Hate crimes motivated by race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability have impacted the United States for decades and affected numerous marginalized groups. According to the United States Department of Justice, there have been 7,106 single-bias incidents of hate crimes totaling 8,493 victims in 2017. The most common motivation of hate crimes is race and ethnicity. In fact, 58.1% of those hate crimes were motivated by race and ethnicity (Justice.gov,2017). Hate crimes have a devastating impact on communities and families. Despite their serious-nature, there have been cases where individuals have taken advantage of the public and staged hate crimes. Hate crime hoaxes are rare, but when identified damage the credibility of true victims, contribute to the culture of fake news and validate political biases.
In January 2019, Jussie Smollett an actor for Fox’s American drama series “Empire” claimed he was attacked by two Donald Trump supporters on a chilly night in Chicago. Smollett is both a black man and member of the LGBTQ+ community who recounted that the two men beat him, put a rope around his neck and slandered him with racist and homophobic comments. Among the rude remarks, the men shouted, “This is MAGA country!” The news story went viral across social media platforms instantly; Socially liberal people were particularly affected by the hate crime and took to sites such as Twitter to express their dismay. However, the Chicago police department informed people shortly afterward that the crime is a hoax (Nytimes.com,2019).
Smollett was arrested on a felony charge for a fake police report involving paying two co-conspirators by the names of Olabinjo Osundario and Abimbola to stage a hate crime. The men assisted him in planning and carrying out the calculated stunt. Despite his efforts to capitalize off a story fueled by hate, there was too many holes in his plot for the actor to get away with it. Smollett hoped the situation would make him more famous and profitable because he was unsatisfied with his salary on the show “Empire”. Contrary to his belief, the situation did far more damage to his reputation than good in the end. Smollett’s false report is not only damaging to him as an individual, but also devastated marginalized communities such as black and LGBTQ+ groups. This is because his false report undermines the credibility of victims of true hate crimes and efforts. Hate crimes already go largely unreported and Smollett has contributed to a politically-tense environment that will only aggravate the issues victims face when not feeling comfortable to reach out for help (NBC News, 2019).
Additionally, the situation provoked numerous headlines that flooded our social media timelines with fake news, impacting the greater news context. Many fake sources that are circling claim hate crime reports are often false. Smollett’s narrative is used as an example to justify these accusations. In reality, hate crimes are far more often true than not. The New York Times states that, “Hoaxes are not tracked formally, but the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said that of an estimated 21,000 hate crime cases between 2016 and 2018, fewer than 50 reports were found to be false. The center believes that less than 1 percent of all reported hate crimes are false” (Nytimes.com, 2019). This quote demonstrates how few cases of hate efforts turn out to be hoaxes. Jussie Smollett has misleadingly caused people to believe that hate crimes do not occur and contributed to the spreading of misinformation.
On top of that, Smollett has deepened the political divide of individuals in the United States. Since he is black, a member of the gay community and attempted to use these features to enhance his “perfect” victim story, socially conservative people use this case to validate their own biases against these communities for “exaggerating” hate crime efforts. When Smollett created a dramatic story in which racist Donald Trump supporters attacked him, he was knowingly exploiting racial and political tensions in an attempt to promote his public image. Smollett is only amplifying the false notion that politics are always extremely left- or right-winged and never neutral through the stereotypical, extremist story he crafted. This mindset can be problematic. Stories like Smollett’s widen the political gap between citizens by encouraging their prejudices. When the story was first released, liberal celebrities quickly defended Jussie Smollett and tweeted that most Trump supporters are racist and extreme in the way Jussie Smollett’s script read. After the truth came out, most of the liberal celebrities who spoke out did not update their thoughts online (Page Six, 2019). Meanwhile, conservatives were excited to learn the hate crime is a hoax and share that with the internet. Those who are right-winged hurriedly accused all minorities of having a similar experience and didn’t acknowledge the legitimate issue of hate crimes in our country. This shows how both sides of the political spectrum are quick to believe any story that confirms their pre-conceived ideas about social topics.
All in all, fictional hate crimes impact the way society perceives the credibility of true victims, culture of fake news and political biases. Jussie Smollett’s calculated stunt has negative implications for himself as well as for the black and gay community as a whole. It’s disheartening to see a successful, black and gay celebrity turn against his community and strengthen political divides for the sake of fame and money. Hopefully, his story will serve as a reminder of the importance of fact-checking news stories and the media. The public needs to be critical of stories that exclusively validate and encourage our biases. Although Smollett’s story is a hoax, it is essential to give those who are discriminated against and experience violence a voice that is heard, understood and respected. We must not let the occasional fake story discredit the individuals who are harmed by hate crimes in the United States.