As skeptics noted virtually from the outset, pretty much every element of Smollett's story was preposterous. Nothing about it passed the smell test, from the assailants toting a noose and bleach through the subzero streets of Chicago at 2:00 AM to the claim that they yelled "This is MAGA country!" in a city that went 83 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
And yet, preposterous as it was, some of the most prominent progressives in US politics — including several who at the time were running for president — lined up to denounce the thugs who had supposedly ambushed Smollett. Many of them unquestioningly portrayed the attack as an illustration of the kind of hateful bigotry that is endemic in America.
• Joe Biden: " What happened today to Jussie Smollett must never be tolerated in this country. We must stand up and demand that we no longer give this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts. We are with you, Jussie."
• Kamala Harris: "Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I'm praying for his quick recovery. This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate."
• Bernie Sanders: "The racist and homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett is a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country. We must come together to eradicate all forms of bigotry and violence."
• Cory Booker: " The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching. I'm glad he's safe. To those in Congress who don't feel the urgency to pass our Anti-Lynching bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime â€“ I urge you to pay attention."
• Pete Buttigieg: "While the struggle for basic hate crime legislation continues here in Indiana, this horrible attack calls all Americans to stand against hatred and violence in all its forms."
• Tom Perez: "Let's call it what it is: A vicious hate crime. My heart goes out to Jussie's family — all of us at the DNC are praying for his full recovery."
• Elizabeth Warren: "Racism, homophobia & all forms of bigotry & hate have no place in this country. The fight for equality isn't over â€“ no one should have to live in fear of being beaten on the street because of who they are."
• Maxine Waters: "Ju ssie is my friend — a very talented & beautiful human being. It is so hurtful that homophobic haters would dare hurt someone so loving and giving. I'm dedicated to finding the culprits and bringing them to justice. Jussie did not deserve to be harmed by anyone!"
Beyond the politicians, an equally long list of media figures and entertainment celebrities, from Reese Witherspoon to George Takei to Joy-Ann Reid, took Smollett's story at face value and publicly expressed support for him. And as The Hill's media reporter Joe Concha later noted, many newsrooms were so quick to publicize Smollett's claim and its fallout that they lost sight of basic journalistic practice:
"Celebrities, lawmakers rally behind Jussie Smollett in wake of brutal attack" — ABC News
"Analysis: The Jussie Smollett attack highlights the hate black gay Americans face" — The Washington Post
"'Empire' star Jussie Smollett attacked in possible hate crime" — CNN
"Empire star Jussie Smollett attacked in Chicago by men hurling homophobic and racial slurs" — NBC News
"Celebrities rally behind Jussie Smollett after brutal attack in Chicago" — Buzzfeed
"Many very high-profile incidents of 'racial hate' have unraveled similarly in recent years," writes Wilfred Reilly, a political scientist at Kentucky State University and the author of Hate Crime Hoax , published in 2019.
Plenty of other incidents the caused a media storm can be added to that roster: the student who falsely accused Smith of racially profiling her. The eruption of racist graffiti at Oberlin College that turned out to be the handiwork of two progressive students. The Black woman in Texas who made up a story about being sexually assaulted by a white state trooper. Inventing hate crimes where none occurred is all too common an occurrence.
Hate-crime hoaxers have different motives. Sometimes their intentions are tawdry or pathetic — to extract money or to gain personal attention. At others times, writes Reilly , a Black scholar who teaches at a historically black university, perpetrators claim they staged incidents "to call attention to real incidents of racist violence." But if acts of violent racism are indeed a widespread problem, why the need for deception? In truth, Reilly explains,
In this context, what hate hoaxers actually do is worsen generally good race relations, and distract attention from real problems.
Racism and bigotry really do exist, of course. Every society has lowlifes and bullies. But by and large, this is not a nation that conspires to keep minorities — racial or otherwise — down, let alone to terrorize or humiliate them. Once upon a time, the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, James Byrd, and the members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., would have likely gone free. In today's America, they are convicted of murder and sentenced to very long prison terms — or to death.
It is precisely because America is no longer steeped in the racist oppression of the past that those who insist it is have too often resorted to fakery. And when they do, what is the result? Great outpourings of sympathy, solidarity, and outrage. The very reaction they elicit is evidence that the nation they live in is not an unreconstructed racist hellscape filled — as Bernie Sanders tweeted — with " surging hostility toward minorities around the country."
To repeat, hate crimes are real. But by now we should know not to take accusations of such crimes at face value unless they are accompanied by concrete evidence or ample eyewitness testimony. Because hate-crime hoaxes are real too, and some people are much too eager to believe them.