As large-scale demonstrations against police violence have swept the nation, so have a number of interesting protest signs. Many of them are compelling, passionate cries for equality and justice. Others are something else.
Exhibits A and B:
It should be—but apparently isn’t—clear that protesting for Black rights on the grounds one enjoys sleeping with Black men does not reflect well on one’s priorities. But fetishizing Black men’s genitalia is dehumanizing regardless, as it is rooted in historical tropes that are directly linked to the brutalization of Black folks and the justification of that violence.
The “Black brute,” “Mandingo,” or “Black buck” tropes reflect a potent supposition that Black men are unstoppably sex-crazed beasts. During enslavement, the societal belief was that Black men had to be forced into submission to keep them from acting on alleged rabid fantasies of sexually assaulting white women. Following emancipation, the idea that Black men would “return” to their alleged criminal, brutish ways and take revenge through rape morphed into a justification for sadistic lynchings that occurred during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
Anti-Black propaganda utilized this sexual mythology to further fuel the public justification for lynchings; newspaper headlines, which were often false, claimed that murdered Black men were killed because they had tried to attack white women. As David Pilgrim, the director of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, wrote, “A mob lynching was a brutal and savage event, and it necessitated that the lynching victim be seen as equally brutal and savage; as these lynchings became more common and more brutal, so did the assassination of the black character.”
There’s a direct line from that imagery to the “brute” and the “thug” imagery used to justify police violence today. Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, and Jason Van Dyke, who killed Laquan McDonald, drew heavily from the “Black brute” stereotype during their testimonies in order to justify their fear. The trope causes folks to perceive Black people as larger, more violent—and in the case of children, older—and possessing a supernatural level of strength.
The goal of anti-racist protest is to break the grip of racism in theory and practice. Literal racism, fetishizing, and all-around weirdness are not going to do it.