Race, desperation, and Ashley Todd

Could she really have told the same story but with a white assailant?

Hilzoy posts some characteristically thoughtful reflections on the Ashley Todd hoax. Well worth reading, especially on the psychology of being on the losing side in a high-stakes campaign.

One one point, though, I think Hilzoy goes astray. Having developed a theory of what might have been behind Todd’s confabulation, she says:

What I can’t think my way into is her saying that the person who did it was black. No kind of desperation that I can think of would have required that detail. That’s just gratuitous, and very, very ugly.

“Gratuitous”? That suggests that Todd could have chosen to tell the same story about a white mugger with a fanatical hatred of McCain supporters. I don’t see it.

First, without the racial element the story would have had much less political potency. The country does not have ingrained fears of violent Democrats, or violent Obama fans. It does have ingrained fears of criminally violent black men. Part of the resistance to having a black President is the fear that black people will imagine that as a license to take revenge on white people. So as a pure campaign stunt, race was, as the lawyers say, “of the essence.”

Second, since the “victim” had to choose a race for the imaginary robber, “black” was the most plausible answer. According to surveys of crime victims, half of all robberies in the United States are committed by black people. In Pittsburgh, where the proportion of African-Americans in the population is about twice the national average, a robber is far more likely to be black than white. Indeed, the “victim’s” made-up description actually matched that of someone who had been carrying out ATM robberies in the area. I doubt that there was a 6’4″, 200-lb. white ATM-mugging suspect in the police data-base.

Third, why should we doubt that Ashley Todd adds racism to her other psychological problems? She probably told the story as she imagined it; the mugger, in her mind, was naturally African-American (and dark-skinned at that), just as he was naturally, young, male, big, and tall.

So, given Ashley Todd’s crazy plan to invent a crime of political violence, the racial aspect of the story followed naturally. And, as Hilzoy points out, with less diligent police work, it might have served its political ends.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com