Gov. Paul LePage insisted Friday his comments earlier this week about out-of-state drug dealers named “D-Money,” “Smoothie” and “Shifty” coming to Maine to sell heroin and impregnating young, white girls were not racist.
In a news conference Friday morning, during which he mostly berated media members who attended, the governor said his remarks in Bridgton were a “slip of the tongue.” He should have said, “Maine women, not white women,” he said.
The problem with this attempt to brush aside his comments, which were covered by media around the country and widely condemned, is that they perpetuate a long history of portraying black men as dangerous predators, often sexual predators, who must be kept away from virtuous white women.
This portrayal has led to deadly consequences for black men. In the early 20th century, black men routinely were murdered, often by lynching, for allegedly making sexual advances toward white women. Emmett Till is perhaps the most famous case.
The 14-year-old black boy from Chicago was in Mississippi visiting relatives in August 1955, when he reportedly flirted with or whistled at a white female cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, the store owner, the cashier’s husband, and his half brother kidnapped Till from his relatives’ home. They beat and shot the teenager before dumping his body in a river. When his body was pulled from the river, his great-uncle could only identify him by a signet ring Till’s mother had given him just before he left for Mississippi.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried in front of an all-white, all-male jury. After deliberating for just over an hour, the jury acquitted the men. A few months later, they admitted to the murder, selling their story to Look magazine for $4,000.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, opted for an open-casket at his funeral in Chicago, allowing tens of thousands of mourners to see his mutilated body. The case helped fuel the civil rights movement.
In her book “White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960,” Lisa Lindquist-Dorr explained the black man predator meme this way: “Cases of black-on-white rape both fed and grew out of white fears. White Virginians, like other white southerners, believed that blacks were reverting to savagery, that black men were driven biologically to desire white women and to fulfill those desires by force.
“Most horrifying, whites convinced themselves that by stealing sexual relations with white women, black men were attempting to seize the patriarchal privileges and social power that southern society gave white men. For whites, responding to black men’s alleged assaults was both a means of racial control and a way to assert white supremacy.”
This is not a far-fetched notion that has receded into history. As he killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, Dylann Roof reportedly said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” one of the survivors told NBC. “And you have to go.”
LePage is right to be passionate about Maine’s deadly drug problem and the need for a better response to it. But using the spectre of dangerous black men violating young Maine women to make a point is wrong, and the governor should acknowledge that.