Racial Hoaxes & Our Fears

Katheryn Russell-Brown, author of The Color of Crime (2nd ed., NYU Press 2008), in an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, writes about the largely unnoticed trends in racial hoaxes among false crime reports in the context of the latest campaign-season hoax.

When I heard Susan Smith’s tale that she had been carjacked by a young black man, I was skeptical. In 1994, Smith told police that while stopped at a traffic signal, she was carjacked by a black man who drove off with her infant and toddler boys in the back seat. I thought, where would a black man go with two small white children?

Likewise, last month when I heard Ashley Todd’s yarn, the alleged facts struck me as odd. Todd, a volunteer for John McCain’s campaign, reported that she had been robbed, assaulted and maimed by a 6-foot-4 black man at an ATM. She said the man was a Barack Obama supporter who wanted to “teach her a lesson” after seeing her McCain bumper sticker. Todd’s script and her victim and criminal were too perfect. I didn’t buy it.

Welcome to the land of racial hoaxes. Not burdened by logic, hoaxes don’t have to make sense; they just have to feel like they could make sense. Hoaxes may be equal parts credible and ridiculous.

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