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Marcus Dixon or Strom Thurmond: Which Is the Predator?

by James E. McWilliams on Feb 13, 2004

James E. McWilliams

The story of Marcus Dixon isn’t the only newsworthy court case to be stranded by higher-profile events. But it may be the most tragic.

Dixon is an 18-year-old man who’s been sentenced by a Georgia state court to 10 years in prison after having sex with a girl who was a few months shy of her 16th birthday. Dixon, who claimed the sex was consensual, is black. The girl, who claimed she was raped, is white. The jury convicted Dixon of “statutory rape and aggravated child molestation.” The relevant statute, clearly designed to prosecute adult molesters of small children, had never before been applied to teenagers less than three years apart in age.

Americans — especially white Americans — like to think that racism is dead and justice is blind. The Dixon case warns us otherwise. We’ll never know exactly what happened between these teenagers. We do know, however, that the Rome, Ga., district attorney, Leigh E. Patterson, summed up Dixon’s conviction with a description that taps a loaded historical stereotype. “This is not about race,” she insisted. “This is about a sexual predator.”

A sexual predator? Did public opinion label the late Strom Thurmond a sexual predator upon discovering that, as a 25-year- old, he had impregnated his family’s 16-year-old black maid? To the contrary, most accounts of Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s recent revelation about her father’s relationship with her mother stressed the financial support the South Carolina senator had “magnanimously” provided. Thurmond, we’re led to think, was a patriarch, Dixon a predator.

Thurmond’s hush money cleared the way for the senator’s notable political career. Dixon, who had a 3.96 grade point average and a football scholarship to Vanderbilt University, will likely contemplate his own future while sitting in a cell block.

Before the Civil War the stereotype of the black man as sexual predator didn’t exist. Its absence may surprise us. However, not only did slave masters routinely have sex with female slaves but — albeit less often — white mistresses also had sex with male slaves. Southerners generally failed to distinguish between these two sexual relationships.

“I said we should go to my house,” Dixon testified during his defense, but “she said her daddy . . . would kill both of us if he knew she was with a black man.” Such discrimination hadn’t yet shaped racial views in the antebellum South. White society generally accepted interracial sexual transgressions — whether they involved masters or mistresses — as an inevitable fact of plantation life. The transgressors might have been vicious predators, but nobody was calling them that. Not yet, anyway.

Whites tolerated these sexual relations because they could. After all, they had freedom while blacks were enslaved. Because of this legal difference, interracial sex never threatened the fundamental power imbalance that conferred upon whites a perverse sense of social superiority. The racial line might be crossed when lust came calling, but that line couldn’t be erased.

When Dixon’s mother (who is white and adopted Dixon with her white husband when he was nine) declared that her son “may have committed a sin, but never committed a crime,” she unknowingly evoked the flexible attitude so popular during a bygone era when a little flirtation over on “the other side” of the plantation was still allowed.

After 1865, Southern white men — usually poor — feared the political enfranchisement of black men as the gateway to sexual aggression against “their” white women. To be sure, this reaction was irrational, but that mattered little to white men whose intellectual universe was increasingly being framed by white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. With their world suddenly turned upside down, Southern white men responded to their increasing social and sexual anxiety by stereotyping black men as the very beasts that Patterson recently evoked to justify Dixon’s imprisonment.

Surely we have progressed, right? Unfortunately, not as far as we should have. Myths and stereotypes can hibernate for a long time. They can disappear long enough for us to forget about their power to bring out the worst in human behavior. They can incubate and proliferate as we legitimately congratulate ourselves on the progress blacks have made in fulfilling the promise that protesters at his trial sang outside the courtroom after Dixon’s conviction: “We Shall Overcome.”

But it only takes a couple of well-chosen words by a savvy district attorney in Rome, Ga., to remind us how quickly a deep reservoir of racial injustice can bubble up and wash away a young black man’s future with all the force of a mighty stream.

When it comes to justice, Sen. Thurmond knew it as well as Marcus Dixon: race still matters. For Thurmond, it mattered to his benefit. Dixon, trapped by the tenacious grip of a pernicious stereotype, hasn’t been so fortunate.

James E. McWilliams teaches history at Texas State University -- San Marcos and is a writer for the History News Service.