What would have motivated Susan Vaughan Smith to blame a fictional black man for the abduction of her two children? Why would she assume everybody in Union, S.C., and beyond would believe it?
Because history shows that the lie works. To a large segment of white America it is believable. Some people will assume, even without the encouragement of a made-up story, that when a violent crime is committed, an African-American male has to be somewhere in the vicinity, and involved.
It worked in Boston in 1989 when a young white man, Charles Stuart, claimed that a black man had murdered his wife, when he had. Last summer, many in Baltimore were chagrined to find that an elderly white couple in Guilford had not been killed by a black intruder, as had been widely assumed even without any such claim.
As was evident yesterday in Baltimore and all over the country, these reactions hurt, demean and anger many African-Americans.
And they embarrass and shame many whites.
"It taps into a widespread, stereotypical image of the black animalistic and violent predator," said Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University who specializes in race relations.
"It is an illustration of the extent to which at every step of the way in this country race polarization is unavoidable."
She added: "The larger lesson is that race does creep into every interaction in every event in national life. It's just inescapable."
There is nothing new about people trying to conceal their own crimes behind this generic lie. To Ms. Fernandez-Kelly, the South Carolina crime was only a variation on the Willy Horton gambit, the injection of the case of a black rapist into the 1988 presidential campaign for fear effect and political payoff.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson referred to the repetition over time of these incidents, especially in the South. He also suggested that the hysteria generated by the national political campaign could have contributed to what happened in Union.
"The black man has been the historical scapegoat, deep into our culture. Too many black men have been hung who have been accused by white women," he said.
He added that "the Willy Hortonizing of this political race, with the most powerful political leaders in this country seeding the clouds with racism, even a woman so pathetic as this would know what string to pull to ring the bell."
"I have a double pain about the tragedy," Mr. Jackson added. "One, the murder of the children. Two, other evidence of how vulnerable black men are." He urged President Clinton to call a national conference on racial justice.
Besides creating fear and antipathy toward blacks among whites, and fear of whites among blacks, the tactic used by Mrs. Smith also engenders a great amount of black pain.
Dr. Ronald Walters, head of the political science department at Howard University, said the pain was the part of the story of the fictional abduction in Union and fictional black fugitive that the media missed.
"In the recounting of this event, none of the media was talking about this pain that was running underneath the story. People were afraid . . . the people standing out in that yard [black people shown on TV gathering after Mrs. Smith's arrest was announced] were talking about the pain but it wasn't being reported."
Dr. Walters added: "You had to be sensitive to the fact that this was South Carolina. It evoked all the old stories of posses heading out after the blacks."
Michael Meyers, head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, however, does not feel comfortable extending the tragedy beyond Union.
"Historically it has happened a lot, of people accusing blacks of crimes and being believed by the larger community. This is nothing new in American criminal justice."
But, he added, "I don't think blacks were the victims [in this case]. The children were the victims. We should keep our focus on that. This was a disturbed person."
Baltimore's closest brush with such an experience involved Walter and Mary Loch. Both in their 80s, they were found beaten to death in their Guilford home in August.
The crime briefly gave fearful life to the enduring stereotype of the violent black predator, until the couple's 30-year-old grandson was charged with the slayings.
Yesterday, Baltimoreans met on the street were leaning toward Mr. Meyers' approach to the crime in Union, S.C. They were inclined to emphasize the uniqueness of the tragedy rather than its universality.
Mostly they were angry.
Melvin Knight, a 45-year-old white real estate agent, said: "I live in the city, I get around to a lot of neighborhoods, so I know better than to think that the black male is always the bad guy. But if I was a younger person from a sheltered existence, like Harford County, and the only black people I knew were the ones I met on the 11 o'clock news, then I'd assume that all bad things are done by black males."
"I think it's ignorance," he continued, "and ignorance comes in all forms, including the media. And I think this mother is a typical example of ignorance. She probably thought a black person would make her story more credible."
Said Joanne Ogunkoya, 47, a black woman met in Fells Point, "I feel sorry for the town she's from. She made a fool out of all of them."
Jerry Daniels, 46, a white businessman said, "My main concern was the kids. Whether it was a black guy or a white guy, everybody gave her the benefit of the doubt. But when the car was never spotted, you had to wonder. It's not black or white anymore, now people just want to hang the mother."
Not everyone thinks that the killings of the Smith children show that race relations have reached an all-time low in the United States.
Robert E. Slavin, a race relations expert at Johns Hopkins who works with poor and minority children, insists that despite cases like this, relations are actually getting better.
"Studies made over the decades show that in general racism is declining in this country, that white people's reactions to living near black people, or intermarriage, are softening," he said.