The 'familiar' face of crime

March 24, 1994|By Acel Moore

THE PUBLIC safety director in Mount Laurel, N.J., was perceptive when he said there were some "obvious conclusions" one could draw as to why a 43-year-old white woman concocted a story that a black male intruder had viciously attacked her and her 71-year-old mother-in-law in their suburban home last week.

If you want to divert attention and not be held accountable for a criminal act, all you have to do is say that a black man did it. You get instant believability.

In the Mount Laurel case, according to police, the woman fabricated a story in which she said she was struck on the head with a hammer by a black man, and he beat and stabbed her mother-in-law.

"That individual doesn't exist," said Saunder Weinstein, Mount Laurel's public safety director. The story was a hoax.

The women, according to officials, had received their injuries as a result of a fight they had in the house.

Police became suspicious when there were contradictions in the younger woman's story. The hoax apparently became obvious when neighbors told police investigators that they saw the two women fighting.

Up to that point, the story was credible. The women even gave a description of the attacker to a police sketch artist, who drew a composite. Fortunately for a lot of black men, the composite was never released. I wonder how many innocent men would have been brought in as suspects.

The Mount Laurel hoax follows a pattern of white people trying to divert attention from crimes they committed by blaming black men.

The most celebrated case is the Stuart murder in Boston in 1989. Charles Stuart, a white man, claimed that a black man killed his wife, Carol. A number of black men were hauled in and hassled by police, but further investigation showed that Stuart killed his wife.

In 1989, Tanya Dacri told police a black male abducted her seven-week-old son, Zachary. Later, it was determined that she had drowned and dismembered the child.

On New Year's Day, 1990, Samuel Asbell, a Camden County prosecutor, told police that he had got in a gun fight with two black men. Police later found out that he had shot out his own car windows.

In all those cases, the perpetrators were caught, but I wonder how many black males are falsely accused of crimes each day.

It isn't that young black males don't commit crimes. Statistics confirm people's fears about black males, particularly about homicide and violence. They are disproportionately committed by young black males.

Although African Americans are 13 percent of the nation's population, 45 percent of all violent crimes are committed by blacks, according to FBI statistics.

The problem with that is that many white Americans interpret those statistics to mean that all black men are criminals. Ignored is that reality that 98 percent of all black Americans are law-abiding citizens. If you compute all the African Americans who are arrested for violent crimes in America, they represent less than 1 percent of the black population.

Ellis Cose in his book "The Rage of a Privileged Class" says it best: "Whatever difficulties Americans may have thinking of blacks as potential CEOs, no particular imagination is required to visualize crime with an African American face." I add, particularly a black male face.

Most whites who live in segregated suburban communities don't come in contact with African Americans either at work or in the community, so it is easier for them to stereotype all black men as criminals and instinctively correlate crime with black males.

Fear of crime and the association of criminal acts with black males is the mind-set that is feeding most of the legislation to get tough with criminals, including the "three-strikes-and-out" phenemonon.

It is a movement that I am convinced is based on bigotry, ignorance, classism and racism. It points to the fact that we as a nation have not confronted the problems of racial differences in America.

Whites with the same social problems as blacks remain invisible or largely ignored by the media.

The rage of this middle-class African American comes to the boiling point every time I see hoaxes like the one in Mount Laurel.

It also comes to the forefront every time I get the sense of fear from strangers I encounter when I am walking the streets. I am neither young nor criminal.

A young black male colleague at the Philadelphia Inquirer said to me that whenever he walks past cars waiting for red lights, he hears the click, click, click of the doors being locked.

Acel Moore is associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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