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The Jussie Smollett case's far-reaching consequences: 'The worst possible thing at the worst possible time'

Analysis: Hoaxes, much like hate crime, can stoke America's outrage machine, engulfing reason at a moment when deeper thought is needed.
16th Annual Chrysalis Butterfly Ball - Inside
Jussie Smollett speaks onstage at the 16th Annual Chrysalis Butterfly Ball on June 3, 2017 in Los Angeles.Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images for Chrysalis Butterfly Ball file

Fires require oxygen, combustion and fuel to burn.

When Chicago police charged Jussie Smollett — a black and gay actor, who reported he had been attacked by two white men with a rope, shouting homophobic and racist slurs — with filing a false police report this week, the news landed like a lighted match in a well-stocked tinderbox.

Smollett has denied wrongdoing. But after recent months filled with acts of public bigotry and indifference caught on tape and insensitivity packaged as consumer goods, the entire Smollett affair has stoked the fire inside America’s now constant outrage machine. And it’s spread the flames of discord that some experts warn are engulfing reason and destroying ideological barriers between the middle and the extreme.

Smollett’s alleged fabrication “is the worst possible thing at the worst possible time,” said Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

The possibility that Smollett just took America and, in particular, black and/or gay Americans, inside a fantasy curated from multiple real events, hate crimes and murders during the Trump era could discourage victims of hate crime from coming forward, for fear they won’t be believed, experts say. It could influence the way that officials respond to reports and could fuel long-running white nationalist claims that all hate crimes are hoaxes designed to batter white America. And it could intensify some of the ugliest features of America’s obsession with scandal, celebrity and insta-outrage, just when thought deeper than a puddle is most needed.

“Listen, people do make up stories,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, who directs the University of Florida Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and wrote a book examining scandals and crimes involving racial hoaxes.

“They do, on occasion, make up all kinds of crime,” continued Russell-Brown, “but no one ever says that because some fires turn out to be arsons no one should respond, write about, look closely at business fires. Just because some stories are not true, they should not drown out every fact, every bit of solid research, every tragic and real experience of hate crime.”

An American tradition

Long before Smollett told “Good Morning America” viewers he’d been targeted by what he believed to be racist and homophobic Trump supporters armed with a noosed-up rope and bleach, hate crimes have marked major moments in the nation’s history. The 16th Street Church bombing, attempted attacks on Ruby Bridges while trying to walk into an integrated public school and the brutal murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard rank among the things those outside the United States know about the country.

But the idea that hate crime wounds individuals and society, meriting harsher punishment, is relatively new. It took root first in California in 1984. Today, the federal government, 45 states and the District of Columbia maintain laws that punish criminal activity motivated in whole or part by the victim’s race, religion or gender with longer prison terms than other offenses. Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming do not. Even among states with hate crime laws, just 30 states and the federal government include specific prohibitions on crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity.

After Chicago police revealed the allegations against Smollett, the New York Anti-Violence project, which works to offer free counseling and eliminate violence and crime directed at LGBTQ and HIV-positive individuals, issued a statement. It described the possibility that Smollett fabricated a hate crime as unfortunate in a country particularly dangerous for LGBTQ people, in particular those who are people of color.

“Far too many survivors aren’t believed and don’t get justice for the violence they experience,” the group said. “That’s why we are quick to affirm and believe survivors when they share their stories. For many LGBTQ people across this country, hate violence on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race and a combination of all of those identities is a daily experience. Increasingly, these experiences with hate violence end up being fatal. ...These truths musn’t be overshadowed under these unique circumstances.”

Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson — who leads a force where a former white officer was recently imprisoned for murdering a black and mentally ill teen, detectives have one of the nation’s lowest homicide solve rates and investigations have revealed that officers, in the past, operated secret torture sites — also expressed outrage over the nature of Smollett’s alleged crime.

“Why would anyone — especially an African-American man — use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” Johnson said Thursday in a news conference after Smollett’s arrest. “Bogus police reports cause real harm,” Johnson added. “They do harm to every legitimate victim who's in need of support by police and investigators, as well as the citizens of this city.”

In circles concerned with the nation’s sustained three-year spike in hate crimes, the Smollett case landed at a moment when policy gains seem imminent — but not a foregone conclusion, Levin said.

In Indiana, a state that at one point amounted to a stronghold for the KKK and in 2015 passed a law that critics said legalized discrimination against LGBTQ peopole, the state’s Republican governor committed himself to implementing hate crimes legislation. Many business and civil rights groups applauded. But the very day Smollett happened to be in court in neighboring Illinois, Indiana’s Republican-controlled Senate passed a hate crime bill that stripped out a specific ban on LGBTQ, racial and religious hate crimes, and targeted general “bias” crime instead.

The truth becomes a lie

Resistance to hate crime policy is far from new. Since at least the 1980s, white supremacists have rallied around the idea that all, or at least most, hate crimes are elaborate hoaxes, cudgels to guilt white Americans and diminish white influence. In that crowd, hate crime data generated by the FBI is part of the hoax — unreliable, inaccurate and politically motivated by organizations tracking hate groups.

White nationalists have worked hard to push those concepts from insider conversations and websites like VDare and American Renaissance into the mainstream, said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks and monitors hate groups and crimes.

And, in some ways, it’s worked, she said. The notion of pervasive hate crime hoaxes has, for years, been a “near obsession” on alt-right and far-right sites such as Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit, The Daily Caller and Big League Politics, the website that recently unearthed the Virginia governor’s history with blackface, Beirich said.

This week, the claims that most or all hate crime is fake, victims and researchers are grifters and opportunists who intentionally overstate its frequency, went even more mainstream, airing on Fox News and appearing in Reason, a libertarian publication. Ann Coulter also endorsed the same view.

"There’s simply no factual basis to claim false hate crime reports are rampant."

“Obviously, I hate the fact that Jussie Smollett lied,” Beirich said based on the Chicago police’s account. “It is going to give people ammunition to claim that all hate crimes are fake, all hate crime are lies. So, of course we are upset with Smollett for doing this, for opening this door even wider.”

Hoaxes do happen

Levin, the California hate crimes researcher, is one of the few people in the country who has studied alleged hate crimes that turn out to be hoaxes. That’s something the FBI does not track.

It’s a problem Levin describes as very small.

In 2016 and 2017, 40 reports — 0.3 percent — out of 13,296 hate crimes recorded by the FBI proved false, based on subsequent news reports uncovered by Levin and his team.

“There’s simply no factual basis to claim false hate crime reports are rampant,” Levin said.

Russell-Brown, author of “The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions,” has looked for the common denominators in these rare racial hoaxes.

Her research has shown that about two-thirds of the more than 100 major racial hoaxes she has studied in the last three decades have involved white Americans who claim to have been victimized by black people. The remainder are shaped more like the Smollett story, with people of color claiming to be victimized by whites. The hoaxers fall into two general categories: those who weave racial hoaxes to cover a crime or evade responsibility and those who make up racial hoaxes to gain attention, money or influence. Levin also found insular progressive communities where sympathy and concern about hate crime tends to run high, such as college campuses, produce a disproportionate number of the false hate crime reports.

Among the cases Russell-Brown studied, none of the black hoaxers have ever acknowledged that they lied.Some of the hoaxers Russell-Brown researched have been fined or billed for wasted resources. None have been jailed for the hoax or deceit, only the crimes they were trying to cover up. (If convicted, Smollett faces up to three years behind bars.)

“I’m not, in any way, saying that he does not merit punishment because I think he does,” Russell-Brown said. “There is something particularly pernicious about Smollett’s actions given the volume of attacks on blacks and gays. ... But I am saying that it will be curious if Smollett winds up the one person to serve jail time.”

Extended damage

In the days after Smollett’s first account of the alleged hate crime became public, a number of public figures, including at least three presidential candidates and people working for some of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, condemned the attack, calling for compassion and a meaningful investigation. Those comments have since met a wall of schadenfreude, anger and chastisement.

President Donald Trump, a frequent voice for false claims that immigrants and black Americans represent a criminal threat, criticized Smollett for his “racism.” Trump also called out Smollett for claiming that his attackers shouted “This is MAGA country,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan.

But some of Smollett's powerful early supporters have since remained silent, an approach that can undermine their credibility in responding to future hate crimes, Russell-Brown said.

And if that silence extends into the future — if public officials become overly cautious about expressing concern over reported hate crimes, or journalists become hesitant in reporting on victims — carnage can hide in plain sight. Public advocacy, research and training for investigators is essential. Black Americans were disproportionately likely to be killed by police long before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked protests, but it was only after that activism that the issues of policing were more closely tracked and examined. Sexual harassment was endemic in the workplace well before #MeToo, but it was only after the en masse breaking of the silence that men were held accountable in large numbers.

It’s hard to tell how lasting the impact of the Smollett hoax will be, Russell-Brown said.

The first test will be how quickly the news cycle moves on. The other, she said, will materialize “in what happens the next time someone says something bad happened to them.”

CLARIFICATION (Feb. 25, 2019, 12:26 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said the New York Anti-Violence Project had characterized Jussie Smollett’s alleged actions as group treason. The Anti-Violence Project took issue with that description and said it would describe Smollett’s alleged actions as unfortunate. The article has been revised to reflect the group’s description.