Racial Hoaxes: Black Men And Imaginary Crimes

Pennsylvania mom Bonnie Anne Sweeten is the latest white person to falsely report black males as her assailants in a crime. Criminologist and law school Professor Katheryn Russell-Brown tracks hoaxes made with racial implications and explains why they continue to happen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In the next few minutes, we're going to have two different conversations about whether racial stereotypes cause us to leap to incorrect or destructive or even dangerous conclusions when we think about crime. In few minutes, we'll hear about an African-American senior at Harvard who was barred from her graduation because school officials evidently believed she had some connection to a fatal shooting on campus. She claims through her attorney that she is being unfairly stereotyped because of her race and background. We'll hear more in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to talk about a story that has been burning up the phone lines on many black-oriented programs. Late last month, a woman from suburban Philadelphia named Bonnie Anne Sweeten frantically called Philadelphia police, saying she and her daughter had been kidnapped by two black men and stuffed into the trunk of a black Cadillac. But that was not true. Sweeten, who is white, was actually at DisneyWorld with her daughter under an assumed name. Sweeten was arrested there, but not before police issued an Amber Alert and sparked media interest. It was all a hoax, a racial hoax at that. University of Florida criminologist and law school professor Katheryn Russell-Brown keeps track of these kinds of hoaxes. She joins us now to talk about it from member station WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Welcome, thank you so much for talking to us.

Professor KATHERYN RUSSELL-BROWN (University of Florida): Thank you so much for the invitation.

MARTIN: Professor, is there a pattern to who perpetuates these types of hoaxes? I think a lot of people remember Charles Stuart, who killed his wife in Boston in 1989, then tried to blame it on black men. And then, of course, there was the Susan Smith case in 1994 - who killed her children and then blamed it on black men. Is there a pattern to who tends to do this? Does it tend to be men, women, any particular circumstances?

Prof. BROWN: Yeah, well actually, the majority of the hoaxes involve someone white falsely claiming they were harmed by someone black. In terms of gender, about a third of the cases involve women. And with regard to the type of hoax - 'cause I divide the hoaxes into two types: one, where there's a cover-up of an actual crime, and then the second type, where the hoax is used just really as a matter of convenience. It's not covering up anything, but the person may want time off from work, may not want to get in trouble for curfew, may be hiding something. But they are most frequently used to allege or to cover up an assault, a murder or rape.

MARTIN: Are black women ever the targets, or is it generally African-American men?

Prof. BROWN: Yeah, primarily it is the African-American male. And I describe it as the criminalblackman - you know, one sort of run-on word because they are the key targets of the hoaxes. And not surprisingly because across race, most people fear young, African-American males. And hoaxes are a way of tapping into that fear and at the same time, garnering or attempting to garner some kind of sympathy for the person who is using the hoax.

MARTIN: You do point out that this does happen to white people, that there is Tawana Brawley case in New York and the Duke lacrosse case, I think - it's pretty clear that that was a hoax, although some people still don't accept that. Is there any pattern to it when white men are the targets?

Prof. BROWN: Well, typically when someone black is falsely charging or accusing someone white, they're typically hate crimes; they're framed as hate crimes. So those are the cases that African-Americans engaging in hoaxes think are the most believable. And usually, these are insurance scheme cases. So someone says that their automobile was defaced, or that their home had the N word or some other kind of racist slur epithet on their property. So that's typically how the cases involving blacks go, that they're framed as hate crimes.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people may remember that Susan Smith case. That might be the first time that the broader public actually focused on this phenomenon. She claimed for many days that she had been carjacked by a black man who drove away with her son still in the car. And we actually have a clip of her on the "Today" show, where she was pleading for her children's return. Here it is.

Ms. SUSAN SMITH: I would like to say whoever has my children that I prayed every day that you are taking care of them.

MARTIN: And I remember that people were furious when they found out the truth of this. I wonder, do you think that that was a teaching moment, that people have become more educated about the possibility of hoaxes as a result, even though - as we see from the recent example - that they're still going on?

Prof. BROWN: Well, I do. I mean, and I have to say that that's the case that got me looking at racial hoaxes because I was one of those people who was skeptical of Susan Smith's claims from the beginning because I couldn't imagine where a black man was going to go in South Carolina, in particular, with two small white children.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, and we're talking about racial hoaxes. How do you keep track of these cases?

Prof. BROWN: Well, I look for them on a quarterly basis. I do some digging to find these cases. But again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. These are just the cases - the ones that I'm able to locate are the ones that make their way into the newspaper and have some racial designation attached to them. We should have some kind of national tracking of hoax cases because they do matter. And I think for many - and you mention that many African-Americans were troubled by the Smith case and as well as...

MARTIN: So were whites, too. I mean, there were a lot of whites who were, too, because I think that it was so appalling for her to engage everyone's attention for this.

Prof. BROWN: I think you're absolutely right. I mean, I think that the hoaxes themselves are troubling. And I think that with regard to looking at the justice system, that justice isn't just about what happens in the courts but also about what doesn't happen. And so this idea that people could engage in these hoaxes, and really not face any serious criminal punishment as a result of it, is particularly concerning...

MARTIN: Do you think there should be sort of enhanced penalties for falsely reporting? I mean, there are, I think, sanctions for falsely reporting crimes. And as you pointed out, some of these are an effort to cover up a pre-existing crime. But do you feel that there should be enhanced penalties for this?

Prof. BROWN: Well, the first thing I think is that the false report laws should be used. I mean, in less than half of the cases - that even a false report charge is filed against the person. So I think first that the existing laws should be used. And I note that New Jersey is a state that has at least considered having special punishment for those who engage in hoaxes, not just on the basis of race but also on the basis of gender.

MARTIN: This is a difficult issue for law enforcement, I think, in the sense that if a child has been abducted, time is of the essence. Is there some standard that law enforcement could use?

Prof. BROWN: Well, I think your point is good one, and I think that law enforcement are in a particularly difficult case. And in a number of these hoaxes, law enforcement is suspicious of the claims that are being made. But of course, they can't let the rest of us know about that. They had concerns about the story matching up in the Sweeten case, had concerns in the Susan Smith case, had concerns in the case involving the young, white, female student right around election time who claimed that she had been attacked by an Obama supporter. And so law enforcement is walking - really a tightrope because they have - as you say, I mean these are critical cases, cases often involving young people. And so they, you know, attention must be paid.

But I think the concern is, as I mentioned before, that charges are in fact filled. But also that there should be some apology that is issued, or at least requested by community members as a result of these hoaxes. Because what happens is, after the story comes out and it's, you know, a false allegation, now we're - you know, trying to figure out, well, you know, what led this person to do this? You know, what are the emotional underpinnings? What's going on - we already sort of erased the hoax. So I think attention needs to be placed, and the light should shine on the racial hoax.

MARTIN: And finally, you mentioned that case of this white woman who falsely claimed that she had been attacked, presumably by an Obama supporter. I just want to play a short clip from the "Daily Show" last week, where comedian Wyatt Cenac joined host Jon Stewart to talk about these hoaxes, and here's what he said.

(Soundbite from the Daily Show)

Mr. WYATT CENAC (Comedian): You know, more imaginary black people are attacking real white people now more than ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, The Daily Show): You're referring to things like the McCain volunteer who claimed that a black man attacked her during the presidential campaign.

Mr. CENAC: Right. She said a black guy carved a B for Barack in her face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: But it was backwards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Which slurs both the imaginary black and imaginary dyslexic communities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: If she'd have gone with the O, she'd have gotten away with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now you know, obviously people can joke about whatever they want to joke about. But I do wonder if there's sort of - speaks to what you're talking about, this kind of a feedback loop which is that, you know, African-Americans, these things happen, they get very upset, and they talk about it. But it doesn't cross over into a broader concern.

Prof. BROWN: Well, I think that's right. And I think it's exactly that we get beyond the racial hoax very quickly to talking about, well, this is a troubled person, I mean, you had Sweeten family members, you know, saying she is a good person, you know, this isn't in line with her character. So we sort of moved away from it, and now we're on to something else. But these cases have a mounting racial tension to them, and there should be some punishment that clearly attaches to someone engaging in such falsehoods, which historically led to black men, in particular, being lynched.

MARTIN: Katheryn Russell-Brown is a professor of law at the University of Florida. She is author of "The Color of Crime." She joined us from member station WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms.�RUSSELL-BROWN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Bonnie Sweeten is from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and African-Americans in nearby Philadelphia have been speaking out on black talk radio about their community being targeted in her hoax.

Unidentified Man #1: This stuff's got to stop, man. It's 2009. I mean, why does it got to be a black guy? It's always black, you know.

MARTIN: To hear more about how the community is responding, visit our blog at the TELL ME MORE page, at npr.org. There you'll find an interview with local radio host Albert Butler, and hear more reactions from the African-American community.

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