So here we are again. Someone we think represents us and our beliefs reports being the victim of a horrible and vicious attack. From the moment we hear the report we are committed to seeking justice. Our focus is not the individual crime, but our certainty that it is a symbol of what we’ve always known: THEY are out to get US. Our reaction is swift and complete. Not only will we find the perpetrators of this heinous crime, we will go after the people and culture that have enabled it.
Here’s the thing, I’m describing ALL OF US! Whether it’s racially or economically, politically or religiously, a large majority of Americans rely on some version of an “us versus them” philosophy. We are sure that the failures and struggles we face personally are in some part due to the concerted effort THEY are making to discriminate against, steal from, and lie to US. Every American has a very real historical record upon which we build narratives to support our philosophy, no matter how much the narrative itself may stray from that historical record. We then wait for something to happen that seemingly confirms the narrative and we believe before we know. It is the perfect combination of groupthink and confirmation bias. And it is an inescapable part of American political culture.
A few days after Thanksgiving in 1987 a 15-year-old girl named Tawana Brawley was found unconscious near her home in an apartment complex in Wappingers Falls, New York. She was wrapped in a garbage bag and her clothes had been partially burned. She appeared disoriented and had racial slurs written in feces on her body. Tawana Brawley claimed that six white men including a police officer had raped and brutally assaulted her, and the country began to choose sides.
At the time I was a 17-year old high school senior living a few miles north in Poughkeepsie, New York and I remember vividly the racially charged circus that was the Tawana Brawley case. The reaction from the African-American community in the area was swift and complete anger. For many Brawley’s claims fit neatly with an established narrative regarding racism and abuse in local police agencies. From the beginning the primary goal was seeking broader justice in a society that could allow something like this to happen. For those in the black community that believed without question even the idea of an investigation seemed suspicious. They wanted simply for her claims to be believed and her attackers to be brought to justice.
As the story became national news it exposed significant racial tensions throughout the country. Controversial civil rights activists like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan led marches supporting Brawley, while attacking corrupt political and law enforcement systems. In conjunction with high profile lawyers they claimed there were coverups at the highest levels of government for white police officers supposedly involved in the incident and subsequent investigation. A broad range of African-American personalities in politics and show business joined Sharpton, Farrakhan, and their lawyers in attacking what they saw as biased coverage of the case by mainstream media. The response from almost the entire African-American community was one of anger. They wanted immediate and far-reaching justice for what they were sure was yet another crime by racist cops against African-Americans.
The response from the White community was initially a muted, “let’s wait to see what happens with the investigation.” The crime itself appeared horrible, of that there was no doubt. That it involved police officers, rape, and hate crimes only made it that much worse. But for many White-Americans in the area and around the country it became a battle the moment polarizing individuals like Sharpton and Farrakhan became involved. For them, no matter what might’ve happened to Tawana Brawley, anything involving the two civil rights activists was bound to be reverse racism. They were (and for many still are) to White-Americans what David Duke is to African-Americans. The result was a ground swell of support for local police, as well as politicians and other individuals being implicated in the supposed conspiracy.
As it always does time passed and the spotlight began to move on to the next big story. It took a couple of weeks for Route 9 through Wappingers Falls to no longer be choked with traffic, and eventually the rallies and newspaper articles dwindled in frequency. The investigation however continued and in October of the following year the grand jury issued its report. The primary conclusions were that Tawana Brawley had fabricated the entire event. From writing the racial slurs on herself to burning her own clothes investigators found no evidence to support her claims. She had done it to avoid being potentially beaten by her parents for staying away from home for three days. Her supporters quietly moved on from their betrayal, her detractors righteously proclaimed, “I told you so”, and everyone waited for the next thing to happen.
Two years later I was living in Revere, Massachusetts, a small suburb just north of Logan Airport in Boston. After work one night in October 1989 my roommate and I, along with several waiters and waitresses from the restaurant I tended bar at on Newberry Street, were hanging out at a coworkers house in Roxbury. I remember because after several minutes of the sound of police sirens passing, we all filed out into the street to see what was going on, but to no avail.
The next morning, we found out that Charles Stuart and his seven-month pregnant wife Carol had apparently been shot during a carjacking. His wife who had been shot in the head died instantly, and the baby which was delivered two months premature passed away a few weeks later. Charles Stuart would be in the hospital for over a month with severe gunshot injuries to his abdomen that required multiple operations. In the meantime, Boston and the nation were captivated with the manhunt for the perpetrator of this horrible crime who Stuart described as a, “6’ tall black man… wearing a black sweatsuit with red stripes.”
For those who may not know Boston has some of the deepest racial tension of any northeastern city. Throughout November and into December 1989 the city’s racial issues were on full display for the country to see. For many white Bostonians, and white-Americans in general, the heinous crime was yet more proof of an out-of-control criminal element in black communities. Aggressive policing and investigation tactics, calls for reinstatement of the death penalty, and counter protests and demonstrations by the African-American community transformed 1990's Boston into a southern city during 1950's segregation. The importance of the case quickly rose above the crime itself to symbolize what both sides saw as one more battle in the war between “us and them”.
In late December the police announced they had arrested a suspect, Willie Bennett. Not only did Bennett fit the description Stuart had initially given police, Stuart had been able to identify him in a lineup making it an open and shut case. Then on January 3, 1990 Charles Stuart suddenly committed suicide by driving to the Tobin Bridge and jumping off into the Mystic River 250 feet below. At the same time Stuart’s brother was at a local precinct revealing to police that the entire crime had been committed by Stuart and himself as part of an elaborate insurance scheme. Stuart shot his own wife in the head and then had his brother shoot him in the stomach. His brother then took the couple’s valuables to support the carjacking story, threw the gun off a nearby bridge, and they both watched Boston and in the nation become consumed in its own racial animosity. His supporters quietly moved on from their betrayal, his detractors righteously proclaimed, “I told you so”, and everyone waited for the next thing to happen.
We all do it. We all jump to conclusions seeking to claim vindication as our righteous reward before the ball ever comes to rest on the roulette wheel. As Americans we are programmed to believe ourselves before others as part of our expression of personal liberty. But many of us are not fully equipped to defend those beliefs. As a result, we are constantly on the lookout for anything that confirms them. More importantly, we await the next confirmation with the same excitement and anticipation as someone about to get duped by fake lottery cards. We don’t use the time in between these events to test our own beliefs, affirming them only after an honest look at things without the glare of the media spotlight. Instead we put our beliefs in a glass box to rest undisturbed until the next time THEY show their true colors.
And so it is with Jussie Smollett. There were many who were quick to rally to the flag decrying what they’d always known to be the racist and homophobic tendencies of Trump supporters. And as is always the case the battle was joined not over the crime itself, but what it represented for America as a whole. Once again, THEY (in this instance conservative Trump supporters) found themselves in the odd position of defending the symbol being attacked without defending the crime. And then suddenly everything flips 180° when it appears the entire incident was manufactured by Smollett himself. Supporters and flag wavers now meekly try to transform the narrative in order to continue the broader belief in widespread racism and homophobia amongst Trump supporters.
Simultaneously, the conservative right basks in their ability to stand on soapboxes proudly exclaiming “I told you so!” Smollett’s alleged behaviors allow them to make direct connections to “the Brawley hoax” symbolizing further confirmation of what they’ve believed all along: the left manufactures racism and violence on the right and then promotes it through the mainstream media which they control. The recent revelations, as they always end up doing, simultaneously damaged and undermined one side’s narrative while confirming the other’s. The only difference in each case is which side is seen as having won or lost.
In the end WE are all being duped, taken for a ride, played for fools. In almost every case like this the individual is motivated by self-interest, not some broader attempt to motivate the cause of either ‘side’. Stuart and his brother wanted money and Brawley didn’t want to be punished by her parents. Susan Smith killed her own children in 1994 to clear the way for a new relationship claiming they were murdered by black carjackers. The result was days of intense racial tension across the country before the truth came out. Last year the Air Force Academy was slammed for an apparent racist incident involving African-American cadets having racial slurs written on their doors only to find out it was an African-American cadet who was responsible. In all these cases individual Americans took advantage of our national tendency to use groupthink and confirmation bias as the shield and sword of our politics. They used our need to confirm our own narratives and created evidence they knew we’d rush to believe. And people like them will continue to do this to America if we continue to rely on our individual beliefs to the exclusion of the realities of the world around us.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.