The Smollett case: A combustible element in America’s five-alarm hate blaze

By Janell Ross

Fires require oxygen, combustion and fuel to burn.

When Chicago police charged Jussie Smollett — a black and gay actor, who reported he had been attacked by two white men with a rope, shouting homophobic and racist slurs — with filing a false police report this week, the news landed like a lighted match in a well-stocked tinderbox.

Smollett has denied wrongdoing. But after recent months filled with acts of public bigotry and indifference caught on tape and insensitivity packaged as consumer goods, the entire Smollett affair has stoked the fire inside America’s now constant outrage machine. And it’s spread the flames of discord that some experts warn are engulfing reason and destroying ideological barriers between the middle and the extreme.

Smollett’s alleged fabrication “is the worst possible thing at the worst possible time,” said Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

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The possibility that Smollett just took America and, in particular, black and/or gay Americans, inside a fantasy curated from multiple real events, hate crimes and murders during the Trump era could discourage victims of hate crime from coming forward, for fear they won’t be believed, experts say. It could influence the way that officials respond to reports and could fuel long-running white nationalist claims that all hate crimes are hoaxes designed to batter white America. And it could intensify some of the ugliest features of America’s obsession with scandal, celebrity and insta-outrage, just when thought deeper than a puddle is most needed.

“Listen, people do make up stories,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, who directs the University of Florida Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and wrote a book examining scandals and crimes involving racial hoaxes.

“They do, on occasion, make up all kinds of crime,” continued Russell-Brown, “but no one ever says that because some fires turn out to be arsons no one should respond, write about, look closely at business fires. Just because some stories are not true, they should not drown out every fact, every bit of solid research, every tragic and real experience of hate crime.”

An American tradition

Long before Smollett told “Good Morning America” viewers he’d been targeted by what he believed to be racist and homophobic Trump supporters armed with a noosed-up rope and bleach, hate crimes have marked major moments in the nation’s history. The 16th Street Church bombing, attempted attacks on Ruby Bridges while trying to walk into an integrated public school and the brutal murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard rank among the things those outside the United States know about the country.

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