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Opinion The conservatives calling Confederate flags at American University a ‘hoax’

A Confederate battle-flag poster with cotton attached found at American University. (Michael Barry via Reuters)

The cotton-studded Confederate battle flags that appeared on American University’s campus Tuesday night were, to most people, the latest sign of resurgent racism in the United States. In some right-leaning circles on Twitter, though, they were something else entirely: the most recent in a long line of hate-crime hoaxes.

The displays, described by the school as “Confederate flag posters with cotton attached to them,” came months after someone strung up bananas with strings in the shape of nooses at American University and the same night a professor presented an introduction to the school’s new Antiracist Research and Policy Center. As news outlets picked up the story, widespread expressions of sympathy online ran up against a slew of accusations from conspiratorial conservatives:

“I smell a false flag. Liberals are desperate to push faux racism,” read one.

“Another Liberal race-baiting setup. When they find the person they’ll claim it ‘to bring attention,’ ” said a second. And a third: “Hope cameras are around. Just like fake church taggings and the liberal church burnings this is a liberal trademark.”

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“The left,” someone else proclaimed, “is at it again!”

As it turns out, cameras were around — and one spotted what looks like a 40-something white man clad in construction gear. That’s not enough to prove speculators wrong quite yet, but it certainly suggests this was not a college student trying to play up racism on their campus. The accusers do, however, come armed with examples.

An African American student at a small private school in Minnesota who said she found a typed threat on her windshield calling her the n-word and telling her to “shut up or I will shut you up” — which it turned out she had fabricated. Three female University at Albany students claimed they were attacked by white passengers on a bus, and then it turned out they were the ones who had done the attacking. A congregation organist in Indiana spray-painted a swastika onto his own church to “mobilize a movement.” A black parishioner in Mississippi burned his church down and provoked public outcry against an alleged hate crime.

All these things happened. There is, as it turns out, an extended online literature on the topic, and not just far on the fringes of Twitter. “What is fueling fake hate crimes across the U. S.?” a Fox News article asks, pointing to a website called that tracks bogus attacks. “Bogus Hate Crimes: Trump, Conservatives Blamed by Clueless Leftists,” announces National Review.

Obviously it is wrong to foment false controversy, even with the goal of raising awareness of a real problem. But it’s contemptible to seize on those falsehoods to minimize the same issue. At that Minnesota school, the media’s focus on one student’s lies stole attention away from eight incidents before it, including a note to one black student that said, “Go back to Africa.” No one has debunked those.

Hate-crime hoaxes may be on the rise, but hate crimes are, too. The story of one black man burning down a black church does not mean every instance of arson accompanied by an anti-black message is automatically suspect. If history is anything to go on, burning black churches is much more the bailiwick of racist whites. And just since the election, white supremacist propaganda and swastikas have been cropping up on campuses across the country. At the University of Maryland at College Park in May, a black visitor was stabbed to death by a white college student who belonged to a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation.”

“There Have Been Over 100 Hate Crime Hoaxes In The Past Decade,” Breitbart trumpeted in 2016. Maybe so. But there were more than 1,000 hate crimes — real ones — in that same year alone.