The Sordid History of Racial Hoaxes

The faked acid attack in Vancouver, Wash., was just the latest in a long line of lies that play on racial fears. The unusual twist: blaming a black woman.

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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. With the Smith case, Russell-Brown says she was immediately suspicious because, "Where is a black guy going to go [unnoticed] with two young white children? This is not even an image you can dredge up." 

The Storro case also made little sense, Russell-Brown says. In a city as white as Vancouver -- black people account for just 3 percent of the population -- a black female would be the least likely assailant and most noticeable if she were fleeing a crime scene. "It does strain credibility," she says. "But the press buys the story anyway."

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. In a press conference that revealed the hoax, the police commander called Storro "fragile." And an editor from The Columbian posted a comment chastising people angry at the hoax by saying the community needed to keep Storro in their prayers. "Now we’ve moved away from 'She falsely accused a black attacker' to 'We have to help her,' " Russell-Brown says. "We have 'good victims,' and this denies the harm of the hoax to African Americans."

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. Charges have been filed in fewer than half of racial hoaxes, though a quarter of the time, innocent people were stopped, questioned and/or arrested. Maybe that's because even once the hoax is revealed, for many, the thought of what could have been is just as scary.

In explaining the decision to prosecute in the Sweeten case, the white female district attorney had this to say: "It’s a terrifying thing for a community to hear that two black men in a black Cadillac grabbed a woman and her daughter."

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a journalist who writes and blogs frequently about race.

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