In times of crisis, black villain stories too easily believed

November 06, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A call arrives at 3 o'clock in the morning, when no one ever calls just for laughs. It's my daughter's roommate, voice full of thickness and dread. My daughter hasn't come home, hasn't called, hasn't left word of her whereabouts anywhere in the entire western hemisphere.

"She always calls," the roommate says. "Have you talked to her?"

"No," I say, trying to find a foothold on the shores of 3-in-the-morning consciousness.

My daughter is 24 years old and filled with the busy young woman's overconfident sense of invulnerability. The news has arrived, only hours ago, that two little children in South Carolina have been murdered, and that a warrant for their mother's arrest says she confessed. At 3 in the morning, all children, even 24-year-olds who work for a living and pay for their own apartments, and think they are fully evolved adults, are little and vulnerable and innocent of all lurking dangers. If mothers are killing children, how will the rest of the world treat them?

"I've called the police," the roommate says. "They're on their way here for a missing-person's report."

I get off the phone and spend the next 20 minutes cursing the entire uncivilized world and berating my daughter for disobeying my orders never to grow up and leave the safety of my home. The streets are filled with darkest terrors. She has lived her entire life in the city of Baltimore, thinks herself savvy and street-wise, and I'm considering plans to move everyone I know and love to some place safer, if it's not too late, when there's a second telephone call.

"She just called," the roommate says. "She was out with two clients from New York. She lost her car keys and then found them. She meant to call, and she's apologetic as she can be. She's on her way home."

My first sense, after profoundest relief, is the desire to wring my daughter's neck for frightening me so badly. I return to bed, with the clock now showing 3:30, and I lie awake until 5. The world is getting too crazy, and all of our children are inheriting it.

A thousand demons raced through my head before the second phone call, images of newspaper stories that chill the bones. From Baltimore, from South Carolina: Surely, once in her life, that mother felt the same love for her children that the rest of us feel. But, instead of embracing them, she added to the nation's fears, inventing a cover she knew would touch a nerve.

A black man, she told everybody. Yes, yes, white people quickly responded. That sounds reasonable. The streets are filled with black criminals, are they not? It makes sense that one of them would snatch white children, does it not?

Friday morning, the morning after her confession, comes a familiar voice from years as a Baltimore City Hall insider, a black man full of pain.

"A black man," he says, "is an instant bogyman."

He mentions another case, recalled all over the country now: Charles Stuart in Boston, five years ago, who killed his pregnant wife and wounded himself as a cover, and then told the police it was a black man who'd done it.

"America's scapegoat," the voice from City Hall says now.

"The lowest thing on the sociological totem pole. Why did she have to do that? She injected more of that viral poison into the system, for her own sordid use. The last few weeks, every black man in the South has been eyed, been examined, and who knows how many have been stopped? Why did she have to do that? Why couldn't she make up a white man?"

She knew that many whites would want to believe in a black villain, knew that white Americans would ignore the overwhelming figures showing most violent black crime is committed against other blacks, knew that both black and white Americans still rush to stereotype in moments of crisis.

The mind doesn't have to go to South Carolina, or to Boston, for such evidence. The killing of two elderly doctors in Guilford last summer was widely assumed (by whites) who had no evidence whatsoever to have been committed by a black man -- until police charged the victims' own grandson with the murders.

We all share the same vulnerability, and skin color becomes incidental. Every child arriving home late becomes a potential victim in the minds of parents. The color of imagined demons doesn't particularly matter -- except as it benefits those who will capitalize on its stereotypes.

At 3 in the morning Friday, predators don't arrive with skin of any color. They're too deep in shadow. What matters only is that, in a world where a mother can kill her babies and then look into a television camera and deny it, in a world where the innocent are harmed each day, every child seems increasingly unsafe.

When I awaken for work Friday, I telephone my mother and tell her what happened.

"In retrospect," I say, "an amusing story."

"That late at night, and she didn't call?" says my mother.

"She didn't call. But I'm gonna call her in a little while, and . . ."

"If you get to her before I do," says my mother, "kill her."

But she made the verb sound like a hug.

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