Real damage from crying wolf

Smollett’s discredited claim gives racists a reprieve

Actor Jussie Smollett has made headlines the past few weeks, ever since he told Chicago police—and the public—he’d been the target of a hate crime he connected to supporters of the president. He now stands disgraced, seemingly discredited, charged with a felony for allegedly filing a false report to law enforcement. If convicted, he could spend three years in prison.

The police believe Smollett arranged the incident of Jan. 29, during which he alleges two masked men assaulted him while yelling racial and homophobic slurs, placed a noose around his neck and fled. His recall of them shouting “This is MAGA country!” laid blame at the White House, whose inhabitant continues to rally his supporters with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

The most obvious question is why he would fake an attack. Smollett, in statements through his lawyers and to his Empire cast, maintained his innocence of the charge. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who also is black, said Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” The justice system should yield an answer.

As broadcasters, columnists and public figures grapple with their responses to Smollett—first as victim, then accused—we’re more concerned about the reaction of folks he’s let off the hook.

Smollett’s claim, debunked in the eyes of many, is but an extreme version of actual behavior occurring regularly in Trump’s America. The president has empowered people who once hid behind sheets and keyboards to express their animosity publicly.

Jussie Smollett didn’t need to produce a video. YouTube has plenty that show “This is MAGA country!”-type intolerance. There’s a woman at a Bay Area Starbuck’s decrying patrons at a neighboring table for speaking “Oriental”; a man haranguing a woman in a Florida park for wearing a shirt with Puerto Rico’s flag; a woman in Southern California berating a Latino man, working in a yard with his mother, with taunts such as “even the president of the United States says you’re a rapist!”; and so on.

Not every Republican is racist. That stereotype is as bad as the prejudice we’re decrying. Our point: No one should dismiss the specter of discrimination in light of one questionable claim.