Jussie Smollet Shouldn’t Discredit Other Hate Crime Victims

I’ve been having a hard time wrapping my head around this Jussie Smollett situation

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dominick D

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dominick D

I’ve been having a hard time wrapping my head around this Jussie Smollett situation. A part of me didn’t want to believe it at first. After all, why would someone fake a hate crime? More so, how could someone who has no doubt experienced his fair share of harassment for being a Black gay man in America fake a hate crime? We still may not know exactly what happened but what we do know is that Smollett claimed that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. We also know that he was arrested yesterday for allegedly filing a false police report. Regardless of what really happened, the most important take away is that we can not allow this incident to make us question other hate crime victims.

Since news broke out about Smollett’s arrest, there’s been a lot of dialogue around whether or not everyone who supported Smollett was right in the decision to initially believe his claims. Yes, we were. Every single one of us who believed him was right in doing so because the truth is hate crimes happen in America all the time — before and after Trump became the president. Hoax claims don’t take away from the fact that these things happen to marginalized communities and that they’ve become even more frequent in recent years. America has a long history of violence against marginalized communities. This is especially the case with Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. That is a fact that cannot be argued. In fact, reports show that U.S. hate crimes increased by 17 percent in Trump’s first year of presidency. Hate crimes specifically targeting the Black community rose by 16 percent in 2017 while hate crimes targeting the LGBTQ community rose by 5 percent. A majority of those crimes were specifically against Black LGBTQ people. Considering these stats and the numerous hate crime stories that have made headlines in the past few years — during Trump’s presidency alone — of course, it makes sense that so many of us believed Smollett’s claims. How could we not? Not only did his story seem believable — because things like this happen in our country literally all the time — but the idea that someone would fake their own hate crime seemed inconceivable to many of us. I still can’t understand what would motivate someone to do something like this. 

When news first broke out about Smollett’s attack — everyone weighed in. Celebrities and social justice activists reached out to Smollett and showed their support. It was a reminder to so many of us that we’re living in dark times and that hate, racism, and homophobia are very much alive in this country. None of us for a second suspected it could have been a lie.

Smollett told police that two white men attacked him at 2 a.m. while he was on his way to a Chicago Subway restaurant, claiming that they poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. He also claimed that the two men were wearing ski masks and shouted “This is a MAGA country,” a reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” before fracturing one of his ribs. Things started to get suspicious once police started the investigation. Smollett, who cooperated with the police investigation, submitted his phone for records from the night of the attack but documents were rejected after police found that his phone records did “not meet the burden for a criminal investigation as they were limited and heavily redacted.” Days later police arrested two men in connection with the attack. The men were not White men like Smollett claimed but instead were identified as Nigerian brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo. It was revealed later that Olabinjo had appeared as an extra on Empire in 2015, the show Smollett stars on. Police found five bottles of bleach, electronics, and other items at the Osundairo brothers’ home. The brothers also left for Nigeria the same day as the attack.

The evidence soon started to suggest that Smollett may have staged his attack. The brothers claimed during questioning that the hate mail received on the Empire set was sent by Smollett, who later orchestrated the attack when he saw that the letter didn’t receive the attention he expected. Smollett was arrested this week by Chicago Police for allegedly filing a false police report.

If this was all, in fact, a hoax, I can’t help but wonder where Smollett is mentally and emotionally to orchestrate something like this solely for attention or monetary gain. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if racial trauma and years of being marginalized played a huge role in all of this. It’s too soon to jump to conclusions about what really happened, but if the case does wind up being a hoax, the last thing we want is for this to negatively impact future victims. We shouldn’t allow incidents like this to undermine the credibility of honest and genuine victims who have actually experienced hate crimes. 

Yes, hate crime hoaxes happen and when they do they are absolutely devastating and disheartening but they are also very rare. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, there were around 21,000 hate crime cases between 2016 and 2018 and only 50 of those reports were actually found to be false. That’s a very small percentage.

If we learned anything from this, it’s not to dismiss hate crime cases but to take them more seriously. My deepest concern is that victims of hate crimes will be less believed because of incidents like this, the same way rape and sexual assault victims are often overlooked, ignored, and straight up accused of lying or having ulterior motives. Only 5 percent of rape allegations are found to be false and yet many times victims are not believed especially if they publicly come out with their allegations years after the incident occurred. We saw that with Kavanaugh hearings. Questioning the credibility of victims moving forward will only contribute to more hate crimes happening because fewer victims will feel safe enough to speak out.  Let’s not turn a blind eye to the fact that these awful and violent incidents do happen all the time in this country. 

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