Linda Fairstein will always feel justified because there’s no accountability for the violence of white feminism
White women can always rely on their perceived ineptitude and being the standard for femininity to squash any calls for accountability.
By Émelyne Museaux
White women’s sovereignty has always been inextricably linked to the subjugation and exploitation of Black people. Research shows that 40% of slave owners were white women during US chattel slavery. According to history professor Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, most of these white women inherited slaves from their fathers and retained ownership of them even after marriage, meaning owning Black people assisted along white women’s path to property rights. In addition to bequeathed slaves, white women were also involved in sale and trade, and reportedly orchestrated the sexual assaults of enslaved African women in order to generate more property, as well as wet nurses for white children.
The U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movement has been whitewashed by modern-day white feminists, and most traces of Black women’s suffrage groups have been completely erased. Instead, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are lauded by revisionist white feminists as women’s heroes, despite evidence of their glaring racism and the fact that their motivations were fueled by outrage that Black men had been granted voting rights before white women. White Southern women used the same racial stereotypes and “dangerous Negro” narratives as their KKK brethren to get their message across while those in the North merely discouraged affiliation with Black women’s suffrage groups by feigning concern for the latter’s safety.
The new Netflix original miniseries When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay, is a startling reminder of just how little has changed. The series is based on the events surrounding the Central Park jogger case, which revolved around the high-profile 1989 assault and rape of Trisha Meili. The series focuses on how five Black boys, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey (Korey) Wise—later dubbed the Central Park Five by the media—were punished for that crime they didn’t commit with absolutely no evidence.
And through the character of Linda Fairstein, When They See Us illuminates the fact that no matter how white women err, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they can always rely on the perceived ineptitude of their gender and being the standard for femininity to fuel successes and squash any calls for accountability.
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Meili herself—who was in a coma following the attack and still doesn’t remember who attacked her to this day—did not spearhead the campaign against the five boys. It was former Manhattan assistant district attorney and head of the sex crimes unit Linda Fairstein who, in a choreographed maneuver of questioning minors without a lawyer, ignoring rape kit testing that did not match the DNA of any of the boys, and using violent coercion tactics, was instrumental in securing their convictions, each between 6-13 years. Korey Wise was still serving time until the real rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed in 2002.
Despite securing the imprisonment of five boys contrary to all evidence at hand, Fairstein suffered no major personal or career setbacks, “failing upwards” spectacularly into a life with less stress and more money than she had ever had as an assistant district attorney.
She went on to consult as a sex crimes expert for major media outlets; lecture; craft a successful career as a best-selling crime novelist; earn numerous awards, including the New York Women’s Agenda Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010; and was on the board of the nonprofit Safe Horizon, among other positions. And though the Central Park Five served years in prison, Fairstein couldn’t handle even a week of being questioned for her actions. She has declared herself a victim after being dropped by her publisher and forced to resign from the board of Safe Horizon last week, as well as more recently being dropped by her representation at ICM Partners and having some of her previous awards rescinded.
Fairstein, who has never recanted her statements that the Central Park jogger case was handled justly or issued an apology to the five men, is instead viewing herself as the victim of online bullying and deleted all of her social media accounts a few days after the release of When They See Us.
Despite her claims that the miniseries is a false portrayal and a smear campaign against her, and pleading with the public to have more concern for her feelings than the facts of the case, the sad reality is that Fairstein is still a wealthy, connected, and heavily-supported white woman who has never faced justice for how this case was (and her other cases were) handled, making these setbacks and inconveniences minor, at the very worst.
Fairstein, like Cady Stanton, Anthony, and all of the liberal white women in between, is a self-professed feminist. She saw it as her duty to protect to protect white womanhood from the supposed threat of Black men, even if it meant lying and obstructing justice in order to create villains that existed only in her mind and in the minds of the white media and jury—all while destroying Black and Brown families in the process—and so she will always feel justified and affirmed for doing it. Like feminists of old, Fairstein has Black women “friends” and colleagues, but despite her gross mishandling of the Central Park jogger case, those friends haven’t had the illustrious career that she has had and merely serve to provide photographic evidence of her “inclusivity” whenever the racist motivations behind the handling of the case are called into question.
White feminism is merely white supremacy in women’s clothing, firmly rooted in the belief of white superiority. White women are just as, if not more, committed to white superiority as they are to the idea of (white) women’s liberation, heavily-promoting the myth of inherent innocence of white women while simultaneously spreading anti-Black propaganda under the guise of (white) women’s safety.
This isn’t to say that white women’s passion for issues such as domestic violence, rape culture, and the wage gap isn’t real, but their insistence on ignoring the racism faced by nonwhite women, and how their dismissal of our unique intersections leave us and our communities vulnerable, cannot be ignored. While feminism is a vital principle and movement, aligning with white feminism has been and continues to be to the detriment of Black women and youth. White women have proven that when they garner enough power, they not only do nothing to protect their nonwhite “sisters,” they wield that power to harm us and our children in the name of all of us.
Even those white women who are not as powerful or as wealthy as Fairstein are able to weaponize their tears like Fairstein did when the convictions of the five men were vacated following Reyes’ confession and she cried, lamenting that what she had done was done from a desire for justice for (white) women. Whether these tears are literal or just an implication that they are emotionally wounded, they are used to silence nonwhite people and rally assistance in chastising or penalizing us for any slight, real or perceived, and generally it works.
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White women have expertly navigated being marginalized women when they need nonwhite support to bolster their own agendas, and being white when it’s time to flex their muscle. This performance of balancing the marginalization of womanhood and leveraging their whiteness was prominently showcased in white women’s rally behind Hillary Clinton and visiting the graves of deceased suffragettes only for polls to reveal that 53% of white women had voted for Trump. This number includes not only the conservative women who had championed him from day one, but also the white moderates that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had warned us about.
From the racism of white feminism to the racism of the mainstream (white) LGBTQIA community, white movement leaders have always considered their work done when their agendas are accomplished, and weaponized their marginalized identities to silence any accusations of racism. While it is tempting for those of us who live simultaneously at other intersections to entertain the idea that our white counterparts will accept us based on other shared identities, the reality is that Black women, Black queer folks, Black sex workers, etc. have to be our own allies, advocates, and cheerleaders. Because we will, and many of us already have, die waiting for whiteness to remember to include and protect us.