Jussie Smollett’s staged hate crime devalues all hate crime accusations

March 26, 2019 — by Rohan Kumar

During a late night outing on Jan. 29, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett tells police two men assaulted him, pouring bleach on him and tying a noose around his neck while shouting racial and homophobic slurs.

In the days that followed, Chicago police found that the evidence did not add up, and Smollett was ultimately taken into custody for staging the attack — he had supposedly paid his two personal trainers to assault him in order to gain publicity and increase his salary on the show, according to ABC News.

It’s hardly new for actors to make poor decisions that tarnish their careers and reputations. For example, Mel Gibson ruined his career in 2006 by driving under the influence of alcohol and shouting anti-Semitic expletives at the arresting officers. Nicholas Cage spent his money so lavishly that he ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2009. But Smollett’s mistake not only hurts his own career, but it also devalues the legitimacy of all hate crime accusations.

Smollett’s fake crime makes it harder for victims of real hate crimes to get support from law enforcement and the public. Now, whenever a hate crime is reported, police officers may immediately think about the Smollett fiasco and say, “Was this actually a hate crime or made up just for the attention?”

And it adds to the potential for bias against African Americans. The fact that police officers can justify a distrust for hate crime victims using Smollett’s case is a horrifying prospect. Reporting a hate crime is already difficult enough without the validity of the story being questioned at every turn.

The public may also lose sympathy for race-based hate crime victims, now that a high-profile African American actor faked a crime simply to earn more money. The timing of the incident is especially unfortunate given the current political and social climate in the U.S., where white supremacy is resurfacing. The FBI reported 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, a 17 percent increase from the previous year. All such cases may be set back by Smollett’s mistake, and actual victims could be more reluctant to come forward knowing that they will face increased scrutiny.

Many people saw Smollett as a role model for young gay African Americans — he was successful and had a bold, likeable personality. Now, however, he is viewed as nothing more than a cheat using his minority status to his advantage at the expense of thousands of actual hate crime victims.

Many hate crime victims are left shaken for years, and the physical and psychological scars hate crime leaves behind often never heal. By faking a hate crime, Smollett has made these dire consequences even worse.

Peter Dunn, a 32-year-old African American writer and director, was a victim of a hate crime several years ago. While he and his boyfriend were walking in a Dublin street, a group of white men verbally taunted them and assaulted them with a glass bottle. Dunn was left shaken for weeks even though the couple was able to fight off the attackers and the police looked into the case.

In response to Smollett’s betrayal, Dunn said, “To have someone completely fabricate something like that is so disrespectful and terrifying for what is already a hard enough daily life as a black gay man. This will take us so many steps backward.”

Smollett used a controversial issue to further his personal agenda, and although he did this in a extremely blatant and hurtful way, this behavior is fairly common. Nike featured Colin Kaepernick in an ad to appeal to more young buyers while alienating others. The YouTubers that we watch comment on political issues to get more subscribers; for example, “Saturday Night Live” makes satirical skits about the Trump administration as a staple of its channel. Nigahiga also made a video titled “How to be Politically Correct!” dealing with the current political environment, which received close to 8 million views.

Now, of course, all these actions are entirely legal, as they should be. There’s nothing wrong with advancing these agendas if they are harmless to others: It is simply catering to a desired audience, which is something we all do when we communicate. In English, we are encouraged to think about the reader and how to write an essay in a way that would appeal the most to our audience. When we talk to our friends, we change the way we talk compared to how we talk with our teachers.

But the moment that taking advantage of these issues comes at the expense of others, it becomes unacceptable. Falsifying a hate crime is itself a crime, making Smollett not only self-centered and greedy, but also a fraud that wasted significant time that the Chicago police department could have spent helping others.

There is a fine line between using controversial issues for personal gain and harming entire populations of minorities, and Smollett landed squarely on the wrong side of this divide. He deserves to not only serve jail time for his crimes, but also pay for each and every hate crime victim that he hurt and each and every minute that the police wasted on him.