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How Racist and Sexist Myths Shape Our Reaction to Sexual Assault on Campus

When we focus on damaging stereotypes in our stories of assault, we aren’t looking at everyone else.

College football is big business, but it is also implicated in a disproportionate number of sexual assaults on college campuses. Jessica Luther reveals the harmful habits of colleges, coaches, police, media and more in Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. Order your copy of this powerful book today, by making a donation to Truthout.

This country has a long history of tying blackness to criminality (and vice versa) in ways that have devastating effects in real life. As Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong found in 2009, “African Americans make up 13 percent of the general US population, yet they constitute 28 percent of all arrests, 40 percent of all inmates held in prisons and jails, and 42 percent of the population on death row.” What this means is that we find it easier to talk about crime, especially crime as a problem within our larger society, when we have an African American in the role of perpetrator.

In 2014 I met up with Ben Carrington, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas who specializes in sports and race, at a swanky coffee shop in downtown Austin to talk to him about this. Carrington, a native Londoner with a smooth English accent and himself a former semipro footballer in Europe, told me that often “race is the trigger for society to express their moral outrage about another issue.” (In this case, sexual violence.) In fact, he said, when a crime is perpetrated by black people, that “helps to make us more angry because of what [the alleged perpetrators] look like.” Football, Carrington noted, because it employs so many black men and is so popular, reflects a skewed racialized image of violence back into our society. We care about football a lot, we pay attention to what the players do on and off the field, we critique their behavior on and off the field, and when black players are accused, charged, or convicted of criminal behavior, it slots nicely into our cultural imagination regarding black men.

Other experts echo Carrington’s concerns. In September 2014, while working on a piece about how the NFL was handling a slew of domestic violence accusations and charges against its players, all of whom happened to be black, I spoke to Mariame Kaba on the phone. Based in Chicago, Kaba is an antiviolence organizer who founded the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women. Her work is not about sports but rather about violence. She echoed Carrington’s points, telling me she’s “dubious to the reaction to [these cases] versus the reaction to white [players] who commit violence,” because when it is black men we are discussing, there are implications of these men being “inherently violent,” and that makes for an easy leap to saying “they should be locked up, we need to manage and control them.” This is particularly true when the crime is sexual assault.

I then called up Louis Moore, a professor of history at Grand Valley State University, to talk about a historical phenomenon that he called “black men as the natural rapist.” Moore told me, “If you just look up ‘negro’ and ‘lynched’ in any kind of history database, most of the time [the lynching was justified by] an accusation of rape never founded because there was no due process.” What this means, Moore said, is that in all discussions of rape culture in the US, no matter how far back you go in history, “race is always forefront of the conversation just because of the history of race and alleged rape in America.” A paucity of black men on many campuses feeds into an image that they are outliers in the community. People “think they are on campus for two reasons,” Moore said, “affirmative action or athletics. So there is this sense that they don’t belong, sense that they never belonged, and when the crime happens it becomes, ‘See, I told you so.'”

This is all heightened when we talk about black male athletes in particular. Carrington told me that he traces the outlier status of black athletes within sports, even when they are a numerical majority, to the history of integration of sports in this country. He says that black athletes — ever since Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 — have been painted as “angry, rebellious, violent, uncontrollable.”

This is further troubled when talking about cases where a black athlete is reported to have raped a white woman. The lynchings that Moore mentioned were often justified under the racialized and paternalistic gendered scare tactic of saying that the women these angry, rebellious, violent, uncontrollable natural rapists attacked were white. That horrific part of US history and the ongoing racial disparities within the criminal justice system mean that accusations of black men sexually assaulting white women carry within them additional cultural baggage that has to, at the least, be acknowledged in these conversations. Fears about powerful black men being punished via false accusation are not irrational or dramatic; they are borne of actual experience.

In cases where people do not know the race of the accuser, it’s often assumed that it is a white woman. (This narrative, it should be noted, erases and ignores black female victims, which is an ongoing issue within these conversations as well as in victim-centered antiviolence campaigns.)

Lisa Lindquist Dorr studied the history of the myth of black men raping white women in White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900–1960. This narrative enforced, Dorr argues, a racist and sexist system of power by reifying “white women’s subordination to white men and the social, economic, and political power of whites over blacks.” In the complicated gendered and racialized postslavery South, white men were in control of everyone else; the appearance of protecting white women from black men helped cement that reality.

The system of power that gave that myth force is still with us. In June 2015, after Dylann Storm Roof reportedly said, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go,” before murdering nine black people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Jamelle Bouie wrote succinctly, “Make any list of anti-black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of black rape.” From Emmett Till to the Central Park Five, the history of young black men wrongly accused or convicted of harassing or raping white women is ever-present. Till was just fourteen in 1955 when a group of white men in Money, Mississippi, brutally mutilated him before killing him, supposedly because he spoke with a white woman and maybe whistled at her. Decades later, the Central Park Five were four young black men and one young Latino who were arrested and charged with the rape and assault of a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989. After coercive interrogations by the police, they each confessed to some part of the crime and were convicted and sent to jail. Just over a decade later, another man confessed to the crime and DNA evidence supported his account. The convictions for the five were vacated in 2002, though each had already served his sentence.

A 2012 study by Samuel Gross and Michael Shaffer from the University of Michigan School of Law looked at 873 exonerations in the United States between 1989 and 2012. They found that race did play a significant role in exonerations in sexual assault cases: while 25 percent of prisoners convicted of sexual assault were black, African American men made up 63 percent of the exonerations in these cases. And of all those exonerations of black men, nearly three-quarters involved a white victim. The reason for this, they found, is not malicious lying but rather eyewitness misidentifications. Gross and Shaffer say that for rape cases, “The false convictions we know about are overwhelmingly caused by mistaken eyewitness identifications — a problem that is almost entirely restricted to crimes committed by strangers.”

Additionally, Shaffer and Gross found that rape, compared to other crimes (except robbery), has the lowest rate of people lying and it leading to false convictions. Perjury and false accusations led to 64 percent of homicide exonerations, 74 percent of child sex abuse exonerations, 43 percent for other violent crimes, and 52 percent for exonerations of nonviolent crimes. Looking at all 873 exonerations cases, half were due to perjury or false accusations. When it came to sexual assault cases, that number was only 23 percent. In other words, compared to other types of crime, people who report rape are much less likely to lie.

In the end, this is what the study tells us: it is both a myth that black men rape white women at some extraordinary level and that women lie profusely to falsely convict men. Yet the system, as it is set up, seems to suggest both things are true. Many people in this society believe these things to be true.

This is a particularly damaging intersection of racism and sexism, then, for both women and black men. As Byron Hurt wrote on December 5, 2013, in a piece for NewBlackMan (in Exile) about the Jameis Winston case, “It is true that Black men continue to be cruelly stereotyped as rapists. As a Black man, I carry that label — and all of the other stereotypes associated with Black men — wherever I go in our country. However, it is also a stereotype that women lie about being victims of rape more often than not. According to FBI statistics, less than 3 percent of all rapes are falsely reported.”

Yet the exoneration study shows that false convictions for rape are most likely made when the woman does not know her perpetrator and when there is a mistake in his identification; it is not done with malicious intent. That does not mean the woman is not racist or that because the intent is not malicious that the effects of a racist system do not have terrible real-life consequences for black men.

It’s important to note one potential horrific consequence for men behind bars, whether they committed a crime or not: they can become victims of sexual violence themselves as prison rape is at crisis levels in the United States. According to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, the data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that “a prisoner’s likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual assault is roughly thirty times higher than that of any given woman on the outside” and “inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails all reported greater rates of sexual victimization involving staff than other inmates.” Kirsten West Savali has argued that ignoring prison rape further marginalizes the struggle to get people to care about mitigating or ending sexual violence altogether. “Until we create safe spaces for these victims, for all victims, to be truly seen and heard,” West Savali writes, “rape culture will continue to be viewed as a ‘woman’s problem’ or a ‘man-hating, feminist agenda’ — something society has always found easy to deny or vilify, and ultimately ignore.” These things are complicated issues: racism in the system and in our daily lives means that more black men are criminalized overall and are often misidentified in criminal prosecutions of sexual assault cases; they then go into a prison system where they very well may become victims of sexual violence themselves; and by us ignoring the issue of prison rape (probably because we believe it is a justified punishment or because we simply do not care about what happens to the population of people behind bars), we continue to perpetuate the very rape culture we say we want to end.

In college football, many (though not all) of the sexual assault cases involving college players fall outside of the “stranger danger” rape scenario that leads to misidentification of the perpetrator and so to false convictions. Most of the time, the woman knows the man she is reporting. Additionally, many of these cases involve gang rapes by multiple players (roughly 40 percent), a scenario that does not lend itself to overarching problems with eyewitnesses misidentifying perpetrators. This does not mean that race and racist beliefs about black men’s criminality have no place in these cases, only that most of these cases are more complicated than our nuance-averse narratives allow.

There is no way to determine with 100 percent certainty that the person reporting the crime is telling the truth. Yet the statistical odds are very high that the person reporting in these cases is not lying. Still, we have to also hold in our minds that race does play a role, clearly, in false rape convictions.

One other area where race most definitely has an impact is our appetite for consuming crime reportage when the person accused, charged, or convicted is a black athlete. We find it easy to talk about crime, especially crime as a problem within our larger society, when we have a black person in the role of perpetrator.


Because the majority of high-profile athletes are black and we tend to pay attention when athletes are involved, the issue of campus sexual assault repeatedly has a black face on it. Black men, on many campuses, have become the face of a crime that they are demographically and statistically not the main perpetrators of.

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The history of racial violence predicated largely on the fear that a black man has sexually violated a white woman, the statistics on mistaken identification in interracial crimes of sexual assault that lead to false imprisonment, the exploitation of black labor for the gain of (mainly) white men: these are all the things we don’t seem to want to discuss each time a case involving a college football player comes to light. We already know about these realities in some way — if not explicitly, then through the osmosis that comes with being a part of a racist society. Alongside these issues, we hold closely our belief that women lie, exaggerate, or confuse their own recollections of personal experiences.

We have internalized these messages and we project them out onto the story whether we mean to or not. This is an unspoken aspect of the field that the plays in the playbook of sexual assault and college football are written upon. Who else would commit such a crime, if not young black men? Who else would lie about having sex after the fact, if not young women?

Our comfortable acceptance of the black football player as perpetrator and the woman as liar can go without saying, and often does. When we focus on these two characters in our stories of assault, we aren’t looking at everyone else. The white male head coaches, athletic directors, university presidents, members of the sports media, fans, NCAA employees, etc., are written out of the story, even though these men play important roles in the perpetuation of a culture that minimizes and sometimes even encourages sexual assault.

Excerpted from Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, copyright 2016 by Jessica Luther, reprinted with permission of Edge of Sports/Akashic Books.

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