It is hard to draw any definitive conclusions from the Jussie Smollett case about today’s political or popular cultures. Its most fitting analogy is less Trumpian culture-war episode than a Coen brothers crime comedy, in which the convoluted-ness of the central character’s scheme is matched only by how ineptly he executes it. Smollett, a gay black television actor known for his role on ABC’s Empire, was charged on Thursday with filing a false police report. He told authorities on January 29 that he had been attacked by two people in downtown Chicago around 2 a.m. who harangued him with homophobic and racist slurs, struck him in the face, poured a chemical substance on him, and wrapped a noose around his neck. “This is MAGA country,” Smollett claimed they said. Chicago police promptly opened a hate-crime investigation. The incident seemed to confirm the innate violence of the Trump era, which has seen a spike in bias-motivated attacks nationwide.
It appears now that Smollett made it all up. Though his motive remains unclear, the working theory is that he was dissatisfied with his Empire salary and wished to generate publicity for himself. To that end, he allegedly paid $3,500 to two men — brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo — to stage the attack. Chicago police further allege that Smollett sent a threatening letter to himself on January 22 at the 20th Century Fox studio where the series is filmed. The note, first published by TMZ, reads, “You will die black fag,” in pasted cutout lettering alongside a childish drawing of a stick figure with a gun pointed at its head.
This all amounts to a truly singular and outlandish sequence of events that has nevertheless accrued the weight of a bellwether. Had Smollett’s allegations not indicted America’s legacies of racism and homophobia and a president hell-bent on denying the victimization of others while exaggerating his own, it may very well be relegated to the same historical ash heap as the married couple that years ago claimed a helium balloon carried off their 6-year-old son. Instead, it has become the subject of widespread punditry and social-media grandstanding. “Jussie Smollett — what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” Trump tweeted. By and large, conservative media outlets have pursued two threads of coverage regarding this case: one claiming that hate-crime reports are generally overblown in the U.S., and another claiming that victim status is routinely fabricated and exploited by minorities for money, attention, or to gain leverage over white people.
Neither is empirically true — false hate-crime reports are rare, and actual hate crimes are both frequent and likely underreported. But the notion that claiming victimhood generates a kind of social currency is worth examining. It is hard to argue that victims of tragedy don’t tend to engender sympathy from others, and harder still to argue that this is generally not a good thing. Our perception of shared humanity is affirmed whenever people lend each other support in the face of great pain, whether that entails losing one’s home to a wildfire, a loved one to cancer, or one’s bodily autonomy due to a hate crime. Nor is it unheard of that such sympathies can be exploited for personal gain — by say, creating a crowdfunding campaign for a nonexistent illness, or creating a false narrative of personal tragedy for publicity. Capitalizing on cultural fault lines to draw attention, as Smollett apparently did, is relatively unremarkable — to the point that it has become a routine feature of presidential politics. That lies and hoaxes exist does not mean that the real problems they exploit do not. The balloon boy does not negate all missing children reports.
Perhaps the most remarkable presumption here is that the victimization of black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and black LGBTQ Americans has been so overstated that reflexive dismissal by skeptics is appropriate. If the murder rate for all U.S. residents was the same as it was for black transgender women in 2015, 120,087 murders would have taken place instead of 15,696 — a sevenfold increase. Racist violence is so ingrained in American culture that not even the law-enforcement body tasked with investigating Smollett has clean hands: Black sites run for decades under the purview of the late Chicago police commander Jon Burge were notorious for coercing false confessions out of black Chicagoans by torturing them with nightsticks and cattle prods. Historically, the details of such violence have been so absurd as to defy belief. It would seem, at first glance, that only the most twisted fabulist could conjure a world where thousands of black men, women, and children, are tortured, dismembered, killed, and incinerated for sport, often for infractions as minor as whistling at white women, “frightening” white girls, or reprimanding white children. In fact, such violence defined decades of U.S. history. Even where outward expressions of bigotry have become taboo, the wages of racist policy and structures retain the power to shape black lives: Concentrated poverty and despair stemming from decades of redlining and disinvestment have made Chicago’s most racially segregated neighborhoods those where gang and police violence proliferate.
If Smollett indeed perpetrated a hoax, the broad strokes — a racist and homophobic attack — were eminently plausible. So plausible, in fact, that to treat such claims with increased skepticism moving forward risks a deeper underestimation of racism and homophobia in American society. But it also risks the further suspension of sympathy for others in the face of real violence. Trump and his disciples already treat claims of racial oppression with outsize skepticism, even as they perpetuate it — a pattern that amounts to a national gaslighting campaign. It would be both unwise and illogical for others to follow suit. And although it may be tempting to look at the Smollett case and conclude that greater incredulity is in order regarding such allegations, this disregards that incredulity already rules the day, and has done little to change the material facts of racism or homophobia. Here is an alternative proposal: Beware of drawing sweeping conclusions from the most extreme cases. Always consider context. Lean toward sympathy.