Susan Smith, Charles Stuart, and Jennifer Wilbanks have one thing in common. They are the poster names of whites that foisted off racial con jobs on the nation. They shouted that a black or Latino man committed murder or mayhem to cover up their heinous crimes or their personal neurosis. They knew that finger pointing a black or Latino for wrongdoing sets off panicky bells and whistles in police stations, titillates the prurient juices in press rooms, and stirs public anxieties. Racial hoaxes almost always fall apart but they work for a time because they play hard on the stereotypes, myths, and fears about blacks and Latinos.
But racial hoaxes can cut both ways. The flurry of hanging nooses around the country may be a case in point. Hate crime experts and civil rights leaders say, and the media spin is, that the nooses are a white racist backlash to the firestorm of black protest over the Jena 6 case involving black teens in Louisiana accused of battering a white student. Others go further and issue dire a warning that that the nooses are a grim sign of a new racist hate upsurge in America.
A hanging noose found dangling on the office door of Madonna Constantine, a black race relations expert at Columbia University, is supposedly proof positive of the hate wave. The noose on her office door and at other places may well be the handiwork of a loony with a racial ax to grind or it may just be a put up job by a few silly, clueless, students who think stringing up or planting nooses is good for a few yucks and a brief media titter
However, there's another painful possibility. One or more of the nooses could be a hoax to make a point about racism. More than a few writers on the CNN website in discussing the Columbia University noose discovery had no hesitation in pointing the blame finger at blacks. While others simply said they didn't believe that the noose had anything to do with race.
There's no evidence that the hanging nooses are anything other than what they appear, namely sick, racial digs. Yet, the fact that so many believe that blacks are capable of pulling a dumb prank to get attention, or play the race card can't and shouldn't be cavalierly chalked up to white ignorance or bigotry. While the overwhelming majority of those that racial wolf shout to cover misdeeds or for kicks have been white, some blacks have screamed it too.
In her book, the Color of Crime, University of Florida professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, found that blacks perpetrate one in six racial hoaxes. The reasons the blacks commit hoaxes aren't totally different than those of white hoaxers. Both are angry, resentful and play hard on stereotypes and fears--that whites are racist, and violent, and that blacks are menacing and violent. The hoaxes encase the worst of black and white fears about each other.
The Duke University rape case is a near textbook example of how those fears can boomerang. The female black college student that screamed that she was raped at a frat house by white Duke Lacrosse players ignited angry protests and a momentary deep soul search about racial and sexual victimization of blacks. As her story unraveled into a tissue of contradictions and lies, the soul search quickly turned into anger, rage, disgust and racial backlash not just against an on the make prosecutor but at black leaders that accepted her story at face value. Police and public officials felt they were played and may well be far more cautious about rape allegations made by blacks against whites. That wasn't the only blowback. The Duke case was flung in the face of civil rights leaders as the danger of overplaying the race angle in Jena or anywhere else a black is victimized under muddled circumstances. City and school officials in Jena screamed that the infamous noose hanging incident at the high school was not racial since black students also stuck their heads through the noose.
At Historically Black Grambling University, school officials hit the roof when pictures of a young girl being hoisted by a black adult into a noose hanging from a tree hit the national newswires. As it turned out, five professors dangled the noose from the tree to make a dramatic point about the torment of race relations. The professors may have been well-intentioned, but to have an adult stick a child's neck into the noose turned the horror of lynching into a cheap theatrical farce. The terror was trivialized and lost. It sent the even worse message that blacks are perfectly capable of stringing up nooses too.
Hanging nooses no matter whether they dangle from a tree, an office door, or are planted in a Coast Guard cadet's bag, are still a hideous symbol of America's racial past. That's hardly the stuff of fun and game hoaxes no matter who put them there or why they did it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.