Wilfred Reilly, Opinion contributor Published 12:19 p.m. ET Feb. 22, 2019 | Updated 12:22 p.m. ET Feb. 22, 2019
The hate attack on Empire star Jussie Smollett is now alleged to be a hoax. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Smollett’s story was bizarre, bordering on the absurd. He claimed to have been attacked — at 2:00am in Chicago — by two men, in some early reports, wearing red MAGA hats, who called him “that Empire n_____,” yelled “this is MAGA country,” and poured bleach on him while putting a noose around his neck.
The questions here are obvious. How many Trump supporters even exist in the downtown of a city that went 83% for Hillary Clinton — and how many of them watch "Empire?" How many guys looking for a fight carry rope and bottles of bleach around with them? Almost every normal citizen had questions like these about this incident, and we were justified in having them.
That this case turned out to be a hoax shouldn't come as too big of a shock. A great many hate crime stories turn out to be hoaxes. Simply looking at what happened to the most widely reported hate crime stories over the past 4-5 years illustrates this: not only the Smollett case but also the Yasmin Seweid, Air Force Academy, Eastern Michigan, Wisconsin-Parkside, Kean College, Covington Catholic, and “Hopewell Baptist burning” racial scandals all turned out to be fakes. And, these cases are not isolated outliers.
Doing research for a book, Hate Crime Hoax, I was able to easily put together a data set of 409 confirmed hate hoaxes. An overlapping but substantially different list of 348 hoaxes exists at fakehatecrimes.org, and researcher Laird Wilcox put together another list of at least 300 in his still-contemporary book Crying Wolf. To put these numbers in context, a little over 7,000 hate crimes were reported by the FBI in 2017 and perhaps 8-10% of these are widely reported enough to catch the eye of a national researcher.
Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County jail after posting bail on Feb. 21. A judge set his bond $100,000 required the actor to surrender his passport. (Photo11: Nuccio DiNuzzo, Getty Images)
Why do hoaxers hoax? In some cases, the motivations are tawdry and financial. Jussie Smollett allegedly wanted to make himself a sympathetic figure to boost his salary.
However, the motivations of many hoaxers are honorable if misguided. In college campus hate hoax cases (Kean College, U-Chicago), the individuals responsible almost invariably say that they staged incidents to call attention to real incidents of racist violence on campus. 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.
However, hate crime hoaxers are “calling attention to a problem” that is a very small part of total crimes. There is very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA. There are less than 7,000 real hate crimes reported in a typical year. Inter-racial crime is quite rare; 84% of white murder victims and 93% 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.
In this context, what hate hoaxers actually do is worsen generally good race relations, and distract attention from real problems. As Chicago’s disgusted top cop, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, pointed out yesterday, skilled police officers spent four weeks tracking down Smollett’s imaginary attackers — in a city that has seen 28 murders as of Feb. 9th, according to The Chicago Tribune. We all, media and citizens alike, would be better served to focus on real issues like gun violence and the opiate epidemic than on fairy tales like Jussie’s.
Wilfred Reilly is an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, a historically Black institution located in Frankfort. He is the author of the upcoming book Hate Crime Hoax, as well as The $50,000,000 Question, a book dealing with how people value identity.
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