Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bonnie Sweeten Proves I'm Still a Default Criminal

This is the last thing that I wanted to write this morning.

Over the last few days, the nation has been gripped by the story of a mother and daughter abducted. The family is from Bucks County, just outside of Philadelphia, the same region I have lived in my entire life.

Today, I awoke to find out that it was all a hoax. I also found out for the first time (although there were probably others paying closer attention who already knew) that an Amber Alert had been issued, and that the mother, Bonnie Sweeten, had lead police to believe that she had been abducted by two African American men.

This was incredibly disturbing for me. Sweeten became just another in a list of white women in high-profile cases who faked crimes and described her assailant as black. In 1994 Susan Smith murdered her children, but told police that they were abducted by a black man. At the hight of the last presidential election, Ashley Todd faked being attacked by a black, male Obama supporter. One would imagine that there are other, less known instances of similar things happening.

Why do I find this so disturbing? Well, I really worries me that the default description of a violent attacker is "black man." How often do people trying to fake an attack blame a white woman, unless they're trying to frame a specific individual? Clearly, these women believed the best way to make their false reports more believable was to blame black men. Black men are seen as they typical violent criminal in the United States.

Even more disturbing is that we believe them. Having the attacker described as a black man makes society more likely to believe them. We build archetypes of what a criminal is supposed to be like. When someone fakes an attack, describing the attacker as a black man is effective because it does not disturb our preconceived notion of what a violent attacker is like.

Statistically, this is not rational. In a past "Stat of the Day" feature, I pointed out that whites are five times more likely to be attacked by a white person than by a black person. Yet, while whites are more likely to be attacked by other whites, they are more likely to believe that someone was attacked by a black male. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez points out the other side of this when discussing the Bostion-area Criagslist serial killer: we act shocked when white people committ crimes.

As I'm writing this, in the background Sara Jane Moore is being interviewed on the Today show. Matt Laurer points out how "unlikely" a criminal she is. How is that supposed to make me feel? What am I supposed to think when I hear that and realize that I do fit into the common conception of a violent criminal? How am I supposed to feel about the fact that, in this country, I'm still a violent criminal?

We have to realize that the way the media protrays black men - whether it's the latest in a long list of peretrators of violent crimes on the local evening news, or as out of controll thugs on white-owned BET - has a real impact on people's lives. It's the media that allows the majority of Americans to believe the myth that blacks are overwhelmingly more criminal than whites. For example, many justify racial profiling, saying that police are just targeting the groups that are more likely to comitt crimes. Yet, we know that whites are more likely to be found with contraband when stopped and searched by police. The media, especially those who claim to be real journalist, are being irresponsible by creating a false image of race and crime in the United States.

What's most disturbing for me is that this happened in Philadelphia. The idea that there are people living in my community who see someone like me as the typical criminal, and the fact that she believed that others in the area were disturbed enought that such a strategy would work - it all deeply troubles me.

Frankly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about how far we've come, or how Barack Obama is an achievement of Dr. King's dream, or how black people are not treated equally. I live in a country where the default definition of rapist or carjacker or mugger or kidnapper includes me because I'm a young black man. Is this supposed to make me proud. Is this supposed to make me feel like an equal member of this society? It doesn't. And I'm not ashamed to say that I'm not proud to live in a nation where I'm the default criminal.


macon d said...

Thank you for laying this out. I hope more white people read it.

This kind of profiling even happens to black police officers.

rockync said...

These women (I guess we should include men here since I seem to remember that guy in Boston claiming he and his wife were shot by a black man) both disgust and enrage me. I am not proud to live in a country where white people can not only commit a crime but then compound it by casting blame on a black male.
But to the credit of the police involved in a few of these cases, they did claim to be suspicious as soon as the "faceless black intruder" was trotted out. This has come to replace the "bushy haired stranger" of the 70s and 80s.
But incidents such as the one Macon has alluded to are still all too common.
I can only hope with each passing generation that the ugly specter of racism will continue to fade away until it disappears.
The real danger here and now is to allow racism to further divide those of us who wish for unity and equality.