Racial prejudice has long been a thorn in humanity’s side. It has long served as the primary impetus for some of humanity’s most heinous deeds. Despite the international attention it has received, the many steps that have been taken to address it, and the progress that has been made, prejudice and discrimination nonetheless continue to exist and to negatively impact the lives of members of marginalized groups in numerous ways.
In the eyes of some, racism in society appears to be worsening, and racist remarks, actions, behaviours, and incidents appear to be on the rise. Almost every week, a new video of a person—typically white—apparently caught in the act of doing or saying something racist, circulates on the internet. The media opportunistically seizes on these incidents to highlight, if not exacerbate, the problem of racism.
While some suppose that racism is becoming more prevalent, others argue that racism has always been prevalent and is only becoming more visible as people become better educated and technology is available to capture incidents. Increasingly, “racism” is being used as a catch-all term to refer to any behaviour, attitude, or outcome a member of a minority group perceives as in any way negative.
In recent years, numerous unsubstantiated and even patently false claims of racism have deepened divisions in societies that cannot agree on how to come to terms with a past influenced by racial inequality.
One name immediately comes to mind with respect to false claims of racism: Jussie Smollett, the black Empire actor who orchestrated a hate crime and falsely claimed to have been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. Smollett is believed to have staged the attack to increase his notoriety and advance his career. His false claims exemplify how racism can be used for personal gain.
This article discusses some lesser-known instances in which false allegations of racism have been leveled against others, with the accusers facing minimal or no consequences for their conduct.
There has been little research on the psychosocial and psychological consequences of false accusations of racism, but these can clearly have serious negative consequences for both the individuals accused and the groups to which they belong. In recent years, race relations have steadily worsened, according to polling data. A false accusation doesn’t hurt only the individual accused, but also their family and even the group they belong to.
Nobody is immune to false racist accusations. It can affect otherwise decent workers, such as Dominique Moran, a restaurant manager who was wrongly labelled a racist and became the target of vile online abuse following the viral video of her allegedly refusing to serve a group of black men. It was later revealed the group of men portrayed as the victims were known to “dine and dash,” meaning they would eat at restaurants but then flee when the bill arrived. By the time the facts of the incident were fully revealed, Moran had already lost her job and received hundreds of messages vilifying and threatening her and her family. Not only that, but she found herself dealing with fear, paranoia, distrust, and shame, demonstrating the psychological battles one can face as a result of false accusations. Moran eventually found work, but the incident left her with a sense of vulnerability she had never felt before.
In another incident, four women in Coventry, UK, were subjected to racial abuse as they attempted to enter a taxi. The perpetrator was quickly identified after the video went viral and his photos and social media handles were posted online. The only issue was that the wrong individual had been identified. Barney Schneider, a fourth-year Coventry University student, was mistaken for the man in the video due to an uncanny resemblance. Schneider was viciously attacked online, received threatening messages, and expulsion from his university was demanded. As in Dominique Moran’s case, revealing the facts did nothing to take back the unforgiving and wrathful abuse that Schneider had endured.
An older incident highlights how even public officials are vulnerable. Shirley Sherrod, Georgia State Director of Rural Development, was fired on July 19, 2010, as a result of media reports from an event the previous March at which she had addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sherrod’s remarks were condemned as racist by the NAACP, and US government officials demanded her resignation. Nonetheless, a review of her entire speech revealed that the excerpts were selectively edited and that her remarks, when understood in context, were about the importance of overcoming personal prejudices. The White House and NAACP officials later apologised for their criticisms, but this did not undo Shirley Sherrod’s ordeal, which included character defamation and the loss of a significant position.
There is no doubt that racism is a multifaceted phenomenon that encompasses numerous barriers that prevent people from experiencing dignity and equality because of their race or origin, and that it extends beyond thoughts, words, attitudes, and behaviours. It is extremely important to emphasize that racism should not be taken lightly, but it also shouldn’t be used as a weapon to manipulate individuals, groups, or situations.
The dangers of false allegations of racism may be summarized thus:
False accusations of racism are hurtful, disrespectful, and an affront to a person’s integrity and character. There are negative consequences for those accused and their family members, including emotional, physiological, psychological, social, and economic consequences. People may not simply be able to “move on,” and such a stigma can follow a person for the rest of their lives.
Unverified and false accusations of racism can be just as divisive in a country emerging from a history of racism as actual examples of racism. Such accusations may be detrimental to any projects aimed at fostering better race relations, re-establishing racial harmony, or progressing toward a future marked by racial equality.
When false accusations of racism are made, it negatively impacts those who really are victims of racism, as employers, office-holders, and the public at large may come to take their genuine accusations less seriously.
Racism is generally not tolerated in western societies. A genuine case of racist discrimination may result in civil, criminal, and financial penalties. Individuals should be free to report racist incidents without fear of reprisal. However, accusations must be made responsibly, as unfounded charges of racism can have a detrimental effect on individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Perhaps those who make false accusations should face repercussions as serious as those faced by genuine perpetrators of racist acts.