Jeneé Osterheldt

How can we fight hate crimes when liars ruin the cause?

When people report false hate crimes they undermine real racism and the efforts of activists like Concerned Student 1950, who helped unseat the University of Missouri System president in 2015 to change a racist campus culture.
When people report false hate crimes they undermine real racism and the efforts of activists like Concerned Student 1950, who helped unseat the University of Missouri System president in 2015 to change a racist campus culture. The Associated Press

Racism is as American as apple pie, but it’s something our country loves to deny. So the last thing we need right now is Dauntarius Williams adding fuel to the fire of the nonbelievers.

Williams is the 21-year-old who claimed his car parked near Kansas State University was vandalized with slurs like “Go home nigger boy.” We found out Monday it was a hoax. He apologized, and no charges were filed.

He’s not the only liar. Nathaniel D. Nelson spray-painted racist grafitti on his own south Kansas City church and set a fire inside to cover up his theft of money. Last week he was charged with arson.

Williams and Nelson just made it that much easier for real hate crimes, like the noose found hanging from a tree in front K-State’s King Hall last May, to be dismissed as a sham. It’s bad enough university President Richard Myers encouraged students who didn’t understand the implications of a noose to “reach out to one of our African-American students, faculty or staff to ask why this act is intolerable.”

Lying makes it harder for victims to be believed. Even with proof, getting hate crimes to be taken seriously is a battle. As it was at the University of Missouri, where over the course of a couple of years, professors and students were called the N-word, a poop swastika was smeared on the bathroom wall of a dorm and administration did very little.

It took a boycott by the school’s football players and a graduate student’s hunger strike to force the resignation of the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, and chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. And that resulted in death threats against black students. Maybe if the school had taken things seriously sooner, it wouldn’t be suffering from a decline in enrollment now.

So we cannot change our willingness to hear survivors out and take a stand just because of a few big liars. Doing that will only make it easier for hate crimes to go unrecognized, as is the tragic case in the killing of 17-year-old transgender teen Ally Steinfeld in the Ozarks.

Because here’s our reality: In the United States, hate crimes rose 5 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. Such crimes against Muslim, LGBTQIA, Jewish and black people are among the most common. Our nation’s capital saw a 62 percent rise. And in 2017, the number rose 20 percent in our largest cities already.

The problem with these numbers is they rely on reported cases. The Department of Justice found more than half of hate crimes between 2011 and 2015 were not reported and nearly half (48 percent) were racially motivated.

Brianna Brochu AP

Williams and Nelson must not be given the power to discredit real hate crimes — like the case of Brianna Brochu, a former University of Hartford student. The 18-year-old white freshman posted on social media about rubbing tampons on her black roommate’s backpack, spitting in her coconut oil, putting moldy clam dip in her lotion and sticking her toothbrush “where the sun doesn’t shine” so she could get rid of “Jamaican Barbie.”

This went on for over a month before someone finally did the right thing and told her roomie, Chennel Rowe. Brochu was expelled, but the school also tried to forbid Rowe from ever speaking about what happened to her, threatening to remove her from her dorm. This story may have never received national attention had she not ignored authorities and posted her story on Facebook.

Brochu has been charged with criminal mischief. And Hartford police requested a hate crime charge: intimidation based on bigotry or bias.

Maryland didn’t hide from the ugly truth last month when Sean Urbanski was indicted on a hate crime charge in the stabbing death of Richard Collins III May 20 at the University of Maryland. Collins was days away from his Bowie State University graduation. He was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. And, the prosecutor says, he was killed for being black.

We must take every hate crime accusation seriously, investigate, and when the proof is evident, convict. There is no excuse for falsely reporting hate crimes. But we cannot ignore our hateful truths.

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star columnist: 816-234-4380, @jeneeinkc

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