In 1987, Tawana Brawley was found unresponsive in a plastic bag, covered in feces, and with racial slurs written on her body. She later said she had been held in a cabin and raped by white men for days. In 2012, a gay club in Chicago was defaced with slurs and burned to the ground. In 2015, black students at Kean University received death threats on Twitter.
These high-profile incidents were all investigated as hate crimes and garnered sympathy around the country. They were also all found to have been faked.
Jussie Smollett’s story about being attacked with bleach and a noose in Chicago by Trump supporters for being black and gay hit all the same notes. A jury found him guilty of lying to police last week, though the former Empire actor plans to appeal. Wilfred Reilly, a professor and author of the book Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War, spoke to the Washington Examiner about the surprising frequency of fake hate crimes and what might happen to Smollett down the line.
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“No one really denies that the majority of banal everyday hate incidents are real, like if someone claims they were beaten up outside of a cowboy bar or a tough black club at 1 a.m.,” Reilly said. “But when you see these high-profile crimes, one thing you generally notice is a flamboyant, cinematic story that seems almost targeted at the papers — something that seems likely to make your case famous.”
Reilly said the two signs of a faked hate crime are a dramatic story and “the use of archaic symbology” that seems to have slipped through time from the Jim Crow era, such as nooses, Ku Klux Klan regalia, and swastikas.
In his research, Reilly found that nearly all the hate crimes that create media firestorms are later debunked — but not to the same level of attention they initially generated. These stories tend to fade out of the news, with only editor’s notes on previous articles or a small report updating the status of the crime. In the cases where the alleged perpetrators are charged, it’s usually for a misdemeanor.
But why fake a hate crime? Reilly outlined three reasons: first, to avoid a different kind of trouble; second, material gain; and third, to call attention to a moral conviction.
Brawley was a teenager who skipped town to spend time with her boyfriend and likely didn’t want to get in trouble with her parents. The owner of the Velvet Rope gay club had debt and burned the club down for the insurance money. And the death threats against black Kean students were written by a black alumna who was upset that a rally she helped organize about race didn’t get enough participation.
Reilly said Smollett likely falls into the second category, being motivated by material gain or fame.
“Jussie Smollett strikes me as a totally amoral guy,” he said, adding, "I don't think he believes to any extent in any contemporary black cause. Once it turned out that he couldn't deny his attackers were black during the second round of the trial, he just threw these two black men under the bus.”
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In terms of sentencing, “Smollett will probably get the rich man of sentence probation and community service,” though he faces up to three years in prison.
“My own proposal for Jussie Smollett would be that the judge should ask him whether or not he wants to admit that this is a hoax,” Reilly said. “And I would be very tempted, if I were the judge, to give him a stiffer sentence if he doesn't say yes.”
The author concluded that when a wild story about a possible hate crime hits the news, the best approach for anyone is to sit back and watch how it plays out before making a judgment.
“I'll give a final piece of advice, and that's to wait to see what the judge says,” Reilly said. “There's an incredible tendency to jump the gun in these crime stories.”