Since the international outcry against false charges that the black "Scottsboro Boys" had raped a white woman in the South in 1931, liberals, at least, have been reluctant to acknowledge the ugly entanglement of race and rape in our national experience.
America's original racial sin was a long trail of rapes of black women by white men, especially slave masters. Many African Americans' "white blood" and lighter skins marked these violations and other illicit intimacies, some of them gentler, perhaps, but most of them palpably coerced in the shadow of white omnipotence.
The Central Park jogger trial of 1989, in which five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of assaulting and raping a young, white investment banker, seemed to turn the tables on Scottsboro: This time, the "black" boys were indeed guilty, everyone agreed, with liberals and feminists at the head of that consensus.
Now comes Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau's recommendation that the teens' convictions be vacated. Morgenthau had to respond after Matias Reyes, an imprisoned serial rapist who had never been charged or convicted in the jogger case, came forward this year and established that it was he who raped her that night in 1989.
Jailhouse confessions are rightly suspect, and Reyes' claim that he has seen Jesus rather than death threats or dollar signs is far from being confirmed. But his declaration that he was the only rapist -- confirmed by DNA testing -- does invalidate two juries' findings that the five teens caught "wilding" in Central Park were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of raping the jogger.
But in 1989, the teens' case seemed a watershed, a shift toward candor long missing in racial discourse. It was Richard Wright in the 1930s who first dared to confront the issue with his vivid fictional depiction of Bigger Thomas' rape of a white woman in "Native Son," a portrait that plumbed a deep black impulse to revenge.
In the 1960s, Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" brandished his claim to have raped a white woman as a kind of poetic justice against whites' continuing economic and psychological as well as physical violation of blacks. He excited a frisson of white-radical approval -- this at a time when a prominent New Leftist had declared that "the best position of women in the movement is prone."
Twenty years later, the Tawana Brawley psychodrama in the late 1980s again reversed and recalled the old Scottsboro tactics by falsely accusing whites of raping blacks, even reinforcing the "slave master" archetype by singling out a white law enforcement official.
Then, new facts and an aroused feminism entered the turmoil. Not only did the falsity of Brawley's charges chill the sympathetic outrage she'd first aroused against sexism and racism, it drew attention to data from the federal Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics that showed the number of reported rapes of black women by white men to be only one-fifth that of reported rapes of white women by blacks. Even invidious racial stereotyping by white victims who "misremember" their assailants' color -- or who invent a black assailant, as Boston's Charles Stuart infamously did when he falsely charged that a black had murdered his wife -- couldn't explain so wide a discrepancy.
No wonder, then, that two years later the Central Park jogger case unleashed a torrent of feminist rage that had been building after the Brawley hoax. It got even more torrential when the Rev. Al Sharpton brought Brawley to the steps of the jogger trial courthouse to shake hands with the defendants as fellow minority members who had been abused by the system, as she claimed to have been. That only deepened anger against the defendants themselves, given their confessions of guilt, videotaped in the presence of their parents or other relatives, without evidence of police coercion.
For the first time, moreover, the prosecutor heading the Manhattan district attorney's sex-crimes unit was a woman, Linda Fairstein, who still staunchly defends the convictions. No longer, it seemed, could the nightmare of white rape of blacks be used in liberal public discourse to excuse the nightmare of black-on-white rape and racial revenge. Nor did justice in the first sense need to preclude justice in the second.
If New Yorkers learned this positively in the jogger-trial convictions, the nation would learn it negatively in the O.J. Simpson criminal acquittal, whose outcome eerily paralleled the Scottsboro days, when white juries acquitted white killers of blacks.
The glory of the American criminal justice system is supposed to be that it pursues and establishes legal, constitutional truth precisely in the face of, and often despite, torrential public rages and cultural or ideological mood swings. We can only hope that the pursuit will now be somewhat chastened and less hobbled by both racist and "anti-racist" taboos.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and former New York Daily News columnist, is author of "Liberal Racism" (2002, Rowman & Littlefield).