It’s a shame Carolyn Bryant Donham continues to enjoy the privileges of being a white woman
OPINION: The woman who took part in one of the most heinous racial crimes of the 20th century remains free to enjoy her old age and her family—something Emmett Till never got to experience.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
It’s amazing to me at times just how deep white privilege runs in America—even when it comes to clear violations of the law and justice. We are seeing it in real time right now, as the 45th president of the United States is taking the Fifth Amendment in civil depositions Wednesday morning in a case being brought against him by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Yes, of course, every citizen has a right to plead the fifth, but as Trump once famously said, “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth?“
I could go on and on about the double standards we see time and time again in how white people accused of crimes are apprehended, arrested and arraigned without incident. The sentencing disparities. The way Black people are treated during traffic stops and can end up dead at the hands of police. Or how white mass shooters at a Buffalo supermarket or a Charleston, S.C., church were taken gently into custody by law enforcement and given Burger King when hungry. It’s just the way things are in America. We all see it, but sadly, many white Americans loudly protest that no such privilege exists for them.
News flash: It does. The latest example is 80-something-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was the white woman at the center of the Emmett Till murder case in 1955.
On Tuesday, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Donham, who accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of making advances toward her nearly 70 years ago, allegations that led to Emmett’s brutal death at the hands of her then-husband and his brother (this after an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for Donham was discovered earlier this summer in the basement of an old courthouse). To me, this case smacks of white female privilege that dates back to slavery.
The value of a white woman is comparable to that of delicate china—untouchable so as to never be broken. Black men were forbidden to even look at a white woman in the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow era of America. To do so could end in beatings, loss of body parts or lynchings. In 1955 Mississippi, to speak to a white woman, look at her or whistle at her was a dangerous thing, and if reported to white men (as Donham did), would most certainly be avenged with violence. And it was.
The privilege of whiteness is not just a privilege for white men. It’s a different kind of privilege for white women. The kind that when they cry, say they are in danger or that someone has violated their rights, the whole world stops and listens. The term “Karen” became a term of art over the past several years, as videos and images of white women calling the police on Black people for playing music, bird watching or being in the park emerged.
We watched a Black woman, Pamela Moses, get a harsh prison sentence for simply voting under the mistaken belief that her voting rights were restored after having served time for a felony (after years of turmoil, the charges were eventually dropped). And we’ve seen the gross disparity between such sentences when white men do the same and get off with probation. You simply cannot make this up.
My point is this: We are in 2022 America. We have had a Black president. And we now have a Black female vice president and Supreme Court justice. And yet, a white woman who took part in one of the most heinous racial crimes of the 20th century is still walking around free, enjoying her old age and her family. She’s living a quiet life and apparently has written an unpublished memoir. How convenient. How privileged to have caused the horrific death of an innocent young teenage boy and yet face no consequences for her hateful actions.
God bless America because boy, do we still have a long way to go.
Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”
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