THE GENDERED CONSTRUCTION OF BLACK RACIAL VICTIMHOOD
Heterosexual Black men occupy a privileged victim status in antiracist discourse. This is quite apparent in the antiracist discourse about crime and in antiracist responses to domestic abuse. A central project of antiracist discourse is to reveal the extent to which Black men are victims of "a racist criminal justice system." Given the statistics for Black male incarceration and the problems of discrimination in the criminal justice system, this project is undeniably important. Nevertheless, as a result of this focus on Black men, without a similar focus on Black women, Black men are perceived to be significantly more vulnerable and significantly more "endangered" than Black women. They become the quintessential example of the effects of racial subordination. Kristal Zook explains the point this way:
The Endangered Black man narrative speaks to very real assaults on the material well-being of black men. But it is a part of a larger myth of racial authenticity that is cultivated in ghetto-centric culture, a myth that renders invisible the specific contours of living in female, working class, gay and lesbian black bodies.6
As a consequence of this myth of racial authenticity and the currency of the endangered Black male trope, when an individual Black man is on trial for some criminal offense, the Black community sees first and foremost his status as a racial victim. Furthermore, when the alleged crime involves violence against women, the fact that a Black female or a woman of any race may be the victim of Black male aggression is subordinate to the concern that a Black man may be the victim of a racist criminal justice system. Consider, for example, the antiracist discourse about the O. J. Simpson case. While there was a fair amount of evidence indicating that Simpson had physically abused his exwife, many Blacks viewed Simpson mostly as a victim of a racist conspiracy perpetuated by the police and the prosecution.7 He became a symbol of racial injustice—an icon of racial victimization—in a way that obscured, denied, excused, or minimized the fact that he was a chronic wife abuser.8
Of course, there is the question of whether the abuse of a white woman by a Black man should provide a basis for discussing domestic abuse in the Black community when Black women’s abuse is largely ignored. bell hooks raises this question in the context of discussing the Central Park rape case:
Given the work black women have done within feminist writing to call attention to the reality of black male sexism, work that often receives little or no attention or is accused of attacking black men, it is ironic that the brutal rape of a white woman by a group of young black males serves as a catalyst for admission that sexism is a serious problem in black communities.9
hook’s observation here is well taken, particularly if we keep in mind that women’s bodies are "valued" differently by society on the basis of, among other things, race and class. Indeed, it is this difference in valuation that helps to explain why the image of Nicole Brown Simpson as an abused ex-wife and murder victim politicized America around the issue of domestic abuse in a way that the image of a Black women under similar circumstances could not. My argument here, though, is this: if Simpson’s Black male identity could provide a basis for discussing racism against Black men and racism in the criminal justice system, notwithstanding that Simpson was not "Every Brother" (i. e., the best person to represent the endangered Black male trope),10 it should also have provided a basis for discussing domestic abuse, even though Nicole Brown was not Black.
And there is no strong indication that the antiracist discourse with respect to domestic abuse would have been terribly different had Nicole Brown been Black. Simpson’s racial victim status as a Black man would still have overdetermined the substance of the discourse. Consider the case of Anita Hill. Sexual harassment did not become a significant topic of discourse for many Black Americans, notwithstanding Hill’s detailed allegations of sexual misconduct. The common refrains were that she invited Thomas’ advances, or that she did not mind them, or that, if she did mind them, she should have left her job and certainly should not have "followed him" from one job to another.11 Similarly, Desiree Washington, another Black woman, was unable to rally the support of much of the Black community, including segments of the Black church, when she alleged that Mike Tyson had raped her,12 even though it was not the first allegation of sexual and physical violence leveled at Tyson.13 While Tyson was ultimately convicted of the rape charges, many Blacks still did not consider Washington to be a victim, and certainly not the victim. The Black community’s overall treatment of Hill and Washington suggests that Simpson’s racial victim status was not solely or predominantly a function of Nicole Brown Simpson’s race. Rather, it reflects Black men’s privileged victim status in antiracist discourse.