Table of Contents
The Prevalence of Hoaxes and Fabrications
How common are hate crime hoaxes? Some civil rights, Jewish and "antiracist" groups stress the view that they are unusual and represent the misguided work of disturbed individuals. On the other end of the spectrum is the view held by genuine racists and anti-Semites that a massive conspiracy exists to commit hoaxes and publicize them as bona fide hate crimes. The truth, as might be expected, lies somewhere between these two positions. The problem, however, has long been recognized even by anti-racist authors and journalists although few of them have written about it.. Ben Hass, author of the anti-Klan classic, "KKK", noted that "It would be foolish, of course, to say that all violence attributed to the Klan was actually committed by Klansmen, or as a Klan-sponsored activity. Therein lay the fallacy of the disguise. Any gang of hoodlums that could scare up the requisite robes and hoods could set out to have some sadistic fund or settle personal grudges, and the onus of their misbehavior would automatically fall on the Klan." In all likelihood, the actual extent of racist and anti-Semitic hoaxes can never be known as long as unsolved cases are uniformly regarded as actual and not merely suspected hate crimes. Police who investigate alleged hate crime cases privately report that a surprisingly large percent are "suspicious" or "likely hoaxes or pranks." In talking with college and university security officials I encountered responses ranging from "a few, not too many," to "damned near all of them."o Most officials were cautious and reluctant to talk without some assurance of anonymity, and a several merely referred me to administrators who were even more paranoid. when a figure for hoaxes was mentioned, however, it was often in the area of 25% This figure has a kind of reasonableness about it, allowing that it probably doesn’t hold true for every environment. Deliberate misrepresentations, hoaxes and frauds are surprisingly commonplace in American political life. They are more likely to occur in those issues where taboos, "sensitivity," or fear of being called names are operational, or where the moral imperatives of noble social causes and crusades overwhelm individual judgment. Let’s look at few proven hoaxes involving blacks. In these examples, most people are deeply effected by the emotional impact of the message. Few ask whether the message is actually true. Roots: A Search For Black Origins As an example, perhaps one of the greatest literary hoaxes, with strong racial overtones, was committed by Alex Haley, author of the spurious book, Roots , which fraudulently purports to trace his ancestry back to a village in Africa. What is particularly troublesome about this hoax is that, al- A though knowledgeable researchers doubted Haley’s work from the beginning, it wasn’t until December, 1978 when Haley settled a plagiarism lawsuit with Harold Courlander, author of the 1967 novel, The African, for $650,000, that it became clear how seriously Haley had fudged his facts. In the meantime, the book sold 1.5 million copies and Alex Haley had won a Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, Haley was quoted on 10 April 1977 in the New York Times,, "It would be a scoop to beat all hell if Roots could be proved to be a hoax, and that’s one of the reasons why it was so important to me to document as best I could." The Roots hoax had enormous consequences, for the story it fabricated was used to inspire militancy in a generation of black people, and was a significant factor in the development of black political power in the post-civil rights movement 1970’s and 1980’s. Its influence persists to this day. Although the hoax has received considerable publicity, it’s still widely regarded as an authentic and inspirational legend, not uncommonly shown in the nation’s schools in order to sensitize white students to the black experience. The television miniseries it generated was viewed by an estimated 130 million people and broke existing Neilsen TV ratings. Subsequent research showed that Haley stole passages from other books and fabricated many of the characters. Even his pre-civil war U.S. research, where some records were available, was faked. when University of Alabama Professor Gary Mills and his wife, Elizabeth, editor of the National Geographic Society Quarterly, attempted to document Haley’s genealogical work, they concluded "The records show that [Haley] got everything wrong in his pre-Civil War lineage. One hundred and eighty-two pages and 39 chapters on Haley’s Virginia family have no basis in fact." A So extensive was the hoax that Harvard professor Oscar Handlin observed. "A fraud’s a fraud...Historians are reluctant - cowardly about calling attention to factual errors when the general theme is in the right direction. That goes for foreign policy, for race, and for this book." The Liberators: Black-Jewish Reconciliation A more recent example of a hoax involving faked black history is the 1992 Public Broadcasting System film, The Liberators, which purports to tell of the part played by the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in April, 1945. Viewed by an audience of 3.7 million people, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. Largely the work of William Miles and Nina Rosenblum, producers of politically-correct documentaries on blacks and women, the film was designed to ease strained black-Jewish relations. Leaders from the black and Jewish communities viewed a special showing of the film and spoke of a "common history of oppression." Good sentiments aside, they had chosen a fraudulent vehicle to bring the groups closer. In a February 1992 interview in The New Republic, Nina Rosenblum attacked critics of the film as "Holocaust revisionists," and attributed their criticism to racism. But according to former Army Captain David Williams of the 761st, the unit was nowhere near Dachau when the camp was liberated. He says, "On April 29, 1945, the 761st was near Straubing, which is 30 about 70 miles from Dachau as the crow flies. Bridges were down, the tanks were all beat up., There wasn’t enough gas. Nobody could have just taken a Sherman tank on a 140-mile round trip and not have been noticed missing. He would have been court-martialed." Philip Latimer, president of the 761st veteran’s group, said, "all anybody had to go is look at our history. There is no mention of Dachau or Buchenwald." Other doubts about the documentary arose and articles questioning its veracity appeared elsewhere. Finally, in February, 1993, WNET-TV, a PBS affiliate involved in the film’s production, decided to withdraw The Liberators from circulation, admitting that the 761st Tank Battalion "did not, in fact, liberate two concentration camps, as described in the film." M Dr. Charles Drew: Death by Discrimination? One of the more enduring hoaxes has been the falsified account of the death of Dr. Charles Drew, a black physician credited with developing their blood bank system. According to the hoax, Dr. Drew bled to death following a 1950 automobile accident because a white-only hospital refused to treat him. This unfounded tale was repeated by National Urban League director Whitney Young in a 1964 syndicated column, and black historian, William Loren Katz, wrote of the spurious incident in his 1971 book, Eyewitness: The Negro in, American History. Katz has since acknowledged the error. Dr. Charles Mason Quick, also a black physician, has said he wants to stamp out this "perpetual lie" about Dr. Drew. Quick says he personally saw three emergency room doctors work for two hours trying to save Dr. Drew’s life. Drew’s injuries included brain damage and he died in the emergency room. Cecil Adams, author of "The Straight Dope" column in Washington, DC’s City Paper, reported that Dr. John Ford, one of the passengers who was injured in Dr. Drew’s car, reported that "We all received the very best of care. The doctors started treating us immediately." Adams also mentioned a similar hoax involving a famous black blues singer. "The Drew story is strangely similar to one told about blues singer Bessie Smith. She too supposedly bled to death after an auto accident when a white hospital refused to admit her. The alleged incident, which occurred in Mississippi in 1937, was even the subject of a play by Edward Albee." Dr. Martin Luther King: A Case of Plagiarism There has been no greater black icon than Martin Luther King, whose name became synonymous with the civil rights movement in America. Yet, controversy plagued his life until his terrible assassination in 1968. It became widely known that he was abusive to women and frequented prostitutes as he traveled around the country. Several of his close associates had long-time ties to the Communist party. What was not known until long after his death, however, was that his degree as "Dr." was unearned and, in fact, the product of fraud. King’s degree was awarded for a supposedly original thesis entitled "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wireman" he submitted to Boston University in 1955 as part of his requirements for a phd. Over the years rumors built up about the originality of the work, and in 1990 the University established a committee to investigate the alleged plagiarism. In October 1991, the committee released its findings. ’ I "There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation." In spite of these highly damaging findings, however, the committee said that "no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree from Boston University." 5 Committee members, through their spokesman, John Cartwright (Martin Luther King professor of Social Ethics), said "I think it is good to get this behind us." The Absence of Healthy Skepticism Most Americans take a surprisingly uncritical and unquestioning attitude toward this problem.i They seem to believe that whatever is said, or written, or done in the service of a good cause must be the truth - particularly if that cause is fighting racism and anti-Semitism. Why, after all, would anyone lie, fabricate, exaggerate or distort when it seems clear that they are pure in heart? And what if they did?i Aren’t they doing it for a good cause? And what of those who expose these deceptions? Isn’t this evidence of some kind of covert racism or anti-Semitism? Why would anyone talk bad about a good cause? In short, those who lie and distort are the good guys, and those who pursue the facts of the matter are the bad guys! This is a pretty incredible situation, indeed. For example, the elaborate rape hoax concocted by Tawana Brawley, her mother and Rev. Al Sharpton was accepted at face value by politicians and the media. It brought about a virtual orgy of white guilt and anti-racist agitation, and we were made to feel that in some metaphysical way we were all somehow responsible for what happened to this young black girl. Finally, an intensive investigation revealed the hoax that should have been suspected early on. There are still people who believe that the story "must have something to it." You even heard the argument that "if it didn’t happen to her, it might have happened to someone else somewhere, sometime." It became a question of the identity of the victim and alleged victimizers, and not one of facts or evidence. For many people, that Tawana Brawley was black was all they needed to know. Nothing else carried as much significance as her minority status. Victimhood Pays In terms of cost-benefit analysis, the actual payoff for victimhood can be very high and the risk of discovery of a hoax very small. This issue of "secondary gain" plays an important part in racist and anti-Semitic hoaxes, and the search for an answer to this troubling phenomenon is well served by the question, "Who benefits?" When a hoaxer gets caught, which isn’t often, there are "fall back" positions which can put a positive spin on the incident. The hoaxer’s status may be reframed so that "blaming the victim" can be alleged. Or, he may become "mentally ill," which also removes any responsibility for the hoax. Barry Dov Schuss, responsible for several apparently anti-Semitic arsons,, wanted to keep awareness of anti-Semitism alive and, until he was caught, accomplished it through a series of arsons in Hartford’s Jewish community. 17 Psychiatric treatment was the major part of his "punishment". The rest was probation and a suspended sentence. 1 In the case of Sabrina Collins, who fabricated harassment and death threats, the county prosecutor said she needed "counseling and treatment, not prosecution" for her hoax. I did not uncover a case where a white, non-minority defendant in a "hate crime" prosecution was treated so generously or relieved of responsibility in such a manner. With hoaxes the nature of the offense makes discovery difficult. Telephone harassment, for example, usually leaves no forensic evidence, unless the problem is severe enough for police to order a monitoring device. This happened in several of the hoaxes mentioned in this essay. A telephone message service by the Oklahoma White Man’s Association was being sabotaged by endless incoming calls tying up the line. The group complained to the police and the telephone company who installed tracing equipment on the line., An investigation showed that the local Jewish Community Center where a computer was apparently automatically dialing call after call, was the source of the problem. In spite of hard evidence to the contrary, Jewish Community Center director David Bernstein said, "We have no computers here and we’re not jamming any phones." No criminal charges were filed. In other cases, Buzz Cody and Laurie Recht, both of whom fabricated anti-Semitic death threats, were entrapped with telephone tracing equipment. In the case of defacing property with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, investigation is made only slightly easier. Spray painted graffiti, unlike handwriting or typewritten material, cannot be pinned down- gin two cases S mentioned in this study the discovery of the very spraycan in the possession of the "victims" led to their prosecution, but both were acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence. The eye-witness account is often an important factor in hoax investigation. In many cases it was this that led authorities to suspect fabrication. The factor here was inconsistent testimony or different stories by different witnesses, or physical evidence of lying. Where the possibility of a hoax exists, the witness (who is often the victim) should be interrogated by a person skilled in that area. Surprisingly, the cover story often isn’t very well prepared and can be "cracked" with reasonable effort. In the case of Quentin Banks, who faked a racist assault and death threats, it was a skilled interrogator who caught him in a number of contradictions and broke the case. To so Temptation To Fabricate Hoaxes is Strong Because bona fide organized racist and anti-Semitic incidents are relatively unusual today, and because they serve valuable functions for the victims and their constituencies when they occur, the temptation to fabricate incidents is strong. Victims are usually treated as heroes who have been ennobled by their experience and the rage against the suspected perpetrators, as well as representatives of their race, gender or class, can be amazing. In terms of sheer effectiveness, nothing works quite as well as a racist or anti-Semitic incident to intimidate an institution, "sensitize" a population, polarize an issue or silence critics. Victimization, genuine or faked, can accomplish more in minutes than months of organizing, agitation and propaganda. is The personal benefits are impressive as well. Many hoaxers have received substantial assistance from sympathizers and wellwishers, as in the case of Patricia Anderson and Lee Williams, who vandalized their own house, and received offers of clothing, gifts and money. Laurie Recht, who faked death threats and graffiti, became a celebrity for her victimhood, and wound up with a scholarship and an honorary "Doctor of Humane Letters" before her hoax was discovered. The most important benefits of victimization are psychological, however. The delicious sense of importance and meaning to one’s life that victimization brings is often overlooked as a motive in hoaxes of the kind illustrated here. I suspect it plays a very significant role. The paranoid personality, with it’s tendency to interpret everyday experience in vigilant and suspicious terms, revels in the attention of recognized victimization. Victimization gives dignity to the undignified, importance to the unimportant, and a kind of "I told you so" self-fulfilling prophecy that explains failure and disappointment as few things can. Not being liked becomes less of as question of what is wrong with you than what is wrong with others who don’t like you. Some people become important and valued for what they do, their contributions to their loved ones, to their careers, and to society; others for what is done to them. In the former case many years of forming character traits and a reputation are required, and the resulting importance can be seen as a reward for recognized accomplishment. In the latter case no such accomplishment is required, only that one is victimized. Victimization is instant fame, instant sympathy, and often in some form or another, instant compensation. Whatever shortcomings, unpopularity or character flaws one has are eclipsed by the wickedness of one’s alleged persecutors. Having the "right" enemies can often lead to acquiring the "right" friends. In a perceptive article on victimization appearing in The New York Times Magazine a few years ago, Joseph Epstein discussed the issue of motivation quite perceptively . . "... victimhood has not only its privileges but its pleasures. To begin with, it allows one to save one’s sympathy for that most sympathetic of characters -- oneself. "The pleasures of victimhood including imbuing one’s life with a sense of drama. .The drama of daily life is greatly heightened if one feels that society is organized against one. To feel oneself excluded and set apart is no longer obviously or even necessarily a bad thing... "People who count and call themselves victims never blame themselves or their condition. They therefore have to find enemies..." Hate Crimes Harmful to Bona Fide Racists, Hate Groups There’s a very important point that needs to be understood here: bona fide racist and anti-Semitic harassment is invariably counterproductive for bona fide racists and anti-Semites. The quickness and skill with which racist and anti-Semitic incidents, including hoaxes, are used to galvanize support in a community is amazing. No benefit accrues to racists and antiSemites and the costs are enormous. Not only does law enforcement immediately start targeting suspects for questioning, but efforts to entrap them in other offenses step up as well. "Who benefits?" The honest answer is not white racist and anti-Semitic groups! So damaging to real anti-Semites and racists are desecrations and graffiti that one bona fide anti-Semite, Jozef Mlot-Mroz of Salem, Massachusetts, was arrested for attempting to paint over anti-Semitic graffiti on a local synagogue. He claimed that the graffiti was intended to create an false impression of anti-Semitic harassment in the community. Mlot-Mroz was charged with malicious destruction of property over $250.00 and civil rights violation, both felonies, according to newspaper reports. Although evidently not a hoax, a Lomita, California, graffiti case demonstrates the counter-productiveness of racist and anti-Semitic vandalism, and the skill with which these incidents can be exploited to generate sympathy and mobilize opposition to alleged perpetrators. In 1991 Janis Brett Elspas and her husband Schlomo found a Nazi swastika and the words "White Power" spraypainted on the garage doors of their house at 7:30 one morning. This was allegedly the ninth time their home had been the target of antiSemitic attacks. A public relations professional, Ms. Brett-Elspas immediately went into high gear and by 8:30 AM she was faxing a news release to area television and radio stations. "By noon we had finished several newspaper interviews and T had posed for photos for each. Throughout the day we did more interviews by phone with two major Los Angeles all-news radio stations, and a variety of local, national and international Jewish publications. And, when five television crews showed up at 4 PM (just one hour before the start of the Jewish Sabbath), we held an impromptu press conference in our living room." 2 Within a week the Los Angeles Times had done three major stories, and the Daily Breeze, a Torrance daily, published three major articles based in .interviews with the couple. Numerous radio and TV stations had covered the incident, and stories ran in several Jewish newspapers. The incident and resulting publicity were instrumental in rewriting a city ordinance dealing with hate crimes, and an ad hoc committee was formed to deal with graffiti and hate crimes. At the time of this writing the case remains unsolved. 35 l Ben Hass, K55 (New York: Greenleaf, 1963). 2 Alex Haley, Roots (New York: Doubleday, 1976). 3 Harold Courlander, The Africans, A Novel (New York: Crown Publishers, 1967). 4 Esther B. Fein, "Haley’s Final Family Sage Is Being Sold As A Novel," New York Times (3 March 1993). 5 Quoted in: Philip Nobile, "Uncovering Roots," Village Voice (23 February 1993). 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 8 Richard Bernstein, "Doubts Mar PBS Film On A Black Army Unit," New York Times (28 February 1993). 9 Debra Nussbaum Cohen, "Film About Black Liberators called ’Seriously Flawed,’" Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (17 September 1993). l0 Ibid. ll William Loren Katz, Eyewitness: The Negro in American History, (New York: Pitman Pub. Corp., 1971). l2 United Press International, "Physician Wants ’Perpetual Lie’ of Blood Pioneer’s Death Erased," Greensboro News (12 July 1982). 13 Cecil Adams, "The Straight Dope," City Paper (24 November 1989). l4 King Plagiarized, Panel Finds," New York Times (October 11, 1991). l5 Ibid. 16 Robert D. McFadden, et al., The Story Behind The Tawana. Brawley Hoax (New York: Bantam Books, 1990); Associated Press, "Brawley’s Rape Story A Lie, N.Y. Attorney General . Says," New York Times (7 October 1988): Ralph Blumenthal, et . al., Evidence Points To Deceit By Brawley," New York Times (27 September 1988). l7 Barbara Sullivan, "Three Arsons Ignite Old Fear of AntiSemitism," Chicago Tribune (1 September 1983); Richard L. Madden, "Fires at Connecticut Jewish Sites Laid to a Synagogue Member, 17," New York Times (14 December 1983).: l8 Sullivan, Op Cit., Richard L. Madden, "Youth Is Charged In Blazes at Synagogues," New York Times (14 December 1983); Associated Press (26 January 1984). 19 Sonya Ross, "Officials Think Student Fabricated Racist Threats," Associated Press (2 February 1990); "Campus Racism: Seeking The Real Victim," Newsweek (21 May 1990); "DeKalb Won’t Prosecute in Emory Case," Associated Press (1 June 1990). 2O Wayne Greene, "Calls To Hate Group Traced To Jewish Center," Tulsa World (24 December 1988). 2l Fred Mares, "Student Says He Lied About Racial Threats," The Kansas City Times (6 December 1988). 22 John C. Ensslin and Ann Carnahan, "Swastikas Prompt Probe By FBI," Rocky Mountain News (7 December 1990); Mark Brown, "Generosity Deluges Family Whose Home Was Torched," Rocky Mountain News (15 December 1990); Tillie Fong, "Man Gets 10 Years in Fake Hate Crime," Rocky Mountain News (29 May 1991). 23 James Feron, "Yonkers Housing Advocate Held in Fake Death Threats," New York Times (1 December 1988). 24 Joseph Epstein, "The Joys of Victimhood, New York Times Magazine (2 July 1989). 25 Mlot-Mroz Faces Charges," Beyerly Times (9 September 1989). 26 PR Pro Turns Racial Attack Into PR Opportunity," IABC Communication World (April 1991).