was played to obscure Anita Hill’s race and to highlight her gender.75 Hill’s status as a woman undermined her status as a Black person76 because maleness is normalized in antiracist dis­course; it is "the default gender."77 In the Simpson case, the ace was played to highlight Nicole Brown Simpson’s race and to obscure her gender. She was understood to represent whiteness in abstraction. She was raced but not gendered to activate in Black political con­sciousness narratives that detail Black subordination and white privi­lege.

Seeing Nicole Brown Simpson in this way functions to subordi­nate the gender dynamics of the Simpson marriage. Because she rep­resents race but not gender, we focus our attention on how her race (white people) has affected the lives of Black people and not on how a Black man (O. J. Simpson) affected her life as a (white) woman. Con­sequently, we don’t see the physical abuse she suffered during her marriage to Simpson but see instead the history of abuse Black people have experienced from white people. Blackness (which Simpson rep­resents), not Nicole Brown Simpson, is the victim. Ungendered white, Nicole Brown Simpson is implicated in the criminal justice system’s grand scheme to incarcerate "another black man."78 This conspiracy theory has currency in the Black community because of the disparate treatment Blacks experience from police officers, judges, juries, and probation officers, particularly when the alleged victim is white.79

The corollary of not seeing Brown as a victim is that we do not see Simpson as a perpetrator—a wife beater. In fact, the obfuscation of Brown’s gender and the abstraction of her race allows Simpson to be­come a racial victim. He comes to symbolize police excess, prosecuto­rial abuse, and judicial arbitrariness.

Simpson’s ability to attain the status of a racial victim has impli­cations beyond the specifics of his case. Black public reactions to the case are reflective of how the Black community, as a general matter, thinks about domestic abuse. Domestic violence against Black women is often marginalized in antiracist discourse. To the extent that it is addressed, the analysis is most often structural and systemic (focusing on the degree to which the violence Black men inflict on Black women is engendered by the violence white America inflicts on Black men), rather than interpersonal and autonomous (focusing on the agency and responsibility of Black men who commit domestic vi­olence).80

But Nicole Brown Simpson was not a Black woman, which raises the following question: how can Simpson’s physical abuse of a white woman speak to Black men’s abuse of Black women and the Black community’s response to such abuse?

The Hill-Thomas hearings, in which Clarence Thomas could rep­resent the Black race and Anita Hill could not, illustrate the answer: gender gets negotiated in antiracist discourse in a way that legim – itimizes unmodified antiracism. The cumulative racial experiences of Black men are constructed as though they were (1) necessarily inclu­sive of Black women’s experiences and/or (2) deserving of more po­litical attention because such experiences ostensibly indicate that Black men, and not Black women, are endangered. Both of these ten­dencies create the impression that if we politically and economically "fix" Black men, we politically and economically "fix" Black women.

Derrick Bell’s powerful book And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice provides an example of how race and gender configurations in antiracist discourse often reflect unmodified an­tiracism. In the first "Chronicle" of the book, "The Real Status of Blacks Today: The Chronicle of the Constitutional Convention," Geneva identifies the basis of the plight of Black Americans. She asks, "'[i]sn’t the major issue here. . . the disappearance of black men, whose absence has led to the tremendous growth in black-female­headed families and the accompanying rise in poverty among black families?’"81 The narrator agrees, citing various sources and statistics that highlight the crisis of Black men.82 It is not clear what Bell in­tends for us to take from this Chronicle. Standing alone, the Chronicle seems to reflect the troubling tendency in antiracist discourse to equate the plight of Black men with the plight of Black America. However, when this Chronicle is read in conjunction with the "The Chronicle of the Twenty-Seventh-Year Syndrome" (hereinafter, the "Twenty-Seventh Chronicle"), an argument can be made that Bell is deconstructing that very tendency. In the Twenty-Seventh Chronicle, the narrator describes a dream he had in which professional Black women are victimized by an obscure disease. They can be cured only by entertaining a Black man’s bona fide marriage proposal. Geneva’s reaction to the Chronicle is critical:

My problem with your Chronicle of the Twenty-Seventh-Year Syn­drome is that it. . . elevates to the level of indisputable truth the sex­ist ideal of men as the natural protectors of women. So, while recog­nizing that society is patriarchal, your Chronicle does not analyze the harm that priority does to the black community’s struggle against racist oppression. . . . [T]he more desirable option. . . is for black men to reject the whole ‘protective role’ concept and become one with black women in order effectively to confront the common enemy—racism.83

This Chronicle, then, can be read as a direct critique of the paternalis­tic and sexist notion that Black men are the protectors of Black women and, by extension, the protectors of the Black family.

Another example of the privileging of male experiences with racism in antiracist discourse is presented by Professor Girardeau Spann.84 Spann argues persuasively that the Supreme Court is af­fected by the same majoritarian norms that characterize electoral pol­itics and, as a consequence, minority rights are often subordinated to majoritarian concerns.85 But, in order to demonstrate the need for in­creased minority political power and affirmative action programs, Spann’s work seems to fall into the trap of focusing on the problems of Black males to illustrate the persistence of racism. In presenting ev­idence of what he refers to as "statistical discrimination," Spann, for the most part, either presents such evidence with respect to Blacks generally (e. g., "blacks earn only 57 percent of what whites earn")86 or Black males (e. g., "a black male is twice as likely as a white male to be unemployed").87 Spann’s work provides no indication of how Black women fare relative to Black men, white women, or white men. The best sense we have of Black women’s status is provided in the statistics Spann presents on the poverty rates for Black and white families and children.88 Because approximately three-fourths of poor African American families are headed by single Black women, the lo­cation of Black women’s subordination exclusively in the context of family supports the inference that the remedy for Black women’s sub­ordination is the same as the cure for the Twenty-Seventh-Year Syn­drome: marriage to a Black man.

The treatment of Black women’s racial experiences in antiracist discourse suggests that if Nicole Brown Simpson had been Black, she would not, as a Black woman, have been able to invoke a political image with enough currency in the Black community to counter the historically and politically powerful "another Black man being put down by the system" rejoinder. As a Black woman, her right to be free from Black male sexual aggression would have to have taken a back seat to O. J. Simpson’s right (as a Black man) to be free from police misconduct and the racism that pervades the criminal justice system.89

Nicole Brown Simpson, if she had been Black, could have func­tioned as a political symbol to galvanize the Black community around the fact of her domestic abuse only if O. J. Simpson had been white. White male aggression against Black women has always been a bitter pill for the Black community to swallow, not simply because it is sex­ual aggression but because it is white male sexual aggression. There are, of course, historical explanations as to why Black men respond violently to white men abusing Black women. Men are not men if they don’t have control over "their" women.90 Slavery prevented Black men from "controlling" Black women’s sexuality in the way that white men controlled white women’s and Black women’s sexual – ity.91 And since "slavery coexisted with male dominance in the wider society, Black men as men constituted a potential threat to the estab­lishment order of white supremacy."92 Thus, the law denied Black men the patriarchal privilege that white men enjoyed; Black men could not prevent white men from raping or otherwise abusing their wives, their sisters, and their daughters. They were denied the "right" to be men; they were "emasculated."93

This sense of Black male emasculation is very real in the Black community; "almost everyone [in the Black community] buys into it on a certain level."94 The Nation of Islam, for example, attributes much of what is wrong with Black America to Black male emascula­tion and to the historical perception of Black men as boys. What is in­sidious about the emasculation thesis is that it acquiesces in patriar­chal notions of domestic relationships. It results in Black men seeing their manhood in terms of the control they have over Black women and Black women’s sexuality. This issue of control explains why

Black men respond differently to physical and sexual assaults of Black women depending on the race of the assailant. They are up in arms when white men abuse Black women because they want it known that Black women’s bodies will no longer be the terrain for white male physical or sexual aggression. The political sentiment might be stated this way: any white man who violates a Black woman’s body violates Black men and their "property interest" in that Black woman’s body. However, when the abuser is a Black male, the response is less politically strident, and often politically defen­sive, because the assault on the Black woman, even if ultimately criti­cized and condemned, is sometimes understood to represent an as­sertion of Black male masculinity, which, it is argued, is a response to white male racism. Black men may not consciously think about sex­ual aggression against Black women in this way, but their under­standing of sexual aggression may be racialized in a way that makes them less critical of Black male sexual aggression against Black women than they are of white male sexual aggression. If Mike Tyson were white, for example, Ishmael Reed might not have been so con­cerned about what Desiree Washington was "doing up in Mike Tyson’s hotel room at 2:00 a. m." and much more concerned about what Mike Tyson was "doing" to her.95