Could the Smollett situation affect public perception of hate crimes?
Fox TV drama Empire actor Jussie Smollett plays on the show the gay character Jamal Lyon. In real life, Smollett is an African-American gay male who has been charged with concocting an elaborate racist and homophobic assault against him. Smollett’s fan base, needless to say, is flummoxed. So, too, are many Americans trying to push through this deeply polarized moment.
The big question now is about whether Smollett’s case will affect public perception of hate crimes, especially impacting people of color and LGBTQ communities. As one of millions of online commenters suggested, “Jussie has essentially set back the progression of both black folk and the LGBTQ community all while playing right into the hands of MAGA.”
When his story first came out, Smollett had a groundswell of support. Specifically, he said he was assaulted by two men in the wee hours of the morning who shouted, “This is MAGA country” and who put a noose around his neck. The investigation, however, has disclosed that Smollett knew the two Nigerian-American men involved, one of whom has appeared on the Empire. Smollett reportedly paid the two men $3,500 to attack him, while the rope to make the noose was bought at a nearby hardware store and the bruises on his face and body were self-inflicted.
In the time since those developments came out, I have been asking myself the same question as Chicago Chief Police Eddie Johnson, who said during a press conference, “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make a false accusation?” Smollett’s hoax dredges up the country’s horrors of lynching and gay bashing. For me, as an African-American lesbian, three hate crime incidents came to my mind immediately: Emmett Till, James Byrd, and Matthew Shepard. Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, and Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Byrd’s killing was called a “lynching-by-dragging.” Shepard was gay-bashed to death in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.
Despite the recent news, Smollett is still seen as innocent in the eyes of many American-Americans—straight and LGBTQ. Despite the many inconsistencies in his story, there are communities of people of color in urban cities that have every reason not to trust the police. Chicago is still recovering from the wounds of the cover-up around the shooting of Laquan McDonald, who in 2014 was fatally shot 16 times by white Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke lied about the threat posed by McDonald and was backed up by fellow officers, but was then shown to have lied when dashcam video of the shooting came out.
“I can’t blindly believe Chicago PD. The department that covered up shooting Laquan McDonald over a dozen times? That operated an off-site torture facility?” Selma film director Ava DuVernay tweeted. “That one? I’ll wait. Whatever the outcome, this won’t stop me from believing others. It can’t.”
In many of these communities, it is perceived that Smollett has no chance of getting a fair trial. Instead, he will be seen as another victim heading toward the country’s industrial prison complex, which disproportionately holds men of color.
While Smollett’s alleged crime will regrettably affect public perception of hate crimes, it shouldn’t. There has been an uptick of bias-related incidents and actual hate crimes since Donald Trump became POTUS, from white people calling the police on blacks for no good reason, to the defacement of synagogues and even worshippers being killed. Smollett’s hoax has no doubt has tapped into our fears about safety and our concerns for a country this polarized.
All reports of hate crimes should be taken seriously. One hoax is no excuse for law enforcement not to do their job. Or for people to avoid reporting them. To believe that Smollett’s actions make it so that people of color and LGBTQs can’t come forward in the future to report hate crimes is to buy too easily into the notion that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.
Such a belief is bias in and of itself, and suggests people of color and LGBTQs are a hoax-perpetrating monolith. Smollett may well have suckered us all, but it would be a crime to let his fraudulent actions take away from any actual hate crimes being taken seriously.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.