If one wants to fully understand how harmful false allegations can be to the cause of race relations, go back to 1987, to the small Dutchess County village of Wappingers Falls, less than a two-hour drive south of Schenectady.
It was there that a 15-year-old black girl named Tawana Brawley fabricated a tale of being repeatedly raped over a period of days by a gang of six white men. She was found abandoned in a garbage bag, the letters “KKK” written on her chest, a racial epithet written on her stomach, and feces in her hair.
People from around the country rallied around the teenager and railed against those who would put her through this terrible ordeal. There were holes in her initial story that would eventually lead to the entire case coming unraveled. But many people — white and black — abhorred by what happened to her, rushed to her defense. Rallies were held on her behalf. Celebrities donated to her legal fund. Her lawyers, including the now-infamous Al Sharpton, made national news stirring up racial hatred and unapologetically attacking anyone who would question the veracity of the story.
As it turns out, the whole story was a hoax, fabricated by a child afraid of retribution from her parents for running away and fueled by suggestion and momentum. But the damage had been done.
The Brawley incident demonstrated on the highest level how a false accusation of racial discrimination can throw gasoline on simmering racial tensions and divide even those who seek to unite.
The case of the three young women at UAlbany who had claimed they were assaulted on a CDTA bus and called racial epithets has fueled similar passions. It prompted demonstrations and generated national attention. It inflicted new wounds and some not yet healed, and threatened to further widen the racial divide.
But as with the Brawley case, the Albany women’s case fell apart when facts were revealed. Recordings from cameras and cell phones on the bus actually found the women to be the aggressors in an assault, rather than the victims. And on Thursday, they were charged criminally with falsely reporting the incident, as they should have been.
What we can’t allow to happen is for an incident like this to further divide. These women, if found guilty, were reckless and irresponsible, and their actions could well undermine the types of cases of violence and discrimination against minorities of which they falsely accused others.
Comments about the case in social media, newspaper websites and articles hint that the undercurrent for such a reaction exists.
The false allegations should not serve to rationalize discrimination from those who might view the case as an example of how minorities are responsible for stirring up racial tensions. It should not be used to create doubt about the severity of the tension. It should not be used to cast aspersions on other legitimate victims of racial bias and violence.
In the face of this, the public should not allow these misguided women to detract attention away from solutions that need to be found, such as promoting more understanding among people of different ethnic and racial persuasions, to encourage better relationships between police and the people they serve, and to find ways to eliminate the aggression and violence.
Rather than open up old wounds and create new ones, this case should be seen as yet another opportunity for more frank discussions on race relations with the goal of bringing people together — not driving them apart.