We can add yet another racial hoax to a long list of incidents involving white “victims” and imaginary black assailants.
A Pennsylvania woman, Bonnie Sweeten, and her 9-year-old daughter, have been detained in Orlando, Florida this past week after the mother claimed they were abducted and stuffed into the trunk of a car:
In the frantic 911 calls, Sweeten, said two men had bumped her 2005 GMC Denali, carjacked her and stuffed her in the trunk of a dark Cadillac. She implied that her daughter was with her in the trunk, according to Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore, who listened to tapes of the calls. Sweeten, who is white, described her assailants as black but otherwise gave few details about their appearance, Vanore said. “It was pretty generic,” he said.
Later in the day, she and her daughter were caught on surveillance tapes in the Philadelphia International Airport heading to a Florida Disney resort. Sweeten had apparently taken out $12,000 out of several bank accounts in days prior and it is unclear whether or not the money was stolen.
Unfortunately, racial hoaxes like Sweeten’s are all too common. Last fall we witnessed the case of Ashley Todd,a white 20-year-old student at Texas A&M and McCain supporter who claimed she had been pinned to the ground, robbed, and had the letter B scratched into her face by someone she described as a 6’4” black man wielding a knife. Besides the obvious backward B on her face, she soon admitted to investigators that she fabricated the entire story. She was later sentenced to nine months of probation for filing a false police report.
In her 1998 book The Color of Crime, Katheryn Russell-Brown provides data for 67 racial hoaxes between 1987 and 1996. Of those, 70% involved whites claiming black assailants. More than half of these stories are revealed as false within a week, but she writes:
The fact that so many white-on-black hoaxes are successful indicates society’s readiness to accept the image of blacks as criminals (Russell-Brown)
It is interesting to note that, “racial hoaxes are devised, perpetrated, and successful precisely because tap into widely held fears” (Russell-Brown). Perhaps unsurprisingly, media coverage has virtually ignored the fact that Sweeten’s story resembles so many that have come before her. Her racialized claim of being abducted by two black men (in a widely stereotyped Cadillac, no less) has only been presented as an afterthought.
While these recent racial hoaxes involving Sweeten and Todd were resolved rather quickly, racial harm still abounds. Media stories such as these serve to embolden the white racial frame by perpetuating stereotypes and images of black men as both dangerous and criminal. Hoaxes such as these are so easily believed because they readily hang on the white racial frame and touch upon (white) people’s racialized fears.
In addition, racial hoaxes involving white “victims” are more likely to receive significant media attention and an outpouring of support at the national level, as illustrated by Russell-Brown’s analysis and widely publicized cases such as the ones above and others (e.g., the case of Susan Smith, a woman who drowned her two children, first claiming she had been carjacked by a black man).
Lastly and perhaps most disturbing, is the fact this is clearly not the case when black victims make claims against white assailants, either as hoaxes, or as very real and disturbing [] events that are often ignored or are met with incredulity. What does our willingness to believe only some victims’ voices and stories, but not others, say about us?