“To a degree, black America’s self-esteem is invested in the illusion that we live under a cloud of continuing injustice,” Shelby Steele wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year. The “victim-focused approach to racial inequality,” he said, “causes whites to retreat into deference” toward blacks for fear of being seen as racist. Steele was writing in reference to NFL players kneeling in protest during pregame performances of the national anthem, but his analysis applies broadly—and it certainly seems relevant to the explosive, if cartoonish, allegations made by actor Jussie Smollett, and how those allegations were accepted uncritically by journalists, politicians, and other public figures.
On January 29, Smollett reported to police that, while walking home in downtown Chicago, he had been assaulted by two white men, who recognized him from his role on a network drama called Empire, beat him, doused him in bleach, and placed a noose around his neck—all while yelling racial and homophobic epithets and proclaiming that “This is MAGA country!” The story had more red flags than an Antifa march in Portland. Didn’t anyone wonder why he would be targeted—let alone on a Polar Vortex winter’s night? Smollett isn’t exactly a household name. He was rarely, if ever, in the news. Smollett does seem to hold leftist political views, but he was not a prominent member of the celebrity “resistance.” Then there was the fact that, though he was outnumbered and physically overwhelmed enough to have a noose placed around his neck (which, for some reason, he kept on), his injuries amounted to barely more than a scratch.
But rather than being met with skepticism, his story was credulously reported by “woke” journalists and embraced by a host of prominent black public figures, including two declared presidential candidates, who pointed to it as the latest example of white racism and black oppression. One would think that, after journalists and public figures jumped the gun on the Covington Catholic controversy, they’d have been slower to the punch; but this story proved too enticing. As time passed, and police failed to find corroborating evidence of an attack, the sense that Smollett might have lied grew. That seems all but confirmed now. The case awaits final resolution, but according to multiple reports citing police sources, Chicago detectives are now operating on the belief that Smollett himself orchestrated the alleged attack.
One of the most revealing aspects of this affair has been the expressions of hope on the left that Smollett’s account would prove true. The Washington Post ran an op-ed entitled “I doubted Jussie Smollett. It breaks my heart that I might be right.” The mounting evidence against Smollett has confirmed her “worst fears,” the author writes. Her worst fears. In a world in which children can develop horrible cancers, terrorists target unsuspecting members of the public in suicide bombings, and cities like Chicago see incredibly high levels of senseless black-on-black violence that regularly claim the lives of innocents, you have to wonder how any sane person—black or white—can count a false hate-crime story as among her worst fears.
Other voices voiced similar hopes. “I hope this was not something that Mr. Smollett did to himself, or created,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) said. After expressing skepticism about the veracity of Smollet’s claims, Ryan Knight, aka @ProudResister, told his 287,000 Twitter followers: “I hope I’m wrong and have to apologize to @JussieSmollett.”
Why would anyone want something like what Smollett alleged to be true? Who would want to live in a world in which the color of your skin, or your sexual orientation, makes you a candidate for savage attacks? At least part of the answer can be found in Steele’s Wall Street Journal essay. Because, as he wrote, “Suffering, poverty and underdevelopment are the things that make you ‘truly black,’” many, like Smollett, will “conjure elaborate narratives that give white racism new life in the present.”
The victim-based identity not only leaves those who subscribe to it hopeful that racial and sexual minorities are in fact at great risk of being the target of hate crimes, even in America’s most progressive cities; it also leaves those outside the victim class all too willing to defer to claims of oppression, whether it’s Jussie Smollett or Nathan Phillips or some other member of a designated victim group, lest their own commitment to equality and tolerance be questioned. The result is a society in which truth grows ever-harder to come by. Here’s hoping that this most recent fiasco snaps us out of it.
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