Actor Jussie Smollett plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the Fox TV drama Empire.
In real life, Smollett is an African American gay man. Smollett 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 how Smollett’s case will affect public perception of hate crimes, especially impacting people of color and LGBTQ communities.
“Jussie has essentially set back the progress of both black folk and the LGBTQ community all while playing right into the hands of MAGA,” one online comment stated.
First hearing the story, Smollett had a groundswell of support. He said he was assaulted by two men outside of Subway who shouted “This is MAGA country” and put a noose around his neck.
The investigation showed the following: Smollett knew the two men, one has appeared on the show Empire, the rope to make the noose was bought at a nearby hardware store, the bruises on his face and body were self-inflicted, and Smollett paid the men $3,500.
However, the memo line on Smollett’s check says his payment was for a workout and nutrition program.
Smollett is now an unreliable narrator of his attack. I’ve been asking myself the same question as Chicago Chief police, Eddie Johnson, asked during his 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, three hate crime incidents came to my mind immediately as an African American lesbian. 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. I give thanks to President Obama signing into law in 2009 the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act.
Nonetheless, Smollett is innocent in the eyes of many American Americans- straight and LGBTQ.
“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 wrote in a tweet.
“That one? I’ll wait. Whatever the outcome, this won’t stop me from believing others. It can’t.”
Despite the many inconsistencies and gaping holes in Smollett’s story, there are communities of people of color in urban cities that have every reason not to trust the police findings, especially the Chicago police, a city still recovering from the wounds of the coverup shooting for Laquan McDonald.
In 2014, McDonald, 17, was fatally shot sixteen times by white Chicago police Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke reported his life was in danger because McDonald was packing a small knife with a blade. Van Dyke’s report was backed up by his fellow officers.
However, when the police dash-cam video was released, McDonald was walking away when shot.
In many of these communities, Smollett is perceived to be innocent, and his chances of getting a fair trial are not possible. Smollett will be seen as another victim heading toward the country’s industrial prison complex which disproportionately incarcerates black and brown men.
Smollett’s hate crime will regrettably affect public perception of hate crimes but it shouldn’t.
However, there has been an uptick of bias-related incidents and hate crimes since Trump has taken office. We have seen a rash of white people calling the cops on blacks, synagogues defaced, and 11 worshippers killed in Pittsburgh. Smollett’s hoax no doubt has tapped into our fears about our safety and our concerns of a country so polarized that we are imploding.
However, all reports of hate crimes should be taken seriously. One hoax is no excuse for law enforcement not to do their job and see each case as a separate incident irrespective of the court of opinion.
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 buys too easily into the notion that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Such a belief, in and of itself, is bias, suggesting people of color and LGBTQs are a monolith, and all perpetrate hoaxes.
When whites call cops on black people for being black, each case is handled individually, although the police might have suspicion for the real nature of the call.
In the court of opinion, Smollett is guilty. His actions dishonor black activist and journalist Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign that took afoot in the 1890s.
This year will be the eightieth anniversary of Billy Holiday’s recording of Strange Fruit, a protest song against lynching.
And, just last year, the National Lynching Memorial opened to remember and honor the lives of men and women who were victims. Sadly, in 2019, the Senate is still trying to pass legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime.
Smollett may well have suckered us all. However, to not take each report of a hate crime seriously, because of his fraudulent actions, would be a crime, too.