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Est. April 5, 2002
February 28, 2019 - Issue 778

Could Smollet’s Hate Crime
Affect Public Perception
Hate Crimes?

"All reports of hate crimes should be taken seriously.
One hoax is no excuse for law enforcement not to do
their job and see each case as a separate incident
irrespective of the court of opinion."

Fox TV drama “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett plays on the show the gay character Jamal Lyon. In real life, Smollett is an African American gay male. Smollett has been charged with concocting an elaborate racist and homophobic assault against himself. Smollett’s fan base, needless to say, is flummoxed. So, too, are many Americans trying to push through this deeply polarized moment.

The big question now is how Smollett’s case will affect public perception of hate crimes, especially impacting people of color and LGBTQ communities?

“Jussie has essentially set back the progression of both black folk and the LGBTQ community all while playing right into the hands of MAGA,” one online comment stated.

First hearing the story, Smollett had a groundswell of support. Smollett said he was assaulted by two men outside of Subway in the wee hours of the morning who shouted “This is MAGA country” and they put a noose around his neck. The investigation has disclosed the following: Smollett knew the two men who are Nigerian-Americans, one has appeared on the show Empire, the rope to make the noose was bought at a nearby hardware store, and the bruises on his face and body were self-inflicted, and Smollett paid the two men $3,500 to attack him. However, new evidence reveals that Smollett’s payment according to what he wrote on the memo line of the check was for Smollett is now an unreliable narrator of his attack who intentionally has made himself a fictitious victim. I ‘ve been asking myself the same question as Chicago Chief police, Eddie Johnson asked during his press conference, bringing the public up-to-date on Smollett’s case: “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make a false accusation?”

Smollett’s hoax dredges up the country’s horrors of lynching and gay bashing. For me, three hate crime incidents came to my mind immediately as an African American lesbian. Emmett Till, James Byrd, and Matthew Shepard.

Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi in 1955 and James Byrd in Jasper, Texas in 1998. Byrd’s killing was called a “lynching -by- dragging.” Matthew Shepard was gay- bashed to death in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. I give thanks to President Obama signing into law in 2009 the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act.

Nonetheless, Smollett is innocent in the eyes of many African Americans- straight and LGBTQ.

"I can’t blindly believe Chicago PD. The department that covered up shooting Laquan McDonald over a dozen times? That operated an off-site torture facility?” “Selma” film director Ava DuVernay wrote in a tweet. “That one? I’ll wait. Whatever the outcome, this won’t stop me from believing others. It can’t.”

Despite the many inconsistencies and gaping holes in Smollett’s story, there are communities of people of color in urban cities that have every reason not to trust the police findings, especially the Chicago PD, a city still recovering from the wounds of the coverup shooting for Laquan McDonald. In 2014, McDonald, 17, was fatally shot sixteen times by white Chicago police Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke reported his life was in danger because McDonald was packing a small knife with a blade. Van Dyke’s report was backed up by his fellow officers. However, when the police dash-cam video was released of the shooting, McDonald was walking away when shot.

These sort of incidents with law enforcement has a long, troubling history with African American and Latino communities. For example, in 1989, I was pastoring a church in NYC during the Central Park Five incident which became a media sensation. Five African American and Latino teenagers from Harlem were convicted of raping a white woman while she was jogging Central Park. The white woman was a Wellesley colleague who then worked at a Wall Street investment bank, and the mother of one of the accused boys was one of my parishioners.

During the trial, then citizen Donald Trump placed full-page ads in the four NYC dailies advocating for the return of the death penalty. In 2002, an investigation found that DNA evidence pointed to the actual rapist who confessed to the crime. The teenagers who aged into young men were incarcerated for a crime they didn’t do spent between six and thirteen years in jail.

In many of these communities, Smollett is perceived to be innocent, and his chances of getting a fair trial are not possible. Smollett will be seen as another victim heading toward the country’s industrial prison complex which disproportionately incarcerates black and brown men of color.

Smollett’s hate crime will regrettably affect public perception of hate crimes but shouldn’t. However, there has been an uptick of bias-related incidents and hate crimes since Trump has taken office. We have seen a rash of white people calling the cops on blacks, synagogues defaced, and 11 worshippers killed in Pittsburgh. Smollett’s hoax no doubt has tapped into our fears about our safety and our concerns of a country so polarized that we are imploding.

However, all reports of hate crimes should be taken seriously. One hoax is no excuse for law enforcement not to do their job and see each case as a separate incident irrespective of the court of opinion.

The belief that Smollett’s actions make it bad for people of color and LGBTQs to come forth in the future with their reports of hate crimes buys too easily into the notion that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Such a belief, in and of itself, is bias, suggesting people of color and LGBTQs are a monolith, and all perpetrate hoaxes.

When whites call cops on black people for “being black,” each case is handled individually, although the police might have suspicion for the real nature of the call.

In the court of opinion, Smollett is guilty. However, if in the court of law, Smollett is found guilty, he does not fully grasp the magnitude of both his lie and crime. His actions dishonor black activist and journalist Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign that took afoot in the 1890s. This year will be the eightieth anniversary of Billy Holiday ’s recording of “Strange Fruit,” a protest song against lynching. And, just last year, the National Lynching Memorial opened to remember and honor the lives of men and women who were victims. Sadly, in 2019, the Senate is still trying to pass legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime.

Smollett may well have suckered us all. However, to not take each report of a hate crime seriously, because of his fraudulent actions, would be a crime, too. Editorial Board member and Columnist, The Reverend Monroe is an ordained minister, motivational speaker and she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Rev. Monroe does a weekly Monday segment, “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM), on Boston Public Radio and a weekly Friday segment “The Take” on New England Channel NEWS (NECN). She’s a Huffington Post blogger and a syndicated religion columnist. Her columns appear in cities across the country and in the U.K, and Canada. Also she writes a  column in the Boston home LGBTQ newspaper Baywindows and Cambridge Chronicle. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Rev. Monroe graduated from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church in New Jersey before coming to Harvard Divinity School to do her doctorate. She has received the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching several times while being the head teaching fellow of the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard who is the author of the best seller, THE GOOD BOOK. She appears in the film For the Bible Tells Me So and was profiled in the Gay Pride episode of In the Life, an Emmy-nominated segment. Monroe’s  coming out story is  profiled in “CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America" and in "Youth in Crisis." In 1997 Boston Magazine cited her as one of Boston's 50 Most Intriguing Women, and was profiled twice in the Boston Globe, In the Living Arts and The Spiritual Life sections for her LGBT activism. Her papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College's research library on the history of women in America. Her website is  Contact the Rev. Monroe and BC. 




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Executive Editor:
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