As far as the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is concerned, lying about a hate crime is not such a big deal. By deciding to drop charges against former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollet for having faked a hate crime in an apparent deal in which his records would be sealed and no apology required for the costs he had inflicted on the city, the authorities effectively gave him a pass for all he had done.
Yet rather than ending the controversy, the deal—which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel rightly declared was “not on the level”—created a brand-new furor. The outcome was at least in part the result of political squabbles between the police and the prosecutors. It was also clearly a product of Smollett’s privileged status in which his legal representative and support from influential friends made it possible for him to avoid being held accountable.
While some are attributing this miscarriage of justice solely to Smollett’s wealth and status as yet another example of the “varsity blues”-type scandal (the one in which rich people bought their children places in elite colleges), there is another dynamic at play here that also needs to be confronted.
Are Minority People Oppressed if Wealthy and Powerful?
This is also a product of a belief that those who hold the status of oppressed minorities have a different kind of privilege. They are to be considered victims even if they are wealthy or have power. Thus even if the stories they tell about being victimized by members of groups that are not minorities are untrue, they are to be held harmless for lying because their false narratives speak to a supposedly greater truth about white privilege and racism.
Much like intersectional theory, that holds that the struggle for civil rights in the United States for African-Americans is linked to all efforts by those who considered themselves oppressed, whether or not the analogy is justified, the problem is conflating causes and intentions that give advocates a belief that they can do no wrong. Even, as in the case of Smollett, where lies do great damage to the cause of equality and cast doubt on genuine hate crimes, there is a sense that accountability isn’t necessary.
The Smollett case may be about wealth and privilege, but the end result would be unimaginable without the identity politics that created an audience for the actor’s lies and political forces that were ready to sweep it under the carpet once it became inconvenient. That disconnect between the truth and the rhetoric of some who purport to advocate for civil rights has produced a conversation about race that is both fundamentally dishonest and feeding divisions that can only contribute to more hate.
The entire country’s attention had focused on what we were initially told was an atrocity in which Smollett — a gay, black man — had been taunted by white supporters of President Donald Trump. He was supposedly beaten, doused with chemicals, and had a noose put around his neck.
Smollett was, albeit briefly, a symbol of all that is wrong with Trump’s America. It was a place where hooded thugs wearing “Make America Great Again” hats could victimize someone for his race and sexual orientation. Smollett’s celebrity and relative wealth was, we were told, no defense against hate.
‘America in 2019’ Was Not as Simple as It Seemed
But within days of the chattering classes embracing the story as a metaphor for, in CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin’s words, “America in 2019,” the story fell apart. Once the Chicago Police Department investigated the alleged attack, they quickly discovered that the two men who supposedly beat Smollett were of African heritage, that they actually knew him, and that one had appeared as an extra on his show “Empire.”
After being questioned, they admitted that Smollett had hired them to help stage a hoax whose purpose was to give the actor some publicity because he was unhappy with his “Empire” salary. The case was brought before a grand jury, and Smollett was charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct. From being the new poster child for victims of Trump-era hate crimes against black and gay people, Smollett had become a symbol of something else: a rich, entitled person who believed he could profit from faking a crime.
But two months after the controversy began, the prosecution of Smollett was dropped. His hoax had led to enormous costs, as the police were forced to expand massive amounts of time and manpower on investigating a crime that hadn’t happened, but prosecutors were prepared to treat it as an unimportant, victimless crime.
The decision seemed at least in part to stem from ongoing tensions between the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Police Department. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was forced to recuse herself from the case, because thanks to the efforts of a lawyer who had been Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, she had been in contact with a relative of Smollett early in the investigation.
But her deputy Joe Magats seemed to do her bidding by deciding to simply let Smollett off the hook with no apology, a few hours of community service, and the forfeit of a $10,000 bond (a drop in the bucket when compared to the enormous costs the investigation had prompted). Smollett even had the chutzpah to make a public statement that he had been “truthful and consistent on every level since Day 1,” even though Magats had conceded that there were no problems with the police investigation that led the grand jury to find he had consistently lied.
Magat’s disgraceful decision earned him and Foxx’s office a scathing denunciation from Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. That Smollett had benefitted from a whitewash was not in doubt.
This can be considered just another example of the corruption that is endemic in Chicago and the anodyne observation that rich people fare better in the criminal justice system than the poor in any locality. But it’s just as obvious that Smollett benefitted from the identity politics that drives much of the conversation about race in this country.
Smollett Knew the Country Would Believe Him
Smollett may have been a sloppy criminal, since the police easily discovered his deception. But he was not wrong to think that the country would believe his bizarre story without hesitation because the media is hungry for stories that will “prove” that their anger and disgust with Trump and his supporters is justified. Smollett understood that, in this hyper-partisan and divisive moment in our history, many Americans are all too ready to view politics through a racial lens that will not merely bring attention to discrimination and hate but also discredit everyone with whom they disagree.
Hoaxes like this or the ones that falsely accused the Duke Lacrosse team and a University of Virginia fraternity of racist and sexual violence may discourage victims of genuine hate crimes from coming forward. Whether or not that is true, what is at stake here is that, by essentially clearing someone who manufactured a hate crime, the Chicago prosecutors have validated the notion that so long as the purpose of a lie about race is to bring attention to hate against blacks and gays, it is not something for which anyone truly needs to apologize.
Once the struggle against racism and violence gets mixed up with notions about race in which truth is subordinated to political theories, cases like Smollett’s are inevitable. Allowing him to not only walk free but also to continue brazenly spreading lies is a disgrace. But it also contributes to a dishonest conversation about race that makes it impossible to draw a distinction between political disagreements and the necessary struggle to extinguish hate against all who are subjected to discrimination.
Wealth and privilege that is essentially colorblind helped Smollett stay out of the jail cell where he belongs. But the identity politics that is at the heart of much of our national discussion about race is what made this dispiriting tale possible in the first place.