Earlier this month, I wrote a column for The Temple News arguing the alleged hate crime against Jussie Smollett was emblematic of how queer people of color, specifically queer Black people, are statistically more likely to be attacked in hate crimes, despite the fact that most people separate the two halves of their identities.
Since then, the Chicago Police Department has claimed that Smollett faked his own hate crime as a “publicity stunt;” the “Empire” actor has been charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report.
During the past few weeks, many have debated whether Smollett falsified his report, and this has in some ways, changed my perception of him as a person.
In my first column, I interviewed Layah Taylor, a freshman English major and lesbian Black woman who is involved in social justice organizations on Main Campus. In light of recent developments, Taylor perception of Smollet has changed, too.
“Because I’m a person of color, I’d like to believe that it’s not fake, but after all of this evidence and everything, I feel like the allegations do have some truth to them, which honestly saddens me because people, especially conservatives and those leaning to the right, are going to use this to delegitimize reports of hate crimes against queer people of color,” Taylor said.
Personally, I find it difficult to discern the validity of Smollett’s report. But regardless of Smollett’s innocence or guilt, I stand by the arguments in my initial column. Smollett’s hate crime — whether legitimate or fabricated — is demonstrative of actual, real threats that face queer people of color in our country.
Sixty percent of homicide victims in 2017 were Black, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. This figure is often overlooked during conversations about the legitimacy of Smollett’s alleged crime. This gives social media users the freedom to dismiss the validity of similar hate crimes when dismissing Smollett’s.
Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren did exactly that on Feb. 24, when the host on Fox News’ streaming service tweeted “And Libs wonder why we don’t believe their BS stories… #JussieLied.”
People shouldn’t suggest the possible falsification of one hate crime is a legitimate reason to discredit queer people of color who have experienced hate crimes.
It’s disrespectful to the thousands of LGBTQ people of color injured by the compounded biases of homophobia and racism, causing them to be twice as likely to be victims of a hate crime than the general population, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
David Mindich, the chair of the journalism department, has extensively studied the role of race and racial representation in media throughout history. He said Lahren’s comments are unacceptable and disappointing.
“The extent to which bigots, or apologists for bigots, use a case like this to discredit all victims of hate crimes is troubling because the political right in general, the far right in particular, routinely discounts the threats to marginalized, and using this case as a reason to doubt victims is troubling,” Mindich said.
Smollett’s hate crime, real or not, shed light on a very substantial issue.
So, regardless of the validity of Smollett’s story, we need to cast aside our judgments of him as we discuss hate crimes, especially those against LGBTQ people of color.
“Now [Black queer people] will have to face even more skepticism and doubt, even when it isn’t warranted,” Journalist Jeremy Helligar wrote in Variety. “In the most extreme sense, it seems like [Smollett’s] false report has given permission for copycat attacks against other gay, Black men.”
NBC News’ Janell Ross similarly argued that the possibility of Smollett’s story being a hoax “could influence the way officials respond to reports and could fuel long-running white nationalist claims that all hate crimes are hoaxes designed to batter white America.”
I agree. I want to believe Jussie Smollett. Part of me looks at Chicago Police as an organization with a racist history. Another part of me sees the 17 percent increase in hate crimes and 3 percent increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in 2017, and another part of me is willing to believe victims immediately in a society that casts judgment on them.
The Chicago Police Department has a history of systemic racism that makes me question its legitimacy in this whole controversy. A 2016 report by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force found 72 percent of non-arrest traffic stops in summer 2014 were Black people. From 2008-15, 74 percent of police shooting victims were Black, and 75 percent of people police tried to tase from 2012-15 were Black residents, despite their making up only about one-third of the population.
This, on top of the fatal shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald by a Chicago Police officer, makes me question the claims.
“The Chicago Police Department and other police departments that have proven to be perpetrators of systemic racial bias should be subjected to a level of skepticism and doubt by the public,” Mindich said. “It doesn’t mean that their evidence is wrong or that their conclusions are wrong, but it does cause the public and the press to be extra skeptical of their claims.”
I stand by the fact that we need to support victims of hate crimes, especially queer people of color who will likely face doubt in the wake of this controversy.
Skepticism about one man’s story is justified and understandable. Complete dismissal of thousands of stories, on the other hand, is dangerous, unacceptable and morally wrong.