By Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams
The Nation , Vol. 278, No. 10
Months after Strom Thurmond's African-American daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, stepped into history, commentators continue to step around the most explosive aspect of this controversy with the same stealth that ushered Thurmond into interracial fatherhood at 22. Thurmond, icon of the Bible-toting, family-values-promoting right, not only contradicted his segregationist credo by impregnating young Carrie Butler in 1925, he most likely violated the law against statutory rape. Yet the very real possibility that Butler was a victim of an illegal sexual assault has been virtually ignored by a media eager to commend Thurmond's families for playing nice. The celebration of their gentility and patience implies that it would be indecorous to raise the question of whether this all-American story began in sexual abuse.
Any serious inquiry into the likelihood that Butler was the victim of statutory rape was precluded by the Washington Post's inaccurate report that the age of consent in South Carolina was 14 in 1925, which was widely repeated in print and electronic media. In fact, a South Carolina statute enacted in 1922 criminalized the carnal knowledge of any woman under 16. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine whether Thurmond violated that law without Butler's birth date, for which there are no records. But we do know that when she delivered her child on October 12, 1925, she was at most 16--according to Washington-Williams, Butler was born in 1909 or 1910. The only way the conclusion of statutory rape could be avoided is if Butler was born no later than early January 1909, and conception occurred just after her sixteenth birthday. Of course, the odds are against this meticulous alignment.
No doubt apologists will remind us that the possibility of statutory rape does not alone suggest that Butler did not consent to the act. But in a climate characterized by fear and abject racial intimidation, the question of whether Carrie Butler, an impoverished maid in the Thurmond family household, freely consented is virtually meaningless. The more telling question is whether there was any way she could freely say no. Even as a teenager, Butler had to understand that her chances of protecting her sexual autonomy against the desires of the determined son of Edgefield's most prominent family were virtually nonexistent. The protection law promised was empty; after all, statutory rape laws were not written to protect girls like Butler.
For most critics of sexual racism, this is simply a textbook case of a white man getting away with sexual behavior that would have sent an African-American man to his death. Needless to say, had either of Thurmond's underaged twin sisters given birth to a mocha-colored baby, somebody would have had to pay, most likely with his life. In fact, Thurmond was not only a privileged recipient of this double standard, he was one of its perpetrators. In 1942, Judge Thurmond sent George Thomas, a black man, to the electric chair based on an alleged rape victim's cross-race identification, testimony now known to be extremely unreliable. …