Miami Herald Journalist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote, what I consider, an open and honest piece (“You Don’t Really Know Me”) in response to the recent incident of what I’m going to call blackusation: blaming Blacks for crimes uncommitted. This is not a case of seeing a liquor store being robbed and two tall, muscular figures running from the store with hoodies and Blacks are the first group to be blamed. No, this is even worse. This is a case of literally blaming Blacks for a fabricated crime that, from the details of the case, neither happened nor could have ever happened (as she was at the airport during the attack).
For those who have not heard about the deplorable actions of Bonnie Sweeten, a White woman from Pennsylvania, you should definitely Google her and see the surprisingly single take—by reporters and bloggers—on her story. As the many articles report, Sweeten told police that two Black men forced her into a Cadillac (yes, a Caddy) and drove away with her scared for her life in the trunk. From her extravagant story and reported seven calls to the police, they discovered that there was no Cadillac, no black men, no abduction whatsoever. She made the whole thing up.
My co-blogger Jeremy, who is more adept at finding these types of things, passed along Pitts’ article to me. I had already read the Miami Times ’ take on the story though it was far less reflexive. I, at first, did not know what to make of the whole thing. Surely, anger was my first response. Second, I thought this person has to be crazy. I mean, who sits there and says to themselves, “I think I’ll tell the police I was kidnapped blacks in a Cadillac all the while about to board a plane.” Clearly, there is something wrong with this person.
People have pointed out more recent incident of blackusation like Charles Stuart and his 1989 insurance fraud scheme or Ashley Todd and her McCain bumper sticker “attack” last year. But I thought (way) back to one incident that sparked the literal and figurative death of Rosewood, Florida that occurred in January of 1923. This entire massacre resulted from the unfounded accusation of a single White woman who said that she was beaten and raped by a Black man. The picture is just a snapshot of the damage than ensued. If one remembers John Singleton’s 1994 depiction, she comes out the house screaming, “He was big. He was black.” In reality, evidence suggests that it was her attempt to hide the abuse she received from her husband and also to exact revenge for said abuse. It saddens me that more than 80 years later we are still susceptible to same finger pointing. What is worse, there is no financial or “social” reimbursement or compensation the same way there is for the descendants of Rosewood as Florida became the first state to recognize and make financial repayment for crimes due to racial violence (awared over two million dollars and scholarhsip benefits though this still is not enough in my mind). There is no way to make “payment” for or undo the damage done to the already precarious and troubled image and social status to Blacks, especially Black males.
Pieces like those by Pitts and the Miami Times are responses to the events. They are marginalized and often do not make front page or headline news the same as the original story not because of quality but because of timing and the choice of editors who say they are trying to stay current and not dwell in the past. In other words, one has to follow the work of journalists like Pitts (or the blogosphere) to come across articles like these. But, how many people are we talking? If 100 people read the front page or watch the 7:00 news when incidents like this are first announced, only about 10 of either group are going to follow up or even hear about how the case turns out. The damage has been done.
I am a fan of the TV show Law and Order . In one episode, a man has his wife killed in New York to cover his debt back home (he is from somewhere in East Asia but cannot remember the exact country). He blames a fictitious Black man as the killer. It is an episode worth watching for in trying to solve the case, District Attorney Arthur Branch authorizes the use and city-wide publishing of a fictitious, and quite stereotypical, depiction of a young, Black male, to get the guilty husband to come back to the New York voluntarily (because they could not extradite him). The best part of the episode is when Lieutenant Van Buren pulls Branch aside to tell him how wrong he is because of the social repercussions of attaching an innocent Black face to such a heinous crime. She goes on to say that they both knew the retraction would be buried somewhere in the op-ed section and given far less space. Again, the damage is done.
Sadly, this is not surprising. After being jailed for leading the Children’s March in 1963, legendary comedian and social activist Dick Gregory said that the greatest problem Blacks face is the inability to control their image. Speaking directly to the issues and in the language of the times, he argues that the Southern Negro has been told about themselves “to the extent that [we] have finally decided to believe it.” He goes on to say that others have made the Southern Negro think they are criminals because every time you turn on your TV and they are talking about crime, you see a dark face. I think Gregory pulls up short in showing the efficacious and viral nature of the portrayal of Blacks. These negative images affect both how Blacks see themselves and also how whites see Blacks.
Although speaking about media portrayals of Black versus those of Whites more generally, I think the same principles apply here. In many ways, Blacks are no more able to control their image in today’s society than yesterdays.’ Take one my classmates for instance. In doing a project on weed consumption amongst Harvard students he states, in class, that he wouldn’t ask the kids who hang in front of the T stop because “they don’t look like Harvard students.” First, what the hell does a Harvard student look like? Could one of the Harvard students be the 6’7 Black guy with the growing fro and the 14K chain with horseshoe charm? Well, my ID says I’m a Harvard student. Do I look the part? The sad part, in talking to him about the same project he asks me about “insights” into smoking weed. Again, as if I smoke weed. He did not ask me “Tony, do you blaze.” He simply asked me about the ins and outs of getting high at Harvard as if I would know.
Even though the images have changed, the underlying meanings behind those images are still alive and well. For how would Sweeten know to add the detail of Cadillac as the type of car if it had not been from how Blacks are portrayed in pop culture, the media, and society as whole? To use that old adage, the devil is in the details. It is from this unchanging base that unfounded accusations such as those launched throughout history against Blacks more generally are not only able to made but also work to reinforce the image these false accusations attempt to build off of.