If you want to understand how our national discourse on race is where it is, look to Bethesda, the home and breeding ground of Supreme Court justices along the northwest Maryland border with Washington, D.C.
Posh Bethesda is a pretty uneventful place. So when Walt Whitman High School’s principal sent out a broadcast email last March describing graffiti of a racial slur, the “N-word,” painted in a remote part of campus few had seen, and telling over 2000 families that “hate crimes will not be tolerated,” Bethesdans recoiled and heard John Legend singing in the background.
The local D.C. press responded like a drill formation. In the months that followed, nationally-ranked Walt Whitman High School went into a whirlwind of ritual reeducation, but then it happened again.
On the Saturday morning of June 13, an early-rising dog-walker hailed a police patrol car and pointed them to the graffiti of a noose, the word lynch, and the N-word once again. This time it was noticeable, on a shed along the main driveway. Whitman’s principal arrived, got his spray can and the offense was rapidly painted over. Few people had seen it, but 30 minutes later the principal sent another broadcast email to describe it; identical to the one he sent in March. Bethesdans awoke to news of racist hate in their landscaped midst.
Hours later local news exploded the new hate crime. The Bethesda Magazine was first. By evening, local ABC, NBC. CBS and FOX television and radio had posted and broadcast the news. Darcy Spencer of NBC’s News4 led her evening news hour to report on the “hate-filled” graffiti. She interviewed a local who said that she didn’t think people capable of such a thing lived in her neighborhood but was “heartbroken” to learn that they did. She had posted photos of the graffiti on social media and would not, she insisted, take them down.
By June 15, three boys involved in the incident had all volunteered statements to police, in the company of their mothers. They had been on the campus just hanging out; one of them found a spray can and things took a turn. The Montgomery County Police issued a press release. Notably, one young man took full responsibility and said his motive was to draw public reaction given the street protests then beginning around the country.
He also took responsibility for the March incident. Police did not charge a hate crime, but maybe you had to be a lawyer to know why. It certainly should have signaled experienced news reporters. Maybe it did. Either way, reporters baked a whole fresh batch of news articles about hate. The Associated Press picked up the story, and so newspapers nationwide published about racist hate near the nation’s capital.
It was fake news. Montgomery County Police had failed to mention that the young man who took “full responsibility” was African American. Police failed to note that all three boys were members of hate-targeted minorities. In their release, they also went out of their way to inculpate the two boys who are non-Black; even though, according to the Police Incident Report itself, they knew these boys were “unaware’ of what their Black friend would paint. As it turns out, neither of these boys will be prosecuted, one will not be formally charged.
Reporting on the release for Whitman’s Black & White, a student writer asked police whether the boys belonged to an organized hate group. This should have told the grown-up police that they had published a very big, scary lie. So big and so scary that a Montgomery County Public School official wrote that Whitman students and staff feared “an imminent threat of serious harm.”
Scarier still, last month the reporters who previously were so quick to publish about a hate crime learned the truth. Not one has yet to tell their readers, viewers or listeners. Not the Bethesda Magazine, not the DCist, and not local FOX, CBS, NBC, or ABC stations. The Associated Press, that nationalized the fraud, has done nothing. Only one news writer, Shen Wu Tan at The Washington Times reported the truth. (“Montgomery County Police misrepresented school incidents as hate crimes,”Washington Times, August 18, 2020.)
What the police did was Keystone Cops, but that’s not the only story. The day after the June 13 incident, police informed Whitman’s principal who the three boys were. At that point, county school authorities also knew the truth. For two months, everyone kept the secret from 2000 Whitman families, staff and students, and all Bethesdans.
During this time, there were rallies and petitions calling for racial busing, hiring more African-American faculty, revising nationally-ranked Whitman’s curriculum and, of course, for the boys accused of the “lynching” graffiti to be summarily expelled without benefit of due process. Ironical, isn’t it?
In failing to tell the truth, public school authorities harmed the cause of equality by founding it upon a lie. They also took questionable measures to keep the secret; the truth must have been too embarrassing after investing so much in their self-flagellation. That is a whole other story. Whether it gets reported, we will see. What is certain is that it does not help our civic discourse when professionals, whether police, educators or “journalists,” work so hard to protect such a big lie. Alarmingly, it is happening everywhere.
• Manuel A. Miranda is an attorney and represented the uncharged student in this matter.