Chicago Police Department officials say that “Empire” star Jussie Smollett’s claim of being the victim of a violent racial and homophobic attack in their city was a hoax. Eddie Johnson, the department’s superintendent and an African-American man, said he was especially frustrated that another African-American man would lie about having a noose placed around his neck.
I also found this repulsive, particularly given the research and consulting my colleagues and I do at the USC Race and Equity Center. I know from our work how hard it is for people who encounter harassment and assault to come forward: They are placed at risk of being taken less seriously when anyone, let alone a famous person, makes up a highly publicized fake story. If Smollett really did this, that will significantly threaten the credibility of our work. Lying about an attack could easily weaken the believability of the terrible experiences that people with marginalized identities disclose in surveys and interviews with us.
Our center helps executives in corporations, law firms, colleges and universities and other organizations understand how people across different racial and ethnic groups differently experience those environments. Our work sometimes entails conducting several dozen racially homogeneous focus group interviews over three or four days with people of color and their white counterparts. We also interview women and LGBT people about their encounters with sexism, homophobia and transphobia. I have heard hundreds of horrifying stories from people who have experienced varying degrees of mistreatment and violence on their campuses and at their jobs. For example, being called the n-word or some other racially derogatory term by a white classmate or co-worker is a disgracefully common experience, one we hear about on just about every campus and at a surprising number of companies.
I do not believe these people were lying. I have no reason to think they made up outrageous stories to shock or entertain me, to garner attention and sympathy or to increase their salaries. They tell me they want justice and accountability, the dismantling of systems that repeatedly reproduce disadvantage and structural inequities and greater protection for their humanity. They want less violence.
Statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a respected civil rights organization that systematically tracks racial violence in communities across America, show a 30 percent increase in hate crimes over the past four years. Their data also show that white supremacist groups increased by 7 percent in 2018. There is no evidence that these numbers are inflated. I do not believe most people who report hate crimes are lying. Some do not live to tell the stories of violence they endured. Take, for instance, transgender people, many of whom are killed because of their gender identity and expression. A report from the Human Rights Campaign shows that transgender women of color are murdered at especially high rates. They certainly do not orchestrate their own deaths. The reality of their vulnerability is undeniable, despite any skepticism that Smollett’s allegedly false claims might engender among people looking for an excuse not to believe victims and survivors.
Shortly after Smollett's arrest, President Donald Trump mentioned him in a tweet. I fully expect that Trump and others will continue to point to this situation to discredit people who report experiences with racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Trump has already shown a pattern of attempting to discredit women who have come forth to report sexual harassment and gender violence. This latest incident will give Trump and others like him ammunition to prove their doubts of future cases are justified. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, only 40 percent of sexual assaults that occurred in 2017 were reported to the police, a 30 percent increase over the prior year. An alarming number of participants in my center's campus and workplace climate studies disclose that they had not previously reported bad experiences because they feared being accused of lying. They also worried about damaging their reputations, losing their jobs and investing emotion into faulty investigations that yield no confirmation of their charges.
Despite the bizarre and disgusting mess that Smollett created for himself, we all must take seriously the data on hate crimes and other acts of racial violence, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The Chicago Police Department says it has evidence that one outrageously selfish celebrity manufactured a hoax that wasted their resources and attracted lots of attention in the news media. But people who actually experience assault, harassment and differential treatment ought not suffer the consequences of this actor's alleged dishonesty.
Smollett recklessly put millions of Americans at risk of having their trauma disregarded. It is possible that even fewer victims who survive hate crimes and other acts of violence will feel comfortable coming forward to report these experiences to campus administrators, managers, elected officials and police officers because they will fear disbelief even more. The risk of being accused of lying is one reason lots of women remain silent about sexual harassment and sexual assault at their jobs. False reports are infrequent, but when they happen, women’s pursuits of justice and accountability are undermined. Untrue stories also place a more significant burden on people of color and LGBT people to prove that they were attacked or otherwise harmed. This was their reality long before Smollett allegedly lied. He made it worse for them.
Shaun R. Harper is a professor and executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California. His 12 books include “Scandals in College Sports.” Originally published in The Washington Post.
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