Hearing the details of the Jan. 29 attack on the “Empire” star Jussie Smollett was horrifying. While returning to his Chicago home around 2 a.m., the actor said he was beaten and doused with bleach. He said that his assailants tied a noose around his neck and shouted racial and homophobic slurs. “This is MAGA country,” Mr. Smollett said the attackers yelled. That this could happen to a famous and wealthy actor made the event all the more shocking. Outrage was expressed from all angles.
Then earlier this week, two law enforcement sources told CNN that Chicago police believe actor Jussie Smollett paid two men to orchestrate the assault on him that he reported. Smollett denies these allegations according to a statement from his attorneys, but he has been charged and released for $100,000 in bail. More shock and outrage has been expressed from all angles.
We do not yet know the full truth of what happened on that night in January, but things are not look good for Jussie. This case generates suspicions and questions worth probing, and leads us in different directions:
- If we believe the attack happened, Jussie Smollett is a living breathing representation of violent racism, homophobia, and the political polarization within our country today. Mr. Smollett received an immediate outpouring of public support. Many cited his account as an example of another in a rising tide of hate crimes, which the F.B.I. reported last fall had increased for the third straight year. If the attack happened, it means there are people within our country who are screaming racial slurs and derogatory homophobic terms at people just for living their life the way they want to. This country, being founded on freedom, should be a place where this kind of behavior is least expected and never accepted. Yet if the attack happened, we must seriously question whether we are living up to our national ideals.
- If we believe the charges of Mr. Smollett staging the events are true, journalists and the public are representation of the lack of critical analysis and shortcomings of media literacy. The change in charges based upon investigation has catalyzed large amounts of criticism against the news media and politicians. Many critics feel the media were quick to embrace a sketchy account in order to push their agenda to tarnish the president. Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, said on Wednesday: “I think that the initial reaction suggested that there is a lot of credulity, especially among liberals who were looking at a story that seemed to confirm their impressions about Trump supporters.” Many journalists seemed to suspend all critical thought to analyze details of the crime in a campaign to indict not just Mr. Smollett’s attackers but the country as a whole. Indeed, Mr. Smollett himself implied that anything other than support of his claims was evidence of prejudice. If the allegations of the attack being staged are found to be true by the grand jury, it becomes an object lesson in what happens when people in positions of political and cultural authority abandon critical thinking and pressure those who remain circumspect to fear being smeared as bigots. It also exemplifies the tendency of those arbiters to amplify “perfect crimes” that advance their political agenda — and to ignore crimes that don’t.
Regardless of whether what Smollett said happened truly did, we should not diminish our vigilance in rebuking hate crimes. What he asserts happened unfortunately HAS happened to many others over the course of time in this country. For reasons beyond the bounds of what this blog can describe, there is an uncomfortably large chunk of America hell-bent on implying that people within the communities Jussie identifies with are somehow less-than. People sometimes claim their rhetoric is innocent and they are just making light hearted jokes, but why are 48.8 percent of hate crimes because of anti-black prejudice? Why are 58.2 percent of them because of anti-gay bias? Why did 2017 have the biggest jump in hate crimes since 9/11?
Nobody wants to address these questions.
Thoughts and ideologies can lead to real-world behaviors. It’s very possible to perpetrate and perpetuate violence without actually ever lifting a finger. Sadly, there are many people who are complicit in engendering intolerances and injustices of all kinds. What this means is that we, as the next generation of politics, have a lot more work to be done.
Unfortunately, nobody can change what they’ve said and done in the past, but they certainly can change the future. Let’s work together to do so.