"Don't Go in that Neighborhood, You'll Probably Get Raped": How White Masculinity Benefits from the Myth of the Black Rapist
by Katelyn Esmonde


Masculinity can embody many forms, although not all are perceived as equal: hierarchies based on race, class, and sexuality—to name a few—create a competition for power that can result in violence.  While hegemonic masculinity is a fluid concept, black men are typically marginalized and seen as less masculine than white men.  Historically, black men have been perceived as hypersexual and sexually deviant; this led to the ‘myth of the black rapist’, a belief that black men are likely to rape white women.  While this myth originated in the American post-Civil War era to justify the lynching of black men, the myth of the black rapist still exists today.  This contributes to the criminalization of black men, and their over-representation in the penal system.  Not only does this create a cycle of racialized poverty, but it also serves to reaffirm the supremacy of ‘white’ masculinity, thus benefiting white men.  Solutions to this persistent must be explored: prison abolition, social programs, and the dismantling of masculinity hierarchies are recommended.

The myth of the black rapist, or the unreasonable belief that black men are out to rape white women, has been used for over a century to justify the heightened surveillance and terrorization of the black community.  This essay will explore hegemonic masculinity, how it is defined in terms of other masculinities, and how this can lead to racism and violence.  Using the theory of multiple masculinities, I will argue that white masculinity benefits from the myth of the black rapist, and that this myth allows white men to assert dominance over American black men.

Masculinity can be embodied in many ways, although not all forms are equally valued.  In the theory of multiple masculinities, Raewyn Connell (2005) places hegemonic masculinity, the masculinity of the group which “claims and sustains a leading position in social life” (p. 77), above less valued forms of masculinity, such as those of the subordinate group, the complicit group, and the marginalized group, in which poor black men are typically located.  Michael Kimmel (2003) explains the leading type of masculinity: “Within the dominant culture, the masculinity that defines white, middle class, early middleaged, heterosexual men is the masculinity that sets the standards for other men, against which other men are measured, and more often than not, found wanting” (p. 61).  Further, “manhood is equated with power—over women, over other men” (Kimmel, 2003, p. 67).  This is precisely the point of hegemonic masculinity: it is attainable to so few, forcing everyone who does not conform to this unachievable ideal to engage in an endless rat race to achieve manhood. 

The relationship between various forms of masculinity plays an important role in its definition; masculinity is defined more in terms of what it is not rather than what it truly is (Kimmel, 2003, p. 62).  Ideal masculinity is certainly not feminine, nor is it poor or black.  “We come to know what it means to be a man in our culture by setting our definitions in opposition to a set of ‘others’—racial minorities, sexual minorities, and, above all, women” (Kimmel, 2003, p. 58).  The hierarchy of masculinity, which defines a man by how much power he has, is a zero-sum game for many: because of the ‘othering’ of ‘lesser’ forms of masculinity, the ‘other’s’ access to power is severely curtailed, thus further preventing these men from becoming ‘manly’ enough.  While these racist, sexist, classist and heterosexist definitions marginalize many groups, this essay focuses on the specific ways in which black men are disempowered by these often-unreachable definitions of masculinity.

Masculinity is often established by denying it to others, which can result in racism when white men marginalize black men in an effort to become more masculine themselves.  In the pre-Civil War era in the United States, “slaves were seen as dependent, helpless men, incapable of defending their women and children, and therefore less than manly” (Kimmel, 2003, p. 66).  Even today, as Patricia Hill Collins (2004) argues, “the Black gender ideology advanced by these representations depicts Black men as being inappropriately weak” (p. 178-79).   Not only were black men marginalized due to their lack of access to power—which was imposed on them by white men—they were also further disenfranchised due to their perceived sexual deviance: “The attribution of certain dark and unclean, even animalistic, practices—especially sexual practices… to rebellious, outsider or subordinate groups, [justified] (according to the prevailing sexual ethic) their repression” (Hoch, 1979, p. 54).  Because of this racist ideology, black men became perceived to be not only be less manly, but also as hypersexual beasts who needed to be restrained and controlled by white men in order to prevent the breakdown of society. 

Racism and violence are inextricably linked; the ideological expression of power over another racial group can easily extend to the violent physical exertion of power.  “Terror is used as a means of drawing boundaries and making exclusions… Violence can become a way of claiming or asserting masculinity in group struggles” (Connell, 2005, p. 83).  This violence can take the form of violence between men, such as a group of white men lynching a black man.  More frequent today is state violence against men of colour: “Private violence is linked in important ways to the criminal justice system… the criminalization of poor men of color and their massive incarceration in federal and state prisons is a form of state violence against these men.  Together these assaults add up to a major national offensive against poor communities” (Aulette, Wittner and Blakely, 2009, p. 241).  State violence, which disproportionately affects men of colour, contributes to the poverty and lack of upward mobility seen in many black communities.

It should be noted that all men of colour are not poor or disenfranchised, just as all white men are not powerful.  For example, “particular black athletes may be exemplars for hegemonic masculinity.  But the fame and wealth of individual stars has no trickle-down effect; it does not yield social authority to black men generally” (Connell, 2005, p. 81).  The four types of masculinity as outlined by Connell are not exclusive categories, nor are they stable and unchangeable; notable exceptions are always possible.  However, it must be acknowledged that in a deeply racist and classist society, many black men are disenfranchised due to the oppressions which are inherent in the structure of society, making it considerably more difficult for them to attain the hegemonic ideal.  Also, all men are not equally under suspicion of criminal activity, which is typically class-specific; as Hill Collins (2004) asserts, while “this representation is more often applied to poor and working-class men than to their more affluent counterparts…all Black men are under suspicion of criminal activity or breaking rules of some sort” (p. 158).  All black men are not poor, nor are they all in prison, but it would do the group a great disservice to ignore the fact that black men are overwhelmingly in lower earning brackets, and incarcerated, due to racist ideology and policies which persist in society today (Hill Collins, 2004, p. 153).  Additionally, I am not arguing that there is an essential ‘white’ or ‘black’ masculinity; like anything else, masculinity is deeply entrenched in race, class, sexuality, age, ability, and a number of other sociological factors. 

The myth of the black rapist was born out of the white male desire to exert its masculine power over black men in the post-Civil War era.  As Angela Davis (1983) explains in Women, Race & Class:

Lynchings, reserved during slavery for the white abolitionists, were proving to be a valuable political weapon.  Before lynching could be consolidated as a popularly accepted institution, however, its savagery and its horrors had to be convincingly justified.  These were the circumstances which spawned the myth of the Black rapist—for the rape charge turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of the Black people (p. 185).

It is estimated that between 1882 and 1946, at least 4,715 lynchings occurred, 70% of the victims being black (Wriggins, 1995, p. 107).  When one considers the pervasive attitude toward black men’s sexuality, it becomes clear why the myth caught hold with such ease.  Black men had previously been considered dangerously hypersexual; therefore, violent rapaciousness was an easy extension to these deeply rooted beliefs.  The myth of the black rapist served as a tool to keep black men down by justifying their oppression, as well as the brutal and murderous acts that characterized the post-Civil War era.  The myth of the black rapist served to reaffirm white supremacy (Davis, 1983, p.187).

Despite the fact that civil rights have advanced considerably since the origin of the myth of the black rapist, the myth is still prevalent in society today.  For example, in August 2001, Iowa State University student Katie Robb claimed that she had been kidnapped and raped by “four gun-wielding Black males all more than 6 feet tall,” which was revealed to have been a complete fabrication two days later (Owens Patton and Snyder-Yuly, 2007, p. 866).  Why did she decide to describe her attackers as black?  Likely because the irrational fear of black men raping white women still persists, in no small part due to the myth of the black rapist and the belief in male hypersexuality.  “White women in the United States are socialized to fear black men even though they are statistically more likely to be raped by men of their own race” (Aulette, Wittner and Blakely, 2009, p. 82).  This type of racism is not overt; rather, what Patricia Hill Collins (2004) describes as ‘new racism’ characterizes the attitude towards black men and their propensity to rape:  “Representations of Black masculinity reflect a similar pattern of highlighting certain ideas, in this case, the sexuality and violence… and the need to develop class-specific representations of Black masculinity that will justify the new racism” (p. 151).  The fact that racism is less overt today does not mean that it is not powerful.

‘New racism’ in the form of the myth of the black rapist can be cited as one of the many causes for the overrepresentation of black men in the penal system.  While eight percent of the American population is black, African Americans comprise almost half of the U.S. prison population (Hill Collins, 2004, p. 158).  As Angela Davis (1998) reports, while the conviction rate for rape is the lowest of all violent crimes, “only in those instances where the accused rapist is black and the alleged victim is white can a long prison term or death penalty be anticipated” (p.156).  This was echoed by Jennifer Wriggins (1995) in “Rape, Race and Law”: “From slavery to the present day, the legal system has consistently treated the rape of white women by Black men the more harshest than any other kind of rape…Today Black men convicted of raping white women receive longer prison sentences than other rape defendants” (p. 116).  It is not just black rapists who suffer from the myth of the black rapist and the belief that a black man raping a white woman is the worst type of rape; the belief in black criminality and violence affects all black men, working-class men in particular.  Davis (1983) explains how the myth can serve as a political tool: “The myth of the Black rapist has been methodically conjured up whenever recurrent waves of violence and terror against the Black community have required convincing justifications” (p. 173).  In other words, the myth of the black rapist justifies police brutality and the mass incarceration of black men because they are perceived to be a threat to society.

While it should be noted that prison is associated with certain types of masculinity, including hypermasculinity, imprisonment is certainly not associated with the hegemonic ideal.  Respectable men do not go to prison; criminals do.  Prison is associated with economic hardships, the ‘unmanly’ abandonment of responsibility, and sexual assault—all of which are far from hegemonic masculinity.  This emphasizes the complexity of masculinity, as physical power and aggression alone do not make a man; status, wealth, and responsibility are important factors as well.  While white men are not actively or purposefully structuring a society that disenfranchises and emasculates black men, they are benefiting from this structure because they are seen as the manly saviours, the ones who will protect society from the (supposedly) dangerous black men (Hoch, 1979, p. 46).

The myth of the black rapist serves to increase the believed criminality of black men, and thus justifies the disproportionate incarceration rates of African Americans.  Because masculinity is often established by denying it to others, this allows for white men to embody a more ideal masculinity than that of many black men.  There is no easy solution to abolish racism, social inequality and sexism, all of which are implicated in the myth of the black rapist.  Social programs must be developed to counteract the overarching oppressions in which the myth is so entrenched.  Incarceration is not the solution to crime—rather, it is part of the problem.  Imprisonment is part of the cycle of poverty that breeds crime; the mass incarceration of black men only serves to reproduce this racialized poverty.  While the elimination of targeted oppression may seem like a daunting task, it is a necessary one; racism, sexism and classism, which contribute heavily to the myth of the black rapist, are continuing to hurt black men in ways that cannot be ignored.



Connell, R. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davis, A. (1998). Joanne Little: The dialectics of rape. In J. James (Ed.), The Angela Y. Davis reader
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Davis, A. Y. (1983). Women, race and class. New York: Random House.

Hill Collins, P. (2004). Black sexual politics (pp. 119-148). New York: Routledge.

Hoch, P. (1979). White hero, black beast: Racism, sexism, and the mask of masculinity. London: Pluto Press.

Kimmel, M. (2003). Masculinity as homophobia. In . Ferber, . Holcombe, & . Wentling (Eds.), Sex, gender and sexuality (pp. 58-70). New York: Oxford University Press.

Owens Patton, T., & Snyder-Yuly, J. (2007). Any four black men will do: Rape, race, and the ultimate scapegoat. Journal of black studies, 37(6), 95-859.

Root Aulette, J., Wittner, J., & Blakely, K. (2009). Gendered Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wriggins, J. (1995). Rape, racism and the law. In P. Searles & R. Berger (Eds.), Rape & society: Readings on the problem of sexual assault (pp. 215-222). Boulder: Westview.

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