Thursday, May 13, 2010

blame their crimes on phantom people of color

This is a guest post by  Melissa McEwan, who blogs at Shakesville, where this post originally appeared.

Bonnie Sweeten, Ashley Todd, Jennifer Wilbanks, Susan Smith, and Charles Stuart are a few of the more well-known names in a long history of "racial hoaxes," in which a white person hurts themselves or someone else (usually a family member) and blames an imaginary person of color (most frequently a black man) for their crime, hoping that institutional racism, its narratives and stereotypes, their own privilege, and the prejudices of other whites will allow them to successfully deflect suspicion onto a nonspecific person of color. In the worst-case scenarios, real people matching conjured police sketches are detained -- and innocent people have been punished because of these elaborate, racist lies.

It's bad enough when it's just some random asshole pulling this shit. It's even worse when it's a cop.

Thank Maude he was stupid enough to get caught. I hope the department will immediately launch a comprehensive review of his cases -- complainants should be contacted to see if they were helped as they should have been; suspects should be interviewed to see if they were mistreated; especially black complainants and suspects -- because any white cop who's fucked up enough to shoot himself and blame it on a black man should strongly be suspected of having scapegoated or in other ways inappropriately targeted and/or unfairly treated people of color on the job.


Randi Kaye, CNN Correspondent (in voiceover): It was 4 in the morning when Philadelphia when the radio call came in: cop shot. A white police sergeant said he'd been shot by a black man. Officers responded in force—an all-out search of the African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia's 19th Precinct, where Sergeant Robert Ralston said it all went down.

Kaye (on camera): The sergeant told the story this way: He'd come across two black men along the railroad tracks on the morning of April 5. One ran away, he said; the other pointed a silver revolver at his head. He knocked it away, he said, but it fired anyway, and the bullet grazed his left shoulder. He also said he fired one shot, but wasn't sure if he'd struck the suspect.

Kaye (in voiceover): Police gave thanks their man had survived. Tragedy averted, they said. The white cop described the shooter this way: Dark skin, braided hair, and a tattoo next to his eye. But police never found the black shooter or anyone matching that description. And now, more than a month later, we know why. The real story? The two black men the cop said he encountered never existed. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says Sergeant Ralston made the whole thing up.

Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia Police Commissioner: It was clear to us soon after it took place that this simply was just not true. Just the evidence just didn't support the story he was giving.

Kaye (in voiceover): But wait: what about the sergeant's shoulder wound? The commissioner says Sergeant Ralston actually shot himself, which may be why, he said, he got off one shot at the suspect—an explanation as to why his gun had been fired.

Ramsey: A test was run on his shirt. The powder on the shirt matched the same kind of ammunition we use in the department.

Kaye (in voiceover): That's right—the gunpowder on the sergeant's shirt was the same kind his own weapon used. And there's more. The angle at which the bullet struck him didn't square with his story either, says the commissioner. We tried to ask Sergeant Ralston to explain, but, outside his home, he dodged our cameras and ducked inside.

Unidentified male (offscreen, as Ralston walks by into his house): Can you tell us why you did that, sir?

Kaye (in voiceover): Neighbors called the sergeant's actions a sad statement.

Brawly Joseph, neighbor: I can't believe he would really do something like that. That's really uncalled for. He—ever since I've been living here, he's really been, like, antisocial around this area.

Kaye (on camera): What's still unclear is why Sergeant Ralston, a 21-year veteran of the force, would make up such a wild tale. Only after hours of interrogation, police said, did he finally admit he shot himself on purpose. The police commissioner says he may have done it for a job transfer or maybe for attention, but that the sergeant didn't give a reason.

Kaye (in voiceover) The police commissioner calls this a, quote, "terrible and embarrassing chapter in the department's history."

Ramsey: The fact that he stated that two African-Americans were involved in this, again, just, I think, inflames tensions in our community—something that we certainly do not need.

Kaye (in voiceover): Sergeant Ralston has been suspended with pay. The commissioner says he will be fired. He was given immunity in exchange for his confession, so he doesn't face criminal charges. But he'll have to pay for the massive manhunt to find his phantom suspects. Cops are still adding up the cost. The days of calling Sergeant Robert Ralston a hero and crediting his quick actions for saving his own life, long gone. Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


  1. When wil this crap end I remeber hearing that woman carving B in her face stupid fools and thing is they know that all they need to say is a black guy did it give some vague description nothing clear and then police will be all over it.

  2. And the corollary, of course: assume that perps are PoC.

    Me: There's a group of kids breaking into the building site next door.

    Cop on the phone: What color are they?

    Me: Lighter skinned than my wife. What the hell? Don't you want to know how many of them there are, or how old they are?


    Still can't freaking believe that phone call.

  3. Yet again. *Sigh*

    And of course, if this story gets any more coverage at all, the issue will be his mental stability, not the common white tendency at work here (blaming their crimes on phantom people of color, because they know very well about another common white tendency -- to think of black people as criminals).

  4. @ Aiyo

    This crap will never end. I heard stories similar to this dumb cop many times over. I'm just glad no innocent black person was beaten or killed because of this jerk's lies.

  5. I suppose this is the era where this stuff comes off as an unintended comedy. Yeah, we got folks THIS dumb trying to pull 19th century tactics in the 21st...

  6. @ch555x re: "Yeah, we got folks THIS dumb trying to pull 19th century tactics in the 21st..."

    I'm not arguing that the cop's action were not stupid, but in the context of this blog, I'd say it's racism that makes us white folk do stupid things like this. I mean, I'm not a cop or trained in any way in forensic science, but even I know from TV that the first thing investigators check is chemical residue and the trajectory of the bullet. This guy was so confident that his scenario would result in a frantic chase for a black man, so sure that his fellow white officers and superiors would take one whiff of his story and be off like hounds, that he overlooked the most obvious evidence--and was subconsciously sure that everyone else would, too. And they might have; as the OP says, he could well have done things like this before.

    Racism makes us stupid.

  7. This happened to me at least three times.

    In one of my first jobs, and pimply faced white guy was doing undercover security. In the parking lot one day as I left work, he asked my phone number. I politely said no.

    The next day the boss called me in and said I was seen stealing a watch. This was a lie. He fired me. As I left, the security guard was smirking at me. I should have walked back in and told the boss what happened, but I was too young and crushed by the experience.

    In college, I was trying to find a parking space in a mall, and was driving slowly. A white girl was talking to her passenger and not paying attention. She backed out and right into my car. She acted halfway normal until I had the police come to take an accident report. She ran over to him, and I could tell by her facial expressions and pointing at me that she was trying to blame me. The racism oozed from her; if you're a minority you can usually feel it.

    He was a white cop, and to his credit, I could see him look kind of disgusted - at her. She was found at fault for not yielding to traffic (me).

    Another time happened at work 10 or 15 years ago. I shared a case with another staff person, and she was awful. I had a private chat with her about my problems with how she was handling it and told her I was doing this rather than get the boss involved so we could resolve the issue.

    She was sneaky and played along for an hour. Then what does she do? Runs to the supervisor and makes me out like the incompetent one. The boss called me in her office and immediately began criticizing me. She grew up in the racist part of the racist days of Baltimore.

    I asked her why she didn't ask for my side of the story. I then told her, and then asked why is it that a white staff can complain so easily about a black staffer and automatically be believed. I asked her to think about unconscious racism. She was the kind of person who tried to work on her issues, and did, and apologized, then did the right thing by meeting with both us.

    Later, another staffer who was a non-racist white guy told me, "Some of the people here are quite racist, and they will never see how good you are in your work. Try not to let it discourage you."

    It does, however, wear you down over time because these and other routine events are so common.

  8. The white male police officer is always the "default hero" in these scenarios. You know... good men who put their lives on the line every day. White peers lauded his bravery, highlighting the quick action that got this hero through a harrowing situation. This credo will endure even after he is found to be liable in his own cover-up. His white co-workers will stand behind him because of his long distinguished service to the department. His career shouldn’t be derailed just for one stupid stunt; he’s under a lot of stress out there (some will say). Moreover, it will be portrayed as a stupid stunt, and not the racist act that it obviously is. “He's a good cop.” No matter what a white officer may do, this is what you’ll hear. Just like white children, “well he came from a good home” (yes, even though the boy set 60 fires) we are comforted in the fact that he came from a good home.

    “And of course, if this story gets any more coverage at all, the issue will be his mental stability, not the common white tendency at work here (blaming their crimes on phantom people of color, because they know very well about another common white tendency -- to think of black people as criminals).”

    Yes I agree, his culpability will diminish once the mental stability angle is examined, because normal white people don’t do things like this. Most likely, there were mitigating circumstances to motivate a man to do such a thing. An entire back-story will be compiled, examining what led up to this decision. Family/martial problems- stress from debts, (unseen factors beyond his control) anything to explain why he did what he did. In contrast, a non-white cop’s background will be appraised to see what kind of trouble he has been in the past. The media will scour his history and determine patterns of negative behavior, to illustrate just how rotten he was. There seems to be some kind of inherent instinct that compels whites to only see the good in other whites. As a result, just as one has to go out of their way to prove racism to a white person, one has to invest an equal amount of labor to show a white person to be bad or criminal. There will always be an explanation as to why the white person acted criminally, always.

  9. Some whites are truly sick enough to do anything and blame it on people of color.

    This reminds me of a story of a man robbing several banks. Cameras took pictures of a black man as the suspect.

    Now, here's where it get crazy:

    It turns out that the black man in the pictures was actually a white man in an incredibly constructed, hollywood, black male mask. It was so convincing it fooled a lot of people for a while until the guy got caught.

    *sigh* This crap will never end.

  10. You can't really talk about this issue without bringing up the closely related issue of black incarceration. Meaning that the attitude that allows people to believe these lies also allows Amerika to fill its penal systems with black "predators", many of whom are guilty only of having incompetent counsel.

    The "fruited plains" are drenched with the blood of non-whites who were conveniently accused by whites to cover their own crimes. Our prisons are filled with those who would have been given treatment or probation had they been white.

  11. *delurks*

    I'm not really suprised.

    It's been going on in America since the Boston Tea Party. Nothing shows how dedicated you are to your cause like putting on redface and letting those savage Mohawks take the blame.

  12. This might have already been mentioned but I didn't read all of the comments. The other version of this is the phantom crime that brings down real people of color. Emmett Till, the Duluth lynchings referenced in Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," scores of others that go unreported. A WP, knowing people will believe his claims, gets a POC either incarcerated or killed for a crime that never happened - based entirely on white word.

  13. Oh, yes...I really do think we should start placing a LOT more attention on bullshit like this.

    I volunteer to be a bane of the blogosphere. Anyone wanna come along with me? *looks at Aiyo & Victoria*

  14. Just adding on to what false1 said about the title issue being connected to prison rates: it's not even just about the women and men who are unjustly incarcerated. There's also a huge economic and emotional toll on the families and communities from which they're torn away.

  15. Moi, count me in. You know my email.

  16. I have one word.


  17. I remember the story of Susan Smith. Remember her? She's the woman who killed her two young sons by strapping them into their carseats and finally letting the car roll into a lake. At the time, she claimed a black carjacker jumped into her car and drove away with her two kids. What bs! The cops were looking for a bm when they had the murderer right in front of them!

  18. This always happens, especially where I live, in southern California. The news always ends up reporting that a suspect is black or Latino - even though skin tones of people that are Latino can be extremely close to those that are white, and at times, can be near-identical.

    I always have jokes about this (you know, to keep up morale in such a harsh racial climate). Such as, "the suspect is a 5'5" to 6'5" African-American male, approximately 125-375 pounds".

  19. Also, I hate when they give people who are _clearly_ guilty immunity, before they confess to the crime. That crap should be outlawed.

  20. I... don't even know what to say.

    Oh, and, in case we nonwhite people haven't gotten the message (as if!): this has already been forgotten.

    According to Google, this story died at birth; nothing's been written about it since the 14th. Not one word.

    Why'd he do this? Money? Job transfer? Psychopathy??
    (Shrug, dunno.)
    Will his cases be reviewed?
    (Why? No harm, no foul, amirite?!)
    Do his colleagues have anything to say?
    (Huh? Like what?)
    Why'd he think that was a workable alibi?
    (Who cares!? I'm bored with this now.)
    Anyone gonna look into the climate of that PD??
    (Ugh, are we still talking about this??)


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