U.S. News and World Report

June 5, 2000

Faking the hate

Not all reports of campus incidents are true

By John Leo
U.S. News and World Report

For three weeks this spring, minority students at the University of Iowa's College of Dentistry were the targets of menacing E-mail and a bomb threat. Red noodles were left on the doorstep of a black student, with a note suggesting that they represented a dead black person's brain. Surveillance tapes were set up. The FBI located the computer used in the E-mail threats. A black dental student, Tarsha Michelle Claiborne, was arrested and confessed.

In the midst of an antirape rally at the University of Massachusetts, a woman cut herself with a knife, tossed it under a car, and then walked across the street, claiming to be a victim of sexual assault. After nearly a month of negotiations between police and her attorney, she admitted that she had made up the whole thing. This was the fourth in a series of reported sexual assaults at the school. In one of the previous three, a woman said she fought off three male attackers and ran for help after being hit with "a pepper-spray-like substance." This may well be true, but some people on campus believe it's hard to fight off three assailants and harder still to escape at all after a chemical spraying.

Campuses are developing new doubts about reports of race and gender crimes. Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a roundup of campus hoaxes, cautioning that this "flurry of fabrications doesn't necessarily suggest a trend." But it certainly looks like a trend. Race and gender are the dominant concerns at colleges today. Sometimes the temptation to prove that racism and sexism pervade campus life leads people to fake incidents. At Spokane Community College, a racist and sexist letter from "Whitey" appeared in an advice column in the student newspaper, the Reporter, last year. After campus protests about the letter's derogatory language about women, gays, and minority students, the newspaper's editors admitted that "Whitey" was a fictional character they had created to raise awareness about racism on campus. Jerry Kennedy, a gay resident assistant at the University of Georgia, reported he had been the target of nine hate crimes over a period of three years, including three acts of arson. But during questioning, Kennedy admitted that he had set the fires.

Caught in the act.

Two weeks after the murder of Matthew Shepard, a lesbian student at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota said two men shouted antigay slurs at her and then slashed her face. Outraged students raised nearly $12,000 as a reward for information about her attackers. Then the student confessed she had made up the story and cut her own face. In a similar incident, a lesbian student at Eastern New Mexico University said she had been attacked after her name was included with the names of seven professors on an antigay "hit list" posted at a local laundromat. Police arrested her after a surveillance camera at the laundromat showed her posting the list.

Without a confession, convictions are rare. Two black students at Miami University in Ohio were accused of posting 55 racist and antigay fliers and typing racist computer messages. Their fingerprints and palm prints were found on 42 of the 55 fliers, but the defense argued that they had touched the papers when they were blank and someone else must have printed and posted the fliers. The jury acquitted.

Sometimes even dubious reports of race and gender offenses pay off, leading to an institutional payoff (more minority jobs or titles, more money for women's studies). Molly Martin, president of the student senate at North Carolina's Guilford College, said she had been assaulted, with the words "nigger lover" scrawled on her chest. Martin, who is white, had endorsed a proposal to create a full-time director of African-American affairs on campus. Police dropped the case, calling Martin "a reluctant witness." She later dropped out of Guilford and apologized for "acts that were inappropriate and that were injurious" to the college. She insisted that the attack had taken place but declined to say what acts she was apologizing for. Though many people on campus think the attack never took place, Martin achieved her goal: Guilford installed a director of African-American affairs.

Like Tawana Brawley's hoax, some recent fake hate crimes seem intended to cover personal embarrassment. Such was the case with a black student at Hastings College in Nebraska, who said he had been forced into a car by whites and dropped far out of town. He was cited for filing a false police report. But more of the college hoaxes seem to reflect an acted-out commitment to a cause, not just personal difficulties. One factor is that colleges now stress the need for each identity group to express its "voice" or "narrative," without much scruple about whether the narratives are literally true. (Postmodern theory says there is no such thing as truth anyway.) After the Brawley hoax, an article in the Nation magazine argued that it "doesn't matter" whether Brawley was lying, since the pattern of whites abusing blacks is true. And when Rigoberta Menchú's famous account of class and ethnic warfare in Guatemala was revealed to be largely false, many professors said this didn't matter much because her book contained emotional truth. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction is far advanced in our university culture. Hoaxes are just one symptom of the truth problem.

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