Jussie Smollett was convicted yesterday evening of staging a racist attack on himself in January 2019. Coming just weeks after Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in Kenosha and the killers of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted in Georgia, the Smollett case reveals an uncomfortable truth about race in America: that the constant exaggeration, or even invention, of incidents of bias by activists and media members is probably a bigger problem than the residual violent racism that still exists.
The Smollett trial has been worth following for a few reasons. The first, if least important, is the pure entertainment value of the story that Smollett initially told police. For those who have forgotten, the former actor — famously dubbed “Juicy Smollé” by the comedian Dave Chappelle — originally said he was attacked by Trump supporters wearing ski-masks, in the integrated heart of Chicago, at 2am on the coldest day of the year.
The details were even more absurd than the big picture. Smollett claimed that after leaving his condo to buy a sandwich, he was approached by two white men who recognised him from the television show Empire, a hip-hop musical with a 61% black audience. The men assaulted him, tied a noose around his neck, and doused him with bleach, all while call him homophobic and racist slurs and shouting “This is MAGA country!” Per Smollett’s initial report, he heroically fought both off his attackers (“I hit his ass BACK!”), and escaped to his building with a noose around his neck and the hoagie still clasped tightly in one of his hands.
Of course, as was obvious from the beginning, none of this was true. The alleged “MAGA country” area of city-centre Chicago went 83% for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The real perpetrators of the “assault” turned out to be a pair of Smollett’s gym buddies from Nigeria, one of whom, we learned at trial, used to accompany Smollett on drug-fuelled excursions to gay bathhouses. The brothers testified that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to “fake beat him up,” call him slurs, and make a MAGA reference, allegedly so that the actor could garner public sympathy. The hoax took place early in the morning because Smollett’s flight to Chicago that evening had been delayed.
What is remarkable, in retrospect, is just how seriously Smollett’s story was taken. In a famous, widely circulated tweet, then-Senator Kamala Harris tweeted that the attack on Smollett was an “attempted modern day lynching”, a sentiment echoed by Senator Corey Booker. President Trump condemned the “horrible” attack. Even today, after Smollett’s story has definitively fallen apart, he has a handful of defenders. On Wednesday, Black Lives Matter released a statement in support of the actor, saying “We can never believe police… over a Black man who has been courageously present, visible, and vocal in the struggle for Black freedom”.
It is indisputable that Smollett’s allegations reflected what many mainstream Leftists believe about the United States. His claim was, very specifically, that “the attack” was an indictment of just how racist and homophobic America still is — he, a black gay man, had been assaulted in a liberal city just for existing. We hear this sort of thing often: that police violence is constant, that “systemic racism” and univariate “white privilege” plague the land, and that interracial crime is at near race-war levels. A famous and solidly-selling 2019 book was titled Open Season: The Legalized Genocide of Colored People.
Content like this has an effect. The average “very liberal” American believes that between 1,000 and 10,000 unarmed black men are killed annually by police, when the actual number in 2020 was 17. However, beliefs like this are not based in reality. Only about 1,000 people of all races and sexes are killed by police in a typical year, and only around 250 of them are black. We may be overrepresented among those shot by police — 14% of the population vs. 25% of police shooting victims — but even this gap largely vanishes when one adjusts for black crime and police-encounter rates, which are about 2.5 times their white equivalents (no surprise, given that we are a younger and more urban population). And while violent interracial crimes involving blacks and whites are rare, accounting for only around three percent of serious crimes tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80% of them are black-on-white.
While the incident Smollett claimed he survived would no longer be a metaphor for America, what actually happened arguably is. Many very high-profile incidents of ‘racial hate’ have unraveled similarly in recent years. The Covington Catholic affair, which was at first alleged to have involved a mob of white high school punks chanting “Build the Wall” at a Native American elder, turned out to have been a shouting match between the high-schoolers and a group of radical “Black Israelites,” which the Israelites started. Other incidents that turned out to be fake: Klansmen roaming the bucolic campus of Oberlin College, a white man harassing a black Georgia state representative in a grocery store, racists placing a “noose” in the garage of black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, Trump supporters tearing a hijab off of Yasmin Seweid on the New York subway, white bigots urinating on a young black girl in Grand Rapids, white men setting a biracial teenager on fire in Madison, and so on and so on. One could go back farther and add the Duke lacrosse case and the fabricated assault on Tawana Brawley.
Even these famous cases represent just a small sample from a larger data set. For my 2019 book Hate Crime Hoax, I spent several weeks conducting targeted searches of Internet research platforms for term sets like “hate crime hoax” and “hate crime: narrative collapse.” By the end of the research period, I had compiled a set of 409 cases, concentrated between 2014 and 2019, in which an undisputed claim (police report or story in national or reputable regional media outlet) was made about a serious incident involving racism or bias that was later utterly debunked.
This data set, which is available to anyone who requests it, has now grown to include more than 1,000 incidents. Of course, no one claims that the majority of hate crime allegations, including allegations of lower-profile offences, turn out to be hoaxes. However, given that there are fewer than 7,000 hate crimes reported in the US in a typical year, and that only perhaps 10% of these receive the sort of coverage necessary to be included in my data set, the numbers just given are sizeable.
Although many modern allegations about the social effects of race are not true, Mr Smollett does possess one characteristic that is likely to protect him: he is rich. The power of the 1% has increased to a sometimes ridiculous extent within the United States in recent years. This real advantage has operated to Smollet’s benefit repeatedly throughout his legal ordeal. He has friends in high places too. CNN’s Don Lemon tipped Smollett off that the police were skeptical of his story. At one point, the Chicago DA’s office simply dropped all charges against him (they were later reinstated). Some friends and colleagues apparently still say that he is innocent; he may well work again one day. Smollett faces up to three years in jail, but he seems unlikely to ever go down into the bowels of CCJ as a convict. Expect instead the rich man’s sentence: probation or community service.