Other factors in the Dutchess County area also helped make Brawley’s story viable, says Shipp, now a journalist in residence at the historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore. “It was believable in the Dutchess County area at the time because there had been some real racial unrest there, some of it connected to the fact that there were so many prisons being built in the area and…many of those new jobs were going to whites who had not had that much exposure to black people in their everyday world,” the Pulitzer Prize winner explains.
“All they were seeing were the population that was typical of who was coming to prison and they began apparently to treat blacks as if they were all criminals or suspects anyway so there was racial unrest already afoot in that area and there had been some activity of would-be KKK folk so all of those things came together to form a collective memory of these kinds of injustices over the years.”
Because 1988 was a presidential election year, with New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s name frequently raised as a potential contender, Shipp also thinks it was easier for Sharpton, Maddox and Mason to attract national attention, especially given the intense racial tensions of the time. Les Payne, another Pulitzer Prize winner who oversaw the coverage for Newsday, while reporting on the incident himself to reveal the holes in Brawley’s story, cites additional factors like New York City’s polarizing mayor, Ed Koch, and an all-out New York newspaper war over why the Brawley story attracted headlines for nearly a year.
“You had a very explosive, hot-tempered mayor, Mayor Koch,” says Payne. Plus, “there was a very hot newspaper war between the New York Post, the Daily News, the metro section of the New York Times and so there was a legitimate heated and hotly competed four paper battle for news and stories and primacy and I think that’s one of the things that fed [the Brawley story].”
Aside from placing a spotlight on sex crimes committed against black women, the intense coverage of the Brawley case also highlighted the media’s ongoing lack of diversity, says Payne.
“The media always has problems with black stories because they do not have sufficient black reporters. They do not have sufficient access,” explains Payne, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. “Many of the black reporters that they do have are distant themselves from what black history is about and what black current affairs are about.”
That was certainly evident in the Brawley case, with many news organizations gathering up not just their black reporters but also, according to Shipp, realizing the need for younger reporters as well. The culture was rapidly changing in the state of New York and across the country.
While the age-old atrocity of white men possibly raping a black woman and KKK activity were unfortunately not new, the Tawana Brawley story did shed light on new societal concerns around crack cocaine, the prison industrial complex and hip-hop culture. And, twenty five years later, those realities have not disappeared.
Still, Brawley’s story, whether one believes it or not, continues to raise very legitimate questions about the justice system that have come up time and time again with the O.J. Simpson trial and even now with the Trayvon Martin case.
“I guess Brawley maybe kind of paved the way for debate among blacks that became louder when the O.J. Simpson case emerged again challenging us to determine the credibility of the justice system and the ability of the justice system to treat fairly blacks who were victims of crimes and blacks who were the suspects in crime,” offers Shipp.
Twenty-five years later, Brawley’s story remains an important cultural marker that cannot be ignored.
“I think by negating her story or even by holding her up as the example of ‘oh you can’t trust a woman, you can’t trust a black woman who says she’s been raped by a white man,’” it deletes that whole history, that whole legacy that is at least a century old of white men assaulting and attacking black women with relative impunity,” says Wayne State professor Danielle L. McGuire.
Because, as history has shown, there have been Tawana Brawleys for whom the American justice system has not and continues not to serve.
And that’s why the Tawana Brawley story, flaws and all, will probably never go away.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha