This article has been corrected.
It seemed like the attack alleged by Jussie Smollett was going to become another piece of data in the rising number of hate crimes each year in the U.S.
But weeks after he alleged that two masked men assaulted him on a dark Chicago street, police charged Smollett with a felony on Wednesday for falsifying a report. The actor on the Fox TV series “Empire” had said the assailants hurled homophobic and racial slurs, shouted “MAGA country,” poured bleach on him, beat him, and tied a noose around his neck. In reality, Smollett orchestrated the attack for a cool $3,500 because he was “dissatisfied with his salary,” police said.
Less than an hour after Smollett was indicted, his lawyers told Deadline that they're planning an "aggressive" defense.
“Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked,” attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said.
If he’s convicted of the charges he’s now facing, Smollett will join the tiny percentage of people who fake hate crimes. But some far-right and conservatives personalities are already using his story as evidence that the majority, if not all, hate crimes are hoaxes.
Of the 7,175 reported hate crimes reported nationwide in 2017, only 23 were found to be false, according to police and FBI data collected and analyzed by Brian Levin, a national expert in hate crimes and director of California State University, San Bernardino's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. In 2016, 16 of the 6,121 reported hate crimes turned out to be hoaxes, according to Levin, who’s also a former New York City police officer.
That means, for both 2016 and 2017, only about .3 percent of reported hate crimes turned out to be fake.
Levin’s numbers from 2018 still aren’t finalized, but he’s estimated that 7,750 hate crimes were reported nationwide last year, and so far, just seven have turned out to be hoaxes.
Conservative media and many on the far-right had been calling Smollett’s case a hoax from the get-go. And now that they feel vindicated, some say his actions are symptomatic of an American culture of “victim fetishization.”
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson sounded off about Smollett during his show on Tuesday night. “The much-hyped epidemic of hate crimes you’ve heard so much about is essentially made up,” Carlson said. “The premise is absurd. America is not a hateful country. It’s the most welcoming place on Earth.”
Right-wing political commentator Ann Coulter also shared her views on the implications of the Smollett case on Thursday.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson expressed concern at a press conference Thursday that Smollett’s actions could have a chilling effect on hate crime reporting and investigations.
“I’m concerned what this means moving forwards for hate crimes,” Johnson said. “Of course, Chicago will continue to investigate reports with the same about of vigor. Hate crimes could now be met with a level of skepticism that they weren’t before.”
Chicago was among the majority of large American cities that saw an uptick in hate crimes last year, according to Levin’s data, which seeks to fill in the gaps of FBI hate crime data collection. Seventy-seven hate crimes were reported in the Windy City in 2018, up from 61 the previous year.
FBI data, which relies on voluntary reporting from local police departments, has also pointed to a rise in hate crimes nationwide in recent years. According to the bureau’s most recent count, hate crime reports jumped by nearly 17 percent in 2017, compared to the previous year. Black and Jewish victims accounted for the biggest spikes.
Hate crime data is notoriously unreliable, and experts say that the numbers only represent a fraction of the wider problem. To start, hate crime statutes vary dramatically in their strength between states. (Five states have no hate crime law whatsoever.) That means what police might consider a hate crime in one state — like New York which has strong hate crime laws — may not meet the criteria for a hate crime in a state like Ohio, which has a weak hate crime law.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that .03 percent of hate crimes were faked in 2016 and 2017, according to an analysis of FBI and police data. The correct number is .3 percent, according to that analysis.
Cover image: This Feb. 21, 2019 photo released by the Chicago Police Department shows Jussie Smollett. (Chicago Police Department via AP)