Politics & Policy

Let’s Chill about Hate Crimes

Jussie Smollett poses on the red carpet before the 47th Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony in New York, June 9, 2016. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Outsiders should regard purported hate crimes that sound like crafted narratives with skepticism until they're proven true.

‘Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of the television show ‘Empire,’ was attacked in Chicago by 2 assailants who yelled racial and homophobic slurs,” tweeted the New York Times on January 29.

Mark the tone of absolute certainty about an unconfirmed claim. Many other news outlets took the same tack. “Celebrities, lawmakers rally behind Jussie Smollett in wake of brutal attack,” reported ABC News. “Jussie Smollett Performs at Troubadour Just Days After Chicago Attack: ‘I Had to Be Here Tonight’” read a Los Angeles Times headline. Many commenters linked the alleged attack to larger alleged sicknesses: “The racist, homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett is far-right America’s endgame,” tweeted GQ, in a sentiment echoed by many others.

Possibly it might be wise to establish whether an incident actually happened before leaping to conclusions about it. Remember Covington? Oh, right, that was almost a whole month ago.

The certain tone of the reports about an attack that Jussie Smollett may or may not have suffered was notable given the strange circumstances surrounding the actor’s claims. The Times would have been on firm ground if it simply added six letters — “says he” — between the words “Empire” and “was attacked.” And the Times is generally wary of publishing as fact information that may or may not turn out to be true. So why put their reputation at risk by abandoning normal practice? I and many others expressed doubt that any attack had transpired the way Smollett described it.

This week Chicago’s ABC7 News reported that “multiple sources,” presumably in the Chicago Police Department, had called the alleged attack “staged” by Smollett and two accomplices. CBS2 News and the Chicago Tribune made similar reports. A spokesman for the CPD rushed to say that the sources cited were “uninformed and inaccurate.”

That there might be more to this story than met the eye seemed evident from the outset. Who walks around Chicago on a frigid night with a rope and a bottle of bleach looking for gay black men to attack — but then suddenly turns and runs away from the victim without doing him much injury or robbing him?

Yet Cory Booker went on Twitter to say, “The vicious attack on Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching.” Joe Biden: “What happened today to Jussie Smollett must never be tolerated in this country. We must stand up and demand that we no longer give this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts.” Kamala Harris: “This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.”

One progressive reaction to the reports from Chicago that the Jussie Smollett case might be a hoax is simple dejection. Our friends on the left are saddened that a gay black man perhaps wasn’t viciously beaten up by Trump-loving thugs.

No, that’s not quite right, they protest: We’re upset because we all know that lots of gay people are getting attacked all over this country, and the publicity attending this story will make people discount these important true stories. The subtext is: We’re upset that the Right is winning another cultural battle.

But where is this epidemic of gay-bashing? The example people cite is Matthew Shepard. A mini-industry of books, plays, television docudramas and documentaries, and a charitable foundation was built around the case of the 21-year-old student tortured and beaten to death in Laramie, Wyo.

Shepard was killed 21 years ago. That’s it? One definitive, well-established case? Back in the Clinton era? Oh, and Shepard probably wasn’t killed for being gay in the first place. The FBI has lately started logging hate crimes. It came up with a log of 7,000 incidents of all kinds, in the entire country, in the supposed nightmare first year of the Trump administration, 2017. That’s every kind of hate crime, starting with graffiti vandalism. The incidence rate is in the range of 0.00002 percent.

A Twitter friend writes that all purely self-reported hate crimes should be presumed hoaxes. I certainly wouldn’t want the police to think that way, but for those of us who are merely outside observers such as journalists and politicians, reported hate crimes that have the structure of perfectly crafted narratives should be regarded with skepticism until proven true. The media tend to lose interest in hate-crime hoaxes once they’re unmasked, but as a glance at fakehatecrimes.org will show, there are a lot of liars out there.

Journalists whose priors align with those of activists ought to be doubly careful about taking at face value claims that seem wobbly, for the good of their own reputations. But it’s not just as a journalist that I doubted Smollett’s version(s) of events. I doubted it as an American. I decline to look at Chicago (or Kentucky, or Oklahoma, or anywhere else) and put much credence in the idea that vicious Trump-loving attackers are roaming around looking for minorities to assault.

Note that it doesn’t matter who the president might be; progressives always think that there’s a hate-crime crisis and always link it to whatever political narrative they’re currently bewailing. When President Obama was in office, it was “See? Elements of this country are so racist that having a black man in charge is causing them to lose their minds and go out on the rampage.”

How dismal it must be to be a progressive, to rest your political purview on extremely dark assumptions about the nature of the American psyche. Note that progressives also believe that, owing to nefarious right-wingers, Miami will shortly disappear beneath the waves (when you ask them why people are still buying waterfront condos with 30-year-mortgages they simply get angry) and that birth control will shortly be banned or, in the alternative, that women will be forced into becoming baby factories for Christian cultists à la The Handmaid’s Tale. No matter what the era or who is in charge, disaster always looms, and any weird anecdote that supports the larger doom narrative is eagerly, even devoutly, believed.

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