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Abstract

In December 2003, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a bi-racial retired schoolteacher living in Southern California, revealed that she is the illegitimate daughter of the late Strom Thurmond. Thurmond served as South Carolina's United States Senator for nearly fifty years and was a passionate segregationist during the Civil Rights Era. Washington-Williams's revelation shocked many because few people outside South Carolina had expected Thurmond to have a "Black daughter." But this story is not simply about race. Carrie Butler, Washington-Williams's mother, was a teenage maid in Thurmond's parents' home when the then-twenty-two-year-old Thurmond had sex with her. Both the law of South Carolina and the power dynamic between Black women and White men during the Jim Crow era suggests that Thurmond statutorily raped and/or sexually assaulted Butler. Yet, this aspect of the story has been largely ignored; journalists reporting on Thurmond's "Black child" focused on Thurmond's hypocrisy-that is, his readiness to preach segregation while practicing integration of the most intimate kind. This Article begins with a content analysis of news articles following this story's break, which shows that journalists largely reported Washington- Williams's revelation as a story of racial hypocrisy without fully discussing the issues of rape or sexual assault. After legally and historically situating the Thurmond-Butler "relationship," this Article then develops a theory of interactionality, grounded upon Kimberl6 Crenshaw's intersectionality analysis, to explore how and why journalists "missed" this story. This Article argues that a "colorblind" race ideology can at least partially explain this omission. By focusing on race aesthetics without a deeper conversation about racism, and by taking the potential rape and sexual assault out of their narrative, journalists were able to partially absolve America of any lingering racial guilt or unease, ultimately impeding any path towards genuine racial redemption.

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