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Being appalled is not enough: Notre Dame must do more to atone for its connection to the Buffalo Shooting

| Thursday, June 2, 2022

Before killing 10 Black people in a mass-shooting spree at a Buffalo grocery store on May 14, the gunman prepared a 180-page manifesto justifying his actions. Among other things, he stated that “Black men are over a hundred times more likely to rape a white woman than vice versa.”

Although the statistic is totally false, the killer did not make it up. He cited an August 2013 opinion piece written by a Notre Dame professor that appeared in Investor’s Business Daily. Had the shooter wanted a more current source, he could have quoted nearly identical claims made by the professor in November 2021.

Both Notre Dame and the author of the piece have stated that they are “appalled” that the 2013 article was cited this way. Simply stating that they are appalled, however, is far from enough. In both 2013 and 2021, the professor astonishingly failed to do the minimal checking that would have shown that his claims (which he himself labeled as “incendiary”) were false.

As historian Cassie Miller has pointed out, “The narrative that black men are inherently violent and prone to rape white women… has been prevalent for centuries… Whites, especially in the South, cited rape and an alleged need to protect white women as a chief justification for the thousands of lynchings perpetrated against African Americans between Reconstruction and the Second World War.”

Social scientists have undermined or discredited claims about high Black rates of interracial rape for at least 30 years now. In 1987, Robert O’Brien demonstrated that there were actually fewer interracial rapes than would be expected by population distributions. In a 2003 extensive review of the research on victim race and rape, Elizabeth Kennedy found that “studies have shown that rape is far more intraracial, and less interracial, than has commonly been believed… the common understanding that African Americans are more likely to rape white people than the reverse is unfounded.”

Still, racist and extreme claims about Black men raping white women have persisted. White supremacist and former KKK leader David Duke asserted that in 2005 over 37,000 white women were raped by Black men every year – whereas fewer than 10 Black women were raped by white men. Duke based his claim on reports from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), whom the Notre Dame professor also claimed as his source.

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen has explained how absurd claims like Duke’s are. As Cohen points out and as the DOJ’s own footnotes state, the figures on race and rape are estimates based on samples of fewer than 10 people. Any good researcher knows that such samples are far too small to make valid population projections. The DOJ itself never made the claims that Duke did, which were based on his own hand calculations.

Indeed, because of small sample sizes, the DOJ estimates vary wildly by year. In 1996 and 2002 the DOJ actually estimated that the interracial rape rate was higher for white offenders than for Black offenders. Duke basically cherry-picked the year in which extremely small and unreliable sample sizes made Black offenders look as bad as possible while ignoring other years that made white offenders look about as bad or worse.

Despite the striking similarities of their claims, it is not clear whether the Notre Dame professor used the exact same sources as David Duke did. Nevertheless, the professor made the same mistakes, and he did so again in 2021 in spite of newer data that further disconfirmed his claims. Table One of the much more reliable pooled multi-year estimates for 2012-2015 showed that there were only small differences in the estimated interracial rape rates for White and Black offenders and that the majority of rapes were intraracial. Table Five of the DOJ statistics for 2020 show that most incidents of violent crime are intraracial. With a few minutes of googling the author could have easily found the aforementioned Philip Cohen’s devastating 2016 critique on the misuse of rape statistics.

There is nothing in the DOJ data across years that indicates that the claimed 100 to 1 difference in interracial rape rates is even remotely close to being reasonable, and there is substantial research that questions whether there are any racial differences at all.

We should not be surprised that David Duke does not present a fair and balanced description of the statistics he cites. We should, however, have far higher standards for any work with the Notre Dame name attached to it.

The author says he never intended for his article to be used this way. Nevertheless, it was, and it is now his responsibility and Notre Dame’s to do something about it. Both Notre Dame and the professor who wrote the piece should acknowledge that the research reported was terribly flawed and that the incendiary statistics presented were incorrect and possibly even dangerous. Finally, and most importantly, both Notre Dame and the professor should follow Catholic Principles of restorative justice and provide aid to the victims who may have suffered because of these writings.

Notre Dame cannot prevent future mass shootings. But, it should make sure that poorly done research from Notre Dame professors is never again used to justify them.

Sincerely,

Richard Williams

Professor, Notre Dame Department of Sociology

June 1

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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