05/16/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Rescuing Amanda: A Pretty White Girl in a Black Man's Arms

Once again, it seems, race matters. A lot more than most reporters realize.

In spite of all that has been written and spoken so far about the rescue of Amanda Berry and two other young women in Cleveland last week, most reporters have overlooked the most fascinating part of what was said by her second rescuer, Charles Ramsey, who lives next door to the house where the kidnapped Amanda had been held for ten years in brutal captivity.

I call Ramsey her second rescuer because he came along only after the locked front door to the house was kicked in by Angel Cordero, who lives across the street. Though Cordero surely deserves more credit than he has so far received, he speaks only Spanish, so the spotlight of attention has shone largely on Ramsey, and no wonder: his firsthand account of the liberation of Amanda Berry is nothing less than riveting.

Ramsey himself is an unlikely rescuer, especially of women. A repeatedly convicted felon, he served two years behind bars in the 1990s for drug abuse, criminal trespassing, and receiving stolen property, and in 2003, he was sentenced to eight more months for repeatedly abusing his now-estranged wife Rochelle. Ironically, this may help to explain why he first thought Amanda Berry might have been the victim of domestic abuse. But aside from his criminal past, his age (43), and his present job (dishwasher), the most important thing about Charles Ramsey may be the simple fact that he is black. Since Amanda Berry is white, Ramsey believed that nothing but desperation could explain why she threw herself into his arms:

"I knew something was wrong," he told an AP interviewer, "when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she's homeless or she's got problems. That's the only reason."

To feel the full force of Ramsey's statement, you have to know something about the history of race relations in this nation and in particular about the role that white woman have played -- or been made to play -- in the incrimination and lynching of black men. And let us remember that lynching typically involved not just hanging but also burning and mutilation: death by public torture.

Of the 3,446 black people who were lynched between 1882 and 1968, the Tuskeegee Institute reports that just over 25 percent -- more than 850 -- were lynched for rape or attempted rape. In Cleveland itself, a black man suspected of rape was forcibly taken from jail in June of 1897 and lynched before a crowd of 9,000 people.

The crime avenged by most of these lynchings was probably no more than a mild affront to the dignity of a white woman. In William Faulkner's "Dry September," a short story set in rural Mississippi and published in 1930, the mere rumor that a black man named Will has done or said "something" to a middle-aged white spinster spells his doom. When the town barber ventures to imply that the spinster may be given to sexual fantasies, another man asks, "Won't you take a white woman's word before a nigger's?" The white woman's word is all he needs to justify Will's death.

Twenty-five years later, the fate of Faulkner's fictional Will was re-enacted in fact by Emmet Till, a 14-year-old boy from Detroit who was visiting relatives in Mississippi in August of 1955. For reportedly flirting with a young white woman in a grocery store, he was mutilated and murdered.

If it is painful to ponder what happened to Emmet Till, it may be simply baffling to recall what happened eighteen years ago to O.J. Simpson, the black professional football star whose glory days have long since turned to dust. (He's back in the news right now only because he's trying to overturn the kidnapping and armed robbery conviction that sent him to prison in 2008.) In 1995, Simpson was tried for the murder of his white ex-wife Nicole Brown, whom he had more than once previously abused. In the face of evidence that included what Nicole once told police about him in a recorded call -- "He's going to kill me, he's going to kill me" -- Simpson was acquitted by a jury largely composed of black women. Their verdict, which astounded and enraged so many people, can be at least partly explained by the history of lynching. When the chief prosecutor -- a white woman named Marcia Clarke -- repeatedly asked a group of black women to take the word of a white woman against a black man, she unwittingly reminded them how generations of white women had delivered black men to lynch mobs. That was all the jurors needed to acquit this one.

How much of this history does Charles Ramsey know? I have no idea. But he knew enough to realize instinctively that when a young white woman runs into the arms of a black man, "something is wrong here. Dead giveaway." Yet something here went amazingly right. After all the years in which black men have been killed for merely talking the wrong way to white women, let alone embracing them, this black man is universally and justly acclaimed for rescuing the "pretty white girl" who flung herself into his arms. For her he was not a rapist, nor even a convicted wife-abuser, but a sudden refuge from ten years of misery and fear.