In late February of this year, I stumbled across an article that really disturbed me. The headline read “Michigan gay-rights activist set fire to own home in fabricated hate crime.” The details of the story are disgusting: the 54-year-old transgender gay-rights advocate had torched his own home in 2017, burning his two dogs and one cat alive, and had tried to pass it off as a vitriolic hate crime against himself.
The article seemed especially relevant to me in a time where the story of Jussie Smollett was beginning to change and evolve into a crazy, dramatic mess. Both of these events sparked some difficult questions about hate crimes in America, who we believe, and, most pressingly, to what extent we believe them.
For those who aren’t caught up on the whole situation, let me walk you through the rollercoaster of blame, accusations, and media coverage that surrounded this episode.In late January of this year, Jussie Smollett, an American actor who rose to fame on the hit TV show Empire, claimed to have been the victim of a hate crime targeting his black and queer identity. According to his report, he was assaulted by a pair of men on a Chicago street who punched him, poured an unknown chemical on him, and placed a rope around his neck, an attack which sparked a wave of media outrage. His name found itself on the lips of Americans around the country.
I had never heard of Smollett, but on learning of this story I was shocked that something so openly evil could happen in today’s world. This sentiment was pervasive. Many viewed the attack as the precipitation of an unseen growing hatred that lay just beneath the surface of American civility, proof that the country was moving in the wrong direction. It was almost too good to be true that the attackers allegedly parroted Donald Trump, claiming to Make American Great Again.
But then, people started asking questions about the veracity of Smollett’s claim. As police released information that the suspected attackers were colleagues of Smollett’s from Empireand as the actor refused to submit his phone to the police, public perception began to turn. The questions became the following: was the victim actually the criminal? Was the entire episode faked? In late February, Chicago police charged Smollett with filing a false police report. The conversation about the danger of being black and gay in America quickly turned into one about the leveraging of minority status for prestige and publicity. The prior outpourings of support and solidarity from the socially-concerned populace suddenly turned into contempt and disdain.
And it’s hard to pinpoint a time and a reason for this shift in collective judgement. Some were skeptical from the start, citing the storybook convenience of the bigotry and hatred. Ironically this viewpoint was itself seen as bigoted at first—what kind of person doesn’t believe the victim of an obviously racially-motivated and homophobic assault?Alternative opinions were pushed out of the discussion, dismissed as deep-seated bias disguised as cynicism or skepticism.
No matter how you look at these events, it is undeniable is that a discursive mutiny broke out quite quickly among Smollett’s formerly-supportive base. Most people jumped ship, starting to believe that he was the perpetrator of a vast scheme for popularity. At the end of it all, however, some people still remained in his camp. Specifically, I and others who identify as gay, or black, or both were left with an extremely difficult question: am I expected to believe Smollett no matter what? Is it my duty or obligation as a member of a minority which intersects with his identity to support him despite both the widespread belief and burgeoning evidence to the contrary?
This is where everything gets complicated. I can’t say I have the answer to these questions—and I firmly believe that no one does—but they are certainly crucial questions. This discussion brings to light so much about the minority experience in America and how we reconcile ourselves with a history of inequality. In raising these questions, it becomes immediately clear that their implications, morally and socially, have been plaguing minority groups forever.
The root of this topic essentially boils down to a question of loyalty. As inherently social creatures, we like receiving the affirmation of others, and thus we want to support people who support us. Naturally, similarity of experience dovetails into this support structure, and we end up with a pillar of the minority experience: affinity.
I am expected to like and support those who look or think or love like me, and by extension, I am meant to feel indignation or harm if my peers are targeted based on that characteristic. Conceptually, this is a certainly a positive and productive aspect of human behavior, but its ramifications end up twisting that productivity.
A possible result of a necessitated widespread belief network is its inability to turn back on itself. While self-identity is a deeply personal and sophisticated matter, still there is a pull to conform and support the thoughts, opinions, and stances of fellow members of one’s own community. To go against a broadly-held cultural opinion may be considered betrayal to one’s own minority group. This is the dilemma many black and/or gay Americans found themselves coping with during the events surrounding Smollett.
Am I forsaking the queer community by disbelieving one of our members, especially under the circumstances of an alleged hate crime? Do I even have the option to disbelieve? For some, the gut response may be, yes. But it gets even more complicated since the next question becomes: can I even believe the narrative I am being told?
The fact of the matter is that historically in the United States (and still today) minority groups have not been afforded the same privilege of belief that the cis, white, heterosexual majority has. This is especially relevant when considering the location of the Smollett incident. The Chicago Police Department (C.P.D), who had jurisdiction over the alleged assault, is notorious for its systemic racism and aggressive treatment of African-Americans. In fact, a task force in 2016 established to investigate police accountability in Chicago concluded that “the [black] community’s lack of trust in the C.P.D is justified.” This statement was based on an abundance of chilling statistics of racist policing. In this context, doubts about the integrity of the police department’s investigation were set to become a legitimate cornerstone of the believers’ argument.
All of a sudden, when we call into question the morals of the fact-gatherers and judgement-makers, the narrative can shift to one in which the racist cops were setting up Smollett due to their prejudice. This possibility, coupled with the affinity support network, resulted in a level of belief in Smollett that may have exceeded what is afforded to someone based on facts alone.
In essence, Smollett’s blackness and queerness tended to cloud the seemingly damning evidence in the eyes of those who identify with him. Even beyond that, there also exists a sense of retributive belief. This proposes that people in these communities needto believe Smollett no matter what, to balance out the mistrust automatically placed on him due to his minority status. Is this a bad thing, though? Can believing this alleged victim ‘more’ than necessary accomplish something productive?
To that point, there seem to be two ways to look at the privilege of belief in America, and these perspectives can be represented by two different goals to strive for: equality or equity. It is first pertinent to discuss how these goals differ, and how that difference manifests itself in the experiences of individuals.
The most classic way to illustrate this distinction is by imagining three people—one short, one medium height, and one tall—reaching for apples on a high branch. Under an equality framework, the fairest way to help them all would be to provide each of them the same box to stand on, even if it doesn’t sufficiently help the shortest person and allows the tallest one to reach significantly more apples; you thus avoid ‘picking favorites.’ From an equity standpoint, the fairest way to help them would be to tailor the heights of the boxes to allow each of them to pick the apples.
The prevalent belief among Americans seems to lean toward the former: equality. Under this banner, as a nation of (supposed) equals it is our duty to provide fair opportunities to all, and we should heed what seem to be the facts instead of overlooking them in an attempt to provide conciliatory support to one group of people.
Those who believe Smollett unconditionally, however, are pushing for the latter approach: equity. In order to repair relations after a history of mistrust towards minorities, we must begin by setting aside kindergarten notions of equality so that minority groups who truly need to be believed may gain an equal footing in the eyes of the criminal justice system and of society.
Meanwhile, in the background of these many questions and discussions, the legal proceedings surrounding Smollett were taking place. There was a growing sense among all parties involved in these debates that there would and could be a definitive answer to the moral dilemma posed by this case, which would come in the form of a verdict. By going through the due process of the American legal system, a structure which, maybe optimistically, could be seen as the paragon of distinct moral decisions, everything could be settled.
Of course, this type of cut and dry moral judgement also falls prey to the same concerns voiced by the black community about Smollett’s initial culpability. Can we trust the legal system to act as a moral authority when it has systematically been biased towards African-Americans throughout U.S. history? Are we setting up Smollett to be another Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird by leaving his fate up to the judicial system? Yet those who desired an unequivocal decision to substantiate their beliefs counted on the courts to confirm or deny their staunch opinions.
And on par with the confounding nature of the entire ordeal, the legal solution left no one satisfied. In late March came the announcement that all charges had been dropped against Jussie Smollett in exchange for community service. This verdict decided nothing. For those who still believed in the actor, it validated their claim that he had done nothing wrong, since no legal investigation and due process had found him guilty of anything. For the disbelievers, the lack of a guilty decision meant that a liar and a schemer got off scot-free.
Left with this final moral ambiguity, the story of Jussie Smollett continues to demand the consideration of tough questions. To what extent do or should we believe victims? How much does identity play a role in the privilege of belief? Which institutions have the integrity to be moral authorities?
At the end of the day, these questions may be unanswerable—after all, they make us reconsider the duties and privileges involved in being an American citizen, minority or not. However, by asking them nowwe begin to grapple with the racism, homophobia, and victim-blaming that continue to exist in the USA to this day.