The spectacle of hundreds of thousands of masked people demonstrating in hundreds of cities, both in America and throughout the world, offered a cathartic relief, after months of confinement under the relentless spectacle of Donald Trump and other political leaders who daily disgrace the public offices they hold. Black Lives Matter is shaking to the core our societies in the same way that another social movement shook us, three years ago. I refer, of course, to the worldwide movement that became known by its hashtag handle: #MeToo. Both of these movements began in the United States, and both spread like wildfire to much of the rest of the world, but beyond this superficial similarity, there are profound affinities to be found in the conditions of women and of black people.
Both movements emerged from what we may call the New Left or progressive left, according to which emancipation is to be found in sexuality, gender and race, rather than class (although the concept of “intersectionality” came to glue the different pieces of emancipation together).
Both of them touch on processes of domination based in the objective distribution of wealth and power, as well as in language and representations (this is why HBO Max removed “Gone with the Wind” from its selection of films before returning it with a disclaimer, acknowledging that it is a complacent depiction of the slave-owning Confederacy, and why statues of Confederate generals are being forcibly removed or vandalized); both movements are revolts against long-standing and invisible patterns of social exclusion; both of them designate as the culprit of their exclusion a large, abstract and amorphous group of people (“white people” or “colonialism” in one case; “men” or “patriarchy” in the other). But perhaps the deepest parallel in the condition of both groups is to be found in the fact that members of both are the regular and almost routine objects of physical violence and assault. It is here that the affinity is the most profound.
Let me start with a story that the The Atlantic published last year about the ways in which police investigate, or more precisely, fail to investigate rape. There are approximately 125,000 cases of rape across the United States each year. In 49 out of 50 cases, the assailant is never punished: Either the case is never investigated, or someone is investigated but not prosecuted, or someone is prosecuted but ends up walking free.
One of the ways in which cases are never investigated is particularly striking: When a woman is raped, police collect medical evidence in a test kit that may well contain the DNA of the assailant. Yet, in 2019, there were as many as 225,000 of these used kits sitting in police storage rooms throughout the country (probably more) that had not had their samples run through a database to find out if its genetic material matched that of other known offenders. Why? The conclusion of the Atlantic’s in-depth investigation is clear: because of police culture.
If there is a single reason why many rapists have been able to remain free and unbothered it is, in the words of Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty, because of “law enforcement’s abiding skepticism of women who report being raped.” Some programs have tried to teach police officers to take rape as seriously as assault or robbery, but that has proved to be a difficult task, as many officers acknowledge, according to a detective who conducted such training, that they believe “women lie about being raped, and that their claims aren’t worth investigating.”
Hagerty explains that the contact victims have with police more often resembles an interrogation than an investigation. Even when test kits are opened, and someone is identified, it usually takes an unusual amount of time until they are actually prosecuted (what should take a few days can take many months to a year). This means then, that of all crimes, rape is the one for which one is the least likely to be caught, prosecuted or punished, far less than petty robbery or assault.
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Downplaying of crimes
The #MeToo movement emerged against the background of criminal justice’s systematic failure to investigate, let alone prosecute, rapists, sex traffickers, harassers and sex offenders. It was only in the wake of this movement that Jeffrey Epstein, a man who engaged in the trafficking of probably hundreds of underage girls, and Harvey Weinstein, a media mogul who allegedly harassed or raped some 80 women (to date, he has been convicted on two criminal counts – one of rape, the other of sexual assault), were subjected to the wheels of justice. But even with the #MeToo movement, we saw a replay of the centuries-old downplaying of crimes against women in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the highly persuasive testimony of the woman who had accused him of assaulting her more than 35 years earlier, Christine Blasey Ford.
Thus to put it simply: In the cases of both #MeToo and BLM, the “system” that is entrusted with representing blindly and universally crime victims, does not defend certain classes of them adequately, and even turns against them. In the case of women, police and other representatives of the law-enforcement system regularly do not believe the victims and protect (directly or indirectly) the perpetrators, thus skewing entirely the legal process and justice system.
Power is the access that one group has to the bodies of another group, an access that seems natural to the former and thus goes unpunished.
In the case of African Americans, it goes one significant step further: Police officers themselves are frequently perpetrators of violence, but, as with the case of women’s rapists, are rarely if ever prosecuted. In such circumstances, it is not terribly surprising that the law-enforcement and court systems are viewed as a sham at best and, at worse, as reinforcing the violence perpetrated against vulnerable groups. BLM and #MeToo are fundamentally united in the ways in which they place in doubt the foundations of the criminal-justice system.
This is why both groups – women and black people – can be said to experience “systemic violence” and “systemic exclusion.” What are systemic violence and exclusion? Both are often ridiculed as concepts because they are diffuse and hard to pinpoint; but both rely on what we may call a prior social experience of devaluation.
‘Anybody can touch you’
Devaluation is one of the most powerful and least perceptible mechanisms at work in racism and sexism. It is linked to unconscious mechanisms that diminish the value of a person by turning their body into a thing or an object, or by disconnecting their body from personhood (as when a man relates to a woman only as a pair of breasts or buttocks). Michele Obama has described the “sting” of “daily slights” she and former President Barack Obama both felt during their pre-White House lives, ranging from people crossing the street “in fear of their safety” when they approached, to department-store employees who keeping “a close eye” on them. Millions, if not billions of women can testify to the ways in which they are not only excluded from the centers of power and wealth but more routinely treated with disdain and disrespect, ignored, derided and mocked, treated only as a sexual object – that is, devalued. As James Baldwin said of black , which he could have as easily said of women, “If you’re a Negro, you’re in the center of that peculiar affliction, because anybody can touch you.”
Indeed, once devalued, a body becomes a thing you can touch, penetrate, violate (men can put their hands on women’s buttocks or kiss them unsolicited while the opposite is hard to imagine). Such devaluation is directed at the body itself, and is key to understanding why women are not taken seriously.
Black people are considered “dangerous,” “lazy,” “good for dancing and not good at mathematics.” This translates into striking facts: As endless numbers of studies have shown, for the same offense, black men are far more likely to be incarcerated and for a far longer time than white men. In 1999, black Americans and Hispanics made up 50 percent of New York City’s population. Yet, 84 percent of those stopped and frisked by the NYPD were African Americans and Hispanics – a number that is particularly striking in light of the fact that whites constituted the majority of those ultimately detained by the police for violations involving illegal drugs and weapons. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has reported, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, and nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who did not graduate from high school have spent time in prison.
What rape, sexual harassment, assault, incarceration all have in common is that they are all forms of direct domination over the body. Generations of scholars inspired by Michel Foucault’s brilliant studies on disciplinary power, have thought of modern power as distant, abstract and mediated through the gaze (the panopticon being the chief example). But traditional power that is chiefly exerted over the body remains highly active and present in modern societies.
Historically both black people and women could be owned by men, lacked legal standing in court, and cared for the menial tasks needed to sustain their master’s life.
The paradigmatic form of such power is slavery, defined as one individual’s ownership of the body of another. Slavery in the ancient world took many forms and degrees (for example, it sometimes included the right to have a family, to earn and save money, to purchase one’s own freedom), but it always entailed the legal right of one person (the master) to dispose of the body of another for work or sex, or both. The earliest slaves in ancient Greece were mostly women, taken as war bounty (while men were killed or ransomed), and historically, slaves and women had in common being defined as the property of men. Slavery was later extended to men, who became appropriated in the same way that women had been: for sex and for work.
Slavery became the paradigmatic relationship of traditional power. In England upon marriage, for example, until the mid-19th century, women lost all legal rights (becoming what was called a feme covert); more exactly, her rights were subsumed by those of her husband. In the United States, coverture was a concept inherited from English common law. Under this doctrine, a woman was legally considered the chattel of her husband, his possession. Her property became that of her husband, and she had no legal right to appear in court or to sign contracts. Even if this law was not always observed, women had no legal identity and status. English common law described marriage as two people “becoming one,” but in fact the woman was entirely subsumed under the man’s jurisdiction.
Lucy Stone, a 19th-century American abolitionist and suffragist, criticized common law marriage because it “gives the ‘custody’ of the wife’s person to her husband, so that he has a right to her even against herself.” I can hardly think of a better definition of slavery, thus suggesting a hidden affinity between women and African slaves who were brought to North America from the 17th century onward (even if, of course, many white women behaved toward these slaves as if they were their proprietors).
Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein used the bodies of young women as chattel, as bodies out there for them to touch, penetrate and exploit, at their will. There are millions of men throughout the world who view women’s bodies in a proprietary manner, as something they own and thus have ready access to. On a legal and moral level, black people and women shared a condition that historically could be viewed as paradigmatic of slavery: Both of them could be owned by men, lacked legal standing in a court of justice and assumed the menial tasks needed to sustain their master’s ordinary life.
African slaves and women are thus defined by the fact that it is through their body that they are dominated. A dominated body works for someone else without any clear boundaries regarding the time it must spend working; it is denied sexual satisfaction and even life (entire black communities could be subjected to a pogrom if a black man was suspected of even flirting with a white woman); a dominated body is easy to shame and ridicule; most remarkably, such a body is easily accessed by way of touch, rape and assault. Power is thus by definition the access that one group has to the bodies of another group, an access that seems natural to the former and thus goes unpunished.
This is the process by which some bodies are thus made vulnerable to the violence of others. The testimony of a black writer in The New York Times put it very clearly: “As a black man, what I actually feel – constantly – is the fear of death; the fear that when I go for my morning stroll through Central Park or to 7-Eleven for an AriZona Iced Tea, I won’t make it back home. I fear I won’t get to celebrate my parents’ 40th anniversary; I won’t get to add money to my nephew’s brokerage account on his third birthday; I won’t get to take my partner out dancing in her favorite Bed-Stuy bars.” Ta Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most prominent African-American voice writing today, put it in poignant terms (in an open letter to his son): “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”
Fear is a familiar experience of most women I know. Ask women if they fear for their lives if they stroll alone in a street at night or take the subway, and the meaning of a vulnerable body becomes clearer: It is a body that is in the easy reach of others.
In May 2015, The New York Times Magazine wrote one of the definitive early profiles of the Ferguson activists (Ferguson is the Missouri town where, in 2014, protests and riots erupted as a result of the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer). These activists had a message to convey: “Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us.” This is the demand women in South America have made of men in multiple mass protests: “stop killing us.” Dianna E.H. Russell, the great South African feminist, has enumerated the many ways in which women are killed or violated throughout the world: domestic murder, assault, honor killing, serial murders, elimination of female fetuses or babies (in Asian countries), but also incest and rape.
Why do the police seem to play such a role in perpetrating rather than alleviating the vulnerability of these groups? Ironically, patriarchal institutions have defined the army and the police as highly gendered places (overwhelmingly male) because as the stronger sex, men were supposed to defend and protect “the weak” (women, old, invalids and children). But as institutions that possess the monopoly of legitimate violence, they also have the power to kill. Rosa Brooks, a professor of law at Georgetown, identified the problem of the American police very succinctly: They are trained as if they were an army. In an article with the self-explanatory title of “Stop training the police like they’re joining the military,” she exposes the ways in which police are trained as if their primary mission was to overcome enemies rather than to serve and defend civilians.
The army and the police are not just singular institutions among others. They are key sources for the production of certain forms of masculinity, as the overwhelmingly main gender allowed to own and to use the legitimate means of violence. Police and the army are, to be sure, vital to any society as long as crime and war continue to exist. But as the murder of George Floyd and many others before him tragically illustrates, they are also based on a bluff – namely, that they protect vulnerable and honest people. These institutions often unknowingly reproduce and help maintain injustices which they have not created but which come to haunt them from within.
Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaac Chair in sociology at Hebrew University and is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute.