We live in a society where violence against people of color and LGBTQ folks is on the rise. That is serious and unacceptable. This reality transcends the Jussie Smollett case, and the real culprits are not people making false allegations but people perpetrating very real crimes — most of them unsolved — on a routine basis.
On January 29, ”Empire” series television actor Jussie Smollett claimed to have been the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime near downtown Chicago. According to the actor and advocate, his assailants punched him, threw a rope around his neck, doused him with a liquid thought to be bleach, shouted racist and homophobic epithets, and declared “this is MAGA [Make America Great Again] country,” alluding to the term used by Trump and his supporters. Several weeks later, after an extensive investigation, the Chicago Police Department arrested Smollett for allegedly filing a bogus police report and staging the attack himself for publicity and a possible boost to his salary. Smollett, who maintains his innocence, now faces felony charges and has become the subject of late night television jokes. Social media has also been awash with tweets and posts deriding Smollett.
This case is deeply disturbing and admittedly confusing on many levels. Even as many of the specifics in this case are called into question, lawyers and reporters caution us to wait for all the facts to come out, and to presume Smollett’s innocence until they do. Like most people, with limited information, I am both skeptical and saddened by all the narratives and counter-narratives we have heard thus far. Any fraudulent claim of racial and/or homophobic violence is dangerous and hurtful because it undermines the believability of the many legitimate claims that might come in its wake. I am not sure if Smollett is telling the truth about this particular incident or not.
What I am sure of is that this kind of attack, in Trump’s America, could indeed have happened in the way Smollett describes it. Maybe it did not happen to the Empire star, but similar events happen to dozens of people around the country on a daily basis and get much less attention. That is why so many activists, celebrities, presidential hopefuls and news pundits so readily believed Smollett at the outset. The focus of our alarm should be the current reality that made his story believable in the first place.
We live in a country where the person holding the highest office in the land is an unapologetic racist and hatemonger. He began his public career crusading against the legitimacy of the nation’s first African American president with the so-called “birther” movement. Since then he has accused Mexican immigrants of being murderers and rapists. He has also called countries populated by Black and Brown people, “shithole countries.” And he has described violent neo-Nazis as very “fine people.” Moreover, Trump himself has encouraged his MAGA-hat wearing followers to use violence against his opponents.
Acts of violence classified as “hate crimes” have increased steadily in the U.S. over the past three years. Every single day, nearly 20 such acts of violence occur in this country, including racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, ableist and anti-Semitic attacks. People are punched, shoved, kicked, spat upon, taunted, beaten and murdered. Black queer and transgender folks are some of the most frequent targets of such attacks. If and when they survive, many recount stories of being further victimized by the police, who mock, doubt, harass and even assault them.
Given a political atmosphere in which the denigration of marginalized communities has become commonplace, it is not hard to believe that a high-profile Black gay man who has spoken out openly in support of progressive causes would be the target of violence. Shouldn’t that reality be the foremost object of our outrage?
Moreover, none of our sources of information in this case inspire full confidence. Granted, pieces of Smollett’s story don’t quite add up. But we have a Chicago Police Department that has been guilty of torture, forced confessions and cover-ups. And we have an FBI notorious for campaigns of character assassination, surveillance and set-ups of Black activists from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Black Panther Party. So, we don’t have a clear, credible and coherent story yet in the Jussie Smollett case. But we do have a bigger picture to frame what we do know, and our larger understandings of these types of violence.
Acts of racist and homophobic violence may often seem hard to believe until all the facts around them are revealed. For example, could we have fathomed a young white man, barely 21, walking into a Black church in Charleston, and with venomous racial hatred in his heart, shooting in cold blood nine unarmed Black parishioners ranging in age from 26 to 87, while they sat together in prayer? Who could have predicted a shooter murdering 49 strangers in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016? How could we have anticipated the horrific and inexplicably gruesome torture and murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, over 20 years ago in Laramie, Wyoming? There is an element of disbelief when we hear of these kinds of horrific crimes because many of us (especially those in communities that are rarely the targets) don’t want to believe that we live in a country where this kind of attack can occur. And yet we do.
Such attacks are occurring with disturbing frequency and with a tacit nod from some in positions of prominence and power. That is the real cause for outrage and alarm.