More than a half-century after the murder of Emmett Till and we still live in a world where Black boys can be criminalized, even killed, by the words of white women like "Cornerstore Caroline."
It was a “normal day” for Jeremiah Harvey, a 9-year-old Black boy who was shopping in a crowded bodega in Brooklyn with his mother and little sister—until he was terrorized with a false accusation of sexual assault that will traumatize him the rest of his life.
As has been widely reported, Harvey’s backpack accidentally brushed against a 53-year-old white woman’s backside. She accused him of groping her and reported him to the police. Not only was that a lie; the boy didn’t even know what sexual assault meant. The woman, Teresa Sue Klein—dubbed “Cornerstore Caroline”—cursed, gyrated toward the young boy in a sexually provocative way, and called the police.
For many people, this incident evokes the story of Emmett Till, and legions of other Black boys and teenagers across America who were falsely accused of sexual assault by white girls and women, and subsequently attacked, arrested, and even murdered.
Harvey was spared the indignity and the violence thanks to the store’s surveillance footage, as well as a strong village of Black folks and one courageous white woman who rallied around him to keep him safe. Unlike the past, when news outlets presumed the guilt of young Black males and printed inflammatory headlines that justified lynchings, “Cornerstore Caroline” has been dragged in the media and through the internet streets.
But this incident still begs for a deeper discussion about race, age, and sexual assault, as well as about the silence of right-wing assertions of an upsurge in male vulnerability as an inadvertent result of the #MeToo movement, and a discussion of the blind spots in feminist activism around sexualized violence in a racialized context.
For many Americans, sexual violence and assault most commonly vacillate around the female body as victim to male aggression. But what resonance does this have in a world where young Black boys have been criminalized and killed by nothing more than the words of white women?
Perhaps the reason the Brooklyn incident immediately conjured memories of Emmett Till, the young Black boy brutally murdered in 1955 by a mob of white men, is because that white accuser, Carolyn Bryant recently admitted, after enjoying her long life, that she’d lied.
Black boys have long been victims of the racialized sexual paranoia of white women in America—an easy target because it is the white women’s word against theirs. And we see time and again how eager cops are to believe a white damsel in distress and criminalize even the youngest Black boys. It is important to recognize in these stories that Black boys were not the perpetrators but the prey of white women.
White women have participated in rape of Black males by hiding behind the category of woman, says Tommy J. Curry, author of The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood. “The idea that a Black child could be a rapist nullifies the idea that they could ever be a victim. Like George Stinney, who wasn’t even 100 pounds, was accused of the rape and murders of two white girls and executed. Like Emmett Till who was lynched for whistling at a white woman,” Curry says.
“Cornerstore Caroline” was activating the centuries-old white woman alarm, and the police responded. “This goes to a specific history,” Curry adds. “This isn’t an accident. She’s not mentally ill. She knew exactly what she was doing. She wanted the cops to come in and either arrest this little boy or kill him! Like the other hashtag Beckys, Teresa Sue Klein sought to call in the patriarchs to take care of the Black male threat.”
Meanwhile, in response to heightened awareness of male-on-female sexual violence, Trump said that “This is a very scary time for young men.” But he wasn’t talking about men and boys of color. In fact, most media failed to note the irony of his comments considering his role in helping to railroad the Central Park Five teens who were falsely accused of assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. As the New York Times reported two years ago, Trump spent $85,000 on full-page ads in the four daily papers, calling for the return of the death penalty.
“’Muggers and murderers,’ he wrote, ‘should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.’” Though he didn’t refer to the teenagers by name, it was clear to anyone in the city that he was referring to them. More than a decade after their sentences were vacated based on DNA evidence and the confession of a serial rapist Matias Reyes, Trump still doubled down.
Today, the right-wing is also pushing back. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “The reaction against women who report being harassed or assaulted gained a hashtag of its own, #HimToo.” It was cheered by many in Trump’s base; and won support from like-minded lawmakers like Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who called #MeToo a “movement toward victimization.”
According to the Chronicle, this male-as-victim movement, a spin-off from so-called men’s rights groups, has yielded such organizations as Families Advocating for Campus Equality, in 2013 in response by “three mothers of sons who had been falsely accused of sexual misconduct at their respective colleges,” according to the group’s website, which describes the group as an unbiased, gender-neutral resource for families going through the sexual misconduct disciplinary process on campus. Another, Save Our Sons, publishes weekly stories and legal cases of male children and college students reportedly acquitted of sexual misconduct charges.
So why hasn’t Trump or the right-wing seized upon the Brooklyn incident as an example of a young boy being unjustly accused? Curry says the right is strictly focused on the rejuvenation of the white race at a time when their numbers are dwindling and white women are not living up to their reproductive duty to the race. For that, they want to reclaim a very specific vision of white masculinity as ruler and procreator.
“The right is dedicated to the extermination of racialized males in our society,” Curry says. “Trump calling the Black men of the Central Park Five and Mexican men rapists resonates with the right’s desire to lessen the biological threats to whiteness in this society. They look away from the victimization and deaths of racialized men and boys, because the health of their population requires the elimination and deaths of these male groups.”
Curry adds, “The idea that a Black boy—as a child, not a man, could be, or is a rapist completely nullifies the idea that they are capable of being a victim in any regard. To kill a Black boy is honorific. It is to kill a cub before he becomes a beast.”
If racist white men want to criminalize or do physical harm to Black and Brown boys, then racist white women develop language to justify this mission. White women have to prefer the white men they want to empower and cultivate a culture where white women don’t want to mate with Black boys or men. So white women have to fear them, and express that fear publicly even when it is clearly unwarranted.
“White women have been used to make Black men the condemnable and the most immoral beings in a patriarchal white supremacist society because white womanhood is thought to be the origin of morality and virtue itself,” says Curry. “So white women define Black men and boys as the despoiler of virtue or the rapist.”
If feminism is dedicated to calling out the sexual violence in a patriarchal society, then where are the white feminists in this conversation? Where is their outrage for young Harvey? Wouldn’t a true feminist analysis look at all victims of rape? This Brooklyn boy was a victim of this history, and feminism has demonstrated a blindness and failure to recognize white women’s roles as pedophiles and rapists. We have to consider the way in which a white woman’s accusation of a young Black boy being a harasser blinds #MeToo to the inclusion of male victims, even when they’re children because a young Black boy still is seen as a perpetrator of sexual violence.
In his research, Curry has argued that Black boys are especially vulnerable to sexual violation because their vulnerability is grounded in the popular stereotypes about Black masculinity. One notion is that Black boys seem impervious to sexual violation. But his research shows that Black boys are victims of statutory rape and sexual assault at the hands of women. As early as the 1950s, social scientists noted that Black boys had their first sexual experiences between the ages of 7 and 9 to older girls, while recent studies show that Black boys’ first sexual experience is most often before their 15th birthday.
Contrary to our belief that Black males are rarely victims of sexual violence and rape, the CDC’s most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which is published every 10 years, shows that over a 12-month period Black males reported 272,000 cases of being made to penetrate and Black females reported 264,000 cases of rape. In short, Black males are just as vulnerable to sexual violence and report similar numbers of contact sexual violence as Black females over a 12-month period, 865,000 and 849,000 respectively.
“The fear of Black males as perpetrators of sexual violence continues to blind us to the trauma and vulnerability, the complex reality of Black men and boys as victims of racism, rape, and the life-threatening caricature of the rapist,” says Curry.
As such, Black boys are not given the social tools to understand their own violation or how to protect themselves from it. They are also not provided with appropriate sexual education, in part because they are seen as already sexual and not in need of training in self-protection.
Ray Winbush, Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University and a psychologist who counsels Black male victims of sexual violence, sees the Brooklyn incident as part of a larger recent phenomenon of white women terrorizing Black males, from BBQ Becky to the fatal shooting of Botham Jean.
“White women have always oiled the machine of white supremacy,” says Winbush. “Historically, Black men have always been at risk for being accused of sexual violence. It’s something we Black men think about a lot. I personally don’t like being alone in an elevator or anywhere else with white women.” Winbush adds that it is unexplored territory to talk about the historical accusation of white women accusing Black men of rape, as well as their continued sexual victimization of Black boys. “When Black boys hit puberty, they are viewed as sexual objects by white teachers. We don’t want to explore that idea because it’s taboo. We need to talk about the erotic projections white women have of Black boys when they hit puberty.”
Christopher Warren, whose research focuses on the oversexualization of Black boys in public-school settings has been looking into the large number of cases in Florida public schools involving white female teachers having sexual encounters with Black and Brown male students. He was intrigued after a few high-profile cases led to little to no jail time, despite video footage of the encounters on school property, as well as statements from parents and witnesses asserting that the affairs were not originally consensual.
Of the 83 cases he’s uncovered since 1998, 95 percent of the teachers were found guilty, but fewer than 5 percent served jail time. Those who did, served less than 10 percent of their sentence, and none of the sentences exceeded years. Warren says that most of the teachers retained their teacher’s license despite the conviction.
“During proceedings, every lawyer for the defendants characterized the boys as adult looking, sexually active, flirtatious, and forceful. Every single one,” Warren says.
He shared his research findings with of 68 Black males between ages 10 and 17. He asked them how they felt. One subject, who was 15, said, “I always get treated like I want these white girls. Anytime I go in the mall the old white ladies always think I’m tryin’ to follow them or touch them. I don’t want them, they all wear the same thing, don’t have no booty and always lookin at us like we did something.” Another young interviewee, who’s 10, explained, “It’s like, we aren’t kids or something, bro. This blonde lady at the playground tried to tell me I wanted to rape her daughter ’cause we were playin and she fell and when she fell she made me fall so I fell next to her but kinda on top of her in a way and her momma went crazy talkin’ bout, ‘get off my daughter! You people can’t keep your hands to yourself! I’m telling the police you tried to rape my daughter if you don’t get outta here right now!!’ And you know me, I got nothin for the ‘ops’ so I got my bike and dipped!”
In a white supremacist society, the two most offensive things a Black man can do is step out of the place the Southern culture has built for him, or rape a white female. Klein accused a Black boy of doing both. The mere fact of his accidental touch caused her to immediately portray him as a rapist. Like Till’s accuser, “Cornerstore Caroline” shares power and lineage based on their ability to mark Black males for death.
In this battlefield of power, the white woman’s claim to hyper-vulnerability is their response to white men’s claim of power in a white republic. White women gain power through vulnerability and claims of victimhood at the hands of racialized boys and men, making this a dangerous world for OUR boys.
White women are using the same techniques that helped to maintain Jim Crow. Trump claims this as a dangerous time for white boys because white men have always been presumed to be innocent, while Black and Brown males are presumed to be guilty, irrespective of age or size. So #MeToo is seen as nigger-izing white men.
These incidents bring race and gender together with age, and we’re reminded that we live in a society that projects criminality and hypersexuality onto Black children. Accusing a 9-year-old Black boy of sexual assault has a special kind of insidious power that can only be brought upon by white people. When Black girls and women are assaulted, the response is very different—consider the fact that R. Kelly isn’t in jail.
What happened with Jeremiah Harvey and his mother’s reaction is why there is some skepticism of the #MeToo movement within the Black community. While it was created years ago by Tarana Burke, a Black woman working for the healing of survivors of sexual violence, white women have snatched the hashtag from her and tried to claim it for themselves. Now it’s become a movement that might inadvertently place Black males at risk of being falsely accused of assault by racist white women who sexualize their fears and project sexual deviancy onto Black men and boys.
In a post-racial society it wouldn’t matter what the race of the perpetrator was so long as they were an adult—they would be treated as a suspected perp. But ours is a hyper-racial, not post-racial society, and there are drastic differences in who can be accused and how they will be treated. In our world, a Black boy can be accused of sexual assault and as a result, may be killed by white vigilantes. #MeToo doesn’t work in a racialized context.
Curry predicts things will only get worse. “Racism is a misandric aggression. It is used to manage populations and control reproduction. Racialized males have historically been the largest casualties of these endeavors, so we will continue to see rape and the rapist as justifications to hunt racialized males in the U.S.”
We all seek a better world where female bodily integrity is respected, but to be effective, #MeToo has to look closely at how white men learn to accept sexual harassment as children. It has to start with how Black boys are sexualized by a racist society while being presumed dangerous, presumed violent, presumed guilty, no matter their age. Black males have been the sacrificial lambs of anti-rape movements since the 19th century. The tragedy of Jeremiah Harvey’s encounter with “Cornerstore Caroline” should provoke us all to make sure that the Jim Crow era’s logic of the Black boogeyman won’t be sold as women’s justice today.
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