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The historical legacy of the racist social meaning of rape and the consequences of that legacy are the focus of this article. The article, written in 1983, analyzes the U.S. law of rape, its history, and its legacy, from a perspective that is both feminist and antiracist. It examines the intersections and interactions of race and gender subordination in the context of rape, particularly looking at race and gender issues involving African-Americans and whites. It describes how the legal system’s selective acknowledgement of rape has disproportionately targeted African-American men for punishment and made African-American women both particularly vulnerable and particularly without redress. It further asserts that the legal system’s myopic focus on claims of black offender/white victim rape has distracted from the broader significance, for women generally, of sexual coercion.

Part I describes the U.S. legal system’s narrow focus on African-American offender/white victim rape, tracing the history of that selective recognition from slavery to the present. The history included early twentieth century doctrinal rules allowing juries to infer, based on race alone, that if the accused was black and the alleged victim white, then the accused intended to rape the alleged victim. The legacy continues in sentencing and the threat of racially motivated prosecutions. Part II discusses the the legal system’s failure to acknowledge the rape of African-American women, including its assumption of black women’s promiscuity, tracing the pattern from slavery to the present. It includes discussion of race-specific early twentieth century doctrinal rules that prior chastity of the victim in statutory rape cases would not be assumed if the victim was African-American. Further, the legal system’s treatment of rape has implicitly and incorrectly defined rape so as to limit its social meaning to an African-American male offender and a white woman, Part III argues The narrow focus on one racial combination of rape obscures the significance of sexual coercion to which women are all too frequently subjected. Because of the interconnectedness of rape and racism, successful work against rape and other sexual coercion must deal with racism, Part IV asserts. Struggles against rape must acknowledge the differences among women and the different ways that groups other than women are disempowered. In addition, work against rape must go beyond the focus of illegal rape to include other forms of coerced sex, in order to avoid the racist historical legacy surrounding rape and to combat effectively the subordination of women.

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Harvard Women's Law Journal



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