In April 1981, in the early years of what Randall Kennedy terms the racial “darkening” (134) of America’s jail and prison populations, the New York Times reported that a New York Criminal Court judge refused to send a young, middle-class white male to the city’s Rikers Island jail on the grounds that the defendant would almost certainly be sexually assaulted by the jail’s predominantly African American and Latino inmate population. “We take judicial notice of the defendant’s slight build, his mannerisms, dress, color, and ethnic background,” the judge wrote in his opinion, “and are cognizant of the unfortunate realities that he would not last for ten minutes at Rikers Island.” Arguing that “the State of New York could not guarantee [the man’s] safety in prison surroundings,” the judge predicted that the defendant, if sent to jail, “would be immediately subject to homosexual rape and sodomy and to brutalities from prisoners such as make the imagination recoil in horror” (Shipp B3).1
As the somewhat baroque language of that final sentence attests, the possibility that a white man could be raped in jail by African American or Latino inmates exerts a powerful hold over the American racial imaginary. As Ted Conover puts it, the “rape-of-the-white-guy trope” is “a fixture of how middle-class America thinks about prison” (262). At the same time, this “trope” is at least partially rooted in statistical reality: as Patricia Hill Collins notes, “male prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is not an aberration,” but “a deeply rooted systemic problem in U.S. prisons,” and, since the 1970s, the most common form of interracial rape in US jails and prisons has been committed by black inmates against white ones (234). “White men rarely rape Black men,” Collins observes. “Instead, African American men are often involved in the rape of White men who [like the above defendant] fit the categories of vulnerability” (238). It is also true that black and Latino prisoners—particularly at urban jails such as Rikers—have outnumbered whites for decades. Indeed, by the late 1990s, ninety-two percent of the fifteen thousand Rikers inmates were black or Latino, despite the fact that “blacks and Hispanics represent [only] 49 percent of the city’s population” (Wynn 7).
What may be most striking about the above judge’s opinion, however, is not its basis in “fact” but rather the troubling conclusions that it draws from those facts. By using a selective representation of interracial male rape to rationalize keeping a white man out of jail, the judge not only contributes to the ever-worsening problem of racially disproportionate incarceration, but also uncritically affirms a broader—and more deeply problematic—set of racial and sexual narratives that are embedded in popular perceptions of America’s post-Civil Rights carceral landscape: namely that while African American males naturally belong in prison, white males do not. He also affirms that as America’s jail and prison populations have become blacker and browner since the 1970s, these institutions have become problematic not because of the damage they do to African American men and minority communities, but rather because of the bodily destruction they may cause to white men unlucky enough to be incarcerated. 2 By sliding past the many factors—structural racism, socioeconomic inequality, racially biased policing, and inequitable bail and sentencing procedures—that produce such populations in the first place, the judge’s take on interracial rape feeds what David Savran calls “the fantasy of the white male as victim” (4) and what Auli Ek refers to as the “fantasy that black inmates control prisons” (84). In these cultural narratives, black-on-white prison rape becomes the most extreme manifestation of how white men have been disadvantaged by the social and racial transformations in American society since the 1960s.
In what follows, I consider how this deployment of interracial rape and the reactionary narratives it authorizes were anticipated, complicated, and hotly contested by White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief, African American pulp writer Donald Goines’s prescient, neglected, 1973 prison novel. Written at the dawn of what has come to be a contemporary American epidemic of racialized incarceration...