By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor
In the early morning hours of Jan. 29, Empire star Jussie Smollett was walking through the streets of Chicago when a pair of masked men allegedly attacked him. Smollett claimed that the two assaulted him with racial and homophobic slurs, placed a noose around his neck and roughed him up, all while making references to Trump’s “MAGA country.” All decent people, both public figures and private citizens, condemned the alleged attack as proof of a rising hate-crime epidemic in the U.S. Democratic senators and presidential candidates Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) described the incident as a “modern-day lynching,” tweeting out support for Smollett.
Nearly a month later, on Feb. 20, Smollett was charged with a class four felony for filing a false police report. Allegedly, he’d faked the whole thing.
It’s worth noting that the Chicago Police Department has been riddled with scandals, controversy and brutality claims over the years. It has a long reputation of producing corrupt cops who unjustly target minority groups within the community, and for this reason, a lot of folks are skeptical about the veracity of Smollett’s charges.
But assuming the evidence is valid and Smollett did stage the attack, his actions could have a devastating ripple effect.
Supporters of homophobic and racist movements are always looking for a way to make the victims of their vitriol look less like victims and more like aggressors in some way, shape or form. There seems to exist an entire Internet culture structured around doubting survivors. Now, if an African-American is actually targeted by a white supremacist in the streets and hurt, bigots are going to be able to say, “Maybe they’re lying, just like Jussie Smollett.” Now, if a gay person is sent threatening letters, bigots are going to be able to say, “Maybe they sent it to themselves, just like Jussie Smollett.”
No matter how you look at it, Smollett’s actions have made it all the easier for racists and homophobes to distrust the claims of black and gay folks. These people barely need a reason to refute claims of hate crimes, but now, they have one.
While Smollett’s motives remain somewhat unclear, some are speculating that he allegedly lied to either increase his salary or gain credibility as some sort of “gay hero.” But if the claims of the Chicago Police are true, Smollett’s actions represent only crude selfishness and an insensitivity to the historical struggles faced by marginalized groups.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column voicing both my support of Smollett and the disturbance I felt at what seems to be a larger social trend of bigotry and hate speech. One of those things still rings true to me. Yes, Chicago Police claim that Smollett lied. But even if Smollett filed a false report, it doesn’t mean that hate crimes never truly happen. In fact, numbers show that the opposite is true.
According to the FBI, more than 7,000 hate crimes took place in 2017, up from about 6,100 in 2016. The data doesn’t seem to be out yet for 2018, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,000 hate groups are currently active in the U.S. This statistic is up by 30 percent since 2014. This year alone, as of Feb. 17, the New York Times also published that 55 hate crimes have been reported in New York — a 72 percent increase from the same time last year. Online services are giving platforms to bigoted individuals, and hate speech has the nasty habit of turning into hate crime.
We shouldn’t let the potential selfishness and lack of foresight on the part of Smollett distract us from the fact that real offenses are being committed against real people at an alarming rate. One lie neither dismisses nor counteracts countless dismal truths.
This will, without a doubt, be Smollett’s downfall; he was already removed from the last two episodes of Empire’s fifth season. He may face jail time. It’ll be difficult for him to find work, because at least for a while, he’ll be known as the guy who lied. He has fallen from grace in a very, very public way. It’s important that we don’t let that publicity overshadow the narratives of actual victims and survivors.