We all know that black men have been so identified with crime in the public mind that white perpetrators have successfully cried "the black man did it" and sent authorities looking for African American suspects.
But a case from Cincinnati has them topped.
"A white man who pleaded guilty to six robberies in Ohio used a black mask so lifelike that police initially arrested a black man for one of the crimes, authorities said Tuesday," Lisa Cornwell reported for the Associated Press.
"The mother of the wrongly accused man even thought a photo of the robbery suspect she saw on television was a photo of her son, the Hamilton County prosecutor's office and the attorney for the white defendant said.
"Conrad Zdzierak, 30, pleaded guilty Monday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to one count of aggravated robbery and five counts of robbery in a plea deal with prosecutors. He faces up to 35 years in prison at his Jan. 7 sentencing."
Despite the historical and stereotypical baggage Zdzierak's racial impersonation conjures, some headline writers managed to leave that out of their handiwork.
The online edition of Britain's Daily Mail got it. "The white robber who carried out six raids disguised as a black man (and very nearly got away with it)," it headlined.
In the Cincinnati Enquirer, it was "White man who wore black mask admits to string of bank robberies."
But an Associated Press headline, picked up on the largest number of news websites, was deracinated: "Police fooled by lifelike mask in Ohio robberies."
Journal-isms asked the news organizations why they made their decisions. "I think it was necessary to matter of factly state the mask caused the police to look for a black suspect," said Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan, who taught in the Maynard Institute's Summer Institute for Journalism Education in the 1980s. "Not sure how race would enter into it beyond that. If the robber would have successfully appeared to be a woman, they would presumably have been looking for a woman. But I look forward to your post and ensuing discussions."
Ellen Hale, vice president/corporate communications at the AP, explained by e-mail:
"Each story we send out has two headlines: a short headline and a long one, because headline length needs vary with customers. Our short headline is limited to 50 characters. Because of the limited character count, it was difficult to get the concept across in the short headline, which is the one you are asking [about]. The longer headline in all three versions of the story said 'White man's lifelike black mask in Ohio robberies fooled police.' "
Below whichever headline they saw, readers found quite a tale.
Kimball Perry reported in the Enquirer:
"Zdzierak admitted to the March 5 robbery of Chaco Credit Union and to five April 9 robberies within 3½ hours — Franklin Savings, a CVS pharmacy, Fifth Third Bank branch and two Key Bank branches. He stole about $15,000 in those robberies.
"Each time, witnesses reported they were robbed by a black man and video showed what appeared to be a black man committing the robberies.
"Zdzierak, though, was using a professional-grade mask — like those used in movies — to hide his white skin and true identity.
"The mask was so convincing," Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier said Monday, "that a black man was arrested for one of Zdzierak’s robberies. That man’s mother, when police arrived at her house, told police she knew why they were there because she’d just seen a television broadcast of the suspect and believed it was her son. Instead, it was Zdzierak wearing the mask, which retails for about $700.
"Zdzierak was found out when his girlfriend, staying with him in a Springdale hotel, saw reports of the robberies moments before she went into the bathroom and saw two masks and, in the sink, money that was stained with dye used by banks to try to foil robberies. She called police."
Associating black men with crime has an unfortunate media history. Just last May, Kevin Ferris wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer about "City Police Sgt. Robert Ralston, who, on April 5, for unknown reasons, shot himself in the shoulder and blamed a black man with 'cornrows.' Police doubted his story from the start, but we didn't get the truth until Ralston was promised immunity from prosecution."
University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, author of "The Color of Crime," documented 92 such incidents between 1987 and 2006. "But she said the overwhelming majority of the time — 67 percent, to be exact — it is the other way around: white liars blaming black men for things that did not happen," syndicated Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote last year.
(In a role reversal, police in Fairfax County, Va., said this week they were searching for a black man in his 30s who they say robbed a bank dressed as an elderly Caucasian man, according to the Fairfax Times.)
As far back as 1995, studies were showing that "Minorities and people of color get on TV mostly when they have done something wrong," according to a survey of evening news programs on 50 television stations in 29 markets by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch.
Another study then from the Annenberg School for Communication, looking at Philadelphia television stations, noted that there were four times as many black victims of homicide in 1993 as white victims, yet two stations showed white people more often victims of violence than people of color.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School, told Journal-isms she did not know of any subsequent studies of how race plays out on television news crime stories.
Perhaps the story of Zdzierak and his mask will change that.
Jesse Washington, Associated Press: Another 'Black Man Did It' Hoax Sparks Outrage (June 2)
Columnist Eugene Robinson Named to Pulitzer Board
"Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and associate editor at The Washington Post, has been elected to the Pulitzer Prize Board, Columbia University announced today," the Pulitzer board announced on Thursday.
"A 30-year veteran of the Post, Robinson launched his twice-weekly column on the paper’s op-ed page in February 2005, and within a year it was syndicated to more than 130 newspapers — making it the fastest-growing column in the history of the Washington Post Writers Group.
"In 2009, he won The Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns about the 2008 presidential campaign and the election of President Barack Obama."
The Pulitzer Board is the final arbiter of the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes, sometimes overruling the recommendation of the Pulitzer juries.
Others of color who have served are, with their titles at the time:
Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, a current member; Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University; Jay T. Harris, director of the Center for the Study of Journalism and Democracy at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California; John L. Dotson Jr., president and publisher, Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal; Danielle Allen, professor in the University of Chicago's departments of the classics and political science; the late Marilyn Yarbrough, associate provost and professor of law, University of North Carolina; novelist Junot Diaz; William Raspberry, Washington Post columnist; Roger Wilkins, senior fellow, the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, and former editorial writer at the New York Times and Washington Post; and the late Robert C. Maynard, editor and publisher, the Tribune, Oakland, Calif.
With his election to the board in May, Diaz is believed to have become the first Latino on the board.