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“Rape” as Justification for Racism

The Deadly History of “They’re Raping Our Women”

Amid his Wednesday night rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina—killing nine people—21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof reportedly told churchgoers, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”

Of the assertions in that statement, it’s the first that has a long, deadly history. In the late 19th century, rape was a frequent justification for racist violence. “To palliate this record … and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country,” wrote journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett on lynchings in her pamphlet Southern Horrors, “the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.” Indeed, Wells points to a host of Southern newspapers that defended “lynch’s law” with reference to an alleged epidemic of Black-on-White rape. In one editorial, published by the Memphis Daily Commercial, editors declared, “The commission of this crime grows more frequent every year,” and, “There is no longer a restraint upon the brute passion of the Negro.”

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