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Brigitte Dale Border wall a sexist Civil War relic

January 17, 2019

To claim that President Trump is sexist is old hat. He grabbed women by the you-know-what and we remember him making fun of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. Still, as far as elections and governing are concerned, Trump’s sexism has not really mattered. With the rapidity of our news cycles, good old-fashioned sexual assault and slut-shaming barely make waves anymore.

But in the face of an impending national emergency to fund a border wall, Trump’s sexualized rhetoric warrants a second glance. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi aptly implied that the wall is “like a manhood thing for him.” As pointless as experts claim the wall would be, Trump clings to his campaign promise and all it symbolically represents.

Trump talks all the time about “bad hombres” invading America to rape our women. Aside from the fact that, as the #MeToo movement revealed, plenty of American men have been raping women with no help from immigrants, Trump’s claim begs a question: Have the challenges of modern immigration really wrought a new reason for sexual protectionism?

Of course not.

After the Civil War, many white Southern men felt similarly emasculated. The Confederacy lost, and during the Reconstruction era, their former slaves could now participate in society, holding elected office, working for profit and starting families in freedom. Former plantation masters found themselves with little control over anything, except, of course, their women. And as a result, the racialized sexual tensions that had existed for decades were exacerbated.

Historian Estelle Freedman illustrates this in her 2013 book, “Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.” White men took it upon themselves to exact so-called extralegal justice to protect their white wives and daughters. Lynchings and murders were carried out by the Ku Klux Klan, the terrorist organization conveniently founded in 1865 — the same year the Civil War ended, Lincoln was shot and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified.

Plenty of KKK lynchings and acts of terror had no clear motive other than sheer hate, but many were carried out under the guise of protecting the innocence and virtue of white women against the threat of dangerous, evil, unintelligent brown-skinned men encroaching on their peaceful American lives.

This should sound familiar.

President Trump’s language surrounding illegal immigration mimics the rhetoric used by former slave masters in the burgeoning Jim Crow era — bad, brown-skilled men are threatening vulnerable white women. “Bad hombres,” Trump claims, are raping women at “levels never seen before.” Perhaps Trump does not mind this similarity. After all, he declined to condemn former KKK leader David Duke’s endorsement in 2016.

But what about the wall? Like the white sheets worn by members of the KKK, it is a shameful metaphor for the decline of white patriarchal supremacy — a cowardly excuse for protection and an ineffectual means of doing anything but buffering one’s own self-worth.

What can we learn from this parallel history? For starters, in neither case were white women innocent victims. Some, in fact, were participants. White women in late-nineteenth century America perpetuated the stereotype of aggressive, sexually predatory black men, as historian Crystal Feimster writes in Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. Today, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen is the spokeswoman and chief organizer for some of the most inhumane aspects of current immigration policy, including family separation.

Moreover, vigilantism, whether in the form of lynchings or by withholding basic human resources to immigrant children in custody, is not a solution. For those Americans who feel disenfranchised, Trump’s fear-mongering rhetoric can be tempting. But we must consider whether the racist, sexist rhetoric promoted at rallies and via late-night tweets is evidence of a real threat, or simply an age-old reminder that Trump and his echo chamber of supporters have lost control.

Brigitte Dale, of Fairfield, is a freelance writer and historian.

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