White Masculinity and Self-Defense: From the “True Man” Doctrine to “Stand Your Ground” Laws

Protestors advocate justice for Trayvon Martin, a Black boy killed under the logic of Florida’s Stand Your Ground culture.

This story is part of a series written by CCSRE's Public Writing Fellows.

Please note: this article discusses homicide, incarceration, and violence against transgender Black people.

 

“A true man,” the Ohio supreme court wrote in 1876, “is not obliged to flee from an assailant.” He may legally kill in self-defense; he has no duty to run away. Obligating a man to retreat when attacked, the court continues, would be nothing more than “legalized cowardice.” That is: true men fight back.  

This “true man” doctrine—which legalized the use of lethal force in self-defense on the basis of preserving a man’s honor—was adopted during a time when the laws were written by and for white Americans in the post-Reconstruction era [1]. Today, this doctrine goes by another moniker. Ostensibly more neutral, “Stand Your Ground” laws have proliferated in over 30 states since 2005—and they are, in fact, a chilling expansion of the “true man” doctrine.

Courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Giffords Law Center’s 2020 report, “‘Stand Your Ground’ Kills: How These NRA-Backed Laws Promote Racist Violence”

 

In English courts hundreds of years ago, the use of lethal force in self-defense was justified by the protection of one’s property. This was called the “castle doctrine,” a legal principle affirming the right of property owners—nearly all of whom were white men—to defend their home. A man’s “castle” was sacred, to be defended at any cost. 

In time, there began to be a slippage in the legal vocabulary between a man’s “castle” and a man’s “honor,” where each term began to signify the other. This was a distinctly American invention, evidenced by legal holdings such as the “true man” doctrine. Legal theorist Cheryl Harris adds nuance to this slippage in her description of “whiteness as property.” As a form of exclusion, the boundaries of property ownership have historically tightened around the concept of whiteness to preserve existing economic regimes. The “castle,” then, is marked by a man’s honor and by a legal system that rewards whiteness with ownership. Over time, white masculinity became a gravitational force that molded the complexity of American jurisprudence toward its normative goal: the preservation of white men's property. 

Under this trajectory, Stand Your Ground laws were ripe to solidify the slip between whiteness, masculinity, and property ownership. According to Stand Your Ground states, one can use lethal force anywhere they have a public “right to be.” That could be on the sidewalk, in a theater, or on the streets during a protest. Today, in Stand Your Ground states, any man could, for the first time in history, be his own state-sanctioned, armed and walking “castle.”

The evolution of lethal self-defense has had devastating and inequitable consequences across the spectrum of racial, gendered, and classed privileges in the United States. Take, for example, Kyle Rittenhouse, the now 19-year-old white man who killed two protesters with a semiautomatic rifle during a Black Lives Matter gathering in Kenosha, Washington. In this Stand Your Ground state, the fact that Rittenhouse “reasonably believed” that his life was in danger was enough to acquit him on all charges. After his release, Rittenhouse became an emblem of conservative right-wing adoration. According to one Fox News interview, “[Rittenhouse] just wanted to stop violent lunatics from setting fire to cars. In the America he grew up in, that was considered virtuous.” In December 2021, the production company Tucker Carlson Originals memorialized this spectacle in a documentary entitled, “The Trial of Kyle.” 

Rittenhouse speaks at a conservative event after being acquitted on a Stand Your Ground defense.

Contrast this treatment with the trial of Ky Peterson, a transgender Black man who killed his assailant when he was attacked and raped on his walk home from a convenience store. He too acted in self-defense in a jurisdiction with Stand Your Ground laws. Ky Peterson may not have been a “true man” in the state’s eyes, but for all intents and purposes, his use of lethal self-defense was a textbook application of the law. Yet, Peterson was charged with homicide—the police, the court, and even his own public defender simply did not believe that he was a victim. Despite positive results from a rape-kit test and the testimony of his brothers who arrived at the scene after hearing Peterson yelling, Peterson’s own attorney refused to put forth a Stand Your Ground defense. Thus, the “trial of Ky” was no Fox News special: Peterson was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

- Patricia Williams

While the court no longer describes lethal self-defense in terms of “true men,” Stand Your Ground laws have affirmed the role of self-defense statutes as dog whistles for rugged, white American masculinity. This is why any legal response to the inequitable nature of Stand Your Ground laws must be led by an explicitly anti-racist, anti-transphobic, and anti-classist effort. American jurisprudence turns on an air of impartiality; a common practice in judicial opinions is to ask what a “reasonable man” might have done. But this gloss on the identity of the “reasonable man” has had the unfortunate effect of affirming white masculinity as the default model from which the law analyzes criminality. As Patricia Williams tells us, “the ‘ground’ in [Stand Your Ground] is any place a white person feels nervous.” 

CeCe McDonald speaks at the SF LGBT Center about her work supporting incarcerated Black trans women.

Victims of the legal system’s racist formulations of self-defense laws recognize the imperative to reply with an explicit focus on those most marginalized in our communities. After his release in 2017, Ky Peterson went on to co-found Freedom Overground, an organization working to “ensure the safety and dignity of the incarcerated & formerly incarcerated TGNC/LGBQIA+ community.” There is the example of CeCe McDonald, a transgender Black woman convicted of homicide after defending herself from a group of racially-motivated, violent white assailants. McDonald is now an artist and activist, committed to “dismantling the prison-industrial complex…and building power for trans women, particularly trans women of color.” These identity-specific responses to inequity in the legal system serve as models that both highlight and address the gendered, classed, and racialized nature of Stand Your Ground laws. 

“Stand Your Ground” is state-sanctioned violence masquerading as a form of patriotism marked by individual rights and liberties; American jurisprudence continues to steep in the logic of white masculinity. Until the legal field can reckon with that plain truth, only “true men” will continue to reap the benefits of racist, classist, and transphobic developments in the law. 

Alex Sanchez Bressler is a 2022 CCSRE Public Writing Fellow and a student at Stanford Law School, ‘24.


1. Caroline Light’s Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self Defense (Beacon 2017) provides a meticulous history of how laws were tailored to win the white vote after the Civil War ended. In fact, the 1876 “true man” decision came the same year as the contested 1876 presidential election, where a Northern candidate (Hayes) was politically negotiated into the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South. With room to breathe, white resentment calcified into law and protected acts of extreme racial violence in the South.