Opinion | Smollett case overshadows truth of hate crimes


Chicago Police Department/TNS

Chicago Police Department mugshot of Jussie Smollett.

By Mackenzie Oster, Staff Columnist

Jussie Smollett, an actor on the American drama series “Empire,” grabbed the media’s attention when he filed a police report that he had been assaulted by two men while walking home. The report claimed that the men shouted racial and homophobic slurs while striking Smollett, attempted to put a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him, all on the streets of Chicago late one night.

As a young, black and gay actor, Smollett is especially susceptible to such acts of hatred toward his identity, and people jumped to express their views via social media, including members of Congress and President Donald Trump himself.

But after the Chicago Police Department investigated, it announced on Feb. 21 that Smollett was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for filing a fake police report. Police say Smollett had hired two brothers to carry out the assault, promising to pay them $3,500 each through a written check. Police were also able to track down his phone records, which indicated Smollett had been communicating with the brothers.

Smollett’s publicity stunt is disrespectful to those who have had to face such violent discrimination, and this case is not worthy of the headlines and publicity that encompass it. Instead, the incident should shed light on why his story was so believable to begin with, revealing that such hate within our nation is far too prevalent.

Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson explained Smollett’s possible motivation for the publicity stunt.

“He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career because he was dissatisfied with his salary,” Johnson said.

As soon as news of the attack went public, fellow celebrities such as Viola Davis, Kandi Burruss and Lee Daniels were quick to show Smollett support via social media, and other users posted messages of love and kindness toward Smollett’s alleged situation as well. But after news of the attack being staged surfaced, the tables turned and people responded with disgust and outrage.

When doubts in Smollett’s story began to arise, a spokesperson for Screen Actors Guild-American Federation and Radio Artists came out with a statement.

“Today’s report of Jussie Smollett’s alleged actions is disheartening,” the statement read. “If true, this could lead some to disbelieve future hate crime reports. Notwithstanding this situation, we encourage others to join us in continued support for marginalized communities who are all too often the victims of intolerance and brutality.”

We should be especially cautious when true hate crimes occur because the effect goes beyond the average crime. Most crimes are composed of victims and perpetrators, and hate crimes take a step further with affecting entire communities as well because they are often fueled by the very traits that form these communities, whether that be for religious, ethnic or racial identities.

“I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention,” Johnson said at a press conference on Feb. 21, the same day he announced Smollett’s police report was a hoax.

2019 marks the third consecutive year that the percentage of annual hate crimes has increased, according to an FBI database. Officials report there has been more than a 17-percent increase in the occurrence of hate crimes from last year across America, and this increase is only accounting for those that have been reported.

Most hate crimes in this country never even see the light of day or reach the consciousness of anyone outside the community of those directly affected. In fact, many crimes go unreported because detecting the motivation behind the act is a difficult task and many victims are reluctant to bring the incident to the police. Mississippi, Wyoming and Alabama each reported fewer than five hate crimes in 2004.

Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, spoke his mind about why victims are hesitant to report such crimes.

“It’s important to look at the number of people who suspect they were a victim of a hate crime and not just the FBI data. People’s perception is their reality. A lot of these law enforcement agencies don’t believe that they have a problem with hate crimes. If they don’t think they have a problem, they won’t deal with it well.”

The Human Rights Campaign reports that Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming have no hate crimes laws. Measures to stop the increase of such hate-driven acts need to be implemented, especially because the numbers show that the acts are only becoming increasingly prevalent.

The ongoing investigation in Smollett’s case is discouraging to the victims of hate crimes. Raising speculation about whether or not the incident occured can discourage victims from bringing hate-motivated cases to federal authorities, especially because reported crimes do not often lead to justice for the victim.

We should not allow Smollett’s incident to overshadow other hate-motivated crimes that are committed. We must remember that real hate crimes happen every day in America, and we can’t let one false account discredit all future victims of hate crimes.