Even before “Empire” star Jussie Smollett was criminally charged for allegedly making a false report that he was the victim of a violent hate crime, the hand-wringing over the damage to the credibility of hate-crime victims had already begun: Observers worried that the case could “cause irreparable damage to the communities most affected,” make it “even harder” for genuine victims to speak up and embolden “those who are inclined to dismiss prejudice in America as a manufactured crisis.” But anyone who’s looking to dismiss prejudice or play down the targeting of black people in the LGBT community doesn’t need Smollett.
To be clear: If his story is proved to be a hoax, there’s no justification. (On Thursday, Smollett turned himself in and was released on $100,000 bail.) I’m black and gay, and I was saddened when I heard the initial reports that Smollett said he was attacked. But if he made it all up, I wouldn’t defend him for it. Black LGBT hate-crime victims, though, have always struggled to be believed. To suggest that their credibility turns on whether his story is fabricated is its own kind of hoax.
When I was 21, my best friend, also black and gay, was assaulted outside his home by two men. He was kicked, punched and had his face pounded into the pavement. Passersby saw him and did nothing to stop it or come to his aid. Afterward, he declined to call the police. When I asked why not, he said: Do I look like Matthew Shepard to you? No one’s going to do a documentary on another black f----- getting beat up. My friend’s story isn’t unique. Not even close.
As the Advocate reported last year, transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992. Her death was initially classified as a suicide, but after LGBT activists investigated further, her cause of death was reclassified as “undetermined.”
A New York man was convicted of manslaughter in 2016 for the 2013 killing of transgender woman Islan Nettles. According to the New York Times, the killer told police he had “flown into ‘a blind fury’” after being taunted by others for talking to a trans woman, but the district attorney declined to charge a hate crime.
In 2012, Mother Jones reported on the case of Crishaun “CeCe” McDonald, who was walking with several people past a group of people at a bar who called her and her friends “n-----s” and “f-----s” before one of the bar patrons hit her in the face with a glass, causing a gash that required stitches. When McDonald was followed by one of the men coming after her group, she turned and confronted him with a pair of scissors that she had pulled from her purse, and he was stabbed and killed. She was defending herself — standing her ground, some would say — but was arrested and later convicted of manslaughter.
“The number of hate crime incidents reported to the FBI increased about 17 percent in 2017,” compared to 2016, according to an FBI report. “According to the report, the most common bias categories in single-bias incidents were race/ethnicity/ancestry (59.6) percent, religion (20.6 percent), and sexual orientation (15.8 percent). In addition to the 7,106 single-bias incidents reported last year, there were also 69 multiple-bias hate crimes reported.”
A 2018 report by California State University at San Bernardino, points out that “since federal record keeping began, race was the most common category, constituting 57 percent of all hate crimes, with African-Americans being the single most targeted group at 28.4 percent” and “the next most frequent targets involved sexual orientation at 17.6 percent.”
The Human Rights Campaign website states: “According to a 2014 report on hate violence against LGBT and HIV-affected communities, Black survivors of hate violence were 1.3 times more likely to experience police violence than their non-Black counterparts. Black survivors were also twice as likely to experience any physical violence, twice as likely to experience discrimination and 1.4 times more likely to experience threats and intimidation during acts of hate violence. Additionally, Black transgender women face the highest levels of fatal violence within the LGBT community and are less likely to turn to police for help for fear of revictimization by law enforcement personnel.”
And whether LGBT or not, no one should be surprised that there’s skepticism about law enforcement within the black community. Officers from the Chicago Police Department — the primary agency involved in the Smollett investigation — were just acquitted in January of charges that they tried to cover up the 2014 murder of African American teenager Laquan McDonald by fellow officer Jason Van Dyke, even though those officers were reported to have huddled with Van Dyke right after the killing to sync their stories, all using the same phrase to describe the victim “swinging” a knife, at best a misleading description of what anyone could see for themselves in the later released dash-cam video.
Then there are the well-known stories of accusations leveled at African Americans that were later found to have been made up: In 1994, for instance, Susan Smith killed her two small children by leaving them in her car and letting the car roll into a South Carolina lake — but she initially told police that a black man had taken her car with the children still inside it. A 2017 report noted that “As of October 15, 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations listed 1,900 defendants who were convicted of crimes and later exonerated because they were innocent; 47% of them were African Americans, three times their rate in the population.” But we rarely say that those who wrongly accuse black people damage the overall credibility of real crime victims.
And there are the well-known instances of people who’ve been given the benefit of the doubt in circumstances where African Americans might not be: Think of George Zimmerman, an armed adult who followed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin down a dark street in Florida and was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter after claiming he had killed the teenager in self-defense after a scuffle.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, of course. The point isn’t that we should start believing people less if they’re not black or LGBT. I don’t know what happened to Smollett and don’t excuse any lies he may have told. If he lied, he should be prosecuted. But part of the insidiousness of racism in our society is that, too often, black and LGBT people aren’t believed in instances where others are, and then, somehow, the hard-to-believe story of one gay black person is used as an explanation of why that dichotomy persists. Pointing to Smollett as the reason hate-crime victims, particularly LGBT African Americans, will now be “harder to hear” distracts us from the reality: Not enough of us try to hear them in the first place.
This article has been updated.