the law

Jussie Smollett and the Court of Public Opinion

Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I came into the Trump years emotionally prepared for a lot of horrors, but the one that surprises me the most is the unmitigated, demoralizing selfishness of it all. I braced myself for bold grift, for xenophobia, and for the very real possibility of the racial animus that powered the 2016 election spilling out into real-world violence. I watched stories about all three with great concern. I could not prepare for the nagging sense that certain groups that ought to be sticking these strange years out together are getting tired of having to look out for each other, that the free-for-all mentality disseminating from authority figures writing policy that centers themselves and their supporters can have poisoned the times so thoroughly that even people who know better than to support divisive agendas start to turn on each other. I couldn’t believe how successful ICE was in getting people in the hip-hop community to question 21 Savage’s right to call himself an American, how easily Kevin Hart was able to recast legitimate pushback about disappointing remarks he’s made over the years as an instance of feral mob mentality, how every time I so much as point out for the sake of conversation that someone famous said something foolish, people show up beating a drum about sensitivity and “cancel culture.” The last two years have been a battle — at the ballot box, on the internet, in the streets, and inside our own heads — for control of the American psyche.

We live in an era where simple news stories become matters of cultural significance through sheer force of in-fighting, where celebrities and public figures are lifted up as totems of ideology and identity, and a simple conversation about current events can feel like a tug-of-war between teams trying to read into the symbolism beneath each other’s words, whether it exists or not. People see a video clip or a headline or a pull quote or a screenshot of a piece of writing and often don’t bother to crane their necks to see what the larger conversation is. Argue for 60 seconds, and it becomes the enduring story of a 30-minute interview. Context is becoming tribal. It’s a matter of who you’re understood to be at a glance and where the person speaking to you believes that they stand in relation to your position. Your stats matter as much as your words do. Everything I say gets filtered through the fact that I’m a gay black dude who works in media. If you hate those things, you might hate me sight unseen, whether I’ve earned it or not.

For these reasons and more, I’ve been trying to watch what I say about the last month of developments revolving around Empire’s Jussie Smollett. A month ago, the actor and singer’s claim to have been attacked in Chicago by unidentified men spewing racist, homophobic rhetoric felt like a cause to rally behind, as a manifestation of several palpable Trump-era fears. I worry, because of news reports of police being called on innocent people of color going about their natural business in public and because of the spike in hate crimes across the country, about being a target when I pass through affluent and developing neighborhoods in my city.

As press and activists processed Smollett’s story, another spot of concern arose: The sense that straight allies have trouble grasping the concept of intersectionality, because they aren’t all privy to the special stresses of living as a minority group within a minority group. An early rush to claim Smollett as a victim of racism while waving off the matter of his sexuality played into several years of skirmishes about how straight allies deal with — or rather, how they often can’t be bothered to deal with — instances of hate speech against the LGBTQ community beyond a two-day news cycle. Everybody “cares,” but everybody keeps on patronizing homophobic artists and businesses.

Ever since the evidence presented by the Chicago Police Department and local reporters started to suggest that Smollett was actually preying on our compounded fears and differences, not just suffering because of them, I’ve been upset. The degree of upset reserved for people who wrong me personally. The plot is not sound, wise, or clever. The motive seems ridiculous. The stooges were paid a pittance for what they were risking, aiding a lie being told to law enforcement and network television. The paper trail everyone left is ludicrous. More frustrating is what’s at stake. People don’t easily believe victims of assault. Judiciary presumption of innocence places the burden of proof on the accuser. The court of opinion turns cases into public referendums on the goodness of the victim. Fear is still treated as a legitimate catalyst for deadly force. Gay and trans panic defenses in most states continue to allow heterosexual perps to claim temporary insanity for violence against LGBTQ victims. Staging a sham hate crime in an era where people don’t believe the real ones is unforgivable.

I won’t defend Jussie anymore. I won’t apologize for him either. I did what I was supposed to: I erred on the side of caution and listened to someone who said something bad happened to them. I followed the investigation as it unraveled, confusing and contradictory as the updates could be over the last three weeks. Smollett should right whatever wrong he’s responsible for, although I couldn’t begin to say what that would look like, because this thing put a lot of wind in the sails of people who would like nothing more than to suggest black men, gay men, and/or black gay men love to play victim. I wish friends and colleagues didn’t find this stuff so funny. I wish I didn’t spend the early days of this case concerned about my safety and the latter days getting mobbed by angry people searching for the justice in it. I’m looking for it too. I hope we all find answers. I hope the gentleman from Empire finds help and atonement.

This story is exceedingly abnormal, and it’s drawing the worst out of many of us, but it doesn’t speak for us either. It is not a symptom of the times or a commentary on the people living through them. It is a moment of colossal recklessness, a perfect ideological booby trap built to get inside people’s heads, if not to hold up very long under the scrutiny of a few detectives. This case isn’t an indictment of hate crimes, or people who say they’ve been assaulted, or people who vouch for hate crime and assault victims. The statistics on how often attacks of this nature go unreported or else unprosecuted, and how few attacks are proven false in court should speak for themselves. This case is not an indictment of blackness or queerness. Anyone who thinks so should spend more time listening to the concerns of people in both communities. By all appearances, this case is an indictment of a guy who had a good thing going and wanted more. Regardless of whatever happens to him, we have to refuse the urge to close ranks on each other. The lesson from this muck, if there is one, is to read patiently, speak carefully, and love endlessly.

Jussie Smollett and the Court of Public Opinion