On Thursday morning, Empire star Jussie Smollett turned himself in to Chicago police on charges of making a false police report, a felony in Illinois that could earn the actor up to three years in prison. The arrest was the most recent in a dizzying series of events in the case, which began with an outpouring of support after Smollett’s Jan. 29 claim of a racist, homophobic attack by MAGA-hatted Trump supporters, proceeded through an investigation in which elements of the story fell into doubt, and ended with a Feb. 21 statement from the CPD saying that the attack “did not occur.” In a press conference on Thursday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” referencing allegations that Smollett was motivated by dissatisfaction with his salary. “I’m left hanging my head and asking why.”
While Smollett’s ultimate legal fate is yet to be determined, both conservatives and liberals are busy making meaning out of this sad case. For conservatives, Smollett’s hoax has fueled liberal biases that the Trump administration is racist and stoked unnecessary divisions in what would otherwise be a peaceful, prosperous, totally healthy and normal Trump presidency. Shame on him! (But at least it’s funny that liberals got pwned.)
This reaction is obvious nonsense. The story did not create these divisions. It resonated because of the divisions that we all know already exist—and the racist, homophobic records of our president and vice president will continue to stand on their own.
Meanwhile, many on the left will be tempted to conclude that if Smollett orchestrated a false hate crime against himself, it will have a grave, long lasting impact on victims and perhaps on the larger fight for civil rights as well. His fabrication will lead to real victims being doubted and mocked, and it will give the impression that hate crimes don’t really happen.
But the reality is this mess won’t change much of anything. Although Smollett’s fame made the attack national news for a few weeks, his alleged deceit won’t have a lasting impact on anyone but himself. A hoax like this would never have worked if we weren’t already divided about how seriously to treat hate crimes and whether victims should be believed—too divided for an isolated incident to make things worse.
To be sure, Jussie Smollett’s name will doubtless be invoked for years to come as a means of distraction and evasion whenever the subjects of hate crimes, anti-gay prejudice, racism, or believing victims comes up. But the sort of people who believe that racism isn’t that bad, that gay bashing isn’t real, that victims are often liars, and that liberals are dummies for caring would have believed those things with or without his help. The sorts of people who scoff at the idea of hate crimes don’t do it because a high-profile case turned out to be a hoax—they seize on hoaxes and whatever else they can find because they politically oppose civil rights.
If it was important to such people that the Jussie Smollett case was a hoax, then it would be important that the case of Robin A. Rhodes, who in January 2017 assaulted a woman wearing a hijab yelling “Trump is here now. He will get rid of you,” was not a hoax. Or that the case in Florida later in 2017, where Brandon Ray Davis yelled anti-gay slurs and “You’re in Trump country now,” as he ran down two gay men with his scooter was not a hoax. Or that Trump said there were very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville, Virginia, even though one side consisted of violent white supremacists, one of whom murdered a woman.
Likewise, if Smollett was about to singlehandedly cause people to stop believing victims with serious, substantial claims, then over 20 women who have credibly accused Donald Trump of groping and worse would have been taken seriously until now. “Blaming the victim” of a rape or assault would be a new concept, not a phrase that feels trite due to repetition despite being as relevant today as it has ever been.
Honestly, it would be a better world if Smollett had that sort of power: a world where we could regain dignity and justice for victims of hate crimes simply by adequately finding and punishing the rare hoaxer. A world where, if we learned to withhold judgment for a few extra days or weeks, the truth would come out, and the true stories victims told would no longer be ignored and shrugged away. But Smollett can’t exacerbate racism in a country where the president is a nationalist who paints poor Latin-American immigrants fleeing violence as an invading army and mocks an opponent with a racial slur, or fuel homophobia if the vice president is among the most virulently anti-gay politicians in the country.
It’s certainly embarrassing for those who expressed concern or solidarity with Smollett to consider that we’ve likely been misled, our empathy for the actor misplaced. But don’t confuse your very reasonable embarrassment and anger in the wake of having been duped for a more permanent kind of harm. No one who invokes the name of Jussie Smollett to cast doubt on real victims would have believed them, but for this. Homophobes who regularly link gays to pedophilia or believe that same-sex marriage is a sign of civilization’s downfall weren’t on the brink of a change of heart, but for this. Neither were racists like U.S. Rep. Steve King, who believe that America won’t be America unless the majority of her population is white. People who believe these ugly things, and the much larger group who don’t believe anything except that it’s not their business to care, don’t seize on hoaxes because an isolated case proves they are right. They do it because they will use anything and everything to distract from the fact that they are wrong.
If he is ultimately shown to have perpetrated a fake hate crime, Smollett will have done grave harm to himself and his career. It’s a disturbing prospect for a young man who had so much talent and promise, and I won’t enjoy watching it play out. But there’s no larger message here, and we’re not all victims of his crime. Haters, proverbially, are going to hate. They did it before, and they won’t miss a step after this sad, weird story is done. We may get sick of hearing Jussie Smollett’s name repeated in lieu of an actual argument. But those of us who understand that one hoax doesn’t invalidate countless true stories of homophobic or race-based violence will not be deterred.