Tag Archives: black men

Race in Sex

Maggie Nazer“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Oscar Wilde has got it right. Sex is a complex social issue which embodies layers of hard-to-handle gender and social status controversy. Adding politics of race in the equation only serves to further on heat up the already problematic topic of sexuality. Exploring how racial matters influence sexual perceptions, stereotypes and misconceptions, however, is more than needed. It is an eye-opening process that gives insight on the ways devaluation of people is done in present days, dating back to the slave era. Evidently, Afro-Americans and individuals from other racial and ethnic groups present in the States have gone a long way since the abolition of slavery. Yet sexuality is everything but “race-blind” as seen in both the prevalence of endogamous marriages and the “white-supremacist” nature of many interracial marriages; the objectification of both women and men of color in interracial sex and porn; and the domination of widely spread sexual stereotypes discriminating the same groups.  

Since in 1967 the US Supreme Court deemed anti-miscegenation laws (laws prohibiting individuals from different races to marry) unconstitutional, the public approval of interracial marriages has risen with eighty percent- a figure worth our admiration, yet failing to tell the whole truth about the persistent racial and racist issues affecting deeply the way people connect and build relationships within and outside their race. The 8,9% number of interracial marriages can be considered rather low for a country as multiethnic and diverse in population as the USA. While the popular modern trend of “cohabitation” should undoubtedly be considered, it is also an easy solution to the problem of dealing with the reaction of the society which respects the abstract idea of an “interracial marriage”, but is still immature as to how to react when faced with it.  Another example of racism in action in the context of intermarriages is the legal union between rich white men and poor women from developing countries or different racial backgrounds in general. Popular among American and European men this practice reinforces superiority claims from whites, while encouraging poor women to consider voluntary prostitution and arranged interracial marriages as tempting options to secure a living. “Bride-hunts” conducted by wealthy white men in countries like Thailand, for instance, or their respective parallels in one’s own country reinforce the racist stereotypes which often qualify women of color as the negative  “submissive, easy, pleasing” or even the positive “motherly, perfect- house-wives”, in addition to creating the contrasting image of white women depicted as “feminists and unsuitable for family life workaholics”. The case of “marriage squeeze” offers yet another opportunity to look at racial and sexual issues within out-marrying. “Marriage squeeze” stands for the trend executed by “well-educated”, “wealthy”, “desirable” Afro-Americans to marry white women rather than women from their own race because of the higher societal status white women inherit. Leaving more than 50% of Black women between 30-35 unmarried, this practice also contributes to the reinforcement of the racist perceptual superiority of white women.

The above examples illustrate not only the prevailing racist issues surrounding the practice of marrying outside of one’s race, but also the constantly occurring objectification of men and women of color within the context of interracial sex. Objectification is a philosophical term that stands for the treatment of people as things. It is exercised through the assumed ownership of humans, the denial of their autonomy and their treatment as interchangeable tools. The wide-spread modern myths of black men’s sexual prowess and black women’s submissiveness and sexual appetite are easy to name examples of racial and sexual objectification that are historical offspring of the slavery period in the US. Slave breeding practices and statutory rape laws both enhanced sexual debasement and cruelty against African-Americans who were considered moveable property across the United States. These inhumane practices led slaves to either confront their masters, and thus be beaten and tortured, or accept the savagery and use it as a way to secure protection. The English regulations executed in the colonies stated that “Indians and Blacks, as well as their children, were prohibited by law from defending themselves against abuse, sexual and otherwise, at the hands of Whites” (Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Failing Our Black Children: Statutory Rape Laws, Moral Reform and the Hypocrisy of Denial (2002)). Additionally, after the termination of the Atlantic slave trade slaveholders forced coerced sexual relations and reproduction between male and female slaves and favored Black female slaves who produced a lot of children. Since the laws declared that every child born by a slave mother became a slave, masters attempted to increase their profits by becoming “slave breeders” and reducing their costs on purchasing human labor. Exploited by their mistresses and used as walking “sperm banks”, male Afro-American slaves held a similar disadvantageous position: they did not own their bodies. Even worse: they were perceived as if they were only bodies.

Sadly, objectification of people is still prevailing. And despite no one is protected, marginalized racial groups are even more vulnerable to sexual stereotyping and dehumanization. While it is already hard to be a woman and not be perceived as powerless and submissive, imagine being an Asian, Latino, African-American or even an Eastern-European woman. It is important to note that stereotypes play a crucial role in sexuality and result in serious psychological and social repercussions which endanger the well-being of individuals within the society, create misunderstanding and disturb the natural processes of creating connectedness between humans. Stereotypes kill intimacy and establishes sex as a mere physical process in which people are reduced to their body parts and are limited to exhibit only certain sexual attitudes. When people are put in categories, rather than seen holistically, the relationships they create are castrated. Robbed of genuine appreciation for the uniqueness of the other person, they can only reach mediocre levels of substance, depth and, thus, satisfaction. Unfortunately, men and women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds not only suffer from sexual prejudices, but also reinforce them. Black men, for instance, are commonly described as very athletic, muscular and promiscuous, and often try to maintain these stereotypes through stylizing their bodies and adopting behaviors perpetuating the very same attitudes which are destructive and limiting to them.

In a world obsessed with sex, race is a factor which cannot be underestimated. Exploring race within the framework of sexuality reveals layers of unsettled social polemics and points at various challenges which are yet to be overcome on our way to becoming indiscriminate. Nevertheless, it serves as motivation to be more aware and mindful of the ways we objectify both ourselves, and others; more committed to being truly authentic and more sensitive to the factors which prevent us from creating valuable human connections.


Black Male Incarceration and the Environment

Keith Reeves chats with a student before his talk.

Keith W. Reeves, a public policy expert from Swarthmore College, was at Middlebury for two days as the guest of the Howard E. Woodin Environmental Studies Colloquium and the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Reeves grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial city just outside Philadelphia, and opened his talk on “The Problem of Proximity: Black Male Incarceration and the Urban Environment” with a touch of irony.  Chester was highly regarded for generations as the city where Martin Luther King Jr. attended Crozer Theological Seminary in the early 1950s, and yet today it is known for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester that opened in 1998 and houses thousands of black male prisoners, Reeves said.

Chester’s transition from a “major, bustling economic engine” of the mid-20th century to an impoverished city of crime and empty storefronts has Reeves, an associate professor, “worried, stressed, and struggling for years.” The decline of Chester, he said, was a key factor in his decision to leave the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1999 and accept an appointment in the political science department at Swarthmore. Now that he teaches just five miles from downtown Chester, he directs a number of Swarthmore-based initiatives—including his own research that combines department of corrections statistics with GIS mapping—to revitalize his home city.

Keith Reeves spoke rapid fire for 45 minutes on October 13 to a crowd of about 75 students, faculty, and staff gathered in The Orchard at Franklin Environmental Center.

He said, “Incarceration in the urban environment has grown to the point that it now produces the very social problems on which it feeds, which also explains the enormous recidivism rate we see in these communities.”

Black males returning home from prison today face the same problems and challenges that caused them to be in jail in the first place, he said. “Neighborhoods plagued by family trauma, stress, high drop-out rates, interpersonal violence, drug and alcohol abuse, drug dealing, gangs, hunger, and social isolation provide a context that puts [black males] on a trajectory in which they are making very problematic decisions” that lead to arrest, conviction, and re-incarceration.

To start reversing this trend in American society would cost $17 billion dollars a year, Reeves estimated. He advocates for national policy reforms that would: 1) reverse the high drop-out rate in urban areas, 2) create a dependable “job engine” in America, 3) reduce the number of prison admissions annually, 4) reduce prisoners’ length of stay, 5) provide effective mentoring, case management, and support services to ex-convicts, 6) “ban the box,” and 7) make military service a viable option for Americans who have served time in prison.

Reeves’s campaign to “ban the box” seeks to eliminate the check box on job applications that asks, “Have you ever been arrested or served time in prison?” That question creates “a barrier that often prevents a wonderfully bright guy from getting connected to work [because he] happened to have made a serious error in misjudgment that landed him in prison.”

The guest lecturer’s final point about offering military service to convicted felons is a source of controversy among his Swarthmore students. “My students hate this,” he said, “but I refuse to put it away. We should allow the military to recruit formerly incarcerated black males.” Reeves (left) advocates for this because, in his interviews with incarcerated black males, between one-third and one-half of them say they would join the military upon release from prison if the option were open to them.

“The military would have saved them from the streets,” Reeves believes. “It would have given them a bit of discipline, it would have given them an opportunity for education, it would have given them a chance to work and aim toward something bigger than themselves. And we also know from African-American history, that the military is an enormous avenue for social mobility, i.e., Colin Powell.”

While Reeves’ first book focused on racial politics in America, his second book—not yet published—called “The Declining Significance of Black Males” will examine the “alarming” incarceration rate among black men and the impact of their return on inner-city families and neighborhoods.

In the Q&A that followed his talk, a student asked Reeves to define the target audience for his current research and impending book. “I am trying to get to the policy makers. I am trying to get to the governors who make appointments to judicial and correctional facility commissions. And I am trying to put a human face on the problem of black male incarceration and prisoner re-entry [because] not everyone who commits a crime is evil.”

Black males are going to prison, Reeves said, because they grow up in an environment where crime is the norm, where family support is minimal, where schools are lacking, where there’s no access to health care, and where peers and family members are part of the criminal justice system too.

“I have been blessed with wonderful educational opportunities, so I have to do something to change the world in my space.” For Keith Reeves, who has a PhD from Michigan, his “space” is Chester and all the other cities in America where black male incarceration is a fact of life today.