Kidnap hoax case stereotypes fictional black male villain

On May 26, 2009, Bonnie Sweeten dialed 911, claiming that she had been carjacked, forced into the trunk of a car by two African-American males. She told police the men had driven off with her daughter in the carjacked vehicle.

Her frantic calls resulted in Philadelphia police issuing an Amber Alert for the missing mother and girl. Both were later found alive and well at Disney World. Today, Bonnie Sweeten pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of issuing a false police report and identity theft, and was sentenced to at least nine months in prison.

What does Bonnie Sweeten have in common with Ashley Todd, Charles Stuart, and Susan Smith? All have attempted to use the racially charged imagery of the African-American male to cover up their crimes.

But why does the fictional image of the aggressive, over-sexualized, “black male brute” still resonate and instill fear in the hearts of Americans?

On October 22, 2008, Ashley Todd, a John McCain campaign worker, claimed that she was attacked at knifepoint by a “six-foot-four African-American of medium build, dressed in dark clothes wearing shiny shoes.” Todd also alleged that after the robber saw a McCain bumper sticker on her car, he assaulted her, cut a reversed letter ‘B’ into her cheek, and told her, “You are going to be a Barack supporter.” Her initial report received international attention, was promoted within conservative news circles, and was later determined to be a hoax.

Such cases go back a long way. On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith reported to police that she had been carjacked by a black man who drove away with her sons still in her car. Nine days after her initial report and a nationwide manhunt for the “black man in the knit cap,” Smith admitted to letting her car roll into a lake, killing her two sons.

On October 23, 1989, after leaving childbirth classes with his pregnant wife Carol, Charles Stuart shot her in the head, killing her. Stuart told police that a black gunman with a raspy voice forced his way into their car at a stoplight, robbed them, then opened fire, shooting Charles in the stomach and Carol in the head. Boston police searched for suspects matching Stuart’s description of the assailant. Police suspected a man named Willie Bennett. Bennett was arrested and Stuart picked him out of a lineup. As Stuart’s story unraveled, Bennett was released.

These four examples of people exploiting what is perceived as a black male image and playing on notions of the malevolent black male are steeped in a long history in America. These stereotypes have been used to rationalize enslavement, segregation, incarceration, and other policy-driven methods of oppression.

Media has developed and ingrained these images into the American psyche. As far back as 1915, D.W. Griffith’s “blockbuster” film, Birth of a Nation, promoted the ideology of white supremacy and romanticized the Ku Klux Klan’s use of lynching and terror in the black community in order to protect the virtue of white women. From this, other films, commercials, and television programs have been used to create a perception of unintelligent, inarticulate, hypersexual, and crime-prone African-Americans.

Current political dialogue factors into this equation as well. Individuals such as former President Ronald Reagan, commentator Rush Limbaugh, and conservative strategist Pat Buchanan have promoted and continue to promote stereotypes of the “black welfare queen” and use racially baited political diatribes in order to foster divisions based on race. They galvanize conservative support for the destruction of social programs and civil rights gains by playing to xenophobic (them vs. us), thinly veiled, race-based arguments.

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk”: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”

These problems still exist in America today. Many of these stereotypes have become so ingrained into American culture that they are now patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, speech, action and emotional response.

People like Bonnie Sweeten create their “black male villains” because they know how well they will play on the American stage.

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