- White Women, Rape and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900–1960
In White Women, Rape and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900–1960 Lisa Lindquist Dorr offers a richly researched study of the legal and social problem of "black-on-white" rape cases in Virginia in the first third of the twentieth century. She looks closely at accusations, trials, and outcomes in both court records and newspapers, and her work brings complication, nuance, and hard reality into the picture. By examining the specifics, the variations, and the inconsistencies, Dorr arrives at a clearer picture and a more solid basis for generalizations about the workings of race and racism in a particular time and place.
Dorr's claim is that black-on-white rape cases are important because they reveal the "fissures" in segregation, the tensions underlying the rhetoric, and that such cases "show us how race, class, and gender interacted in southern communities and illuminate the distribution of power across the full spectrum of society" (14). Black-on-white rape cases often revealed as much about disunity—contention, fracture—among whites as they did about the primacy of racial identity and the power of white supremacy. Her project is to look beyond talk to action, to show what Virginians did in response to the charge of black-on-white assault, and in doing so to show that these actions reveal a pervasive and ongoing contestation over power in Virginia from all sides as well as "the difficulties white men faced in trying to exert control over the entire uncooperative lot" (14).
In seven chapters and 250 pages Dorr undertakes to examine a broad range of issues: social, legal, political, psychological, and emotional. She details white patriarchal power and its contradictions and challenges, including the workings of the legal system and white violence as well as the workings of "whiteness" and class. She portrays the fears of white women, complicated white attitudes toward rape victims, and the particular challenges poor or disreputable white women faced. She depicts the experience of black men, the issue of false accusations, and what she calls "the conundrum of consent." She also describes African American strategies in [End Page 465] response to accusations and, in a problematic leap, the issue of interracial rape after World War II. Her starting point is a challenge to contemporary historiographical treatments of black-on-white rape, which are often dismissive of white women's accusations and see them as primarily an expression of white supremacist ideology. Dorr admits that in many cases such accusations were false but contends that it is extremely problematic to assume that they all were. Just as there were consensual sexual relationships between African American men and white women in spite of the deep prohibition against such relationships, there were instances of black men assaulting white women, notwithstanding the attendant dangers. At the same time, Dorr doesn't fail to detail instances of whites using rape accusations as weapons in other kinds of fights.
Through an exhaustive examination of available court and newspaper records Dorr challenges the notion that all black men accused of rape in Virginia faced a unitary and consistent legal machinery that followed the same process in every instance. She finds that a black man accused of raping or sexually assaulting a white woman could face a variety of possible legal charges that depended on several factors, including the age and social status of the accuser, her story of the assault, his standing in the community, and who their respective friends were. If there was substantial doubt as to his guilt, for any number of possible reasons, the man could be convicted of a lesser charge or receive a relatively light sentence and might be granted a pardon, should he have the resources to pursue one. Thus the legal system acknowledged his probable innocence. In a very few instances Dorr shows that accused men could be acquitted or charges dropped. White juries in Virginia typically...