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v11_2000d - 3 EMBODIED PUBLIC POLICIES THE SEXUAL...

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Unformatted text preview: 3 EMBODIED PUBLIC POLICIES: THE SEXUAL STEREOTYPING OF BLACK WOMEN IN THE DESIGN AND IMPLEMENTATION OF US. POLICIES Serena Maurer Images of black women as “oversexed” and hyper—fertile have persisted in the United States from slavery through the eugen— ics movement and into modern welfare debates. Stereotypes such as the “Hottentot Venus” and the “black welfare queen” have often dominated public discourse and shaped laws gov— erning sex, reproduction and family life. Policy makers need to assess their own and their colleagues’ roles in perpetuating such stereotypical constructions of individual attributes in order to create policies that recognize the ways in which the subjects of their policies are complexly shaped by social, political and economic forces. INTRODUCTION Stereotypes of black women as sexually unrestrained have influenced U.S . public policy since the 17th century.‘ In this paper, I will look at the historical production of stereotypes about black women’s bodies and the ways in which these myths have influenced U.S. public policy. Specifi- cally, I will trace the role these sexual stereotypes about black women have played in the development and implementation of US. public policy during slavery, sterilization campaigns beginning in the late nineteenth century, and more recent welfare legislation. Serena Maurer is a Master in Public Affairs Candidate at the Evans School of Puhiic Affairs and a PhD. Candidate in the Women Studies Department, University of Washington. Embodied Public Policies: The Sexual Stereot in 0 Black Women 37 This paper is an attempt to interrogate the ways in which policy makers envision the subjects of their policies and the impact of these visions on the policies they create. To this end, it traces the development and reinforce— ment of one set of stereotypes of black women as “oversexed” and hyper— fertile. My intent here is not to propose that this is the only stereotype written onto black women’s bodies or that stereotypes of black women are the only important stereotypes to consider in the creation, implementa- tion and evaluation of public policies. My purpose, instead, is to push policy-makers and policy analysts to consider the ways in which stereo- types that rely on multiple axes of power and difference (gender, race, class, age, etc.) seep into the fabric of public policies and “color” the ways in which we discuss and analyze them. I want to offer policy—makers and policy analysts a historical analysis of the ways in which one type of stereotype has influenced policy-making in order to encourage others to undertake similar analyses of the ways in which public policies produce, reinforce and rely on damaging stereotypes of their subjects. A SEARCH FOR ORIGINS Although it is difficult to pinpoint the location and moment in time in which stereotypes are born, feminist and race theorists have pointed to various originary sites of the myth of black women’s bodies as sexually unrestrained. Barbara Omolade asserts that the sexual stereotyping of black women’s bodies is rooted in colonialism. She argues that European male colonists read African women’s sexuality “according to [their] own definitions of sex, nudity, and blackness as base, foul, and bestial (Omolade 1995, 362).” Omolade contends that European perceptions of the sexu— ality of the colonized as “[absent] of any sexual codes of behavior” led to a simultaneous fascination and repulsion with this sexuality.2 Historian Richard Hofstadter explains: Naked and libidinous: for the white man’s preoccupation with Negro sexuality was there at the very beginning, an outcome not only of his own guilt at sexual exploitation—his easy access to the black woman was immedi— ately blamed on her lasciviousness-but also of this envious suspicion that some extraordinary potency and ecstatic experience were associated with primitive lust (Hofstadter in Omolade 1995, 363). Paula Giddings argues that scientific and anthropological interest in and exhibition of Sara Bartman, a.k.a. the “Hottentot Venus,” played a crucial role in the creation of the stereotype of black women as sexually unrestrained. Bartman, a South African woman, was “discovered” by 38 Serena Maurer anthropologists and subsequently displayed throughout Europe from 1 810—1815 (Giddings 1995). Scientific and popular interest in Bartman revolved around “the extraordinary size and shape of her buttocks” and genitalia (Giddings 1995, 416). Sander L. Gilman agrees with Giddings’ analysis, arguing that the sexual parts of the “Hottentot Venus” were central to white images of black women and black sexuality throughout the nineteenth century (Gilman in Giddings 1995). He posits that the links between sex and race were developed during this period, when cultural stereotypes equated blackness with a sexuality that was both alluring and dangerous, a fecundity that was both copious and threatening (Gilman 1985). Cultural conceptions of black women as sexually unrestrained were further developed in the American colonies. Although all blacks were “fearfully thought to be [creatures] under the domination of [their] passions (Takaki 1990, 114),” black women in particular were equated with “sinful, evil strength and carnal knowledge (Omolade, 1995, 363)” and were viewed by whites as both “sexually available and morally impure (Abramovitz 1996, 59).” Black slave women were referred to in terms of their sexuality and ability to reproduce. They were perceived to have “excessively ‘large nipples’ and ‘an extraordinary ease of child bearing’ (Stetson 1982, 73).” One advertisement for a black female slave bragged that she was “very prolific in her generating qualities, and affords a rare opportunity to any person who wishes to raise a family of healthy servants for their own use (Stetson 1982, 74).” Winthrop Jordan points to the South Carolina Gazette and various West Indian books published during slavery as sites where “the common assumption that Negro women were especially passionate (Jordan in Stetson 1982, 73)” was put into print. He asserts that during this period the black woman was popularly conceptu— alized as “the sunkissed embodiment ofardency (Jordan in Stetson 1982, 73).” The positioning of blacks between animals and humans on the “Great Chain of Being” was integrally linked to the black woman: philosophers, scientists, scholars, lawmakers, and physicians agreed that it was the black woman who attracted the sexual attention of orangutans and who had, at some unknown historical moment, created the black race by mating with the orangutan (Stetson 1982). Thomas Jefferson explained this mating through an assertion that the orangutan’s desire for sexual union with black women was a drive to better the orangutan race. According to Jefferson, this made sense in a world in which whites, who sat at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being, desired to preserve the “white beauty Embodied Public Policies: The Sexual Stereot in 0 Black Women 39 w and ‘loveliness’ (Takaki 1990, 47)” of their own race by avoiding misce— genation. He writes, “the circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?” (Takaki 1990, 47) Constructions of black women as beyond the moral constraints of white sexuality codes were contrasted with images of white women as the embodiment of the “Cult of True Womanhood” (Welter 1966) which held up purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness as the four ideals towards which (white) women should strive. Louise Newman reports that black women “exposed the unstated but implicit racism in the ideology of true womanhood, which stigmatized women of color as incapable of chastity, purity, and moral virtue (Newman 1999, 6).” Newman explains, “Whether the ‘primitive’ woman was embodied in the white imagination as the Indian squaw, an Oriental harem girl, or an African savage, she became the physical yardstick by which white women in the United States measured their own moral status, social progress, and racial development (Newman 1999, 42).” This stereotyping of black women’s bodies fit nicely with the self— proclaimed white male right to sexual freedom: white men could have unrestrained sex with black women (claiming no responsibility for the consequences of this practice) while protecting the purity and chastity of white women, with whom sex only occurred within the boundaries of marriage (Omolade 1 995) . The construction of black women as oversexed was also reinforced, reflected, and propagated through the lynching campaigns of the late 18005, which were based on the stereotyping of black men as rapists of white women. Paula Giddings explains: “black men were thought capable of these sexual crimes because of the lascivious character of the women of the race in a time when women were considered the foundation of a group’s morality (Giddings 1995, 415).” As early as 1662, US. public policy both reflected and reinforced the stereotyping of black women as “sexually unrestrained” by asserting white men’s rights to control and fix the limits of the sexual behavior of black women while supporting the sexual freedom ofwhite men. During that year, the Virginia colony passed a piece of legislation stating that all children born Within the colony would follow the condition of the mother. This legislation overruled English common law’s determination of a child’s status through the father’s condition and allowed white men to exercise their self-proclaimed right to sex with black women without concern for the consequences of their actions. The law “implicitly con- doned sexual intercourse between white men and black slave women, in 40 Serena Maurer effect allowingwhite men more legal, social, and psychological freedom by not holding them responsible for any offspring resulting from sexual relations with female slaves (Stetson 1982, 72).” During slavery, this law provided support for slave owners’ use of black women’s bodies as a means Of increasing capital through coerced or forced sex with black male slaves or with the slave owners themselves (Omolade 1995). THE EUGENICS MOVEMENT, BIRTH CONTROL, AND COMPULSORY STERILIZATION Cultural stereotypes about black women’s sexuality were again reflected in and reinforced by the eugenics movement that began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Faced‘with national questions about the colonization of Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines, policy—makers and concerned citizens debated the plausibility of implementing assimilationist policies (developed after the Civil War to “assimilate” blacks, American Indians and immigrant groups) to deal with foreign “savages.” Social theorists addressed these concerns by reconceptualizing the white man as less adaptable then previously thought and thus free to have sex with the colonized without causing concerns of racial degeneration. Other theo— rists, including women’s rights activists, revised white women’s traditional role as “mothers of the race” to encompass their new duty as “racial conservators” who harbored the ability to ensure “racial progress” despite white men’s miscegenation as long as they produced sufficient numbers of racially “pure” offspring (Newman 1999). With intellectual roots in the work of Francis Galton, eugenics took hold as a social movement in the United States in the last two decades Of the nineteenth century and continued to draw adherents into the 19205 and 19305. When the white birth rate significantly decreased in the late nineteenth century as the United States became increasingly urban, eugenicists called for restrictions on immigration, anti—miscegenation laws and birth control campaigns to “control the reproduction ofso—called ‘inferior’ groups in order to promote ‘racial progress’ (Newman 1999, 46).” Stereotypes about black women’s hyper-fertility fueled the call for government regulation of the reproduction of non—whites (Davis 1981; Newman 1999). President Theodore Roosevelt cautioned against the impending threat of “race suicide” and the white middle class women’s birth control movement responded by asserting that blacks, immigrants and the poor had a moral duty to control their reproduction. As the eugenics movement gained popularity during the first decades of the twentieth century, birth control advocates and eugenicists teamed up to Embodied Public Policies: The Sexual Stereot in 0 Black Women ‘ 41 provide contraception to-and ultimately to sterilize-women from poor and immigrant communities and communities of color (Davis 1981). In 1939, the Birth Control Federation of America planned a “Negro Project” that attempted to get black ministers to lead local birth control committees, based on a belief that “the masses of Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes...i5 from that portion of the population least fit, and least able to rear children properly (Davis 1981, 393).” Although the movement died out at the end of the 19305, sterilization campaigns continued into the 19705. By 1 970, 20 percent of all married black women in the United States had been sterilized. Other women of color were also subjected to these campaigns. In 1976, 24 percent of all American Indian women of childbearing age had been sterilized, and in 1970, 20 percent of all Chicana women had been sterilized. Public policies and public management practices at both the state and the federal level supported the eugenicists’ efforts and the sterilization campaigns that lived on after the popular movement’s demise. In 1932, the Eugenics Society bragged that twenty—six states had passed compulsory sterilization laws “and that thousands of ‘unfit’ persons had already been surgically prevented from reproducing (Davis 1 981, 393). ” Between 1933 and the mid—19705, the state of North Carolina alone conducted 7,686 sterilizations under the auspices of the state’s Eugenics Commission, 5,000 of which were performed on black women. In 1972, the Depart— ment of Health, Education and Welfare stated that the federal govern— ment had funded between 100,000 and 200,000 sterilizations that year— at the high end this estimate of U.S. government—funded sterilizations in a single year came close to the total number of sterilizations conducted under the Hereditary Health Law during the entire course of the Nazi regime. Beginning in the 19505, the U.S. government’s sterilization campaign under the guise of population control in Puerto Rico resulted in a 20 percent decline in population growth by the mid—19605 and the sterilization of more than 35 percent of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age by the 19705. In 1970, African American women accounted for 43 percent of sterilizations funded by the U.S. government (Davis 1981). FAMILY VALUES DISCOURSE AND WELFORM REFORM Bonnie Thornton Dill, Maxine Baca Zinn and Sandra Patton assert that modern family values discourse blames the “breakdown of the family” on the unrestrained sexuality of black women. They argue that the family 42 Serena Maurer values campaigns’ explanation of social decay as rooted in the degeneration of the family unit that has become broadly accepted in modern main— stream political discourse centers on racialized stereotypes of black women. They write: “the images of unrestrained childbearing, freeloading, idle— ness, delinquency, crime, violence, abandonment, abuse, gangs and lack of love are all associated with single mothers on welfare and inscribed on the bodies of black women (Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998, 1 3) . ” According to Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton, the image of the “black welfare queen” sits at the heart of the family values debate. This image is the latest incarnation of the African woman dubbed sexually unrestrained by European colonists, the slave woman forced to increase the slave holder’s “capital” during U.S. slavery, and the unrestrained black woman breeder who threatened the “racial purity” of the United States according to eugenicists. The black welfare queen is a “bad mother” who is constructed as pathological because she is single and because she gives birth to many children in order to get her hands on public funds that she doesn’t deserve (she is undeserving because of her failure to conform to “traditional” family values). This mother is designated black through “an assumed racialization of sexual and reproductive deviance (Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998, 8)” that equates the deviant black single mother with perceived black family pathology. Critical race feminist Nathalie A. Augustin explains: The “welfare mother” is a deviant social creature. She is able-bodied, but unwilling to work at any of the thousands of jobs available to her; she is fundamentally lazy and civically irresponsible; she spends her days doing nothing but sponging off the government’s largesse. Despite the societal pressure to be gainfully employed, she enjoys her status as a “dependent” on the state and seeks at all costs to prolong her dependency. Promiscuous and shortsighted, she is a woman who defiantly has children out of wedlock. Without morals of her own, she is unlikely to transmit good family values to her children. She lacks the educational skills to get ahead and the motivation to acquire them. Thus, she is the root of her own family’s intergenerational poverty and related social ills. She is her own worst enemy. And slae it Black. (Italics mine) (Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998, 7) Understanding single motherhood (which, as explained above, gets equated with black single motherhood) as the result of personal or cultural “problems” conceals the structural and economic causes of poverty (Abramovitz 1996; Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998). This Embodied Public Policies: The Sexual Stereot in 0 Black Women 4 fl conceptualization of the causes of single motherhood echoes the “patho- logical black family” perspective first put forth by DuBois (1908) and Frazier (1939) and popularized in the 19605 by Moynihan (1965) that blames the ruination of the black family on the “aggressive black matri— arch” (Bell Scott 1982; Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998). Black women’s supposed sexual aggressiveness thus gets equated with the breakdown of the black family through black women’s failure to comply with patriarchal white middle class gender roles that assign familial power to men. Discourse about “personal values” and the “culture of poverty” ignores government’s interest in perpetuating this patriarchal family structure, a structure that “controls and directs the fertility, sexuality and child rearing, and employment behavior of women (Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998, 16).” Thus the focus on (white middle class) “family values” obscures the ways in which stereotypes about black women’s sexuality produce a desire to police the reproduction of black women. The primary threat of the black welfare queen becomes, in the language of family values, her production of “illegitimate” children who “ are likely to become unruly citizens (Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998, 20)” and her subsequent contamination of white women, creating an “epidemic of illegitimacy (Thornton Dill, Baca Zinn and Patton 1998, 8).” In his testimony to the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, Charles Murray, whose theories have fueled conservatives’ allegations of the “disincentive effects of the expansion of welfare programs (Harrison 1999, 104)” and who explicitly contends that the facts support the common American perception that the majority of women on welfare are black and/ or Latino asserts that: Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem in our time- more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else. Doing something about it is not just one more item on the American poli...
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