Two of history’s most famous storytellers can provide insight into a modern political controversy.
One is Aesop, the ancient Greek author of fables, including “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” In that fable, a young, bored shepherd amuses himself by pretending a wolf is chasing his sheep. When the shepherd yells, “Wolf, wolf,” nearby villagers run from their homes to help. When no wolf can be found, the shepherd laughs at the villagers’ credulity. When a real wolf threatens his sheep, however, the villagers refuse to be fooled again, despite the shepherd’s sincere pleas.
Now move from the hills of Greece to the streets of Chicago, where a young actor, Jussie Smollett, claimed to be a victim of racism. Smollett asserted that two men wearing “Make America Great Again” caps attacked him and tied a noose around his neck while yelling racist and anti-gay slurs on Jan. 29. California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Rev. Al Sharpton were among those decrying the apparent attack, with both senators demanding federal laws against lynching.
When Chicago police found that Smollett fabricated the incident, they arrested him Feb. 21 and charged him with felony disorderly conduct. On March 7, a grand jury indicted Smollett on 16 felony charges. However, powerful people used their influence not only to get all charges dropped but also to get all records pertaining to the case sealed.
The “attack” on Smollett ostensibly reflects the increased bigotry that President Donald Trump supposedly inspires. Yet those perpetuating such hoaxes risk desensitizing Americans from legitimate racism by sacrificing truth on the altar of political expediency.
Smollett Added to a Chorus Crying ‘Wolf!’
Smollett’s hoax merely attracted the most national attention among numerous similar fabrications. One week before the presidential election, an arsonist painted the words “Vote Trump” on the walls of the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, a black church in Greenville, Miss., before destroying it. The arsonist? Andrew McClinton, a black congregant with a prior criminal record.
Immediately after the election, a swastika and the words, “Heil Trump” and “Fag Church” were found on the walls of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Brown County, Indiana. The graffiti was “among numerous incidents that have occurred in the wake of Trump’s Election Day win,” wrote the Washington Post. Yet six months later, police arrested organist George Nathaniel Stang for vandalizing his own church.
“I suppose I wanted to give local people a reason to fight for good, even if it was a false flag,” wrote Stang, who added that he wanted to “mobilize a movement.”
In December 2016, Yasmin Seweid asserted that three intoxicated white men yelling “Donald Trump” called her a terrorist and tried to remove her hijab forcibly while riding a New York subway. Seweid also claimed no other passengers tried to help her. But Seweid admitted to fabricating the incident, and was arraigned two weeks later for filing a false criminal report, a misdemeanor in New York State.
Hate Hoaxes Are Rife on Campuses, Too
In 2017, students at St. Olaf’s College, Drake University, Kansas State University, and the Air Force Academy Preparatory School found threatening messages with anti-black insults on campus. The messages appeared in notes on car windshields or under dormitory doors, on whiteboards, and as painted graffiti on a car.
The Air Force Academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, asked students, faculty members, and staffers gathered at a meeting to use their cell phones to record his message, in which he briefly referenced the riots at Charlottesville, Va. and Ferguson, Mo.: “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.” The Air Force posted Silveria’s entire five-minute speech on its Twitter account.
At Kansas State, black students led similar meetings to discuss possible racism on campus. The FBI even began a civil rights investigation.
Larger rallies took place at St. Olaf’s and Drake. Students at St. Olaf’s, a Lutheran college in Minnesota, staged protests, presented their demands by interrupting a forum, and forced classes to be cancelled for one day. At Drake, about 3,500 attended a rally supporting two minority students who received racist notes in their dorms.
“Why do you only show up in times of crisis?” Maleigha Williams, president of Drake’s Coalition of Black Students, asked the crowd. “Why do you only come when someone asks you to?”
Ensuing investigations, however, determined that the incidents at all three colleges were staged. Students from Drake, Kansas State, and the Air Force Academy Preparatory School—the reported targets of the messages—admitted writing them.
In September 2018, Adwoa Lewis from Baldwin, N.Y. claimed that as she was driving home, four white teenagers told her she “didn’t belong here” and yelled “Trump 2016.” When Lewis awoke the next morning, she found one of her tires slashed and a note on her windshield telling her to “go home.” But police discovered that the confrontation never happened, and Lewis admitted writing the note.
Fears of Saying the Truth Abound
Those examples reflect a larger problem that another famous author, Hans Christian Andersen, addressed in his story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Two swindlers, posing as weavers, persuaded an emperor to purchase garments made from materials that would be invisible to anybody who was stupid or unfit for office. Naturally, the weavers produced nothing. But the emperor, his courtiers, and his subjects believed the weavers’ lies for fear of finding themselves stupid or unfit.
In today’s United States, the lie is the idea that Trump promotes a resurgence of the kind of bigotry that enabled Jim Crow to flourish and 30,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate their power in 1925 by marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. The fear is the dread of being considered “racist,” and the swindlers are such notables as Harris, Booker, Sharpton, and the rest of the “democratic socialists” in the academy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the Democratic Party, all of whom refuse to confront the hoaxers forthrightly.
“There is very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA,” wrote Wilfred Reilly, an assistant political science professor at Kentucky State University, a historically black college, for USA Today. “There are less than 7,000 real hate crimes reported in a typical year. Inter-racial crime is quite rare. 84 percent of white murder victims and 93 percent of Black murder victims are killed by criminals of their own race, and the person most likely to kill you is your ex-wife or husband. When violent inter-racial crimes do occur, whites are at least as likely to be the targets as are minorities.”
“Simply put, Klansmen armed with nooses are not lurking on Chicago street corners.”
Hate Hoaxes Desensitize People to Real Racism
Yet facts cannot serve a manipulative narrative.
“In college campus hate hoax cases … the individuals responsible almost invariably say that they staged incidents to call attention to real incidents of racist violence on campus,” Reilly wrote. “Certainly, the media giants that leap to publicize hate crime stories later revealed to be fakes, and the organizations that line up to defend their ‘victims’ — the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter, CAIR — think that they are providing a public service by fighting bigotry.”
James S. Robbins, a columnist for USA Today, believes Smollett exploited that mindset.
“Why did Smollett believe that his alleged plan to manufacture outrage would succeed?” Robbins wrote. “Most probably because it was designed to fit a specific, well-established victimhood narrative. In this case, it was the young, gay, black celebrity versus the beastly, MAGA-preaching white racist homophobes. There is no ambiguity in that almost cartoonish scenario.
“The props and Trump-implicating rhetoric were necessary to establish the supposed hate motive. Otherwise Smollett might have been viewed as just another Chicago crime victim. And it was important to tie the faux attack to the idea prevalent on the left that the advent of the Trump era has unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence against ‘the other’” (emphasis added).
By perpetuating that lie, “democratic socialists” do more than cynically promote their agenda. They not only risk desensitizing Americans from legitimate racism. They declare the civil rights movement to be a monumental failure. They essentially assert that such men and women as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Ralph Abernathy, and the Freedom Riders fought—and, in some cases, died—in vain.
Those who perpetrate and enable false racial crimes must remember the advice an old villager gave the young shepherd at the end of Aesop’s fable: “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!”