Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The myth of the "black male boogeyman"

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to non-political news, I’d like to applaud a recent op-ed The Big Black Lie in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the opinions of several Philly columnists.  

They address the most recent News Flash – yet another white female accusing a scary black male of being her abductor.  

Their job is often thankless, but police and the FBI did a commendable job solving the case of a Bucks County mother and daughter “abducted” by mythical black assailants. When Bonnie Sweeten called 9-1-1, authorities had to treat her story seriously. The mother, sounding terrified, told police that she and her 9-year-old daughter were carjacked by two black men on Street Road and stuffed into the trunk of a Cadillac.

She also called her husband, expressing the fear that she might never see her family again.

Police called in the FBI, and authorities put out an Amber Alert, which was prudent. Even if investigators had doubts about Sweeten’s story, they couldn’t ignore the possibility that she was telling the truth.

The piece goes on to document the dirty laundry list of recent events that have featured scary black men:

The false-report charges against Sweeten are misdemeanors, but the damage goes beyond a minor crime. Once again, a white person in trouble with the law sought to cover tracks by blaming phantom black men. It has become the default alibi. The list includes Tanya Dacri, the Philadelphia mother who drowned her infant and dismembered it in 1989, then told cops a black man had stolen her child. There was Charles Stuart of Boston, who killed his pregnant wife and told cops a black man shot her. (In that case, police rounded up black “suspects.”)

Susan Smith of South Carolina told police in 1994 that a black man abducted her young sons to cover the fact that she’d drowned them in a lake. Ashley Todd, a McCain-Palin campaign volunteer, claimed she was robbed in Pittsburgh last October by a black man who carved a “B” for Barack Obama on her face. She later confessed she’d made it up and mutilated her own face.

Black Americans understandably feel disgust at these desperate inventions by white accusers. They can’t be blamed for wondering if such a story lacking the racial component would have received as much national media attention. It may not be much consolation to African Americans, but many white people also suspected that Sweeten’s story.

Elmer Smith, columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News gives his take on the hoax:

Another crime appearance by ‘black men’

Anybody around the water cooler with an IQ of 65 or above was starting to sense that the by-now hardy perennial tale of the missing blue-eyed blonde being hijacked by those handy, hulking black men from Central Casting was bogus. Don’t gloat too much, though. The odor of week-old carp was wafting off of this one from the moment the call came in from the damn’dsel in distress.

I can’t get a call through from an elevator but missy was able to get a clear signal from the trunk of a Cadillac. General Motors could build an ad campaign around that feature.In the growing annals of hijack hoaxes, this one makes Susan Smith’s lame yarn look like the search for the DaVinci Code.

Smith, you may remember, was the young mother who rolled her car into a South Carolina lake, killing her two sons in 1994. She claimed that the culprit was a black man who sped off with the boys, aged 3 and 1, in the backseat of her hijacked car.

He concludes, after discussing his list of “favorites”, (his was Ashley Todd)

Before this investigation is over, we may learn that Bonnie Sweeten had embezzled thousands of dollars from her former employer before stealing a former co-worker’s ID to buy airline tickets to take her nine-year-old daughter to Disney World. The paper trail she left behind was easier to follow than the bread crumbs Hansel and Gretel left on their trek through the woods. Her inevitable conviction may be a deterrent to the next fable spinner.

But this is small solace to hundreds of black men who have found themselves in the dragnet after one of these bogus yarns. Some of them have been convicted on the basis of lies not much better than this one.

The truth may make us free. But lies like Sweeten’s may keep some of us from having to be freed.

Annette John Hall, writes Time to stop demonizing ‘black men’

She also cites the laundry list of bogus cases that have recently captured headlines, and speaks of the long history of these accusations.

Example after example of people showing the capacity for evil and deceit, yet they dispassionately and cruelly play into the long-held belief that a generic black man should always be feared. A sentiment expressed since our nation’s existence – with an overseer’s whip during slavery. With a rope and a tree in the 20th century. With racist blame games that work even today.

“It’s a terrifying thing for a community to hear that two black men in a black Cadillac grabbed a woman and her daughter. . . . It’s terrifying,” Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry admitted at Wednesday night’s news conference after the hoax was revealed, probably telegraphing more about her own fear than she intended to.

Fact is, there are plenty of victims in this story. A husband and an ex-husband. The children Sweeten abandoned. Loyal friends. And not least of all her 9-year-old, whose face is plastered next to her mug shot on every station in the country. But long after the dust settles, there will still be residue left on black men. No matter who they are.

Scary black men.  Black male = criminal.  Can I blame the populace for buying into this?  We all know the nations prisons are filled to bursting with black males.  Fear, irrational fear (and racism is often rooted in fear) is grounded in these “facts”. Until the deeply institutionalized racism in our criminal in-justice system is addressed, until “black” is not equated with other racist adjectives (like welfare mother), until we have more frank and open discussion about deeply buried prejudices, this will continue.  

Black women are stereotyped too. Attempts to portray Michelle Obama as a scary black woman have been an epic fail, thankfully.  Having a black male as POTUS may be a start of change for my brothers.  For now though, for the ordinary black man on the street, it is never far out of his thinking…black men have to be careful when walking, driving, always editing how they will be perceived by strangers, feeling the fear reaction if you simply want to ask directions from white strangers.

My husband talks about this sometimes.  He is very cautious in his interactions on his job, on the subway, or in supermarkets.  Though Puerto Rican, he is tall and dark.  

How do you think we can change this?

(cross posted at DailyKos)


  1. And in Jersey, it actually means that my buddy Neal gets stopped less often if I’m in the passenger seat.

    So, I invite folks to be that token white friend. Luckily, I’m also the token Asian friend too, to help with splitting the tab math…

    OK, kidding aside, it is a problem. It has been for a long while–the difference is that today there is 99.9% less lynching involved. Only a generation ago, white girls who wanted to avoid being looked at too closely for their wrong doing could invoke the black man as their cover story, but it led to folks getting strung up and homes being burned.

    It isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly not an excuse for this behavior, but we are progressing.

    Increasingly, we are becoming a society mired in class differences as opposed to racial differences. You can see this is cities like Miami or even Atlanta. It is going to be more and more apparent in another twenty years as demographics swing more, and we see a LOT more brown folks, and more importantly, a lot more racially mixed folks.

    That there is the invocation of the scary black male is part of the popular culture. Not just because of the skewed crime statistics, and not just because of visible figures thanks to the Cult of Sports, but because popular culture has made being “Bad” into a translation of attractive strength. And that goes for black or white, or latino males. Even the Wall Street Warriors want to be seen as tough. In popular culture, there are a few ways to achieve that standing–but we play into that when we emulate those cinema heroes, and play up those stereotypes.

    Not just for black men, but for all the Guido Mafiaoso wannabes. All the many Asian tough-guys who play up the style of film mobsters and idolizing the gangster motiffs across popular culture for so many, period.  

  2. HappyinVT

    If the mom in fact stole from family and friends why on earth would she purposefully draw the attention of the police?  She could still be living it up in Florida if the authorities weren’t looking into her disappearance which they said raised flags from the get-go.

    I bought the story when it first aired but the “black guys” as the abductors did give me pause; I got burned by Susan Smith.

  3. I’m chairing the BDA National Conference Video Gaming and Robotics Exhibition this summer.  The small company I work for is HUB (Historically Underutilized Business) certified (basically governmenteze for “black owned”) and I am as likely as not to be the only white guy in any given room.  All of which brings a wide range of observations and thoughts on related topics into focus.  Not surprisingly, many of the “conclusions” that can be reached (if I could be so bold as to conclude anything) fall into the “it’s complicated” realm.

    The bulk of BDPA membership consists of business folks who are more diligent, more active, more serious, better prepared and better dressed than is the norm in my experience.  It seems to me that there is a “Jackie Robinson Effect” in place, particularly for members in their fifties or greater: i.e. if you are going to do this stuff and be black, you have to be a lot more than just a little bit better than average.  The BDPA as an industry organization is demonstrably more effective than  most (frankly, any) other similar organization I have encountered.

    There is certainly both an enormous amount of progress behind us and a lot ahead of us.  “How much?” ahead of us is the $64 question, but I think the last year has shown a lot of people that it isn’t the unforeseeable (or unreachable) future.  In living memory, stories like the one that open the diary, as HS notes, would almost always lead to summary hangings.  I think the lifetimes of some alive today will see the near-complete fading of this part of our cultural stupidity.

    My recent debate in another diary has me pondering if I really want to try to tackle this entire issue right now in all its complexities, you will know almost as soon as I if I decide to rush into that particular burning barn.  All I am certain of is that we will know when we are at our goal when the Bonnie Sweeten’s of the world don’t bother and when the BDPAs and NAACPs aren’t needed.

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