Rape Myths, White Supremacy, and the Carceral State as Tools of American Neoliberalism. By: Emely MendezRead Now
Ask any woman you meet, old or young, and she’ll tell you the reigning piece of advice that she’s been given time and time again; don’t get raped. Of course, rarely are we told such a thing so bluntly. The message is hidden in frequent warnings to not accept drinks from strangers, not drink too much at parties, not walk home alone, and not wear too-short skirts; all things meant to deter a scary man from jumping out of the bushes and attacking you. While many women follow this advice religiously, it still hasn’t done much to stop them from being victimized by rape or sexual assault due to the often unacknowledged fact that many perpetrators are people the victims knew personally. These conversations about deterring rape through individual action are often ineffective because the narrative doesn’t fit the reality. Although it seems like society is oh-so concerned over violence against women, victims are often left unseen and unheard when they seek justice against their perpetrator due to the frequent mishandling of rape cases by the criminal justice system. The reality is that the United States government does not and has never cared for protecting women, only for protecting its own interests. The threat of violence against women is but a convenient tool manipulated against the public to justify the police state, mass incarceration, and the racist criminalization of African American men and non-white immigrants – actions that ultimately enforce the hegemony of White Supremacy and the bourgeois capitalist class.
Rape myths have been used as political tools in the United States for much of modern history, predominantly as a form to uphold White Supremacist and Patriarchal ideals. Deniers of the prevalence of rape culture argue that American society has always been morally appalled by rape, however the reality is rape is only taken seriously when it can be manipulated to support the power of oppressive groups. If rape truly were to be taken seriously in the United States, then it wouldn’t be the case that less than 1% rape investigations end in incarceration for the perpetrator (Van Dam 2018). Further, the mainstream conversation surrounding sexual violence is often centered on the very specific situation of a woman being attacked by a predatory stranger on the street when the reality differs drastically. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, “8 out of 10 rapes are comitted by someone known to the victim.” (RAINN 2022). Victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence often have to tell their stories to a public that has been led to view rape as a randomized attack. When victims who were familiar with their aggressor come forward, they often have to deal with a line of questioning that perpetuates the idea that the victim was somehow inviting the assault. This nationwide misconception of sexual violence is often an influencing factor in cases like that of Brittany Smith, an Alabama woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing her agressor (Fruen et al 2020). The presiding judge over the case argued that Ms. Smith couldn’t definitively prove rape as she was the one who had invited her assailant into her home in the first place and hadn’t explicitly asked him to leave (Gill et al 2020).
The data on the reality of rape and sexual violence in the United States has not stopped American politicians from parroting rape myths in order to push certain forms of legislation, however. Conservative Republican officials and gun rights lobbyists over the past decade have been strong supporters of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, which allows for the use of deadly force as an act of self-defense in certain cases in which a person has no “duty to retreat” prior to the use of force (NCSL 2022). “Stand Your Ground” legislation has been controversial for much of its presence in American mainstream politics due to its use in the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager shot by Zimmerman on his way home from the convenience store. Zimmerman’s lawyers did not use the “Stand Your Ground” defense in particular, but his defense was dependent on the precedent set by that legislation (Coates 2013). Right wing proponents of “Stand Your Ground” legislation came to rely on rape myths and misconceptions of sexual violence in order to defend these laws against the onslaught of opposition. In support of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, Florida politicians Don and Matt Gaetz and NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer argued that the legislations’ opposition were “‘anti-woman,’” as these laws would ultimately aid women who defend themselves against a would-be rapist (Franks 2014). As seen in the case of Brittany Smith, however, “Stand Your Ground” has not been very effective in this sense.
Rape myths and the threat of sexual violence against women has also been heavily influential in upholding White Supremacy for much of American history. The myth of the Black male rapist dates back to the abolition of slavery and the Reconstruction Era South, in which White Supremacists sought a justification for lynchings and mass incarceration. Black men were painted as brutal and “savage” caricatures by White men, “the claim that black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping white women became the public rationalization for the lynching of blacks.” (Pilgrim 2000). Arguably the most well-known instance of lynching in the United States is that of young Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy brutally murdered by a White mob for whistling at an older White woman whom admitted decades later she’d fabricated the interaction (Perez-Peña 2017). Over the course of modern history following the abolition of slavery, the myth of the “black brute” has led to black men experiencing higher rates of incarceration than any other racial demographic. According to the NAACP, African Americans experience 5x the rate of incarceration of White Americans and made up 34% of the correctional population in 2014 (NAACP 2022). The myth of the Black male rapist was influential in the convictions of the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black teenage boys were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for the gang rape of a White woman in NYC’s Central Park (Duru 2004).
Generation after generation of Black men have been chewed up and spit out by the American carceral system with the threat of sexual violence as a convenient justification for it all. In what has arguably become known as a second Civil Rights Movement, Black activists in the past decade have pointed to mass incarceration as a continuation of slavery, with Ava DuVernay’s Oscar winning 13th documentary being a major part of the conversation surrounding mass incarceration. Although the 13th Amendment does, in fact, legalize slave labor as a condition of incarceration, less than 1% of incarcerated individuals are employed by private companies (Sawyer et al 2022). While labor exploitation is part of the suffering inflicted by mass incarceration, the forced idleness of incarcerated individuals has a much broader impact. The masses of Black men sitting in prisons not only serves to keep the Black population subjugated, but also to maintain a certain level of poverty and unemployment in the U.S. that weakens the bargaining power of the working class.
Neoliberal economic policy in the United States over the past 40 years has been centered on limiting labor power as much as possible, as seen in the steady decrease of union membership across the nation which coincides with the rise of American companies engaging in offshore manufacturing (Vachon 2013). The United States’ particular brand of transnational capitalism is reliant on maintaining a certain level of unemployment within the country. The cost of labor in the U.S. deters American companies from making a return to domestic manufacturing, and in order to avoid a rise in wages and a subsequent profit squeeze for companies that do hire American laborers, the state must avoid a too-low unemployment rate. Forced idleness is a major issue in American prisons, with the Brennan Center for Justice arguing that it is one of the main sources of prison violence (Hopwood 2021). Further, the forced idleness perpetuated in prisons reinforces a high rate of unemployment and recidivism for formerly incarcerated individuals. According to Phillipe Bourgois’s “Lumpen Abuse: The Human Rights Costs of Neoliberalism,” the criminal records of formerly incarcerated individuals, “exacerbated by a low skill level imposed by years of forced idleness in a purposefully hostile carceral environment condemns them to chronic unemployment upon their release from prison.” (Bourgois 2011). The criminalization of Black men through the threat of sexual violence against women and the Black male rapist myth has been used to sustain mass incarceration, which ultimately reinforces the exploitation of the working class.
Black Americans have not been the only demographic who’s marginalization has been justified by myths of sexual violence. The massive waves of immigrants, predominantly non-white Latin Americans, who have presented themselves at the Southern border have become an incredibly politically contentious group. Throughout the span of the 2016 Presidential election, anti-immigrant rhetoric became foundational to the right wing populism that brought Republican nominee Donald Trump to victory. During a particularly infamous campaign speech, Trump referred to migrants traveling across South America and crossing over into the U.S. as “‘rapists’” and that women migrants were being raped at “‘levels nobody’s ever seen before,’” claims that he ultimately could not back with empirical data (Mark 2018). Throughout the 2016-2020 Trump administration, his “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy prosecuted migrants at the border for illegal entry and forcibly separated migrant children from their parents, with some parents even being deported while their children were still detained in the states (Diaz 2021). According to Pew Research Center, ICE arrests rose by over 30% in 2017 after an executive order from then-President Trump expanded their authority to allow for arrests of migrants without criminal records (Gramlich 2020). Thousands of migrants who presented themselves at the border – which is considered a legal way to request asylum by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS 2022) – were held in detention centers and treated as criminals while the President justified it all by calling them “rapists.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was one of the main aspects of his right wing populist campaign which ultimately brought him to victory. In the 2016 election, Trump won 67% of white voters without a college degree, one of the largest margins seen by a presidential candidate since 1980 (Maniam 2016). Coincidentally, the 1980s was around the time that neoliberalism became a dominant economic ideology in the United States due to the Reagan administration. Between 1980 and 2000, the U.S. experienced the loss of around 2 million manufacturing jobs (Charles 2019). As individuals without a college degree are more likely to work blue collar jobs and Trump’s campaign was centered around the classic image of immigrants “stealing” jobs from naturalized Americans, it is only logical that non college educated white voters would be so overwhelmingly supportive of his presidential bid. Donald Trump’s decision to paint Latin American migrants as “rapists” conveniently took away from the image of migrants as predominantly people in search of work. His criminalization of migrants and the increase in ICE arrests and detentions ultimately enforced the hegemony of Whiteness and maintained the racial divisions amongst the working masses.
Rape myths and public misconceptions of the reality of sexual violence have been the driving force behind the criminalization of Black men and non-white immigrants in the U.S. Mass incarceration and anti-immigrant domestic policy has kept the working class powerless and divided with “protecting” women being used as one of many convenient excuses. The dominance of White, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy men in the United States is maintained while politicians try to convince the public that freedom of “vulnerable” members of society such as women is their main concern. The reality is that the criminal justice system in the United States does not and has never been concerned with sexual violence against women; the states’ primary concern is and always has been maintaining White Supremacist and capitalist hegemony.
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My name is Emely Mendez. I'm a Dominican American student at CUNY John Jay College and I'm soon to graduate with a BA in Law and Society. My interests primarily consist of radicalism in Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities, gender as an oppressive force, and the neocolonial relationship between the United States and Latin America.
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