Will Actor Jussie Smollett’s Alleged Hoax Hurt Future Hate Crime Victims?

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STH theologian Irene Monroe on Empire star’s reported racist-homophobic assault

Before January 29, actor Jussie Smollett was best known for his role as Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV drama Empire. Now, the 36-year-old is under arrest, charged with fabricating a racist and homophobic hate attack on himself. Justice advocates worry that it may set back the fight against bigotry.

The skinny: the openly gay African American actor said that on January 29, two men in MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats had shouted racist and homophobic taunts as he was walking home in Chicago, tied a noose around his neck, and doused him with an unknown chemical. Entertainment and political figures, including presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), took to social media to support Smollett, only to have investigators unravel what they say was a hoax concocted by Smollett and two accomplices.

Before Smollett turned himself in to authorities Thursday, anonymously sourced media reports said the two brothers involved in the “assault” were paid by Smollett to stage the incident. Law enforcement personnel said Thursday that the actor arranged the phony assault as a publicity stunt in the midst of a dispute over his Empire salary. At a hearing that same day, bond was set for Smollett at $100,000; he faces another hearing in March. The FBI is investigating whether Smollett had a role in a threatening letter sent to him at Fox’s Chicago studio a week before the alleged assault.

Investigators charged Smollett with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report, and he faces up to three years in jail. Despite the holes in his story, says the Rev. Irene Monroe, a School of Theology visiting researcher, “there are communities of people of color in urban cities that have every reason to not trust the police findings.” Monroe works at STH’s Program in Religion & Conflict Transformation, which trains clergy in personal, religious, and civil conflict resolution.

That distrust is especially true with the Chicago PD, Monroe says, after an officer was convicted of murder recently for the 2014 shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

How might the case affect public perception of other hate crimes? BU Today asked Monroe—an African American lesbian feminist theologian, syndicated religion columnist, and founder of several justice groups for black and gay people—for her thoughts on how the Smollett case might play out.

BU Today: If it’s determined that the Smollett case is a hoax, is it likely to put future hate crime victims in a skeptical light with the public?

Monroe: There has been an uptick of bias-related incidents and hate crimes since Trump has taken office. We have seen a rash of white people calling the cops on blacks, synagogues defaced, and 11 worshippers killed in Pittsburgh. Smollett’s hoax no doubt has tapped into our fears about our own personal safety and our fears of a country so polarized that we are imploding. However, all reports of hate crimes should be taken seriously. One hoax is no excuse for law enforcement not to do their job and see each case as a separate incident irrespective of the court of opinion.

As an African American lesbian, I think this belief that Smollett’s actions make it bad for people of color and LGBTQs to come forth in the future with their reports of hate crimes buys too easily into the notion that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Such a belief, in and of itself, is bias, suggesting people of color and LGBTQs are a monolith, and all perpetrate hoaxes.

When whites call cops on black people for “being black,” each case is handled individually, although the police might have suspicion for the real nature of the call.

Based on your research, how might we heal the culture rifts revealed by the Smollett case?

We are in a deeply polarized moment. We have lost the art of civil discourse and the patience and politeness to engage in conversations where we can talk about our differences. There are three things that would move the country toward healing: address our fear of “the other,” address our fear of ourselves, and learn the interconnection and interrelationship between compassion toward ourselves and each other.

Fear of the other stems from our fear that difference is a threat, dangerous to our levels of comfort, safety, and familiarity. Fear of ourselves encompasses those things we hate about others that we oftentimes fear within ourselves. I think Smollett had a fear of others, especially as he depicted his assailants yelling at him, “It’s MAGA country.”

Compassion allows you to see the other as yourself, which is sacred. It allows you see the sacred as yourself, it allows you to see the sacred in yourself, and it allows you to see the sacred in each other. And in so doing, you recognize the dignity of every person.

Is there a broader lesson here about how journalists and the social media–using public should not rush to judgment in such events?

The media were in a no-win situation once the news of Smollett’s alleged attack went viral. Given Smollett’s stature in both the African American and LGBTQ communities, two groups still subjected to bias-related incidents, and the political climate we’re in, the media couldn’t afford to wait. Had the media not jumped on this incident, there would have been an outrage about racism and homophobia, that black and LGBTQs lives do not matter.

The news dredges up America’s ugly history of lynching. The National Lynching Memorial just recently opened, and the Senate is trying to pass legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime.

How do you think this might affect Smollett’s career?

Smollett is a handsome, intelligent, young, gay African American actor. In all honesty, I think his career is tanked, not only with Empire, but also with future acting prospects. Smollett is an unreliable narrator of his own life. I think it would be difficult, without having had therapy, to see him as a team player.

I am praying for Smollett and his family and loved ones. This has to be a terribly difficult time for them all.