Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When rape lies tap into racial stereotypes

"It appears that we really haven't put the days of the Scottsboro boys behind us," said fellow FRS blogger E. Steven Berkimer about the case of 21-year-old April Buffkin Alabama. Buffkin faces a charge of false reporting to law enforcement after claiming she was raped by two black men. Full story here.  Buffkin, who is white, resides in Somerville, Alabama, see here, a very small town whose racial makeup is 91.35% white and 5.76% black.  See here.

It is not uncommon in false rape cases reported in the United States for white accusers to claim they were raped by black men. Mr. Berkimer, for one, marvels at the "pervading belief" in this country, especially in the Southeastern portion, "that blaming black men for crime is seen as automatically believable."  Or, as W.S. Gilbert might put it, it is "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

When white accusers falsely claim that a rape was perpetrated by a black male, it raises troubling issues.

Northwestern University

Not long ago at Northwestern University, a bogus rape claim prompted two campus-wide emails: The first notified students that a female Northwestern student was sexually assaulted.  It provided an explicit description of the suspect as follows: "African American male, approximately 25 years old, 5-6 – 5-7 inches tall, with a thin but muscular build, wearing a black leather jacket and dark jeans."  The second email declared the first e-mail’s report as "false."

It was the first email's explicit description of the suspect that drew concerns and provoked a discussion about race on campus.  "One student [at a panel discussion about the rape claim] said when she first read the e-mail she was more concerned about how it might reinforce racial perceptions than how it would influence perception of gender. She said she was surprised by the specificity, when previous cases have had more blanket descriptions that could apply to people of any race." See here.  A criminology professor said: "All black young men on campus become vulnerable to further suspicion." See here.

The concerns raised about the specificity of the first email were interesting but ultimately misplaced. The Clery Act requires that timely reports of sexual assaults "shall be provided to students and employees in a manner that is timely and that will aid in the prevention of similar occurrences."  Northwestern's male population is roughly 47.1%, and its entire black population (males and females) is roughly 5.4%. See here. Since the law mandates that the University community be apprised of sex crimes in a way that will aid in the prevention of similar occurrences, how could the school not mention the alleged assailant's color? The real problem was the false rape claim as a whole, not just its racial component.

It is also interesting that a generalized description of the suspect that didn't mention race -- a description that would have caused the university's female population to eye with some degree of suspicion the university's entire male population -- was deemed preferable to the narrower description that told the community that the "suspect" was black.

Brooklyn "Nun"

More recently, a Brooklyn "nun" from a fringe Christian sect falsely claimed "that she was choked and raped by a black man."  The New York Daily News reported that black men in the neighborhood were angered, but not surprised. According to the Daily News: "Cops even released a sketch of the phantom suspect and pleaded for the public to help catch him. After more questioning, [the accuser] admitted she concocted the assault to cover up her sexual shenanigans with a bodega worker."  The men in the neighborhood were, as one put it, "pissed."

"'I don't know why they must accuse falsely like that. I think it must be prejudice," said a 56-year-old advertising worker who lives across from the convent." See here.
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We've often pointed out how rape lies sometimes include a "scary" black or Hispanic suspect in an obvious attempt to lend plausibility to the fabrication and, perhaps, to jack up the "scariness" quotient.  Rarely does anyone voice concern about the underlying racial animus of these lies.

It is well to point out that a generic rape lie told about any male, in and of itself, taps into pretty awful stereotypes -- about gender. There is an insidious, but potent, strain of misandry bubbling just beneath the surface of our culture that automatically credits every rape accusation as true, regardless of the race of the "suspect," and that perceives all men as potential rapists, as opposed to "individuals capable of entering caring and emotion-based relationships." (From the Web site of the infamous "She Fears You" program presented on some college campuses: http://www.menendingrape.org/SFYpresent.htm)

But the racial animus underlying lies that invent imaginary black rapists takes the prevarication to a whole new level of injustice.

There is a certain terrible, twisted logic of rape liars who invent a black man as their "rapist." Susan Brownmiller, in Against our Wills, demonstrated that disadvantaged blacks comprise a greatly disproportionate percentage of rapists. (A disproportionate number of rape offenders come from lower socioeconomic classes and are under-educated, under-employed, and under-skilled. See, among many others, Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion; Batten, Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates.)

The fact that the inner city -- where every social pathology is heightened by poverty and hopelessness -- sees a disproportionate number of rapes, of course, cannot justify stereotyping an entire group based on the misdeeds of a few.

The racial animus present when white women falsely accuse black men of rape is particularly repugnant because it taps into a time, not that long ago, of the hanging trees of the Deep South, when a white woman's word was a death sentence for an innocent black man or boy.  It is a terrible and painful history. Its lessons about race have largely been forgotten, and its lessons about gender have rarely ever been acknowledged. We will continue to remind readers of both.