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Opinion

Why Racial Hoaxes Are So Dangerous

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Posted: Feb 22, 2019 12:01 AM
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Why Racial Hoaxes Are So Dangerous

Jussie Smollett has now been charged with filing a false police report in an alleged hate crime incident that it appears Smollett orchestrated on himself. The actor, according to the head of the Chicago Police Department, was apparently trying to gain publicity by portraying himself as a victim of bigotry, which he thought would help him in salary negotiations with the Fox show "Empire," on which he plays musician Jamal Lyon. The finale to this episode of celebrity misbehavior has shocked many in the African-American community, as well it should. "Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?" Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson asked. "How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?" But it should concern all of us, not just African-Americans when victimization is perceived to be a route to greater fame and fortune. And the timing of this egregious hoax couldn't be worse, as it played out against the arrest of a white nationalist who officials say really did intend to kill and maim in the name of racial hatred.

On Tuesday, federal officials filed a motion to detain Christopher Paul Hasson, who was charged with plotting domestic terrorism, among other offenses. Hasson is a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, stationed in Washington, D.C., and spent five years in the Marines and two years in the Army National Guard. Offered in evidence at the hearing seeking Hasson's detention was a letter he had allegedly written to friends laying out his intent: "Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch. For some, no amount of blood will be enough. They will die as will the traitors who actively work toward our demise. Looking to Russia with hopeful eyes or any land that despises the west's liberalism. Excluding of course the Muslim scum." Hasson had accumulated an arsenal of weapons and drugs, the latter of which he used in emulating his hero, Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in two attacks in Norway in 2011, including shooting 69 participants at a left-wing youth camp. Breivik's manifesto encouraged those who would engage in terrorist acts to fortify themselves with steroids and narcotics to give them the necessary physical strength and will to carry out their acts.

Hate crimes are up nationally, with the FBI reporting in 2017, the last year for which there are data, that hate crimes had increased by 17 percent over the previous year, with more than 7,000 incidents, including 60 percent against individuals. But Smollett just gave those who would diminish such statistics a perfect excuse for doing so. False allegations -- such as the allegation that racially motivated lacrosse players at Duke University sexually assaulted a woman in 2006 and the rape hoax aimed at a fraternity at the University of Virginia in 2014, made famous in a Rolling Stone article -- create an atmosphere where skepticism about real hate crimes thrives. But the perpetrators of these hoaxes rarely face justice. The woman who accused the Duke lacrosse players was never charged; she went on to be found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of her boyfriend in 2013. The woman who made up the story about being raped at UVA never faced the consequences of her actions, either, though Rolling Stone settled multimillion-dollar lawsuits filed by those defamed by its false reporting.

Smollett should not get off easy. He should face jail time for concocting this horrible story; wasting resources, time and money of the Chicago Police Department; and abusing the trust of those who believed him. Meanwhile, Smollett's story should not deflect attention from a real problem that exists: white nationalists who seek to sow racial hatred and kill in the name of a hateful ideology. There are real monsters out there, but making up fictitious ones to gain attention makes it harder to convince people they exist.