I don’t know how closely you pay attention to the news, but race is a pretty hot topic these days. Aside from police brutality and the COVID’s disproportional effect on minorities, the nation was treated to two more “racial hoaxes” in the last two weeks. I’d like to examine these stories as well as a number of similar racial hoaxes in recent history and determine what they say about the battle for racial equality today.
The first incident took place in Oakland, California, where several nooses were found hanging in a public park. The story went viral when a passerby noticed one of the supposed nooses hanging from a tree. She videoed the noose and posted it to social media. Later, four more such “nooses” were found in the same general area. These discoveries also came on the heels of an investigation into two separate incidents of black men found hanged in Southern California. The public nooses in a predominantly black area combined with the hanging of two black men evoke memories of lynchings in the Jim Crow South.
Well, it turns out that the death of both men were ruled suicides, and the public nooses were actually put up by a local black man (based on his own public admission) for local children to be able to use them as exercise equipment. This did not stop Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf from claiming that she has to “start with the assumption that these are hate crimes,” despite already knowing that these weren’t crimes at all. She later added that “intentions don’t matter when it comes to terrorizing the public,” which is a truly amazing way to look at investigations. As far as I’m aware, negligent terrorism isn’t even a phrase, let alone a crime.
The second race hoax also involved a noose and came courtesy of NASCAR. Last week, it was reported that a noose was found hanging in the garage of the car belonging to Bubba Wallace, the only black driver on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit, at Talladega Motor Speedway in Alabama. Understandably, this was shocking. The discovery came on the heels of NASCAR banning the Confederate flag from all events, so people put two and two together and assumed that this was a disgusting protest against the ban, a ban that Wallace was instrumental in. The response from NASCAR was extremely heartwarming: All drivers pushed Wallace’s car to the front of the line in a show of solidarity. Fifteen FBI agents were also assigned to the case.
Well, it turned out to be a garage pull. You know the cord you have in your garage to help close the door? Well that’s what this was. In fact, the rope was there since at least October, before the garage assignments were even handed out. The only truth about the story was that it was, in fact, a noose. But it wasn’t targeted at Wallace. It had nothing to do with the Confederate flag. It wasn’t even meant to be a message at all. This didn’t stop alleged journalist Jamele Hill from claiming that the noose was a “disgusting reminder of who this sport is for.” Hill later refused to apologize for the statement. It also didn’t stop Wallace from claiming that the garage pull was still wrong. “It was a noose,” Wallace said in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. “Whether tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose. So, it wasn’t directed at me but somebody tied a noose. That’s what I’m saying.” Later, Wallace did walk that comment back, and in his statement on Twitter expressed relief that it wasn’t an actual racist attack. We should absolutely acknowledge when someone corrects themselves. It’s a trait that is often vilified these days, and Jamele Hill should take a lesson from that.
But these instances of fake racism happen far too often, and usually end up being assumed to be truthful before anyone has a chance to look into the facts. The obvious comparison is to Jussie Smollett, the actor who staged his own noose incident in an effort to get himself negotiating power for his new TV contract. Like the NASCAR noose, we were told that if we didn’t believe that Smollett was attacked by two racist white men with a noose during a polar vortex, then we were the racists. But there were many more cases of fake racism. Remember the case in Vanderbilt University in 2015? The day after students held an anti-racism protest, a bag of feces was left on the porch of the Black Cultural Center. This also evoked images of racism in the Deep South. Not great, as Vanderbilt is in Nashville. Well, it turns out that the feces were left by a blind student who was walking her dog, and was correctly taught to leave the feces in front of a public building so they could be correctly disposed of.
What about the 2007 case of Columbia University Professor Madonna Constantine, who found a noose on her office door? That caused quite the public outrage, and turned Constantine into a civil rights heroin. Turns out, we’ll never know what actually transpired, as Columbia never made the surveillance footage public. What we do know is that she and her colleagues were accused of staging the incident in order to deflect from a plagiarism investigation. The investigation ended with Constantine losing her position at Columbia, a decision that had her blaming institutional racism (because of course it did). Then there was the 2016 case of a Greenville, Mississippi, black church that was burned down, with the message “Vote Trump” spray painted in the side. I think by now you know where this is going. The arsonist was a black member of the church who was trying to play on historic methods of striking fear into black people in the south, namely church burning, in an effort to blame Trump supporters for the act.
The common thread between these cases is that they all evoke historically atrocious methods of racism. Feces, burning churches, nooses, and lynchings are all ways the KKK used to terrorize black people in the South. The message we have been hearing from the “institutional racism” crowd is that America is just as racist today as it was during slavery, during Jim Crow. That’s the message of the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” That’s the BLM message. It doesn’t matter that slavery has been abolished, that Jim Crow was abolished, that we have actual laws like affirmative action, or that a company like Uber Eats can openly apply a racist policy that black businesses get their delivery fee waved. None of that matters, because we as a society are still in the same place we were back when black people were being shipped here chained up in packed boats.
The only way they know how to do it is by inventing and promoting these atrocious acts of racism that don’t actually exist anymore. We’ve gotten rid of them. It’s basically gotten to the point that when there’s any obvious act of openly despicable racism that harkens back to the days of the KKK South, we just have to wait a few weeks to find out why it isn’t true. But this flies in the face of the narrative. How can we be as bad as ever if these effigies aren’t still here? That’s why when these stories come out, not only are they treated as fact, but if you question their validity, you are maligned as a racist. They must be true, you racist!
The truth is that although there obviously still is racism, today’s racism is generally much more subtle. There aren’t lynch mobs in the streets. Contrary to popular belief, police aren’t selectively murdering black people. Instead, it’s the off-color comment at work. It’s crossing the street if you don’t like what you see. It’s choosing to live in a neighborhood specifically because of the homogeneity. These examples are a far cry from Jim Crow and slavery. In fact, there is no more ostracized group in America than white supremacists. The fact that a lighter version of racism exists today does not mean that the battle has been won, but these hoaxes that never turn out to be anything do not help in the fight. We don’t need to invent incidents because they fit a narrative. If we continue to highlight these fake stories of Jim Crow effigies, we will never be able to fight the actual issues we have today. So, stop going after negligent terrorism.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.