Sharmeka Moffitt, Tawana Brawley and the Intersections of Race, Class and Gender
Admittedly, when I read the first reports of Sharmeka Moffitt’s case, I thought of another case. I even noted such by saying, “for some reason, this makes me think of Tawana Brawley.” For those unfamiliar with the Brawley case, she was a 15 year-old Black girl who (in 1987) was found unresponsive and semiconscious in a garbage bag with feces smeared on her body. The words “bitch,” “nigger” and “KKK” were found written on Brawley’s torso during subsequent hospital examinations. Brawley told authorities that she had been abducted and raped by six white men, some of whom Brawley identified as police officers. Celebrities (Bill Cosby) and activists (Al Sharpton) came to Brawley’s aid. Supporters believed that officials were engaged in a cover-up because some of the perpetrators were police officers. The resulting racial tensions and media coverage were nothing short of spectacle. Brawley’s identity was made public, despite her being a minor, and photos of her were released to the public. Ultimately, the Grand Jury concluded that physical evidence and testimony indicated that Brawley had not been abducted or assaulted (schoolmates testified that they saw Brawley at a party during the days she said she had been abducted, the rape kit did not show signs of sexual assault including sodomy and Brawley’s body didn’t show signs of being exposed to the elements in the woods for four days). It has also been claimed that Brawley made up the story after skipping school to avoid the wrath of her stepfather, a convicted murderer who served time for killing his first wife. For obvious reasons, Tawana Brawley eventually changed her name and relocated. Brawley has always maintained that her claims are true.
In Sharmeka Moffitt’s case, there are fewer details because the case is so new. What we know thus far is that Moffitt, a Black female Louisiana resident, was burned over 60% of her body by what she alleges to be three men wearing white hoods (or hoodies) who also wrote “KKK” and “nigger” on the hood of Moffitt’s car. Reports have now surfaced that police believe Moffitt set herself on fire.
To be clear, I make no claims regarding the validity of Brawley’s claim. Nor am I doing so in Moffitt’s case. But even if we assumed that both of these women were not telling the truth, the question then becomes, what existence or set of life experiences could drive these women to such lengths? In Brawley’s case, the threat of death may very well have been enough to drive the teenager to such extremes. Where were the resources that would have protected her long before she got to that point? How did the intersections of race, class and gender play out in the resources, or lack thereof, to protect Brawley and her mother? How did these intersections factor into the media’s handling of Brawley’s case? How did these intersections affect Moffitt, how did they factor into the lack of media coverage initially and how will they play out in the upcoming media coverage now that doubt has been cast on her story?
**UPDATE: Sharmeka’s Moffitt’s condition has been upgraded from critical to serious. Local law enforcement is respecting the importance of her healing and the Sheriff’s office will refrain from interviewing Moffitt until she recovers.