Abstract

In the post–Civil War South, black women litigants made conscious tactical appeals to white male judges’ racism, particularly the racist-sexist stereotypes at the heart of the white paternalism ethos, in order to win lawsuits against whites who defrauded them. African American women’s arsenal of legal strategies included the “Lady Sambo,” an intentional racialized gender performance of feigned ignorance. By performing the “Lady Sambo”—an ignorant, servile black woman in need of protection—some poor black women mobilized their expertise in white racism to defend their economic rights. In a white-dominated society predicated upon the denial of black rights, freedom, and dignity, poor black women seeking justice in civil court cases had to employ resistance strategies that did not openly challenge white authority. In white paternalism, a cultural mainstay of the postbellum South, poor black women discerned and wrested an opportunity to covertly resist economic racism. Unable to attenuate or eradicate structural racism, black women treated racism as a weakness that, at times, made whites vulnerable to manipulation. As long as judges’ legal decisions left the white male power structure intact, some black women were the potential beneficiaries of jurists’ racial paternalism ethos. While whites imagined themselves as controlling paternalistic exchanges with blacks, black people engaged whites as conscious actors drawing on a keen understanding of white people’s supremacist self-perceptions and projections onto blacks. When possible, black women exploited white racism to their advantage and white judges’ racial paternalism ethos occasioned such exploitation. In so doing, black women earned their legal victories by acting intentionally and with savvy.

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