I am your scapegoat. I am your boogeyman. Brown-skinned, kinky-haired, black man, me.
So I was not surprised (it was just another day at the office) last week when a white woman from suburban Philadelphia called police from her cellphone, claiming she had been locked in the trunk of a Cadillac by two black men.
Nor was I shocked (it was just another day in the life) when police said Bonnie Sweeten was actually holed up in a luxury hotel at Walt Disney World, and there never was a kidnapping, much less by two black men.
I'm your scapegoat. I'm your boogeyman. So I'm used to these things.
In fact, they happen often. Happened just a few months ago when that John McCain campaign worker said she was robbed by a burly black man who carved a "B" into her face . . . as in "Barack," get it? Turned out she carved the letter herself, then blamed a black man. Just as Charles Stuart did when he killed his wife in 1989. Just as Tanya Dacri did when she dismembered her 7-week-old son that same year. Just as Susan Smith did when she rolled her car, her two boys inside, into a lake in 1994.
University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, author of The Color of Crime, has documented 92 such incidents between 1987 and 2006. She cautions that white men are sometimes victims of racial hoaxes: witness the cases of Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse team.
But she says the overwhelming majority of the time – 67 percent, to be exact – it is the other way around: white liars blaming black men for things that did not happen. Russell-Brown is particularly intrigued that Sweeten identified her supposed kidnappers as driving a Cadillac. That fits a pattern, she says. "When it's someone white alleging they've been harmed by someone African American, there are these fantastic racially laden stereotypes that are used. Whether it's dreadlocks, or smell, or big and burly. This fits right in, the Cadillac."
Naturally. Because I'm your scapegoat, your boogeyman. Cadillac drivin', pimp-walkin', white woman-lustin', me.
I am the shape and size and sound of your fears. You know me on sight, know me before you know my name, know me before I even stick out my hand and say Hi. You know I have no feelings beyond your perception of me, no thought beyond what you impute to me, no purpose beyond your fear of me. I live in the shadow of your consciousness, do not exist outside of you.
But can you imagine if I did? Boy, can you imagine the ache and anger if I did?
It's a good thing I don't, a good thing I am only what I am: scapegoat, boogeyman, the car window you roll up, the door you lock, the ATM you avoid, the crime statistics you glance right by because they try to tell you I'm not what you think I am, didn't do what you thought I did.
Hell, you don't need some researcher's "statistics" to know about me. We've known each other for years. Dozens of years, hundreds of years. Remember when you denied me a job, then called me a thief? Remember when you blew up my school then called me ignorant? Remember when you killed my father, then complained I was filled with rage?
No, you're right. There's no point in remembering that. Why should you remember a past that makes you uncomfortable? Why do I even need a past, existing as I do only within the confines of your awareness? All we have – or need – is the now. And in the now, Bonnie Sweeten has been exposed and she'll face the law and that's all we can really ask, isn't it? There's no point in digging deeper, no purpose served in wondering why, when she wanted to put a face to a crime, she chose mine.
We already know. I'm your scapegoat, I'm your boogeyman. And I have no feelings beyond those you give me.
But can you imagine if I did?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.