January 7, 2007
By HELEN UBINAS, Courant Staff Writer
I was already two days into trying to find Willie Bennett, the black man falsely accused of murdering a white businessman's pregnant wife in the infamous Boston case, when Kevin Brookman called.
Brookman was annoyed at Hartford residents saying that a white woman who falsely accused a black man of raping her in Bushnell Park had stirred up damaging stereotypes.
"That's the problem with this city," Brookman said. "Everything is about race."
Spoken like a person who has the luxury of not having to think about his own. But Brookman's a good guy, so I kept listening. The way he sees it, the real issue isn't the damage the false claim inflicted on the black community. It's the damage the false report inflicted on the image of his already ailing city.
He did have a point - folks were running scared. Police ordered extra patrols. A neighborhood group warned against walking in the park after dark. Reporters delivered the all too familiar sound bite: scary black man on the loose.
But, come on, I told Brookman, how's this not about race? A white woman says a black man raped her in a park in the middle of the city during the afternoon rush hour and we buy it. It didn't matter that her story didn't add up, or that we have plenty of examples in our collective memory to warrant a zillion red flags.
In 1989, white businessman Charles Stuart claimed a black man killed his wife, only to take his own life when Boston police later figured out that he, not Bennett, had done it. Five years later, Susan Smith told police in South Carolina that she had been carjacked by a black man who took off with her children. She eventually confessed to rolling the car into a lake and drowning her sons. At least Runaway Bride, Jennifer Wilbanks, put a different spin on her story: the beast of color who abducted her on the eve of her wedding, she claimed, was a Hispanic man.
OK, Brookman said, maybe he should rephrase his original premise: Race shouldn't have anything to do with it.
It shouldn't, but it does. And it will continue because the stereotypical black bogeyman is ingrained in the fabric of our historical and fictional culture. Think "Birth of a Nation," the 1915 film where a white woman is pursued by a black man. Or "To Kill a Mockingbird," the novel about a Southern white woman who falsely accuses a black man of rape. The threat of black men victimizing white women was at the root of many of the lynchings in our country.
Bookman and North End residents agree on this much: Police should have charged the woman with filing a false report.
I understand their impulse, but I'm also not unsympathetic to the police department's decision not to charge her. The woman still claims she was assaulted, though by an acquaintance she refused to identify. So, charging a rape victim, even one who falsely reports, may send the wrong signal to rape victims.
But allowing the myth of the scary black man to be carelessly thrown about with no consequences also sends a terrible signal, and all but guarantees it will happen again.
I never found Bennett, but it didn't matter. No need to reach across state lines to find a generic black man falsely accused. Just over the bridge in East Hartford, there's James Tillman, who spent 18 years imprisoned after being falsely convicted of raping a white woman.
In a 2000 newspaper article, Bennett said he didn't want to think about the Stuart case anymore; who can blame him? Unfortunately, we can't help but think of it any time someone falsely claims a black man did it - whatever it is, and every time we blindly go along.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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