In his brilliant book Raising Cain, a cultural meditation on blackface minstrelsy, W. T. Lhamon, Jr. points out that minstrelsy is founded on an admiration for and celebration of black charisma, specifically the charisma of black cultural style. This essentially positive aspect of the phenomenon has persisted through time, even as minstrelsy simultaneously attempted to belittle and marginalize black culture — to keep it contained.
Part of the desire to contain it was undoubtedly inspired by anxiety arising from the sexual appeal of black charisma — the fear that white women might be attracted to it. Minstrelsy as a form could not negotiate and neutralize this anxiety on its own — other cultural strategies were required. One such strategy was the myth of black male aggressiveness towards white women — the notion that black males possessed an instinctive desire to ravish white women.
For various and obvious reasons there is no significant history of sexual assaults on white women by black males in America — and certainly no history of it even remotely comparable to the history of the sexual exploitation of black women by white males. The myth has a psycho-sexual origin. It is always associated with the fear that black political power will encourage sexual assaults by black males on white women, and often assumes that the secret agenda of black political power is “miscegenation”.
The myth is usually presented in pseudo-historical terms. The Birth Of A Nation, a fiction film from 1915, asserts its historical authenticity in presenting the campaign for the political enfranchisement of blacks during Reconstruction as motivated primarily by the desire of black males to ravish white women. The film draws on a body of now discredited scholarship about Reconstruction which essentially promoted the same mythology.
We need to understand this mythology in order to understand the recent incident in Pennsylvania in which a young white woman claimed to have been beaten and sexually assaulted by a tall black man because of her support of John McCain. She's probably never seen The Birth Of A Nation, but its mythology is still alive in the culture — she clearly drew on it when concocting her false story, assuming it would be plausible to many, as indeed it was.
News organizations reported it widely and immediately, before it could be confirmed. John McCain's campaign instantly assumed it was true and began to publicize it. McCain and Palin even went so far as to call the woman to express their sympathy. All of this occurred before the actual facts had been established, and in spite of the fact that the story was objectively implausible.
The woman said her black attacker had carved a “B” on her face, for “Barack” — but the letter was carved backwards, as though it had been done in a mirror. The woman also had a reputation for being emotionally unbalanced, and the supposed attack occurred at a time when Obama was kicking McCain's butt in the race, with the overwhelming support of white voters — hardly the time one would expect spontaneous eruptions of black rage against whites.
But the story “felt” true to many — because it reprised a mythological script buried deep in America's cultural psyche, a script in which black political power is forever linked to sexual assaults by black males on white women.
Try thinking of Todd's “script” with different racial actors. Suppose she'd been a black woman who said she was attacked by a tall Irish-American with flaming red hair who, enraged by an Obama sticker on her car, carved a backwards “McC” on her cheek in the course of beating, robbing and sexually assaulting her. She would probably have been sent immediately to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. News organizations would not have rushed to disseminate the outlandish story before having it confirmed.
I'm also guessing that Todd's story would have been greeted with extreme suspicion by all parties if it had not included a component of sexual assault — the sine qua non of the Birth Of A Nation script.