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S. Carolina Case of Deceptions Also a Case of Perceptions : Crime: A mother's tale of a carjacker is now seen as another example of vilifying black men. But in the tight-knit town, cries of racism are tempered.

November 08, 1994|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNION, S.C. — As a barber in this small community--and before that a mail carrier for 21 years--Modest Keenan likes to say he knows everybody in Union.

So when he stopped in at a convenience store almost two weeks ago and the clerk showed him a sketch of a man accused of kidnaping two little boys, Keenan could say with authority: "This doesn't look like anybody in Union."

He immediately suspected a hoax. Others here, too, found Susan Smith's tale of a black gunman who stole her car and her children unbelievable, but they were in the minority. For nine days, first the county and then the nation was caught up in the anguish and the drama as a massive manhunt ensued.

Now, in the aftermath of Smith's confession to drowning her sons Oct. 25 and fabricating the carjacking, many local residents are furious. But nowhere has the anger and sense of betrayal been greater than in the African American community.

Sucked into Smith's terrible lie, many black people here had eyed their black neighbors with suspicion for more than a week. They had wept along with whites for the boys while they were missing.

In the end, the lie had been about them. And some in Union's African American community seem as livid about that as they are about the crime itself.

Their anger is directed both at Smith and more generally at the cultural and political climate that so often demonizes African Americans, portraying the black male as the personification of evil. Few here criticize the authorities for the way they handled the case.

"This is not a racial situation," said the Rev. James W. Richards, a Baptist minister who lives in Union and leads two churches in a neighboring county. "Two boys were murdered. The mother told a lie. The same sick mind that killed the children put it on a black person. . . . If she had described a Chinese, (the police) would've had to look for a Chinese."

On the surface, the similarities were striking between the case and an infamous murder in Boston in 1989. Almost five years to the day before 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander Smith died, a white Boston man named Charles Stuart sparked a massive manhunt with a tale of a black gunman whom he said had killed his pregnant wife. Police reacted by storming into nearby housing projects, questioning numerous black men. Eventually, a black man was charged with the murder.

Stuart committed suicide after his brother told police that Stuart himself had committed the murder. Boston still is recovering from the damage done to race relations there.

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But in Union, authorities were more restrained, closely examining Smith's story even as they instigated a nationwide manhunt for the two boys.

Even some of those blacks most upset over Smith's false accusation concede that the police probably would have handled the case no differently had the fictitious carjacker been white.

Keenan, for one, believes the community was so consumed by the disappearance of the children, not because of the race of the suspect, but because "in this rural community people value the life of a child."

Where he sees racial differentiation is in the response of the media: He doesn't imagine there would have been such massive nationwide coverage had the missing boys been black.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, praised the local and state law enforcement authorities "for their calm and professional conduct" in handling a case that could have been racially explosive.

President Clinton last week also phoned Union County Sheriff Howard Wells to praise him. And, at a forum held Sunday at a black Baptist church at which Wells and his wife were the only white people in attendance, Richards said "people were receptive to him and the way he handled things during the whole situation."

Some African Americans remain upset. After Smith's arrest Thursday, local radio airwaves were filled with talk about the case, with some black men saying they felt increased tension from whites. And it is easy to find people here who say you don't have look as far as Boston for other examples of black men being falsely accused.

Hattie Mae Thomas says it has happened to her husband and her son. And Keenan claims to know of a man falsely accused of kidnaping and robbing a white woman within the past year. In that case, he said, the woman was later found to have concocted the tale to cover up for a gambling loss.

But in Sunday's forum, Richards said a panel of mostly black professionals were in agreement that the biggest stereotypers of black males are no longer whites but blacks themselves. Citing gangsta rap and the work of some young filmmakers, he said: "If we don't want to be stereotyped, we need to stop stereotyping ourselves."

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