In a piece on The Atlantic, sociologist Phil Cohen considers the ways that gender and race could have worked together to influence the mostly white female jury in the George Zimmerman case. Cohen argues that the defense team utilized the strategy of amplifying the narrative of black male criminality and threat to white femininity. In doing so, Cohen highlights the often overlooked ways that gender is part of a case that has become notorious for its racial dynamics.
Cohen spends a good bit of his analysis of the case focusing on the ways that whites—regardless of gender—tend to overestimate the size of the black population. However, he also makes the important point that in understanding this pattern, it is essential to contextualize it in the racialized and gendered dynamics that shape interactions, stereotypes, and perceptions about and between black men and white women.
These dynamics are important ones that have informed multiple aspects of U.S. history and continue to have an impact to the present day. During slavery, blacks were often cast as docile, childlike, and happy with their enslavement (despite extensive evidence to the contrary). Post emancipation, however, a narrative emerged where black men in particular were depicted as dangerous, predatory threats to chaste white womanhood. These types of representations maintained a social order wherein extreme forms of social control like lynching became seen as “necessary” to subjugate black men, and white women’s sexuality, mobility, and opportunities were constrained by dominant ideas of their purity and morality. Simultaneously, black women were depicted as wanton and sexually voracious, while white men benefited from the myriad ways in which these racialized, gendered stereotypes shaped their access to women of all races and their dominance over racial minority men.
These representations of black men as criminal, dangerous, and a threat to white women never left the cultural imagination. They were present in D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation, were embedded in white rationales for segregation (even to the point of being sympathetically cited by then-President Eisenhower as a reason for southern white resistance to Civil Rights), and even surface as a subtext in political advertisements. Thus, when Cohen argues that the defense strategy was to present a group of white women with an image of Trayvon Martin as a dangerous thug who put George Zimmerman in reasonable fear for his life, this type of narrative resonates with an existing chord about black masculinity and white femininity that has a long, sullied history.
It is important to know that this theme has implications in other settings outside of the criminal justice arena. Amy Wilkins’ research on black college men suggests that these images inform but do not necessarily dampen their interest in interracial relationships with white women. However, my own research on black men in professional settings shows that awareness of these representations informs their interactions with women in complicated ways. For some black men in white male-dominated occupations, the perniciousness of these images can keep them from forming close ties to white women colleagues for fear of misunderstandings. Other black men in these settings feel that the gendered privileges they enjoy in these jobs enables them to relate to and advocate for their women colleagues, who they see facing greater hurdles due to the masculinization of their professions.
Overall, the theme of black male predator/white woman victim may well have been a deciding factor in the jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman. If so, it would be generally consistent with the way that racial and gendered dynamics shape other aspects of these relationships in various social arenas.
Adia Harvey Wingfield is Deputy Editor for Gender & Society, and Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology at Georgia State University.