It sounded almost too outrageous to be true: A black girl attacked during recess at a private Christian school by three white boys who cut off her dreadlocks. As it turns out, it wasn’t true.
The racially charged allegations made by 12-year-old Amari Allen were false, according to statements by her family and Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia, the latest example of what author and professor Wilfred Reilly calls an “epidemic of hoax hate crimes.”
“I would say most of the highly publicized hate crime incidents in the recent past have in fact turned out to be hoaxes,” said Mr. Reilly, author of “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War.”
He said his research revealed 409 confirmed falsified hate crimes concentrated in the past five years, a number that has grown since he submitted the manuscript to more than 600, including high-profile incidents involving actor Jussie Smollett — who has denied faking a race-based attack — and the Covington Catholic boys.
The Immanuel Christian episode featured several hallmarks of what Mr. Reilly describes as “characteristics of a probable hate hoax”: a “remarkable cinematic story”; an unlikely setting, in this case an upscale school playground; an accuser or family focused on talking to the media, and a crowdfunding campaign.
“The only ‘probable hoax’ characteristic missing was past involvement of the accuser in left- or right-wing activism,” said Mr. Reilly, who teaches political science at Kentucky State University, a historically black college in Frankfort.
The case did have a political angle: Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, teaches art part-time at the Christian academy, which may have helped propel last week’s widespread media coverage, including stories from The New York Times, CNN, CBS, NBC and local news outlets.
Immanuel Christian head of school Stephen Danish said the school “can now confirm that the student who accused three of her classmates of assault has acknowledged that the allegations were false,” while the Allen family issued an extensive apology.
“To those young boys and their parents, we sincerely apologize for the pain and anxiety these allegations have caused,” said the family’s statement. “To the administrators and families of Immanuel Christian School, we are sorry for the damage this incident has done to trust within the school family and the undue scorn it has brought to the school.”
The organizer of the GoFundMe site, which had raised $1,245, said Monday he would refund all donations at the request of the family.
“To the broader community, who rallied in such passionate support for our daughter, we apologize for betraying your trust,” said the family. “We understand there will be consequences, and we’re prepared to take responsibility for them.”
Neither Immanuel Christian nor the family disclosed whether the sixth-grader would face school discipline, nor what her motivation was for accusing three unnamed boys of pinning her down, covering her mouth, and taunting her as they sliced off sections of her long dreadlocks.
Low costs, high benefits
In most hoaxes, Mr. Reilly said, the motivations are personal. The accusers may be trying to cover their tracks or profit from an insurance scam, as in the 2012 case of the Velvet Rope Ultra Lounge in Chicago, whose owner admitted to writing gay slurs on the wall and setting the business on fire.
The other motivation: politics. Some hoaxers, especially those on college campuses, “have the idea that they’re involved in a noble cause, or they’re calling attention to an actual problem,” he said.
Mr. Reilly cited the 2015 Kean College case, in which a recent black graduate organized an anti-racism rally, and then during the protest itself used a fake Twitter account to threaten to kill black students in an effort to gin up outrage.
There may also be a trend toward younger hoaxers, he said, citing several recent false accusations made by high schoolers and even preteens, as in the Immanuel Christian case.
“The current trend of telling young people about racism and ‘oppression’ from the very beginning of their schooling, as vs., say, algebra, seems to be bearing fruit,” Mr. Reilly said in an email.
Adding fuel to the fabrication fire are media outlets eager to run with stories advancing a hate crime narrative, as well as social justice groups that use incidents of racism, homophobia and other outrages to draw attention to “what we fight” and boost fundraising, he said.
“There’s obviously a fairly substantial grievance industry in the United States,” Mr. Reilly said. “Southern Poverty Law’s endowment right now is $470 million, which is slightly more than my university. They’re not small players. But all of this depends in part on the idea that the country remains sort of a hotbed of ethnic tension or racial conflict.”
The benefits of such hoaxes may outweigh the cost. Those posing as hate crime victims are often treated as heroes. Even if they’re caught, perpetrators are rarely charged with more than misdemeanor offenses, unless insurance fraud is involved.
“They’re not very serious charges. You’re going to get community service,” Mr. Reilly said. “And on college campuses, virtually nothing happens at all, and that is worth noting because such a disproportionate number of these take place on college campuses.”
He noted that there are proposals to amplify the penalties for false reports by the same amount as penalties for hate crimes themselves, adding that “if that’s adopted, I think you’ll see a substantially reduced number of hoaxes.”
He also had some advice for journalists: The next time someone pitches a story about a shockingly egregious hate crime, wait a day or two.
“I think, one, stronger penalties could discourage fake hate crime reporting, and two, simple skepticism on the part of citizens in positions of power,” Mr. Reilly said. “Do you as the day editor let a story go forward? If you’re the dean of diversity at your college, do you do a press release?”
Not if you’ve read his book. “If you understand that, of the top 20 widely reported hate incidents recently — mass shooters aside — 10 or 12 have been fake,” he said, “you would be well advised to hold up on that.”