PHILADELPHIA – It's an old lie, claiming that The Black Man Did It.
But it was trotted out again last week when a white mother from suburban Philadelphia said two black men snatched her and her 9-year-old daughter from their SUV and abducted them in the trunk of a black Cadillac.
Blacks across the country were outraged after Bonnie Sweeten was found in a luxury hotel at Disney World. Authorities quickly unraveled the hoax, but not before an Amber Alert, frantic searches and national news coverage that played into images of marauding black men.
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Racial boundaries are slowly dissolving in America, with President Barack Obama the most obvious example. Yet Sweeten's story, plus the killing of a black New York City cop by a white officer days later, was a reminder that old ideas remain burned into many minds both black and white.
Sweeten's story has provoked an outpouring of discussion among blacks, everywhere from doctor's offices to blogs. Syndicated radio host Warren Ballentine said his listeners are "furious, and they're disgusted. ... On a scale of one to 10, it's a 15."
"Their hope was that by Obama becoming president, the rest of America would take a look at black Americans and look at us for who we are and not what a stereotype is," he said.
The Black Man Did It lie last made news as recently as October, when a John McCain volunteer claimed a 6-foot-4 black man carved a B into her cheek (For Barack, evidently). Charles Stuart told it in 1989 after he killed his wife in Boston. Susan Smith told it when she drowned her sons in 1994 in South Carolina. Unknown numbers of black men were hanged for it back when lynching was a common practice.
And those are the ones we heard about. Law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown documents 67 racial hoaxes in the period between 1987 and 1996 in her book "The Color of Crime."
So after Sweeten and her daughter were found in Florida, with local newspapers reporting an investigation of whether the 38-year-old woman embezzled large sums of money, many blacks felt not only angry, but resigned and frustrated.
"Here we go again," thought Add Seymour, an Atlanta resident who works in public relations for Morehouse College.
"Not only are people going to use us as the stereotypical crime problem of America, but the problem is people believe it so easily," he said. "It's a lynch mob mentality out there. ... The first thing you think of when it comes to crime is a black man. It's crazy, and it's unfair."
It's also rooted in a confusing mixture of psychology, statistics and sociology, amplified by the media's tendency to focus on crimes against white women.
Seymour's blood starts to boil whenever people lock their car doors as he walks by — yet even blacks sometimes hit that button when black men are in the vicinity. "It's not just white people who act that way," Seymour said.
Raqiyah Mays, a radio host on Kiss FM in New York City, drew a parallel between the Sweeten hoax and the killing of a black cop last week who was shot by a white policeman. The black officer was running after a suspect, his gun drawn.
"How many times have you seen a black man running down the street and thought something negative? As opposed to seeing a white guy running down the street and you think he's running late?" said Mays, who is black. "A lot of us are guilty of it because that's the way society has been set up."
One easy explanation is that black men are convicted of crimes at much higher rates than any other group. So was falling for Sweeten's lie racism, or common sense? And does Sweeten's blond hair have anything to do with the amount of media coverage her story received?
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently wrote about the difference in coverage between the killing of a white female college student in Connecticut and the approximately three dozen Chicago public school students, mostly black, who have been killed this school year. He recalled an incident from early in his career, at another newspaper, when he heard an editor pondering the story of a dead child ask, "What color is that baby?"
"Editors may not be asking, `What color is that victim?' But, on some level, they're still thinking it," Herbert wrote.
Even without race, Sweeten's story was both sensational and nonsensical. It began when she called police, allegedly from a trunk, and said men had rear-ended her Yukon Denali at a busy suburban intersection, then abducted her and her daughter in broad daylight.
No one had seen it happen, and Sweeten somehow still had her cell phone. Black men also are scarce in Bucks County, which is 92 percent white and 4 percent black.
Authorities discovered that Sweeten had made the call from miles away, in downtown Philadelphia. Their attention turned to the airport, and Sweeten was soon found. She is free on $1 million bail, facing misdemeanor charges of identity theft and false reporting.
During a news conference after the hoax was exposed, Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry explained the charge of filing a false police report.
"It's a terrifying thing," she said, "for a community to hear that two black men in a black Cadillac grabbed a woman and her daughter."