By Preston Mitchum
That the United States has a long history of racism and homophobia, and an equally long history of violence against members of these communities, is not new information. And while it is encouraging to see that more people are primed to believe victims of that violence, it’s telling that people are just as likely to doubt those beliefs at the first possible moment.
Seemingly overnight, actor Jussie Smollett was transformed from a central rallying point to an outright villain for allegedly lying about being the victim of a homophobic, racist hate crime on January 29. The details quickly unraveled from there; and over the past three weeks, the CPD’s view of events has contradicted Smollett’s original story almost entirely. On January 21, Smollett said he received hate mail from the Empire set; later reports suggested he may have sent it to himself, but an FBI source told TMZ the sender’s identity is still inconclusive. The CPD identified brothers Abel and Ola Osundairo as persons of interest — whom Smollet allegedly knew through their work together on Empire — but later let them go after questioning. Just as the smoke was clearing, new evidence was presented to prove that the Osundairo brothers were paid $3,500 to train Smollett for an upcoming music video, not to attack him.
The nonstop updates and inconsistent information means that, for many people, it’s hard to know what or who to trust. And because social media disseminates updates and opinions in equal measure and in real time, the curious case against Smollett has created factions: One vocal group of people have called to immediately cancel him, without more information, for allegedly untruthful behavior that police say is tied to his own personal gain. The other is to dismiss Smollett’s behaviors even if the police’s allegations hold true. I, however, am in another camp: the gray area of supporting someone while also holding them accountable for potential wrongdoing, particularly if the only person they’ve harmed is themselves.
But the past several days have illustrated an opposing belief that Smollett not only harmed himself, but the entire Black LGBTQ+ community as proxy. That kind of thinking is often a result of centering the thoughts and opinions of those who aren’t members of our community — namely, white people and straight Black people. Centering what other communities think runs the risk of reinforcing who is in “power” and who is given the opportunity to serve as judgment, which is rarely afforded to Black queer and transgender people.
To that end, concerns have been raised that, in the wake of Smollett’s alleged fabrications, victims of hate crimes and survivors of violence, namely Black LGBTQ people, now won’t be believed if they come forward with their trauma. But ours is a society that doesn’t inherently believe survivors anyway; the 2018 hashtag #WhyIDidntReport makes clear that many survivors of violence never reported out of fear of not being believed or feeling ashamed of the assault. But when survivors of violence are not believed in our society, dominant groups maintain power, and that is rarely shifted to marginalized communities. “The only harm done to survivors in [Smollett’s] case is that publicly casting suspicion on us, even without all the facts, has become widely accepted as amusing or seen as prudent journalism,” says Dana Vivian White, a non-binary DC-based speaker and trainer. “What’s most dangerous about Smollett’s case though has been the remarkable rush to make him a joke or the convenient scapegoat of media figures who have their on bias or agenda.”
Placing the blame on one individual — especially given the fact that communities in power seem all too ready to cancel minority groups for “acting up,” yet seem entirely willing to extend unlimited chances when one of their own fumbles — is harmful and disingenuous.
Charlene Carruthers, author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, tells MTV News, “The truth is that Black LGBTQ+ folks are not safe from policing or violence at the hands of the people we know.”
She adds, “This story exists in a world where homophobic and transphobic policy and societal beliefs are pervasive. We can leverage the tragedy of this story to have critical conversations and the build systems for accountability and healing Black people need.”
To be clear, I make no apology for having believed Smollett when his story came out. I believe victims of violence generally when they come forward with their trauma. If there's an apology to be made, it is that I apologize that we have systems that constantly minimize actual violence happening to Black LGBTQ+ people. Our society does not value Black people or LGBTQ people, and certainly not people at those intersections.
Make no mistake: LGBTQ+ people of color still experience hate crimes at higher rates than white and heterosexual people. Last year, the FBI reported a 17 percent year-over-year increase in federal hate crimes across the United States, the third consecutive yearly rise. The annual report illustrated there were 7,175 bias crimes, which targeted 8,493 victims based on sexual orientation and race.
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), hate crimes against members of Black LGBTQ communites have increased, often at rates far outpacing their white counterparts. Of the total number of homicides against LGBTQ people in 2017, 60 percent of victims were Black while 23 percent of victims were white, according to the NCAVP. 2016 was the deadliest year ever for LGBTQ people since the NCAVP began tracking hate crimes; out of the 28 reported hate violence homicides, apart from the tragedy at Pulse, 22 of victims were people of color. When they do come forward to report these crimes, it’s important that they feel like people believe them, and it’s crucial that safe spaces are made available to victims and survivors.
Yet despite increasing attacks directed at members of the LGBTQ community, many victims still hesitate to report. Researchers have found LGTBQ victims often fail to report hate crimes out of fear that law enforcement will not correctly categorize the incident as a hate crime. A 2018 report published by the U.S. Department of Justice noted that "victims… may not trust law enforcement or other authorities to take them seriously." The legal definition of a hate crime is also incredibly narrow.
In Smollett’s case, he is a celebrity, so people are primed to care about his actions and alleged misdeeds. Accordingly, the CPD decided to dedicate voluminous resources, including as many as a dozen detectives, to solve his case. Why they don’t have the resources to attend to other crimes with the same fervor is unclear.
74% of 5,534 tracked homicides in Chicago never resulted in arrest. What’s more, homicides in which the victim was white more likely resulted in arrest than homicides where the victim was Black. In 2017, after several complaints of excessive force and the violation of residents’ civil rights, the Department of Justice found that Chicago police “have violated the constitutional rights of residents for years, permitting racial bias against blacks, using excessive force and shooting people who did not pose immediate threats.” We should be questioning law enforcement agencies that are quick to prosecute Black people and slow to investigate Black deaths. It doesn’t escape me how swiftly the CPD moved to determine that Smollett invented a hoax for indeterminate gain.
I am also reminded of the history of minimal outrage of white lies on Black bodies, which are more common than many of us would like to believe. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, yet white police officers who kill Black people are rarely held accountable for their actions. Moreover, Black men often receive longer sentences than their white counterparts for the same crimes, and judges are less likely to revise sentences downward for Black men than they are for white men. In short, the legal system — and one’s credibility — can be bent toward whiteness.
I don’t believe that Smollett made life harder for Black LGBTQ+ people. Life is already hard for us. From increased homelessness, to rates of suicide, to discrimination from healthcare providers, the reality of Black LGBTQ+ life is no crystal star. One person, no matter how famous, won’t tip those scales. Presiding over the story of one man in either the court of public opinion, or in an actual court of law, will not undo the deaths of the Black trans women who were murdered in 2018. It will not undo the fact that the life expectancy of trans women of color is 31. But Smollett does serve as a litmus test, and a moment to take stock in who believes survivors, who believes the marginalized, and who is entirely too ready to blame an entire community for the alleged actions of one person.
People have often asked me, “Do you honestly believe Smollett?” That question isn’t important to me. What I care about is the way, intentionally or not, Smollett helped reveal just as much, if not more, about our society than his alleged aberration did about himself.
Preston Mitchum is a Black queer writer, activist, and legal/policy analyst. He is on the Board of Directors of the Collective Action for Safe Spaces and resides in Washington, DC. Find out more at prestonmitchum.com.
We can all take action to stop racism and homophobia. To learn more about what you can do about anti-LGBTQ+ and racial bias, head to lookdifferent.org.