- Empire actor Jussie Smollett was charged on Feb. 20 with falsely reporting a hate crime.
At a turbulent time in the United States when hate crimes are at an all-time high, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted a marked increase in hate groups throughout the country (1,020, according to the organization’s 2018 count, a 30 percent increase from 2014), the Jussie Smollett incident feels like a betrayal. A betrayal to every marginalized person who lives in fear of the very kind of attack that Smollett allegedly fabricated on Jan. 29.
When the world heard the news that the Empire actor had been attacked in Chicago by two men shouting racist and homophobic slurs as they tied a noose around his neck and splashed him with bleach, an outpouring of support came from celebrities, activists, and people like us — those ordinary people who have never even seen Smollett’s show but understood at least a fraction of the fear he must have felt in the face of his attackers.
It was not difficult to believe his account of the attack. SPLC asserts that, not only have reported hate crime incidents been climbing since President Donald Trump’s campaign and election, but the FBI has even been undercounting those crimes. Anyone with reason to fear this upward trend in hate — people of color, LGBTQ people, women, Jewish people, Muslim people, the list goes on — don’t have to stretch to believe that two of Trump’s supporters might target a prominent and respected gay black man, to send a message to the rest of us.
But Smollett allegedly paid the men who attacked him. Smollett allegedly lied about the entire encounter. And, allegedly, he did so because he was dissatisfied with his $65,000-per-episode salary.
The narrative has shifted, now, and there’s no going back. Like the negligible percentage of false rape accusations (2-10 percent, according to one 2010 study) that come up each time a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, the Smollett case can now be wielded as a weapon against legitimate hate crime reports. Thursday morning, when I read headlines saying Smollett had been charged on Feb. 20 with filing a false police report (a felony), I heard the voices of every Fox News pundit and talk show guest echoing in the back of my head: “Hate crimes are on the rise? No, no, remember Jussie? This isn't real. They just want attention.” The validity of hate crime reporting has forever been called into question with one high-profile case, and that is not a comforting thought.
Celebrities who represent marginalized identities often find themselves under pressure and scrutiny to advocate for “their people,” whether it’s Ellen DeGeneres acting as a veritable mouthpiece for the lesbian community (whether we agree with her or not), or Lavernne Cox touring the country and advocating for transgender women of color. Jussie Smollett could have used his platform to advocate for gay black men, men standing at the intersection of racism and homophobia, men in danger from all sides in Trump’s “great” America.
Instead, he screwed them.
Here in Colorado, SPLC counts 22 active hate groups, many of them white supremacist, and many of the anti-LGBTQ groups call Colorado Springs home. The culture of our state (once dubbed the “hate state”) has changed; the culture of our city (the nexus of homophobic Christian organization Focus on the Family) has changed. But in 2017 the FBI reported 106 hate crimes in Colorado, 61 motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry and 19 motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s 80 lives in Colorado alone, in one year alone, irrevocably changed by the very types of violence Smollett should have stood up to advocate against. I am disappointed. The LGBTQ community is disappointed.
But, more than that, we are afraid.