Posted on May 15, 2008

The Messy Truth of Race, Rape, and Class

Keith Woods, (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, May 13, 2008

In her remarkable story, “Beyond Rape: A Survivor’s Journey” Joanna Connors, a reporter at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, writes about her experiences getting raped. But the story isn’t just about rape. It also addresses important issues of race and class.

The essential tension resides in a simple and explosive event, now 20 years old: A black man raped a white woman. The history of that potent narrative is packed with truth and lies, racist injustice and racial suspicion, cliché and mythology.

This story lurches powerfully into race in the first of five chapters, as Connors speculates that she might have run away in the awkward moments before David Francis attacked her had it not been for the fear that she’d appear racist. A few paragraphs later, readers learn that the rapist taunted Connors, asking if she’d fantasized about sex with a black man. That’s a pretty raw entrée into race in what was already a bold step into another taboo.

Then things really get interesting. Connors tracks down Francis’ family and interweaves her story with theirs. As I followed her into the black and poor side of Cleveland, I found myself bracing. Would some misguided liberal guilt cause her to ennoble this man and his family, with their hard upbringing and harder lives, now that she’d seen up close the truth of the country’s racial and class divide? Would she stumble into stereotype or worse? Would this become part of a long list of bleeding-heart tales that end with, “and I found out these poor black people were just like me”?

No. No. And no.

{snip} I had a lingering question when I was done, which I sent to Stuart Warner, the editor who called my attention to the piece:

[Connors] spoke one simple truth that I think I’d wanted to hear more about: That it was her desire to not appear to be a bigot that might most be responsible for the decision to go into that theater [where Francis raped her]. That’s a much scarier racial truth, to me, than the more mundane, ‘I found myself afraid of all black men’ truth that she was hesitant to speak. Because if white women—or white people in general—were to act on the first notion, that you question your racial motivations at your great peril, then in a way we’ll encourage more acts of exclusion and outright prejudice.