False Rape Accusations Have Racial Implications
Maureen Cavanaugh (Host): Last week, a 15-year-old Encinitas girl told her parents and police that she'd been kidnapped and raped by three latino men. Before she admitted that the entire story was fabricated, the police had conducted an intense manhunt in a community already on high-alert after the murders of teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. It turned out, the minor had sex with a 20-year-old man she met online. He is now in jail. But the story raises questions of how false accusations like this impact communities of color -- already vulnerable to institutionalized racism.
Sara Clarke Kaplan, professor of ethnic and critical gender studies at UCSD.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Late last month, parents and high school students in Encinitas were told to be on alert for three men accused of raping a 15 year old girl. The accuser provided descriptions of the men she said attacked her. Those descriptions were turned into police sketches and distributed to the public and the media. After a couple of days, issue the teenage girl's stories started to fall apart, and police say she admitted to making it up. Authorities say she had sex with a man and didn't want to tell her parents.
There are many facets to this disturbing news story, but one of the most disturbing is that the three accused assailants were described as Latino. The pictures distributed to the police were of three Latino men. What kind of fallout do false allegations like these have in your larger community? And do they have the power to strengthen stereotypes that lead to true perversions of justice?
I'd like to introduce my guests, Sarah Clark Kaplan who's professor of ethnic and critical gender studies at UCSD. And Sarah, good morning.
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: Good morning, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Justin Brooks is director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. Justin, welcome back.
JUSTIN BROOKS: Good morning, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'd like to invite the listeners to join the conversation. What did you think when you heard about the rape and kidnapping accusation in Encinitas? What was your reaction to the sketches released of the alleged suspects? Give us a call, the number is 1 888 895 5727. That's 1 888 895 KPBS.
Sarah, let me start with you, if I may, and ask you virtually the same question: What did you think when you heard about the rape and kidnapping accusation in Encinitas?
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: Well, Maureen, I think, of course, any of us who worry about issues of sexualized violence were appalled and deeply concerned at the idea that there were a group of men sexually assaulting young women anywhere in the San Diego area. But I have to confess that as a scholar of ethnic studies who does work on race and sexuality, I was also deeply concerned about what the consequences would be of a kind of generalized manhunt for three Latino men, given the history of these kinds of accusations and the kind of consequences for racial conflict that they can have in communities.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what what was your trepidation about that? What was that initial thing that went off in you that said this might not be good?
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: Well, I think, you know, if we're aware of the kind of of these sort of accusations, we can think back to cases like, say, the Central Park Jogger case in the 90s to remember that there was a wide scale manhunt in New York, that all young, black men were rounded up, that, you know, young black men were basically railroaded into confessing to a crime that they didn't commit and spent years in jail because of it. We can think as far back as the 30s, the Scotsborough case, we know that these kinds of cases have a kind of history of producing a kind of wide scale racial sexual panic around, you know, supposedly criminally deviant men of color, and the consequences of that in a community particularly this close to the border for heightening racial tensions for leading to racial profiling are really dramatic.
And I think, you know, if you look on line at some of the sort of blogs that have happened since this case, the kind of wide scale outpouring of negative sentiment against so called illegals or so called Mexicans with their deviant sexual behaviors, even after the allegations have been proven false speaks for itself.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'd like to get your take too on the historical record of this type of accusation, Justin.
JUSTIN BROOKS: Well, there are certain a long history of wrongful convictions and race plays a major role in that, even when it's not a false claim of a crime, there leads to false identification issues, when we're dealing with issues of race, and false identification is the number one cause of wrongful conviction. And cross racial identifications are the absolute worst. There's been, I think 66 DNA exonerations where there was cross racial identification, and the reason is that when people don't have a lot of exposure to races that aren't their own, it's more difficult for them to different in the identification process. It's a very difficult thing for the criminal justice system to deal with because you need to get jurors to almost explore their own problems with race, and it sounds like racism, but it's really about exposure. And we're at a very dangerous time right now where there's really barriers being put up between races.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It seems, Sarah, sometimes when a when members of different different ethnic different race are identified as basically they're taken out of nowhere because as we know now, this this incident of rape did not occur. It seems as if it's a stereotypes feeding stereotypes. Do you see it that way?
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: I absolutely think that we can think of it that way, and I think that, you know, one of the critical points here is that it isn't about a kind of conscious or intentional racism. This is what we talk about as institutional racism. And what we can begin to see is that if frequently enough particular racialized gendered communities are seen as sexual deviant as criminal as engaging in predatory behavior, then it becomes easier for us to believe that members of those communities engage in such behaviors. And then when it becomes easier to believe it, you will see higher rates of arrest, higher rates of conviction, and in fact, even longer penalties as the you know, when conviction actually does occur, and that of course reinforces our idea that, oh, well, are of course it would be three Latino men. I mean, this is the kind of thing that meant that Susan Smith could say that a black man killed her children and no one ever thought, well, wait a minute, what black man? When? Where? How? I think it really does behoove us to think about what it was that lead this young girl to assume that she could give a kind of generic description of three various very stereotypical Latino men with goatees and tattoos and shaved heads, and that it would bear fruit, taking the attention off of her and her actions.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And when you talk about Susan Smith, that was a case in the 90s where a woman in the south said that her car was hijacked by two black men when she herself, we found out, actually drove her car into a body of water with her two young children inside.
My guests are Sarah Clark Kaplan, she is professor of ethnic and critical gender studies at UCSD, and Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. F we're talking your calls at 1 888 895 5727. Let's hear from Bill, calling from Del Mar. Good morning, Bill. Welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I, to be honest with you I don't know. What is the race of the girl that made these accusations?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't think that that has been released, Bill.
NEW SPEAKER: Well, I think it's only fair that we identify that, because, you know, when it's only fair. She claimed that she was raped by three Latinos. Okay. That means we're gonna be looking for three Latinos. We took her word. It was we have only seconds before these people get away. Okay? We don't want to be looking for the wrong if they were black, we would be looking for blacks.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
NEW SPEAKER: Or if they were Caucasians. I personally was not offended if she had said I was raped by three white people. I don't immediately go into, oh, well, she's you know, a stereotypical thing. But I think it was only fair that we identify her race, because that makes her a racist.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But Bill, I understand your point. And let me pose this to both Sarah and Justin. If indeed this girl is a Latina herself, is it possible that that people in different ethnic different ethnicities also internalize the the stereotypes that are in their general culture?
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: I think you know, Maureen if I could take that one first.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: I always tell my students when we have exactly the same conversation that identity doesn't equal ideology or in other words when we're talking about institutionalized racism or internalized ideas about people from different racial and ethnicity communities, that in fact the if isn't as if one is a racist as if one is a hockey player or a baseball player or a chef, right? We all internalize mainstream dominant ideas about racial communities and racialized people. And so in fact, the notion that a woman of color could choose to leverage or could unconsciously when she is seeking to make up a story like this leverage mainstream stereotypes in border areas about criminally sexual Latino men, either necessarily makes her a racist, nor, you know, making us not culpable for thinking about our own internalized racism.
Rather, what it says is we all can become deeply subject to these kinds of racialized stereotypes, and bill, I think just to answer your other question regarding, up, should we be offended? Shouldn't we look after whatever group it is? Is it necessarily a stereotype? I think the question we have to ask is what does it mean that certain racialized communities are much more immediately thought of as enacting certain kinds of crimes of being guilty of certain kinds of crimes? What makes a story ring more true or less true? Right? And what makes us hear something and think okay, well, that kind of makes sense.
And those are the kinds of things that we need to begin to think about. You know, again, like I said this entire story has been disproven but if you look on the blogs, the focus on even on sign on San Diego, for example, the focus is on how illegals have these, you know, bad sexual behaviors and how they don't realize you can't have sex with young girls and how this is what happens. And the focus has really been on you, you know, the kind of sexual criminality of Latinos rather than what it means that false allegations can be made.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Justin, I'd like to get your reaction.
JUSTIN BROOKS: Yeah, I don't know the race of this young girl but I do know that the race of victims plays a critical role in these cases. The response when young white girls are raped or murdered is just dramatically different than the response when people of color are raped or murdered. The police take a greater interest, the media takes a greater interest, the prosecution is stronger typically. And you're more likely to get I more severe punish am. We've seen that 234 in community in several cases, I mean looking at the David wester field case, and the Chelsea King case.
That there's I huge outcry in the community and that has to affect our system. Race of the victim and the quality of your defense attorney have been shown to be the top two factors on whether you get the death penalty in America, and neither of those factors have anything to do with the heinousness of the crime or anything that really should be relevant. And it's just undeniable that race of the victim plays a critical role.
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: Absolutely. You know, if I be just follow up.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: This has been shown to be particularly true in cases of sexualized violence and sexual assault, I think, you know, legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw has done a great deal of work on this since the 90s and I think also you know we do have to take seriously that all sexual assault allegations must be taken seriously. That it's a crime that for far too long wasn't taken seriously and that we as a community need to take seriously these allegations but we also need to balance that with asking ourselves whose allegations are taken more seriously against whom might these allegations be made?
I think for example if you look at the defense between a community response to Crystal Gale Mangum and the Duke case where she was put on the front page of newspapers with, you know, headlines that said "The Face of a Liar" and civil suits have been suggested and this young girl in Encinitas is indeed you know, they're not even pursuing the fact that it was a false allegation. You know, so there are some real differences that we can see.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Justin, I want I want to get to what I think is the heart of this discussion, and that is as director of the California Innocence Project, you you deal with people who are in prison either because they haven't done specifically what they have been charged with or because they haven't done the crime at all. And I'm wondering what you think the idea of making false claims against a particular ethnic group does to the general perception of that group being more likely than not to have committed a crime and therefore winding up in jail when perhaps they shouldn't be. Of.
JUSTIN BROOKS: Sure, I mean it absolutely feeds into the community that then is gonna judge cases. So future jurors, future judges, future people involved in the criminal justice system. And when you sit in a courtroom, and you're looking at somebody who's not of a race of your own, your life experience and everything you've been told and everything you've been exposed to is gonna feed into that. When you were just talking I was thinking about the end in the time to kill, the Grisham novel where he tells the jurors to close their eyes and imagine that the victim was a little white girl is not a little black girl. And our common experiences, our life experiences are gonna feed into all these kinds of stereotypes. And it has to affect the system.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1 888 95 5727. Rick is calling us from Oceanside. Good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hi.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I'm a police officer. I'm not gonna identify my agency that I work for, but I just had a some perspective on the incident that I thought might be valuable.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes. Great. Thank you for calling.
NEW SPEAKER: The first thing is, I think the comment from the earlier call, Bill, was very relevant. What was the race of the girl who made the accusations? I think when I heard about this incident as a police officer, we deal with these things, you know pretty frequently. And the description that she provided was very stereotypical, you know, kind of Hispanic gang member look. And I can tell you sitting around my fellow officers who are of different races, we all were very skeptical of the claim that came out.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. So you saw the sketches and you looked at each other, and you said the usual suspects?
NEW SPEAKER: No, we didn't say the usual suspects. What we said is, her story based on our experiences as law enforcement officers, we hear these types of things very often. Teenaged girls, young girls will hook up with older men, and they will then be scared to tell their parents and they make false claims.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see.
NEW SPEAKER: Of rape. So we were looking we were actively looking for these suspects because we don't know. If it's true or not. But our gut instinct when it came out was this is probably false. Sure enough, it did turn out to be false.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, Rick, thank you very much for the call. And as Sarah, I'd like to get your reaction to that.
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: I think, you know, Rick, I think you just pointed to something that is really, really crucial. And I think that your point to the kind of stereotypical criminal profile that was offered of these three men is particularly usable for us to hear because I think it points to the other part of this which is what does it mean that we are teaching our children? And again I have to disagree, I think it doesn't matter what her race is. Or regardless of her race. Or not that it doesn't matter but it's not the only point.
What does it mean that we are teaching our children that these are stereotypes. ? That when she thought I have to come up with some kind of excuse for my behavior that she immediately went to this incredibly stereotypical idea of this so called Latino gang banger and what does it mean that she assumed that that will be an effective enough, scary enough threat to mobilize attention away from her behavior? That means that we are not successfully teaching our children, teaching our communities both the danger and the violence of these kinds of stereotypes because we have to remember in a border community, the kinds of violence that are acted against people are color of also massive. So, you know, even if her accusation of violence, she actually ran a real danger of inciting community violence against Latinos.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what, Justin, what penalty can a person face for making up a story like this, a false charge?
JUSTIN BROOKS: Well, they could be charged with, you know, making a false report, they could be charged with some kind of obstruction, how often that's gonna happen is very unlikely. But yeah, I think this is a good thing to talk about because it's not just this little girl who's doing this kind of inciting I am fortunately am on some kind of e mail list, and I get the daily e mails from Arizona with these outrageous statistics about how many homicides are committed by illegal aliens every day. And last week I sat down and added up all the homicides from all the major cities in America and the number that they gave was twice. So we are in a really dangerous time and I think it was telling that the people who wrote in on Sign on San Diego after this article that basically disclaims the story, has still even fed the fire for people to put in these comments about illegal aliens are committing crimes, Mexicans are committing crimes. We really are at a time when this conversation needs to happen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just like Sarah was saying about it didn't go away when it came out that it was a false allegation. Taking your calls at 1 888 95 5727. John's calling from San Diego. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I would like to point out a couple of things, and I'm observing the comments from some of the earlier callers. But I think there is a definitely a racist ideology that comes out of these. And I would like to point out some groups like the minute men or the tea party who kind of feed on these things I'm on the e mail lists and will, and when we get e mails from the San Diego Minutemen or from the Tea Party, they love these types of incidents to try to reinforce stereotypes. And not just with the Latino community. I know you can find this across the border when Timothy McVay blew up the building in Oklahoma, I remember on the radio I heard about 15 minutes after I heard of the incident that they found Arab men were walking away from it. There is also a stereotypical scapegoat for these terrorists, that you can throw at the same thing is true for African Americans. So I don't think you can say all of the races, you know, doesn't necessarily matter or it doesn't bring a negative image in somebody's mind. Obviously it does. If a building blows up somewhere, the first thing, somebody goes, oh, I saw a Muslim man walking away.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.
NEW SPEAKER: Even if it was done by somebody, you know, people tracing or tracking the wrong people. Racial stereotyping hurts law enforcement because you start going after the wrong suspects and you may lose the right suspects.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. John, thank you so much for the phone call. Sarah, what does an allegation like this add and the reaction to it do to the Latino community?
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: Well, I think you know, one of the things that Justin just pointed you out a moment ago that I thought was really, really useful was the fact that this is happening in the context of Arizona basically legalizing racial profiling. And I think that what cases like this do is something not dissimilar in that it doesn't actually provide a legal justification for racial profiling but it does provide a kind of imagination to the community that racial profiling can happen, does happen, is, you know, this in fact they actually become racial profilers if their shown in that kind of way.
And that at that time that things can often feel very much under attack from the criminal justice system as well as from ICE, given what is going on in Arizona, it I think creates a greater sense of vulnerability. It actually may create greater vulnerability to extra legal violence, or illegal violence against. And it also creates increasing suspicion and tension between law enforcement and Latino communities because that's never none of these things are ever good things.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to make the point, and you made the point before by calling this 15 year old a child. This is a young girl who got herself into a situation, perhaps that, you know, was fraught and she didn't know what to do, and she was upset and she made these allegations. And it's probably probably she knows now it was the wrong thing to do. But she's a child. And I'm wondering, therefore, where do we look? As you analyze this situation, do you think that the authorities involved handled it in the correct way, Justin?
JUSTIN BROOKS: I don't know 'cause I don't know enough about how they handled it. But and I know they do have to respond to these types of allegations and they gotta respond to look for people who commit crimes. It's really hard to known. But I also think about I have a 15 year old myself of how this 15 year old got to the point of this was the thing that she was going to say. And the caller it's interesting, he brought up Timothy McVay because I was thinking last week about Timothy McVay about the mosque at the World Trade Center controversy.
And it's really it's not every race, and it's not every religion in this country that gets villainized because I wonder how many protests there will be if a Catholic church was built where the Oklahoma bombing occurred, and Timothy McVay was a Catholic. You know, would that be praising his work as a Catholic and work upon the Catholic church? So it's not across the board that we're constantly looking at all races and all religions. It's particular ones that are in the minority within our population.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Sarah, I'm going to give you the last word, as the police department came out and said, you know, we found out, we basically broke this girl's story down, we found out these allegations were false, is that enough?
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: I don't think so. Thing that what we need to begin to think about what kind of work can be done with police departments across the kitchen, to think about think about how to deal more proactively with these kinds of issues, structural and institutional racism because police departments are not in fact sacrosanct or separate from institutional and cultural structures. And this is something that traditionally police departments have been very hostile to because they feel that it may tie their hands but if we don't begin to do this work as a society to think about these kinds of dangers, then we actually run the risk of producing increased racial violence rather than producing a more just society.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both, Sarah Clarke Kaplan, thanks so much.
SARAH CLARKE KAPLAN: Thank you, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Justin Brooks, thanks.
JUSTIN BROOKS: Thank you, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And there are a lot of people whose phone calls we cannot get to. I would encourage you to go online, post your comments at KPBS.org/These Days. Stay with us for more of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.