Why Prosecuting Jussie Smollett Is Important
Mark Potok is an expert on the American radical right who was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights organization for 20 years and is now a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Earlier this month, actor Jussie Smollett, whose claims a year before that he had been attacked by homophobic, racist Trump supporters caused a brief media firestorm, was indicted on charges that he made the whole thing up.
And that is a very good thing.
Very shortly after Smollett, an openly gay black man known for his part in the hit television series “Empire,” told police that he had been attacked in Chicago by men shouting a Trump campaign slogan, his story appeared to collapse. Two Nigerian “Empire” extras told police that Smollett had paid them to stage the attack, which Smollett said was carried out by two white men who poured bleach on him and placed a noose around his neck. Investigators said
Smollett apparently hoped to use the incident, which garnered weeks of highly sympathetic national attention, as leverage in salary negotiations with “Empire” producers.
Smollett was charged with felonies related to lying to police investigators about the incident. But in March 2019, prosecutors dropped those charges in return for Smollett performing 16 hours of community service and forfeiting a $10,000 bond. That caused an uproar, with police, the mayor and others criticizing the decision, and eventually a special prosecutor was assigned to review the case. The city also sued Smollett for $130,000, the estimated cost of its investigation.
Now the tables have turned once again. On Feb. 11, some 11 months after the purported attack, a grand jury indicted Smollett. That followed a report by the special prosecutor, Dan K. Webb, who found that Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had grossly mishandled the case in dropping the charges.
Smollett now faces six counts of disorderly conduct based on the allegedly false statements he made to police investigators. He also has become the face of the right-wing claim that huge numbers of reported hate crimes are hoaxes. Trump supporters and right-wing media outlets trumpeted the story as proof positive that many, and perhaps most, of reported hate crimes are actually hoaxes. They claimed the incident showed that the left unfairly blames Trump for fueling violent hate.
And that is why the prosecution of Jussie Smollett matters.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
In the years since hate crime reporting began in the United States in the mid-1990s, a whole industry of purported exposers of hate crime hoaxes has arisen. Critics of civil rights groups like Laird Wilcox compiled long lists of alleged hate crime hoaxes. Conservative columnists like the Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley claimed such hoaxes are “increasingly … the norm.” Hate groups used the case to argue that blacks and others routinely lie to generate sympathy.
Wilfred Reilly, the author of the 2019 book Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War, claims to have “easily put together” a list of 409 “confirmed hate hoaxes,” or about 15 percent of hate crimes reported to the FBI in the period that he looked into. He went on to claim in a 2019 USA Today column that there is “very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA.”
These claims are ludicrous.
First of all, as The Washington Post pointed out last year, Reilly “counted cases where there was no hoaxer, such as the toppling of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery outside Philadelphia because of age and recent landscaping, or the discovery of a ‘noose’ on a D.C. construction site that police determined was merely a rope used to move equipment.” Apparently, Reilly included them because of media speculation, not because anyone falsely reported a hate crime.
Moreover, Reilly’s count of about 7,000 hate crimes a year is based on FBI hate crime statistics, which are seriously flawed. Because vast numbers of hate crimes are never reported to police, the Department of Justice has found that the real annual number of hate crimes is nearer to 250,000. Thus, even if Reilly’s dubious list of “hoaxes” is accepted, their proportion is vastly smaller.
Serious researchers have come up with wildly different findings. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, looked into about 21,000 hate crimes reported to the FBI between 2016 and 2018, and found fewer than 50 false reports — considerably less than 1 percent, and nowhere near 15 percent, of the total.
Last year, The New York Times also reported that the Council for American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, receives 2,000 to 3,000 reports of bias incidents a year, and that “less than a handful” are found to be false.
Certainly, there are too many hate crime hoaxes, and many of them receive extensive national publicity, especially in the right-wing and conservative media. But the real point is that they are vastly outnumbered by actual hate crimes.
Similar bogus claims have been made by so-called men’s rights activists, many of whom assert that the vast majority of rape claims are hoaxes — attempts by scheming women to embroil innocent men in the criminal justice system. In fact, the best studies suggest that between 2 percent and 6 percent of rape claims are false.
And, once again, that is why the prosecution of Jussie Smollett is important. While he has denied anything false about any part of the bizarre story he told — that two white men wandering around downtown Chicago at about 2 AM just happened to have bleach, a noose and two “Make American Great Again” baseball caps, recognized him as a gay actor from “Empire,” and then attacked him — there is a great deal of physical and witness evidence that suggests he is lying.
When the political right claims that an enormous proportion of hate crimes are hoaxes, what it is really saying is that minorities are complaining about something that is not real — that, in the words of Wilfred Reilly, there is “very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA.” And on every rare occasion that a genuine hate crime hoax comes to public attention, inestimable damage is caused to those minority communities as the public comes to see their claims as unfounded.
So let the authorities prosecute Jussie Smollett, and, innocent or guilty, may the chips fall where they may. Truth and real understanding depend on it.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.
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