In a Chicago courtroom last week, Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty to 16 felony counts of lying to authorities. His defense strategy is not yet known, but perhaps his lawyers will say Smollett picked the wrong stage. To succeed, a hate crime hoax needs a place where people expect outbursts of bigotry. An upscale Chicago neighborhood at 2 a.m. is all wrong. Late-night workers in the nearby NBC Tower aren’t out roaming in MAGA hats, bleach bottles and hemp nooses at the ready. To sell that story, you need a plausible setting—say, a woke college campus.
Colleges provide the ideal venue for phony hate crimes. In May 1990, after black radicals firebombed the president’s office at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, someone spray-painted racist graffiti inside the Malcolm X House. Finding a white racist at Wesleyan would be like finding a roast pig at a vegan restaurant. But the college was perfectly ready to credit the possibility of white racists lurking undetected in the shadows clutching cans of spray-paint. It was fear of this hidden menace that made the hoax believable to the community.
The same psychology was at work in 1997 at Duke University when someone hung a black baby doll from a tree. Two black students eventually confessed they staged the hoax “to move the masses.” They wanted Duke to meet the Black Student Alliance’s demands.
In 2013 Oberlin College was swept by anti-black and anti-gay graffiti. Police apprehended the culprits—two progressive white students who were trying to stir up fellow students. The twist in this case is that the college president, Marvin Krislov, let the campus hysteria escalate to raise awareness.
Jussie Smollet needed a President Krislov, but got stuck with Eddie Johnson, the no-nonsense Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, who called the hoax a “slap in the face” to everyone in Chicago.
Higher education has lots of people like Krislov and hardly any like Johnson. The New York Times says that “fake hate crime reports are uncommon,” and that less than one percent of reports are “found to be false.” That’s probably because most of the false reports aren’t challenged. They are instead embraced by colleges as revealing prejudices deeply hidden beneath the surface of the community.
Campus fake crimes in which the culprits have actually been caught now number in the hundreds. A racist graffiti campaign at Goucher College in Maryland last fall turned out to be the work of a black student. So too a campaign of racist messages at Drake University in Des Moines, and a racist message on a student’s dorm door at Kansas State. Last October a female Ohio State student was targeted with threatening anti-gay letters. Police traced the letter back to the girl herself. A rape that never happened at the University of Virginia became a 2014 cover story on Rolling Stone Magazine.
What lies behind this avalanche of campus hoaxes? The pattern was set decades before Trump was elected. The root is ideology. Our colleges teach that America is a society permeated by bigotry. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and hatred of immigrants are presented as the core of who we are. In truth such bias is rare—so rare that colleges cling to any story, no matter how crazy, that seems to support the story.
Students brought up to believe the lie that America is “systemically oppressive” are primed to accept the lies. When some student scrawls racist messages, pens a threatening anti-gay letter, hangs a noose on campus, or reports an encounter with a taunting bigot, the college community springs to action, no questions asked. “Bias Emergency Response Teams” (BERTS) suddenly feel justified. Diversity deans preen. And every campus grievance group surges with righteous indignation. The outside experts are called to help students cope with their “fears.” And the college president grandstands as the champion of rooting out the hidden hate mongers.
Jussie: Right script, wrong locale.