The Sordid History of Racial Hoaxes

Nikole Hannah-Jones, The Root, September 21, 2010

No one knows why Bethany Storro decided to mutilate her own face with acid late last month. Obviously deeply troubled, she was sane enough to make a calculated decision to maximize sympathy and deflect suspicion. She blamed it on a black person.

And the fake acid attack became the latest twist on a tactic as old as America itself, one that plays into every long-held stereotype of black folks as criminal and violent: the racial hoax. The racial hoax “plays into long-standing fear and part of American folklore, that the main victims of blacks are white women,” says Adrian Pantoja, a political scientist at Pitzer College in California who specializes in American racial attitudes. “It’s very strategic because they know they will get the most attention if they claim the perpetrator is black.”

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The police, as in many of these cases, were skeptical from the start. {snip}

The Columbian, the daily newspaper that broke the story, turned off comments to its site as they became openly racist, and white supremacists staked out the page. Commenters called the alleged attacker a savage beast who deserved the death penalty. Someone said the black woman attacked Storro because of a “lifetime of hostility and resentment” toward a woman who is “white and pretty.” Another person suggested the attacker should “fear for her life.” These were some of the gentler comments.

Random black women who met the very vague description were stopped and questioned. Money for the victim poured in, and fundraising fliers posted around the 83 percent-white Vancouver called on the community to “help one of our own.” When a few bloggers and online commenters and, later, some mainstream media questioned the credibility of Storro’s story, they were attacked for even raising a doubt.

Katheryn Russell-Brown is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida and author of the book The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions. She has tracked more than 100 racial hoaxes. White people–usually white women–perpetrate the vast majority of them. Black men are almost always the targets. “The image of criminality and race, and African Americans and crime, are very linked in the public mind,” she says. “You get additional sympathy for these attacks.”

It’s a tactic used by white women that once had black men swinging from trees and led to the writing of the renowned book To Kill a Mockingbird. {snip}

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The connection in many Americans’ minds between black people and criminality is so strong, Russell-Brown says, that white perpetrators lean on the stereotype even when it doesn’t make sense. {snip}

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The Storro case is unusual in that the blame was placed on a black woman instead of a man. Russell-Brown did not find a single other instance of this in her files. But Lori Brown, a sociologist at Meredith College, the largest women’s college in the Southeast, says Storro still had the savvy to lean on stereotypes when creating the phantom black woman. “That plays on the whole idea that black women are jealous of white women,” Brown says. “It’s so offensive in this case because there are so many media stereotypes of black women being mean and tough.”

Already, Storro is being painted as the victim, and the harm done to the black community is being pushed aside, says Russell-Brown. {snip}

But that sympathy seemed to have been waning Monday as Clark County Deputy Prosecutor Tony Golik filed three counts of second-degree theft by deception against Storro for the thousands of dollars in donations she received after the incident. That puts the Storro case in the minority of racial hoaxes. {snip}

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