The Sordid History of Racial Hoaxes

Illustration for article titled The Sordid History of Racial Hoaxes

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." 

The election of a black president has made the racial hoax no less potent, Pantoja says. "Clearly we have not gone beyond race," he says. "The idea of fearing the other, of the fear of blacks, it is going to take a long time for us to rid ourselves of those stereotypes. This fear has been perpetuated by media and these types of allegations."


Storro, a 28-year-old Vancouver, Wash., resident, told police that a black woman approached her, saying, "Hey, pretty girl, would you like drink of this?" and then flung a cup of acid in her face. Storro described the black woman as having a look of jealousy and rage.

Media outlets across the country, and then across the world, picked up the story of the  cute young woman whose cream-colored face had been disfigured by some crazed, angry, anonymous black woman. They followed her as she underwent surgery. Oprah called. (The appearance was later canceled.) 

The police, as in many of these cases, were skeptical from the start. But little could be done to contain the tide once the media, and the collective imaginations of white America, got ahold of it.  

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.

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. White men and women seeking to cover up crimes and misdeeds have used the same ploy more recently. The most infamous cases include Charles Stuart, who created a fictional black man to cover up the murder of his pregnant wife in 1989, and Susan Smith, who directed attention to a black male carjacker after she killed her two children in 1994.


In 2003 a man came to a bank with a bomb tied around his neck, claiming that a group of black men had planted the bomb on him. He and some of his white friends had planned the whole thing. In 2008 a John McCain supporter carved the letter B into her forehead and blamed a black man. And last year, Bonnie Sweeten, a white woman, told police she and her daughter had been abducted by two black men in a Cadillac to cover up a trip to Disney World.

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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