First liberals said the racist, anti-gay attack on Empire actor Jussie Smollett, which turned out to be a hoax, proved that hatred and cruelty fuels supporters of President Donald Trump. When police revealed that Smollett, who is African-American and openly homosexual, planned the attack himself to get publicity, conservatives hit back, accusing liberals of groupthink and hysteria in their rush to believe the worst about Trump supporters. Now African-Americans who have suffered genuine race-based persecution once again fear their voices will be silenced by the sound and fury of public outrage.
Smollett’s story ignited a firestorm after Jan. 29, the day he claimed two men attacked him late at night on the streets of Chicago. He said they shouted racist and anti-gay slurs at him, hit him in the face, and doused him with an unknown substance. Smollett also said the men wrapped a rope around his neck, a symbol of race-based lynching, and told him he was in “MAGA country,” a reference to the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
At a news conference Thursday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett planned the spectacle because he was unhappy with his salary on Empire, a show on Fox about an African-American family in the music industry, and wanted to promote his career. Police accused him of hiring two of his Empire colleagues who are brothers and Smollett’s workout buddies to carry out the carefully scripted encounter, giving them $100 to buy rope, ski masks, gloves, bleach, and the red “Make America Great Again” hats that would make them look like Trump supporters. The brothers punched him a little, but the scratches and bruises that Smollett had on his face after the incident were “most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said.
Smollett turned himself in to authorities Thursday on felony charges of filing a false police report, and he was released after posting bail. Smollett has not made any public statements since then, but his lawyers said he maintains his innocence.
Perhaps because it was intentionally designed by a showbiz regular to gain attention, the Smollett story has dominated news and social media for several weeks now, making it a topic of conversation that everyone—including Christians—is likely to encounter either online or in person. Some African-Americans are going into those conversations with fears that because of Smollett’s lies, people will be less likely to accept true stories of racial prejudice.
“There are African-American people who are worried this is going to make it harder for anybody to be believed,” said Vincent Bacote, an associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. “It’s going to make it harder to have conversations about just improving race relations.”
Bacote, who is African-American, had advice for Christians on approaching the subject from a Biblical point-of-view.
“I think the volatility of race and the fact that the temperature can go up really quickly … it makes it hard for people to really know what to do,” he told me, urging believers not to shy away from potentially tense conversations, but to approach them with “patient attentiveness.”
“We’re supposed to be this family united by blood of Christ,” Bacote said. “Why would we say, you know what, I just can’t really stay [engaged in the conversation] amidst these tense moments.”
Eight days before the fake attack, Smollett received a threatening letter at the Chicago studio where Empire is filmed. Chicago police said he sent it to himself, but the FBI, which is helping to investigate the letter, told TMZ it hasn’t made a definite conclusion on its origin. At about the same time, Bacote gave the keynote address at the Dubuque, Iowa, Community Schools’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. His address was publicized ahead of time, and before the event, he received an anonymous letter in the mail with a clip about his upcoming speech from the local newspaper. The letter was postmarked from Milwaukee and included information purporting to prove that African-Americans have lower IQs than white people and are inferior in a number of other ways.
After receiving the letter, Bacote showed it to his undergraduate theology classes.
“I wanted them to know these things actually happen,” he said, telling his students that he prayed for the person who sent the letter. Along the same lines, he urged Christians to pray for Jussie Smollett.
“That’s part of what makes Christians countercultural,” Bacote said. “A Christian should think about this person as a human being created in the image of God, worthy of dignity and respect, irrespective of what things they may do that may make us frustrated or angry.”