Ongoing abuse by law enforcement in Black communities is one reason why he was immediately given the benefit of the doubt.
Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was found guilty on five of the six counts of felony disorderly conduct for concocting an elaborate racist and homophobic assault against himself. Each Class 4 felony count can land Jussie in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Smollett’s fan base, needless to say, is flummoxed. So, too, are many Americans, given how difficult it is to get justice for innocent Black men.
Smollett’s hoax exploited black trauma. Smollett testified that his assailants were white because one purportedly shouted “MAGA country,” then-President Trump’s campaign slogan, and that both men put a noose around his neck.
First hearing the story, Smollett received a groundswell of support, especially from Black Americans.
The investigation, however, disclosed the falsehood: Smollett knew the two men, Nigerian-American brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo. One of the brothers appeared on the show “Empire” with Smollett. The rope to make the noose was bought at a nearby hardware store. The bruises on Smollet’s face and body were self-inflicted. Smollett paid the two men $3,500 to stage the attack “to generate sympathetic media coverage.”
Chicago Police Chief Eddie Johnson asked during his press conference in 2019, “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make a false accusation?”
On “Empire,” Smollett played the gay character Jamal Lyon. In real life, Smollett is gay, too. How will Smollett’s hoax affect public perception of hate crimes, significantly impacting people of color in the LGBTQ+ communities?
“Jussie has essentially set back the progression of both black folk and the LGBTQ community all while playing right into the hands of MAGA,” one online comment stated.
Trump called Smollett a “con man.” On Fox News Channel’s “The Ingraham Angle,” Trump took particular offense to Smollett’s MAGA lie.
“He said MAGA country tried to hang him, that MAGA country was bad. And if somebody, if he were a Republican, if he were on the other side, he’d be in jail for 25 years for hate crimes.”
Smollett’s hoax dredges up the country’s horrors of lynching and gay-bashing. Three hate crime incidents came to my mind immediately: Emmett Till, James Byrd, and Matthew Shepard. Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, and James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Byrd’s killing was called a “lynching -by- dragging.” Matthew Shepard was gay-bashed to death in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
From the onset, Smollett was an unreliable narrator of his attack. Nonetheless, Smollett is still seen as innocent in the eyes of many African Americans after the verdict. Despite the many inconsistencies and gaping holes in Smollett’s story, communities of people of color have every reason not to trust the police findings, especially the Chicago PD where Smollett purported hate crime took place.
In 2014, Chicago PD covered up shooting Laquan McDonald. McDonald, 17, was fatally shot by a white Chicago police sixteen times. The cop reported his life was in danger because McDonald was packing a small knife with a blade. However, when the police dash-cam video was released, McDonald was seen walking away when shot. Ongoing abuse by law enforcement in Black and Latin communities is one reason why Smollett was immediately given the benefit of the doubt.
Regrettably, Smollett’s hoax may affect public perception of hate crimes, but it shouldn’t. We have seen a rash of white people calling the cops on Blacks—at Starbucks, for bird watching in Central Park. Each case is handled individually, although the police might have suspicion for the true nature of the call.
I hope Smollett will fully grasp the magnitude of both his lie and crime one day. His actions dishonor Black activist Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign that took afoot in the 1890s, and the National Lynching Memorial remembering the lives of men and women who were victims.
Meanwhile, in 2021, the Senate still has not passed legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime.
The belief that Smollett’s actions make it bad for people of color and LGBTQs to come forth in the future with their reports of hate crimes and be believed buys too easily into the notion that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Such a belief, in and of itself, is biased.
Smollett may well have suckered us all in the beginning with his hoax. However, not taking each report of a hate crime seriously would be a crime, too.
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.