Jesse Washington, AP, June 1, 2009
It’s an old lie, claiming that The Black Man Did It.
But it was trotted out again last week when a white mother from suburban Philadelphia said two black men snatched her and her 9-year-old daughter from their SUV and abducted them in the trunk of a black Cadillac.
Blacks across the country were outraged after Bonnie Sweeten was found in a luxury hotel at Disney World. Authorities quickly unraveled the hoax, but not before an Amber Alert, frantic searches and national news coverage that played into images of marauding black men.
Racial boundaries are slowly dissolving in America, with President Barack Obama the most obvious example. Yet Sweeten’s story, plus the killing of a black New York City cop by a white officer days later, was a reminder that old ideas remain burned into many minds both black and white.
Sweeten’s story has provoked an outpouring of discussion among blacks, everywhere from doctor’s offices to blogs. Syndicated radio host Warren Ballentine said his listeners are “furious, and they’re disgusted. . . . On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 15.”
“Their hope was that by Obama becoming president, the rest of America would take a look at black Americans and look at us for who we are and not what a stereotype is,” he said.
The Black Man Did It lie last made news as recently as October, when a John McCain volunteer claimed a 6-foot-4 black man carved a B into her cheek (For Barack, evidently). Charles Stuart told it in 1989 after he killed his wife in Boston. Susan Smith told it when she drowned her sons in 1994 in South Carolina. Unknown numbers of black men were hanged for it back when lynching was a common practice.
And those are the ones we heard about. Law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown documents 67 racial hoaxes in the period between 1987 and 1996 in her book “The Color of Crime.”
Seymour’s blood starts to boil whenever people lock their car doors as he walks by–yet even blacks sometimes hit that button when black men are in the vicinity. “It’s not just white people who act that way,” Seymour said.
One easy explanation is that black men are convicted of crimes at much higher rates than any other group. So was falling for Sweeten’s lie racism, or common sense? And does Sweeten’s blond hair have anything to do with the amount of media coverage her story received?
During a news conference after the hoax was exposed, Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry explained the charge of filing a false police report.
“It’s a terrifying thing,” she said, “for a community to hear that two black men in a black Cadillac grabbed a woman and her daughter.”
Just to list a few: