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How Liam Neeson's Comments Reflect the Black Rapist Myth

The racist thoughts that the actor admitted to align with long-running stereotypes.
Liam Neeson attends Netflix's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' NYFF Red Carpet Premiere at Alice Tully Hall on October 4th, 2018, in New York City.

Neeson has defended himself and claimed that he is not a racist.

In a story published in the British newspaper the Independent on Monday, actor Liam Neeson shared his experience learning about a close friend's rape, and how that prompted racist thoughts and ultimately taught him to stay away from violence and revenge.

"I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person," Neeson told the Independent. He went on:

"I went up and down areas with a cosh [a weapon similar to a club], hoping I'd be approached by somebody—I'm ashamed to say that—and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] 'black bastard' would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could," another pause, "kill him."

In the interview, Neeson explained that he was aware of the immorality of his thoughts. He appeared on Good Morning America on Tuesday, where he defended himself and claimed that he is not a racist.

"If she had said an Irish, or a Scot, or a Brit, or a Lithuanian, I know I would've felt the same effect. I was trying to ... stand up for my dear friend in this terrible medieval fashion," he said.

But it's impossible to know whether Neeson truly would have reacted the same way had his friend been raped by a person of another race, especially given that the situation aligns with the socially constructed stereotype of the black male rapist.

In a 2017 report by Biljana Oklopčić of the University of Osijek, the author outlines the development of this myth in the American South, where it became the justification for lynching of blacks from Reconstruction to World War II:

Invented after emancipation, the black rapist stereotype was the result of the increasing panic about racial intermixture after the abolition of slavery and reflected the American South's obsession with protecting white womanhood to ensure the purity of the white race. The reproduction of this myth provided the basis for racial control, since it found justification in the belief that rape represented black men's wish to overthrow the Southern white supremacist society. The black rapist stereotype centered on the assumption that the black man, in the act of rape, was trying to reach [the] white Southern woman's social and economic status of which she was the symbol.

The stereotype of the black rapist is still perpetuated and manifests in the discriminatory manner in which black men are penalized for rape. In her 1983 report "Rape, Racism and the Law," Jennifer Wriggins of the University of Maine School of Law discusses studies that found that black men convicted of raping white women are punished more harshly than others convicted of sexual assault. Moreover, Wriggins writes, one study found "that white potential jurors treated Black and white defendants similarly when the victim was Black," but "Black defendants received more severe punishment than white defen­dants when the victim was white."

As research shows, reactions to rape allegations are most serious when the perpetrator is black, which could indicate a reason for Neeson's response the situation.

Many Twitter users have also pointed out the inherent racial dimension of reactions to Neeson's comments. While some commend the actor for admitting that he once had harmful thoughts that taught him an important lesson, others postulate that a black actor who confessed to a prior desire to kill any white man he saw would not be given the same respect.