In the wake of the dramatic collapse of actor Jussie Smollett’s account of being the victim of a racist, homophobic attack by Donald Trump supporters—an attack he is now charged with staging—there has been much discussion of hate crime hoaxes. Conservatives argue that the apparent Smollett hoax is symptomatic of a cultural sickness that valorizes victimhood and promotes paranoia about racism. Progressives counter that the problem of hate-driven violence is much bigger and accuse the right of using the incident to discredit all hate-crime victims and dismiss bigotry in America as mostly a made-up grievance.
It’s a discussion that, as often happens these days, generates far more heat than light—and obscures the valid points made on both sides.
So what are the actual facts?
Fake hate crimes are definitely a reality. Wilfred Reilly, associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, documents more than 400 such hoaxes in the past four years in his upcoming book, Hate Crime Hoax. In a recent USA Today column, Reilly writes that two other researchers have compiled separate, though partly overlapping, lists of more than 300 incidents each. (Reilly, who is African-American, is unabashedly partisan in his approach; his book, published by the conservative Regnery outfit, is subtitled “How the Left Is Selling a Fake Race War.”) To Reilly and other conservative pundits, this amounts to nothing less than a hate-crime hoax epidemic.
The liberal counterargument is that fake hate crimes are a tiny fraction of all reported hate crimes, of which the FBI records 6,000-7,000 annually and which seem to have been on the rise in recent years. If Reilly’s count is accurate, and even if we add another 200 incidents from the other two lists he mentions, that would still mean about 2 percent of hate-crime reports turn out to be fabricated. Clearly, progressives say, our main concern should not be with hoaxes but with real hate crimes—and our default position should be to believe people who say they have been victimized by bigots.
It is, indeed, an exaggeration to speak of a hate-hoax “epidemic.” But the real picture is also far more complicated than the progressive narrative.
First of all, no one knows the actual ratio of hate-crime hoaxes to actual hate crimes. Some fake reports are never exposed as fake; some actual crimes go unreported to the police or unrecorded by the FBI (currently, reporting by law enforcement agencies is voluntary). The recent rise in FBI hate-crime numbers almost certainly reflects the fact that more agencies are submitting hate crime data—about 1,000 more in 2017 than in 2016, for example.
Second, it certainly appears that a disproportionate number of hate crimes that get high exposure turn out to be hoaxes. That may well be because hoaxes are calculated to get maximum attention and tend to be extra-dramatic—such as Smollett’s account of being beaten and doused with bleach and having a rope thrown around his neck, or some reports of Trump-related hate crimes after the 2016 election. High-profile fabrications from late 2016 include North Park University (Chicago) student Taylor Volk’s story of being barraged with threatening anti-gay, pro-Trump notes and emails and New York Muslim college student Yasmin Seweid’s claim that three drunk white men harassed her on the subway and tried to snatch her hijab in full view of other passengers.
Third, the reality of hate crimes doesn’t always fit the archetype of white, straight, Christian, mostly male bigots terrorizing racial, sexual or religious minorities—blacks, Latinos, Muslims, or gay and transgender people.
According to FBI statistics for 2017, racially motivated crimes against black Americans—usually intimidation or assault—make up the single largest category of hate crimes (nearly 30 percent of the total). Jewish Americans were targeted in about 12 percent of all reported hate crimes; Muslim Americans, in about 4 percent; Hispanics, in 6.5 percent; gay, bisexual, or transgender people, in about nearly 16 percent. African-Americans were overrepresented as both hate-crime victims and offenders: In cases with a known perpetrator whose race was identified, 26 percent of the offenders were black and 61 percent were white. (Blacks make up about 13 percent of the population of the United States and whites 64 percent.)
A look at news stories of hate crimes shows similar complexities. The spike in hate-crime reports around the 2016 election included attacks on white people perceived as Trump supporters. In a particularly disturbing case in Chicago in January 2017, a mentally disabled 18-year-old white man was kidnapped, tied up, beaten, and abused for more than 24 hours by four black assailants who livestreamed some of the abuse in a Facebook video while yelling anti-Trump, anti-white profanities. Some anti-minority bias crimes are also committed by other minorities—whether it’s last year’s vicious beating of a 91-year-old Hispanic man in Los Angeles by an African-American woman who told the victim to “go back to Mexico”; the recent streak of assaults on Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights, New York, in which most of the known suspects are black teenagers; or the brutal beating of a Jewish man in Brooklyn last October by a Muslim livery cab driver who shouted anti-Jewish epithets.
Even hate crimes with an apparent link to Trump’s Muslim- and immigrant-bashing can depart from the script in startling ways. While there was an actual hijab-snatching assault on a Muslim New Yorker in late 2016, complete with taunts about Trump deporting Muslims, the alleged perpetrator was himself an immigrant from predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan. And last spring, a shockingly violent assault on an immigrant in New York involving an actual man in a “Make America Great Again” hat had another shocking twist: Willie Ames, who was indicted for allegedly pushing 26-year-old Luis Lopez off a subway platform after making derogatory comments about Mexican-Americans, is black.
There is a great deal of reluctance on the left, and even among more centrist liberals, to acknowledge such narrative-complicating facts. The New York Times article on the wave of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism in Crown Heights tiptoed delicately around the issue of the alleged assailants’ race, and many reports on the hijab-snatching made no mention of the accused perpetrator’s background. The attack on Lopez, which was captured on surveillance video, received notably little attention from the media given its violent and potentially sensational nature: a man in a MAGA hat pushing a Latino man on the subway tracks. It’s not too much of a stretch to suppose that this would have been front-page news if the man facing hate-crime charges had been white. (The white MAGA-hat kid from Covington Catholic High School got a lot more coverage for smirking at a Native American.)
There is also a tendency on the left to overplay the “Trump-inspired hate crimes” angle. For instance, at least one post-2016 election hate-crime hoax—another fabricated hijab-targeting attack, this one in Ann Arbor, Michigan—is still featured on a website purporting to document a “Donald Trump Hate and Violence Map.” An Intercept feature last October on Trump-incited radicalization of “angry far-right men” includes a reference to Jeremy Christian, the Portland man currently facing charges of murder and attempted murder for fatally stabbing two men aboard a train and wounding a third after they tried to stop him from harassing two teenage girls, one African-American and one a hijab-wearing Muslim. But the linked story on Christian shows that his political views were a wild mix of everything from white nationalism and anti-circumcision crusading to passion for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein; the Intercept cherry-picks a single ambiguously pro-Trump quote from Christian’s social media records, but he was apt to post vitriol directed at both Trump and Hillary Clinton.
But many conservatives have their own blinders—in particular, when it comes to the fact that hateful and sometimes violent conduct driven by the more “conventional” kind of racism and xenophobia really does exist, and that the Trumpian brand of right-wing populism really does tap into such vile sentiments. That some of the offenders in those cases aren’t white may discombobulate intersectional progressives, but it doesn’t change the fact that xenophobic rhetoric from the President of the United States affects the cultural climate—particularly given his fairly tepid condemnations over time of bigotry and violence by his fans.
In August 2015, when Trump was on his way to capturing the GOP nomination, two Boston men, brothers Stephen and Scott Leader, beat and urinated on a homeless Hispanic man, Guillermo Rodriguez; as the two high-fived each other afterward, Scott Leader declared, “Donald Trump was right, these illegals need to be deported.” (Rodriguez, who suffered a broken nose and severe bruising in the attack—to which the duo later pled guilty—was actually a legal resident.) When asked about the incident at a press conference, Trump responded that it was “a shame” if true—but quickly added praise for his supporters: “I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country, they want this country to be great again.” Later, he tweeted that the Boston incident was “terrible” and that he “would never condone violence,” a far cry from the invective he reserves for his critics.
The following year, three Kansas men described as avid Trump supporters plotted to kill Somali Muslim refugees by bombing a mosque and an apartment complex. The three were convicted last year; ironically, their attorneys argued that the “backdrop” created by Trump’s inflammatory talk should be a factor for leniency.
There are also the more ordinary incidents, some involving criminal harassment, some non-criminal but vile behavior captured on video: the drunk who harassed a Muslim family on a beach in Brownsville, Texas, while invoking Trump; the Fargo, North Dakota woman, apparently a Trump supporter, who hurled verbal abuse at three Somali-American women during a parking dispute in 2017, shouting, “We’re gonna kill every one of you f***ing Muslims”; the woman arrested in a Colorado grocery store last October for harassing two Spanish-speaking customers; the woman who berated a U.S.-born Hispanic landscaper and his mother for being “Mexicans,” calling them “rapists” and “animals” and adding, “Even the president of the United States says you’re a rapist.”
The bottom line? In a country as large, diverse, and evolving as the United States, no single narrative of hate-related violence—and hate hoaxes—will contain the whole truth.
To progressives such as NPR host Gene Demby, hate crimes in 21st cCentury America have a direct lineage to the horrors of racial violence in the 19th century and the Jim Crow era, such as the heinous public torture-lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas in 1893. (While Demby cites that case as evidence of a tendency “to disbelieve or dismiss racist violence even when it has literally had thousands of witnesses,” the lynching was deplored by many newspapers and led then-Texas Governor James Hogg to ask the legislature for an anti-lynching law; however, the widely known main perpetrators remained unpunished.) Appearing on the Dr. Phil TV show recently, prominent left-wing commentator Sally Kohn–who still insists that “we don’t know what happened to Jussie”– argued that hate is “imprinted” on our minds as a nation built on the enslavement of blacks and the slaughter of Native Americans, and that hate crimes today are an expression of that legacy.
But, without downplaying the awful history of race in the United States, this is surely an oversimplification. The American nation struggled from its birth with the conflict between its legacy of brutal oppression (sadly common, in one form or another, to all humanity) and its trailblazing ideals of human liberty and equality. With the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the belief in the equal dignity of human beings became a powerful cultural norm–one that, thankfully, still prevails despite being under assault from identity politics on both the left and the right. Even in “Trump’s America,” racist violence is severely punished, and even culprits in fairly minor incidents of racial harassment can suffer severe social consequences: The woman who shouted abuse at the Somali-American women in Fargo lost her job and ended up offering abject apologies on Facebook.
There is no epidemic of hate-crime hoaxes; but, despite some ugly and worrying trends, we are not facing an epidemic of violent bigotry, either. Both phenomena are limited but worthy of concern. While Demby and many other progressives argue that there is a general inclination to disbelieve victims of hate crimes, the initial response to Smollett’s account—which none other than Trump decried as “horrible”—says otherwise. Nor is there any notable instance of a hate-crime victim wrongly condemned as a liar.
Those who come forward with reports of hate crimes certainly deserve to be heard and supported. But each account should be assessed based on the evidence, and when the evidence suggests that it lacks credibility—as was the case with Smollett almost at once—skepticism is appropriate. Those who chose to believe Smollett despite those suspicious details should not be shamed; but surely, neither should those who saw through the hoax early on.
Hate crimes and hate hoaxes understandably generate strong feelings on both sides. But, whether it’s an individual case or the big picture, we should at least try to get all the facts.