Book Review: White Fright

It is not a coincidence that racism and sexism are often espoused by the same demographic. In White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History, Jane Dailey digs into the interconnection between white supremacy and fear of sexuality (both black sexuality and female sexuality) to provide a fresh perspective on the pervasiveness of racism in America. Dailey traces through the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern racial tensions to identify the bright red line that connects the white supremacist movement and its desire for racial purity to an underlying sexual insecurity that depends on both the vilification of Black men and the sexual repression of white women.

Dailey launches into this exploration by discussing the sexual abuse of female slaves at the hands of white men, as the laws of the time enshrined the status of such children as following the status of the mother to ensure that the slave master’s “legitimate” heirs did not need to worry about mixed race siblings. However, as the laws explicitly stated that a child naturally follows the condition of the mother, over time the mixed-race children that resulted from liaisons between white women and black men undermined efforts to tie freedom and citizenship strictly to race.

With the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of African American men during the Reconstruction era resulted in the mental gymnastics of “social equality” versus “political equality.” While there was little white supremacists could do legally to directly stop African Americans from gaining political rights, they relied on pushing a narrative that said segregation was not a “political” issue but a “social” issue, and that allowing African Americans “social equality” would result in polluting the racial purity of whites as African American men would, in the rhetoric of white supremacists, aggressively and violently pursue white women in a sexual manner.

Dailey’s presentation is straightforward and easy-to-consume, which is important considering the complex scope of the subject matter. She leans heavily on illustrative examples from historical sources and court cases over reams of dry exposition, letting the words of those involved in the events make her point for her. Her writing is clear, concise, and organized. White Fright provides a new perspective on the issue of racism that is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Reviewer Note: This review is based on an unproofed galley provided to me by the publisher. The final book may differ from the version I was given.