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Beware Hate Crime Hoaxes

By Clarence Page

A student at George Washington University recently complained that swastikas were scrawled on her dormitory door. Thanks to cameras hidden by university police, they have a suspect: The student who filed the complaint.

I was shocked but not surprised, just as I am shocked but not surprised when, with thousands of cars on the road, some get into accidents. Similarly with the recent upsurge in national attention to swastikas, nooses and other racial vandalism in public places, I am shocked but not surprised that at least one case of racial-ethnic vandalism turns out to be phony.

The young woman's sad case might have passed without much off-campus notice if these were not times in which any knucklehead with a rope or a felt-tipped pen can make national news by hanging a noose or scrawling racist graffiti in a conspicuous location.

This upsurge in media interest followed the march that brought thousands to tiny Jena, La., in September. The marchers were protesting a series of racially charged local events that began with nooses hung from a tree in a schoolyard. With the help of black talk radio shows and blogs, Jena's local stories became a national cause with the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in the lead.

After that, national media seemed to be on the lookout for other sightings of nooses or racist graffiti to turn into more national causes. In one case, a black professor reported a noose had been hung on her office door at Columbia University. Police hardly had begun their investigation before students and faculty held a rally against racism. The speechmakers made upper Manhattan sound like 1950s Mississippi, except in this case, the rally was covered live on CNN.

Since then New York lawmakers have begun to vote on legislation to include nooses with swastikas and burning crosses among objects that cannot be displayed in a racially threatening manner. That's fine. Intimidating someone for reasons of their race, sex, religion or ethnicity should be a crime and it should be enforced. But, like any other law, hate crime laws can be abused, sometimes by those whom they are intended to protect.

Last year, for example, Trinity International University near Deerfield, Ill., evacuated some classes after anonymous letters threatened minority students with gunfire. A black female 20-year-old student was eventually convicted of felony disorderly conduct and ordered into counseling for creating the letters. Police told the Chicago Tribune that she had been unhappy at the school and hoped the threats would persuade her parents to let her leave.

Three years earlier at Northwestern University, a student who described himself as biracial admitted to putting anti-Hispanic graffiti on a wall near his dorm room and filing a false report of racial harassment and a knife attack.

In 2003 three black freshmen were accused at the University of Mississippi of writing racial graffiti on the doors of two other black students' rooms and on walls on three floors of the residence hall. Among their obscenities and racial epithets, their scrawls included a tree with a noose and a hanging stick figure.

Again, I was shocked but not surprised to hear of these episodes and others. I am only surprised when other people sound surprised. People file false police reports for various reasons. Why should we be surprised that some might file false hate crime reports just to get a rise out of other people?

No, we should not ignore symbols of hate that are displayed with an obvious intent to intimidate someone. Racial intimidation is a crime that needs to be taken seriously, regardless of which race the perpetrators happen to be. It is important to note, in that regard, that the George Washington University student's confession came a couple of days after another student, a male whose name also was withheld, was charged by campus police with painting a swastika on a door in another dormitory after a hidden camera caught him in the act.

Nor should we be persuaded by those who would have us believe, based on the occasional bogus hate crime, that racism is no longer a serious problem in America, compared to the personal responsibility of individual women and minorities. Students who are trying to learn, for example, deserve to be left alone, untroubled by racial vandals of any color.

Nevertheless, as we take incidents of racial vandalism seriously, our seriousness should include a dose of healthy skepticism. Overreaction only rewards the troubled souls who commit such offenses in the first place, whatever their sick reasons might be. They don't deserve that satisfaction.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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