Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who pretended to be black, charged with felony welfare fraud

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, the head of Spokane, Washington's NAACP chapter who presented herself as an African-American woman, was outed by a Spokane TV station as a Caucasian by birth.  Dolezal's moment in the media spotlight quickly followed as she made the rounds of national TV talk programs including the Today show.  To put it charitably, Dolezal had trouble articulating exactly what she was doing.  She lost her job with the NAACP and a position teaching African-American studies at Eastern Washington University.  Dolezal faded from view, but last month, she gained attention again with a much reviewed new Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide, about her life today.

Source: KHQ TV Spokane 2015.

On May 24, the latest chapter in Dolezal's life became public when it was reported that she has been charged with felony welfare fraud.  The story quickly went national.  A comprehensive article and coverage were provided by KHQ, the NBC affiliate in Dolezal's hometown of Spokane:

KHQ has confirmed that Dolezal, who legally changed her name to Nkechi Diallo in 2016, is accused of 1st Degree Theft by Welfare Fraud, Perjury in the 2nd Degree, and False Verification for Public Assistance.  Her potential punishment under RCW 74.08.331 could include up to 15 years in prison. ...

According to court documents, Diallo [Dolezal] illegally received $8,747 in food assistance, and illegally received $100 in childcare assistance.  Total restitution, according to the documents, is $8,847, allegedly stolen from August 2015 through November 2017.

The investigation into Diallo's alleged theft started in March 2017 when a DSHS Office of Fraud and Accountability investigator received information that Diallo had written a book that got published.  The investigator said he'd heard Diallo say she was getting public assistance, but also knew that a typical publishing contract included payments of $10,000 to $20,000.

The investigator conducted a review of Diallo's records and found she'd been reporting her income was usually less than $500 per month, in child support payments.  At one point when asked as to how she was paying her bills, she reported, "Barely!  With help from friends and gifts."

However, a subpoena for her self-employment records, which included copies of her bank statements from 2015 to present, tells a different story.  The bank records, court documents say, showed Diallo had deposited about $83,924 into her bank account in several monthly installments between August 2015 and September 2017, without reporting the income to the Department of Social and Health Services.  The money, according to the case file, had come from authoring her book, 'In Full Color,' speaking engagements, soap making, doll making, and the sale of her art.

John Howard Griffin posing as an African-American (left) and as he was born, a Caucasian.

When Dolezal's strange story first emerged in June 2015, I was reminded of John Howard Griffin's experience as a white man posing as a black in the South in 1959 and then writing about it.  His 1961 book, Black Like Me, became a bestseller and an instant classic – it was required reading in many high schools in the 1960s.  The book came along at just the right moment, as the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was gaining ground.  Black Like Me was made into a major motion picture in 1964 starring James Whitmore.

Movie poster for Black Like Me, 1964.

John Howard Griffin died in 1980 at age 60, reportedly as a result of Type II diabetes.  In 2015, the Daily Mail remembered Griffin's experience in the article "The white man who pretended to be black":

Back in 1959, six years before Martin Luther King marched for civil rights in Selma, one man tried.  A white Texan writer called John Howard Griffin walked into a doctor's office in New Orleans and asked him to turn his skin colour black.  Griffin took oral medication and was bombarded with ultraviolet rays; he cut off his hair to hide an absence of curls and shaved the back of his hands.  Then he went on a tour of the Deep South.

The result was a bestselling book called Black Like Me, which is still regarded as an American classic.  Griffin wanted to test the claim that although the southern United States was segregated it was essentially peaceful and just – that the two races were separate but equal.

What he discovered tells us a lot about the subtleties of racism.  In 1959, unlike today, it was legally instituted.  But, like today, it also flourished at the personal level – in hostility, suspicion, fear and even self-loathing.

Unfortunately, Dolezal, who underwent a similar racial transformation vaguely reminiscent of Griffin's more than a half century earlier, did it not to document what it's like to be black in America today.  Rather, she preferred to be thought of as and to live as a black woman – a preference she developed when she was five, as she told Matt Lauer during her appearance on the Today show.  Her critics – and there were many of them – claimed that she used her new racial identity to her advantage in order to attain the top position at her local NAACP and to teach at the university level.

An insightful review of the Netflix documentary on Dolezal in Forbes includes this analysis:

One argument against all the coverage Dolezal's gotten is that if she were black and passing as white, she would be dismissed as crazy or, more likely, ignored.  Instead, she is yet another white woman getting heaps of attention for co-opting and appropriating another culture, thereby stealing necessary attention from those whose struggles are genuine and lifelong.  And in doubling down on her own claims of persecution and mistreatment, she is only proving herself to be insensitive at best, and, at worst, a hypocritical racist. 

This is a sad case.  If Dolezal is found to be guilty of the accusations against her, I would like to propose an alternative sentence.  I suggest that, rather than having to serve time in prison, Ms. Dolezal-Diallo make restitution for the $8,847 she allegedly ripped off and move to a black-majority country in Africa where presumably she might find satisfaction blending in with the local residents.

Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture.  He is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  Follow Peter on Twitter at @pchowka.

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