Criminalizing the Black Body


Citizen Book Cover
“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the color line,” declared W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 at the outset of his classic text The Souls of Black Folk, but it’s not a problem anymore. We have done a thorough job of convincing ourselves otherwise, of covering up the issue and believing that progress has been made and that racism is simply a relic of another time. This treacherous lie is simply not true and is eating away at the fabric of our society as we watch more and more young black men and women die at the hands of the police. We have done nothing more than glide through varying cycles of positive change countered by numerous periods of regression, producing nothing more than “temporary peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance” [1, p. 74]. White privilege is real.

From the inception of America with its founding documents and societal constructions, systems and structures have been invented, implemented, and reconfigured in order to bind the black man and woman with a status of non-human. Yes, non-human. It first began through legal designations. The moment the black man, woman and child were bought and sold by slave traders and shipped around the world, they were designated as chattel–legal personal property [2]. Lasting for more than 200 years, this legal designation was abolished with the thirteenth and fourteenth amendment to the Constitution; however the non-human designation continued in a far more insidious way: The criminalization of the black body.

Criminalizing the black body was no small task, it would require a dominant narrative to take hold and the cooperation of popular culture, hard and soft sciences, and legal institutions. In 1902, bestselling and highly influential author and Southern Baptist minister Thomas Dixon Jr. would be one of the first to popularize this notion. Dixon spun a tale of post-Civil War America that depicted emancipated slaves as beastly, amoral monsters. He explained how the “Negro” had turned from “a chattel to be bought and sold into a possible beast to be feared and guarded. . . . a menace” to society [3, p. 5, 33]. Dixon continued to build this narrative of the criminal black body in 1905 with his most popular novel The Clansmen by detailing the rape of a young white virgin by a ‘Negro’ who was described as:

“half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit,… a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no words of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger” (p. 293, 304)

Dixon brings the emotional narrative to a close by describing the act of animalistic rape itself: “A single tiger spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat” (p. 304). This narrative was used to perpetuate the nonhuman nature of the ‘Negro’ replacing the idea of him as property with one that is inherently criminal [4]. In 1908, sociologist Kelly Miller reviewed Dixon’s writings and detailed the building climate of opinion surrounding his fiction, “The criminal propensity of the Negro is the charge that is being most widely exploited… he is made to appear a beast in human form whose vicious tendency constitutes a new social plague” [5](p.95).

Not to be outdone by Dixon, the filmmaker D. W. Griffith continued this narrative of the black man as a predator with his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation–the first motion picture to be shown in the White House. Griffith depicted the black person as unintelligent beasts who were sexually aggressive towards white women, a threat to their life and liberty [6]. The black man was now becoming a criminal threat and a liability to society.

This criminalization of the black body went beyond popular culture and was widely supported and furthered by the medical profession. Medical journals propagated the degenerative evolutionary conclusion of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists, biologists, and ethnologists [7]. Considered the lowest species on the Darwinian hierarchy, a permanently inferior creature, predisposed to savagery, the black person possessed an overdeveloped sexual appetite which was deemed an existential threat to the very foundation of white society [4, 7, 8, 9]. This existential threat and overdeveloped sexual appetite was the result of a complete lack of morality from the black individual. One doctor wrote:

Virtue in the negro race is like angels’ visits–few and far between. In a practice of sixteen years I have never examined a virgin negro over fourteen years of age [10]

The overdeveloped sexual appetite of the black person knew no bounds. Dr. William Lee Howard surmised in a well respected medical journal, “The attacks on defenseless white women are evidences of racial instincts that are about as amenable to ethical culture as is the inherent odor of the race” [11]. George Winston painted an even darker picture of the black man’s criminal, sexual appetite for white women through a telling and cumulative narrative that embodied all of the current cultural fears:

When a knock is heard at the door, she shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal [12, p. 109].

According to Frederick Hoffman, the rise of the criminal black man was not due to poverty, discrimination, or from a lack of opportunity and education but rather an inherent and innate tendency towards crime and immorality.

This well-formed narrative of moral depravity fueled the belief of the criminalized black body. While its easy for us to say, ‘That was a hundred years ago, things are so much different now!’ this belief is what gave rise to the lynching culture in the United States, including the fourteen-year old boy Emmitt Till in 1955 for perceived flirting with a white woman in a convenience store [13]. Lynching culture was created to protect white society and deter the amoral, criminal black body. Lynching culture was not made up of vigilantes alone but were aided, abetted, and participated in by police officers who would help arrange this skewed form of justice. Lynchings were scheduled, promoted events where whole towns or neighborhoods would gather together in celebration of “justice”. People would even gather around and pose for pictures with the black victim.

While we may want to believe that lynching was something that happened so long ago, the last officially recorded lynching was less than 50 years ago, in 1968–however, many argue it was actually 1998 in Jasper, Texas when James Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck by three white men and dragged to his death. While we may have placed lynching in a historical context that lives outside of the confines of our lived reality, if you’re 47 years of age or older you were alive during the last lynching.

The criminalization of the black body is the second iteration of our mass project of non-humanization. I would argue that the long-standing project started by the likes of Thomas Dixon whereby we have criminalized the black body is what has led to the death of so many of our black brothers and sisters: Walter Scott. Jermaine Reid. Philip White. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Rekia Boyd. Sean Bell. Tamir Rice. John Crawford III. Aiyana Jones. Kumani Gray. Michael Brown. Miriam Carey. Sharonda Singleton. Tommy Yancy. Jordan Baker. Amadou Diallo. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. (And on and on and on the list goes.) Each and every one of these black men and women were treated as criminals first, deemed worthy of immediate and swift justice at the end of a barrel instead of the end of a rope. The criminalization of the black body is nothing new, its a part of a long history of non-humanizing the black man, woman, and child. The trajectory of our history has not changed, it just looks a bit different.

[1] Bell, D. (2005). The Derrick Bell Reader: Critical America. New York University Press.
[2] Browne-Marshall, G.J. (2007). Race, Law, and American Society. Routledge.
[3] Dixon, T. (1902). The Leopard’s Spots: A romance of the white man’s burden. Doubleday, Page & Co.
[4] Fredrickson, G.M. (1987). The black image in the white mind. Wesleyan University Press.
[5] Miller, K. (1908). Race Adjustment: Essays on the Negro in America. The Neale Publishing Co.
[6] Stokes, L.M. (2007). D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation: A history of the most controversial motion picture of all time. Oxford University Press.
[7] Brandt, A.M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report, 8(6), 21-29.
[8] Corson, E.R. (1893). The vital equation of the colored race and its future in the United States. The Wilder Quarter-Century Book. Cornell University.
[9] English, W.T. (1903). The Negro problem from the physician’s point of view. Atlantic Journal-Record of Medicine 5,459, 470-471.
[10] Quillian, D. (1906). Racial Peculiarities: A cause of the prevalence of syphilis in Negroes. American Journal of Dermatology and Genito-Urinary Diseases, 10, 277.
[11] Howard, W.L. (1903). The Negro as a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization. Medicine, 9, 424.
[12] Winston, G.T. (1901). The relation of the whites to the negroes. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 18, 105-118.
[13] Douglas, K. (2015). Stand your ground: Black bodies and the justice of God.. Orbis Books.



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