Rosewood, Florida, was a predominately Black town that was burned down after a mob of armed white men descended on the town seeking revenge for the alleged assault of a white woman. For several days during the first week of January in 1923, they terrorized the town. Black residents hid in a nearby swamp, fled to neighboring towns, or escaped by a train in secret. In the aftermath, eight people were killed, though it’s expected that the number of casualties was undercounted to downplay the severity. No one was charged due to insufficient evidence. And the town was abandoned (Britannica, Tampa Bay).
The Rosewood Massacre mirrors countless stories of racial violence and injustice at the hands of white perpetrators that have faded silently into American history. While the dates, towns, and names are different, a commonality is shared: intentional false accusations of crime.
Racial hoaxing is when someone falsifies or commits a crime and accuses another person of a different race. Allegations of assault, rape, or murder are used in hoaxes. While anyone can use this tactic, two-thirds of known incidences are committed by white perpetrators (The Atlantic). White accusers rely on stereotypes that posit that people of color, specifically Black men, are violent perpetrators of crime. They depend on police and public sympathy, often only afforded to white people, to sell the story.
• Support organizations like Centurion and Witness to Innocence, working to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and empower them upon their release.
If a crime has taken place, these hoaxes redirect suspension away from the accuser or the accuser’s actual offender, typically a partner, by scapegoating people of color, qualifying themselves to the presumption of innocence.
In 1991, Gregory Counts and VanDyke Perry were convicted after being falsely accused of gang rape. They spent 36 years in prison before being exonerated in 2018 after the accuser recanted her testimony, admitting that “she was pressured into concocting the false accusation by her boyfriend who owed money to the men” (Innocence Project). In 1995, Susan Smith told police that an African American carjacked and kidnapped her two young sons. Though later confessed to letting the car roll into a lake with the boys still inside (ABC News). Similarly, Patricia Ripley falsely accused “two Black men” of abducting her autistic son during a carjacking that resulted in his death in 2020. Police later determined that she had falsified the report to cover up that she had drowned him herself (ABC News).
Black people are seven times more likely to be falsely convicted of murder than white people. They are three and a half times more likely to be innocent of sexual assault than white people. And are often misidentified in assault cases, causing their conviction (The National Registry of Exonerations).
The alternative racial hoaxing occurs when a person from a marginalized group claims to be a victim of a hate crime to receive public sympathy or to draw widespread attention to a social issue. In 1990, a George Washington University student fabricated a rape story to the college’s newspaper. She described an assault of an unnamed white student by two young black men at knifepoint. Her reasoning: she “hoped the story, as reported, would highlight the problems of safety for women” (The New York Times).
Wrongful convictions, lynchings, and the decimation of towns have been the by-product of racial hoaxing. Even when the fabricated offense doesn’t stem from an original crime, hoaxes have destructive consequences and are deeply rooted in white supremacy.
From post-slavery until the end of the Jim Crow era, rape and sexual assault were weaponized as a “tool of oppression” and used against Black men to justify lynchings.
Politician Rebecca Latimer Felton said, “if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.” She is considered to be the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate (American Bar Association).
As newly freed Black people started gaining rights during the Reconstruction era, white people saw Black mobility as a threat. As such, their perceptions of Black people shifted. From “childlike,” “compliant and submissive servants,” they began to view them as “savages and brute monsters” (Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment).
False hysteria that Black men were raping and taking away their women also started to form and followed Black men into the 20th century along with the “brute image.” As a result, any physical relationship between a white woman and a black man was considered an unwanted assault, even if it was consensual (Slate). This notion was reinforced with the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which depicts animalistic Black men trying to assault white women. They are only then “defeated by the Ku Klux Klan,” further cementing the tropes of white male savior, fragile white female in need of protection, and criminal Black men.
Throughout history, white mobs assailed unsuspecting Black towns to pursue the accused under the duress of white accusers, primarily women, attacking and killing Black bystanders and destroying businesses, churches, and homes. In some reported instances, it’s assumed that accusations were made against Black men to protect abusive white partners or cover up affairs (PBS, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). If there were no named culprit for the alleged crime, these mobs would hunt down and target any Black man as an outlet for their rage, resulting in numerous lynchings.
From 1877 to 1950, there were 4,084 documentedlynchings in 12 Southern states, including Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana, which had the highest rates of lynching in the U.S (Equal Justice Initiative).
The Tulsa Race Massacre, the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, the Scottsboro Boys, the Groveland Four, the lynching of Emmett Till, and nameless others all started after a Black man or boy was knowingly falsely accused of a crime (Washington Post, History). These intentional false accusations still occur today and have real-life victims: Dhameer Bradley, Malik St. Hilaire, Gregory Counts, and VanDyke Perry (American Bar Association). They play into the same insidious dynamics that associate criminality with Blackness and fragility to whiteness.
• Racial hoaxing occurs when a person knowingly falsifies or commits a crime and accuses another person of a different race.
• The Rosewood Massacre, Scottsboro Boys, and the Groveland Four are just a few examples of false accusations that resulted in racial violence and injustices.
• Racial hoaxing is a by-product of white supremacy.