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Young: Don't let past racial injustices block Tawana Brawley case truth

The Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and Tawana Brawley

The Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and Tawana Brawley walk to hold a news conference outside at Federal Court in Manhattan in this file photo. Credit: AP, 1990

Last week, a story that caused heated debates a quarter-century ago was briefly back in the news, its implications as relevant and controversial as ever.

Tawana Brawley, once a teenager in upstate New York whose claims of a horrific hate crime by a group of white men with law enforcement ties were exposed as a hoax, has been served with a court order to pay damages in a defamation suit.

In November 1987, Brawley, then 15, was found lying in a garbage bag outside an apartment complex in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., seemingly half-conscious. Her body and hair were smeared with feces; racial and sexual slurs were scrawled on her skin. Brawley, who is African-American, eventually made shocking charges: She said she had been kidnapped, held prisoner for several days, and sexually assaulted by several white men, at least one of whom was a police officer.

The response was a wave of outrage. Activists, most notably the Rev. Al Sharpton, championed Brawley as a victim. While Brawley herself initially did not identify any assailants, her handlers accused Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney Steven Pagones not only of a racist cover-up of a crime, but of being one of the rapists.

Brawley's story was first openly questioned in a March 1988 article in The New Republic. Journalist William Tucker summarized the numerous inconsistencies in the case, which, he wrote, were being privately discussed by many reporters. Yet few were willing to question the allegations in public, for fear of being called racist -- a charge quickly lobbed at Tucker himself.

In October 1988, a grand jury released a 170-page report concluding that the abduction and rape were a hoax. Strong evidence suggested that the girl had spent several days with friends after visiting a jailed boyfriend, then concocted the story with her mother's help to avoid her stepfather's wrath.

Ten years later, Pagones won a defamation suit against Brawley and her advisers. Brawley has avoided payment until now by changing her name and moving to Virginia, where she works as a nurse; that ended with publicity around the 25th anniversary of the case.

Pagones has said he will waive payments if Brawley admits she lied. That is unlikely. In 1997, she still defended her story at a rally in New York.

Many say that the continuing support for Brawley in the African-American community is understandable, given the history of black women's sexual victimization by white men. Perhaps; yet some arguments on Brawley's behalf reflect the disturbing assumption that facts matter less than cultural symbolism. In a retrospective in The Grio, an African-American-oriented news and opinion site run by NBC News, Wayne State professor Danielle L. McGuire was quoted as saying that "negating her story . . . deletes that whole history . . . of white men assaulting and attacking black women with relative impunity."

But should a lie be accorded respect because it is modeled on a painful reality? If anything, the defense of an obvious hoax gives ammunition to those who would minimize real victimization.

McGuire also cautions against making Brawley an example of how "you can't trust a woman," especially a black woman who says she was raped by a white man. Of course it would be both racist and misogynist to use a single case to impugn all such charges. But the Brawley case, like the Duke University rape hoax 20 years later, reminds us that it is equally wrong to treat race and gender as proof of truth and victimhood. Some women, whatever their race, do "cry rape." Some accused men, including white men, are innocent. What matters is the facts of each case. It's that simple.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.