Thursday, August 18, 2016

Cultural Scapegoating: American Style

Ryan Lochte (L) and Jimmy Feigen (R)
Let's be honest.

From the start, there was something fishy about the strange story of four high-profile members of the American men's swimming team claiming that they'd all been robbed at gunpoint after leaving a party by a group of Brazilian men wearing police uniforms.

As has been widely reported today, their story was a lie used as an attempted cover-up.

As Simon Romero reported for the New York Times earlier today, gold medalist Ryan Lochte's claims that a gun had been held to his forehead during an early morning robbery were pure fiction intended to either cover up the fact that he and the other three swimmers had been out until after 5am.

Or because one or more of them caused serious damage to a bathroom in a Shell station on the way back from an exclusive party thrown by the French in an exclusive riding club in the equally exclusive Lagoa district.

According to Brazilian investigators, witnesses saw the men in some kind of argument or confrontation with store employees over the damaged door at the Shell station - the gun pointed at them was held by a security guard confronting them over the bathroom damage and least one of the swimmers tried to give the employees money; their story fell apart when video contradicted their claims.

After the years of hard work, training and sacrifice these guys put in it's doubtful anyone would fault them for going out and letting loose with some drinks after the pressure of Olympic competition; after all the swimming competition was over.

Aside from Lochte the other three guys were twenty-somethings, all were noticeably drunk and there was something  palpably "frat-like" about the whole affair.

Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, Ryan Lochte & Jack Conger
Aside from the legal implications, what's troubling is that these four privileged American's first thought was to cover up their actions rather than to man up and admit it.

Instead they concocted a bogus story to exploit widely-held fears about Brazilian criminal activity.

And tried to blame their own behavior on non-existent people of color; a devious practice with a long history in America - often with far more deadly consequences.

You may recall the horrific case of Charles Stuart back in 1989.

On the night of October 23, 1989, Stuart left a childbirth class with his pregnant wife Carol and at some point he pulled over and shot her, then in an effort to cover it up he then shot himself in the stomach before managing to drive to the hospital.

Charles and Carol Stuart
He famously told Boston police that a black man wielding a gun had jumped into the car, robbed them then shot them both.

Predictably, the city was in an uproar and members of the Boston PD and Massachusetts State Police tore through predominantly African-American neighborhoods looking for suspects.

During the frenzied search a number of innocent black boys and men were beaten by police; and one man was even reportedly killed while in police custody.

But it was a hoax cooked up by Stuart to collect the life insurance on his wife; Stuart's brother went to the police and admitted that he'd help to dispose of the murder weapon.

Carol Stuart died on the operating table hours after being shot - the unborn child delivered two months premature by Cesarean section died seventeen days later.

The incident sparked outrage, particularly in Boston's African-American community and caused incalculable damage to race relations in the city; and sadly served to reinforce the image of Boston as one of the most racist cities in the nation.

Susan Smith
Almost five years to the day on October 25, 1994, Susan Smith reported to South Carolina police that a black man had carjacked her 1990 Mazda Protege at gunpoint at a rural intersection and kidnapped her two children.

Smith's story went global and she spent days appearing in front of television cameras making tearful pleas for the return of her two sons.

But local South Carolina police were almost immediately suspicious of her story as well and secretly suspected her from the start of the investigation.

Days later her story was exposed as a lie and she finally admitted that she had driven her vehicle to a boat ramp at the edge of John D. Long Lake, and allowed it to roll into the water with her two sons.

The bodies of three-year-old Michael Daniel Smith and his younger brother 14 month-old Alexander Tyler Smith were later found inside the vehicle submerged in 60 feet of water.

She confessed to drowning her sons in order to have a relationship with a wealthy man who lived in the area who apparently did not want a family. She's currently incarcerated in Greenwood, South Carolina and will be eligible for parole in 2024.

From a cultural perspective what's both fascinating and sad about the practice of some white Americans committing crimes or illegal acts and intentionally blaming people of color, is that the awareness of the depth of the racial bias that's embedded within the fabric of American culture is so common, that the perpetrators know that authorities will be all too quick to believe any claim that a person of color committed a crime or offense against a white person.

Nelson lynching, Okemah, OK - 1911
Even though studies show that the vast majority of violent crimes in the U.S are intra-racial - that is whites tend to victimize other whites, and blacks tend to victimize other blacks (which is certainly true in Chicago).

Racial scapegoating was often used during the dark days of lynching in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century in the US.

Most often by mobs who used non-existent crimes, or even the accusation, or association of crimes not proven in trial to justify lynching innocent African-Americans (and Native Americans and whites) - as in the case of Laura Nelson, a black woman who was lynched alongside her son L.D. Nelson on May 25, 1911 from a railroad bridge in Okemah, Oklahoma (pictured above) after the two were seized from a local jail by a mob of about 40 whites seeking revenge for the death of a sheriff's deputy sent to the Nelson farm to search for a stolen cow.

Yet ingrained prejudices in the U.S. are such that racial perception and bias skewers fact and statistics; and as evidenced by the reactions in the Charles Stuart and Susan Smith cases, makes many white Americans malleable to the mere suggestion of black criminality - to the degree that some whites intentionally employ it as a scapegoat.

Those four American Olympic swimmers were certainly cognizant of the racial bias in Brazil; as if they thought the combination of their stature as athletes, their white privilege and the anxiety of violent crime in Rio would make their lie palatable.

Cultural scapegoating is so ingrained in America that it's even been portrayed in popular fiction.

One of the most famous examples I can think of, is the scene in the classic 1990 film Goodfellas, 
and credit goes to the brilliant director Martin Scorcese for demonstrating how racial scapegoating was used by some members of organized crime.

"Tommy D" and Henry Hill prepare to steal the
complicit driver's truck in Goodfellas
It happens during a scene in which real-life mobster Henry Hill (played by actor Ray Liotta) is describing the various ways that their crew regularly ripped off cargo from trucks going in and out of Idewild Airport (now LaGuarida) in Queens, New York during the 50's and 60's.

The scene opens with a white truck driver stopping in front of a diner and climbing down from his cab.

He casually walks past Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito (played by actor Joe Pesci) and gives them both a nod as he walks in the diner (pictured above).

The two mobsters casually walk to the cab of the truck, get in and simply drive away.

Meanwhile inside the diner, after the truck driver has ordered something to go and walks out, he suddenly runs back inside, feigning surprise and anger as he shouts to the man behind the counter:

"Hey! You gotta phone? C'mon, c'mon you gotta phone?"

The man behind the counter says, "Yeah, over there," pointing to a pay phone on the wall as the truck driver hurries over, intentionally raising his voice for the other diner patrons to hear:

"Two niggers just stole my truck! You believe that shit?"

Watch the scene for yourself, it only runs about 48 seconds.

I think it speaks to the underlying reasoning that motivated four Olympic athletes to import something dark from America to deflect attention on their own actions.

Most definitely not a highlight in American Olympic history, but inexorably linked to American history.

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