It is rooted in an idea, backed by generations of violence, that white womanhood is to be protected and that black men are inherently criminal. The phenomenon is a specific strain of American racism, said Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility.”
“Who doesn’t know that calling the police on black people risks them being shot?” she said. “This invokes a history of terror. When a white woman says, ‘I’m going to call the police,’ she’s basically saying, ‘You might die.’ ”
The belief that white women are deeply fearful of black men is also ingrained in our society, said Kendi.
“What is inherent is the essential belief of the helpless victim, the projection to racist white men to come and help and save me,” Kendi said. “The way in which white women have been defended, particularly in the last few decades, has been by calling 911. They view that as a privilege, that when there’s a dispute across racial lines, the police will always have their back.”
The concept is at the core of the American imagination, from the premise of D.W. Griffith’s racist “Birth of A Nation,” to the plot of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It’s also evocative of real-world violence, such as the 1955 killing by two white men of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, in Money, Miss., after he was accused of whistling at a white woman. Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted her story in 2017 to a historian.
Before white women could vote, they could lodge an accusation against a black person that could be deadly, said University of California historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers, who wrote a book about white women during slavery.
“The power that [Amy Cooper] felt she had, the power to be believed … is a very long-standing power that white women have possessed and chosen to exercise at various points in our history,” said Jones-Rogers, author of “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South."