Scientific racism and mainstream media helped craft a narrative about Black sexuality that justified the oppression and exploitation of Black people. According to historian Kevin McGruder, scientific racism perpetuates the notion that the sexuality of certain racial and ethnic groups were a result of biological, social and cultural inferiority. The social construction of race defined Europeans as superior while framing Blackness negatively:
The pathologizing of Black sexuality continued as a means of affirming the superior status of Europeans while restricting the social movement of Black people by characterizing egalitarian interaction with them as undesirable. 1
McGruder also asserts this social construction varies across time, place, social class, and group. Nothing the way society perceived Black and White sexual interrelations during slavery, he writes:
As part of the slave culture, images of Black women as lascivious were used to explain the rape of Black women by White men. The image of the Black man as virile was maintained, sometimes with the suggestion that Black men lusted after White women. Fear of slave insurrection was sometimes linked to fear of unbridled sexuality of Black men (Jordan, 1968; Morgan, 1998). Pathologizing sexual activity between Black men and White women served to restrict this activity by signaling to Black men that the consequences would be dire and to White women that their reputations would be irreparably damaged.
Some of these beliefs persist today. According to McGruder (2010), beliefs about families during slavery reflect similar excuses used today:
Negative views about the sexuality of enslaved Black men and women were linked to the common assumption that there were few strong familial ties among slave families. Slave owners suggested that enslaved couples changed partners on a whim and that the parental ties between parent and child were weak.”
How Mainstream Media Perpetuated the Myth of Black Sexual Pathology
Media played an important instrument in the narrative of Black pathology. Post-slavery media sensationalism contributed to lynchings across America as news spread assertions that White women risk rape from Black men, characterized as violent sexual deviants. In the media films like Birth of the Nation perpetuated myths about Black sexuality to rewrite the narrative of Reconstruction as a type of Black social dysfunction.
Scientific Racism: Why People Believe in the ‘Feminization’ of Black Men
Eugenics in the 19th century defined research about sexuality and here scientific racism helped justify the sterilization of poor White people and Black people. Progressive era reform in the 20th century saw the continued implementation of this policy. In particular poor Black women were targeted by the respectability politics of reformers. Researchers in psychiatry justified such media interpretations by claiming the social choices of Black men resulted from various forms of psychosis and deviance. The Moynihan Report was a pivotal publication toward the legitimation of the pathology of Black sexuality. He insisted Black families were dysfunctional due to a “tangle of pathologies” including Black matriarchy, feminization, and the absence of Black fathers. The Moynihan Report failed to acknowledge structural problems that contributed to outcomes.
How Black and Queer Scholars Clap Back
Black scholars like Robert Staples pushed back against these notions. More scholars affirm the belief that sexuality is socially constructed and that race creates a hierarchy. Queer scholars also interrogate our understanding of sexual pathology as it relates to Black homosexuals. Their research helps reinforce the importance of grounding theory about Black sexuality in the lived experiences of Black people. Beliefs about Black sexuality as pathological also have important policy implications. Many legislation targets Black individual behavior rather than structural changes. This pathologizing has implications for how homosexuality is accepted in the Black community. The belief in the pathology of homosexuality among Black people enforces the monopoly heterosexual people have over the legal right to marriage.
Ending the practice of pathologizing Black sexuality will not be easy because the assumptions that enable it to flourish are part of the fabric of American culture. As noted, some researchers have recognized the problems associated with pathologizing Black sexuality and are advocating different approaches, perhaps illustrating that tenaciously adhering to the old tradition can prevent true resolution.
- All quotes are from Kevin McGruder’s 2010 piece: Pathologizing Black Sexuality: The U.S. Experience. ↩