This logic-bending as a means to protect black men has an explanation in black feminist theory. In her 1990 book, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, the scholar bell hooks writes, “Many of us were raised in homes where black mothers excused and explained male anger, irritability, and violence by calling attention to the pressures black men face in a racist society … Assumptions that racism is more oppressive to black men than black women, then and now, are fundamentally based on acceptance of patriarchal notions of masculinity.”
Upholding this idea leads to a culture of shielding black men that consequently injures black women and girls. Common tropes used to excuse predatory behavior, such as “These little girls are fast,” are victim blaming on the surface but, as sociologists such as Patricia Hill Collins note, are layered with centuries of stereotypes about black-female promiscuity.
In 2005’s Black Sexual Politics, Hill Collins explains that justifying the racial hierarchy in America’s founding required “ideas of pure White womanhood” that could only be created in juxtaposition with sexual stereotypes about Native and African women: “In this context, Black women became icons of hypersexuality.” The legacy of these stereotypes, according to the historian Deborah Gray White, was also used to explain why black women and girls were subject to rape by white men during slavery and Jim Crow.
Racialized rape myths are as universal as rape itself, and they occur within nonblack communities as well. When the former Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore faced several allegations of sexual misconduct with minors, support in the politician’s home state of Alabama remained strong with the majority of white voters (some 63 percent of white women stuck with Moore). Although the record turnout among African Americans would help elect Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, many couldn’t understand why Moore’s campaign wasn’t more damaged by the allegations (Jones skated by with only a two-point lead). In one focus group, white voters aligned with Moore mostly absolved him of the allegations, offering defenses such as “Nobody’s perfect” and “Forty years ago in Alabama, people could get married at 13 and 14 years old.”
Similar sentiments are found in the “Boys will be boys” attitudes from some white men and women that cropped up during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. These myths present violence as inherent to masculinity. They also downplay the role of white privilege in the impunity often afforded white men—which in turn benefits white women, whose advantages in the American social hierarchy are derived primarily from race, not gender. “We saw our brothers, husbands, dads, friends, and sons, and we’re determined not to live in a world in which good men are ruined by unsubstantiated allegations,” a female Kavanaugh supporter told The Washington Times. Holding white men accountable with regard to sexual assault would potentially jeopardize white women’s proximity to power.