A racial hoax is an instance when someone falsely places blame for a real or fabricated crime on another person because of that person’s race. The crime may be real or staged, and the falsely accused person may be real or imaginary. Although a person of any race can perpetrate a racial hoax against a person of any other race, the most common racial hoaxes have historically involved whites falsely accusing blacks of criminal activity.
Racial hoaxes play on stereotypes about racial Others. Their believability depends upon the general public already possessing strong negative stereotypes about racialized groups, which form the basic premises of racial hoaxes. Throughout the whole of colonial and American history, whites have routinely developed, popularized, and generally believed negative stereotypes about people of color, especially African Americans. Negative stereotypes specific to African Americans, who are the usual targets of white-initiated racial hoaxes, include myths describing black people as hypersexual, randomly violent, lacking self-control, and emotionally and intellectually inferior to whites. As these myths spread through media, anecdotal stories, and popular culture, negative beliefs about people of color become rooted in whites’ minds.
People who attempt racial hoaxes choose their racial targets and craft their stories to fit these stereotypes. A famous example occurred in 1994, when Susan Smith, a young white mother in South Carolina, claimed “a surly black man wearing a dark knit cap” had carjacked her and driven off with her two young children in the back seat. For several days, Smith issued public pleas for the safe return of her children, and the police publicized a composite image of a black man and asked residents to come forward with information. Large numbers of black men were suddenly under public suspicion of kidnapping. For nine days, Smith carried on her story before confessing to police that she had murdered her own children. She led police to where she had strapped her children in her car and rolled the car into a lake.
Smith’s hoax exemplifies the relationship between racial hoaxes and stereotypes. Smith’s story depended upon the belief that black men are dangerous and frequently commit acts of random violence. The massive official response, and the fact that most whites initially believed Smith’s story, indicates the pervasiveness of the stereotype of black men as dangerous criminals. In this way, racial hoaxes clearly demonstrate the continuing reality of pervasive white racism in contemporary society.
The extreme number and popularity of negative stereotypes against people of color, especially black men, and the paucity of negative stereotypes about whites play a major role in the large disparity between incidents of white-initiated racial hoaxes and those initiated by people of color. Negative stereotypes against people of color make hoaxes believable. In the absence of stereotypes, hoaxes are often nonsensical and obvious lies prima facie. In addition, the widespread acceptance of negative stereotypes has produced an atmosphere in which whites are quick to believe racial hoaxes claiming black criminality but are more skeptical about claims of white criminality.
A second reason for the greater frequency of white-on-black hoaxes is the disproportionate amount of institutional power whites have over people of color in the United States. The story of Charles Stuart illustrates this point. In October of 1989, Charles Stuart, a white Bostonian, with the help of his brother and a friend, murdered his pregnant wife and then shot himself in the stomach. As part of the cover-up, Stuart telephoned police and claimed a black man in a jogging suit had committed the crime. At the mayor’s direction, police detectives rushed to Stuart’s aid. Police officers randomly stopped, harassed, and interrogated dozens of innocent young black men throughout the mostly black neighborhood where Stuart claimed the crime had occurred. During this process the police detained several innocent black men, and they nearly arrested one black man who Stuart had identified in a lineup. After two months of searches and investigations and a tip from Charles’ brother, police finally decided to question Stuart about the events. Sensing their suspicion, Stuart took his own life rather than face murder charges.
White-on-black racial hoaxes are frequently effective because they receive massive institutional support from whites who control major institutions, such as police departments and judiciaries. Because anti-black stereotypes make claims about the fundamental nature and character of all black people, the white public and white-run institutions react to hoaxes by effectively considering all black people as suspicious and criminal. Hoaxes in which people of color falsely blame whites do not have this effect because negative stereotypes about the general character of white people are uncommon, and because people of color do not have the institutional power to effectively criminalize all whites. Instead, hoaxes initiated by people of color are often met with initial suspicion and, when taken seriously, result only in limited searches for guilty individuals rather than general searches through entire white neighborhoods.
The importance of unequal institutional power is even more apparent when one considers the history of racial hoaxes in the United States. During the slavery and Jim Crow periods (1619–1965), whites had complete control over every government institution, including the police and the courts. Extensive and overt white racism allowed whites to completely disregard the testimony of blacks and the objective evidence of cases. Mere accusations from whites were sufficient to convict people of color in a court of law. Often, black people never even reached a courtroom, while white mobs lynched unknown numbers of black men (official estimates are over 6,000), usually as scapegoats after whites accused them of petty theft or sexual promiscuity with white women, as occurred in the Rosewood, Florida, massacre of 1923. In this case, a white mob burned down the black community of Rosewood after a white woman falsely claimed that a black man had raped her.
Some racial hoaxes, however, have been perpetrated by people of color against whites. Most often these hoaxes involve people of color claiming to be victims of racial hate crimes. White-originated hoaxes are usually not classified as such until perpetrators confess their fabrications. Hoaxes against whites, however, are more frequently deemed hoaxes by white officials without confessions from the people of color who made the original claim.
Perhaps the most famous hoax of this type is the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley. Brawley, a fifteen-year-old black girl, was found in New York State covered in feces and racial slurs written in charcoal. She claimed that six white police officers had abducted and raped her before leaving her in the condition in which she was discovered. Several black community leaders, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, supported Brawley and brought national attention to the incident. Eventually, investigators claimed Brawley’s accusation to be a racial hoax. Ten years after the event, Sharpton and other Brawley supporters were found liable for defaming the accused officers. Nevertheless, Brawley consistently claimed that the officers did in fact rape her and perpetrate a hate crime against her.
Racial hoaxes continue to be common. Kathryn Russell-Brown, the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida, has found 68 examples of racial hoaxes that occurred in the United States between 1987 and 1996. Seventy percent of these involved whites falsely accusing people of color. Among these cases, several trends are worth noting. First, white-initiated racial hoaxes are more frequent and usually involve whites blaming black men for extremely violent actions such as rape and murder. Accusations from people of color usually falsely claim that whites have perpetrated hate crimes against them. Second, white law-enforcement officers were the most frequent initiators of racial hoaxes. This is especially disturbing when one considers the trust and power the public places in these officers. Finally, white-initiated hoaxes are usually classified as hoaxes only after offenders confess their dishonesty. Conversely, white officials often classify black claims as hoaxes in the absence of confessions. This trend and the ubiquity of stereotypes against people of color suggest that far more blacks have been victims of white-initiated racial hoaxes than history records.
Feagin, Joe R. 2000. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.
_____, Vera Hernán Vera, and Pinar Batur. 2001. White Racism: The Basics, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Fine, Gary A., and Patricia A. Turner. 2001. Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Russell-Brown, Kathryn. 1998. The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions. New York: New York University Press.
Glenn E. Bracey II
Joe R. Feagin