As Racial Hoaxes Go, Jussie Smollett’s Case Is a Strange One

Many other accusers have tapped into our unconscious beliefs about the nexus between race and crime.

Jussie Smollett
Joshua Lott / Reuters

Updated at 11:46 a.m. ET on February 25, 2019.

If the purported attack on the actor Jussie Smollett indeed turns out to be staged, it will be the latest in a long line of hoaxes grounded in racial stereotypes. By design, these hoaxes reinforce different groups’ worst suspicion of one another: Whites are racists. Blacks are criminals.

Smollett, a cast member of Fox’s Empire, is African American and gay.* After telling Chicago police last month that two masked men had physically attacked him while shouting racist and homophobic slurs and a pro–Donald Trump slogan, Smollett turned himself in Thursday under suspicion of having arranged the whole thing. In some quarters, his case is now being construed as just another phony hate crime concocted to elicit sympathy and discredit conservatives.

While Smollett’s case is bizarre on its own terms, unfounded criminal accusations across racial lines have a long history in the United States. The overwhelming majority of these cases have involved white accusers implicating black people, and the consequences have often been grievous. A false claim of rape by a white woman against a black man led to the Rosewood massacre in Florida in 1923; similar allegations in Alabama in 1931 touched off the Scottsboro Boys case, which led to years of trials, retrials, appellate-court decisions, and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. This history also includes the white Mississippi woman who told her husband in 1955 that Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old, had flirted with her. After her husband and his half brother kidnapped, beat, and shot Till and drowned him in a river, she told a still taller tale, testifying in court that he had physically assaulted her.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve analyzed more than 100 racial-hoax cases, beginning with the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley, an African American teen who falsely said that several white men had raped her. My book The Color of Crime covers 92 such cases.

Approximately two-thirds of hoax perpetrators are white. White accusers are more likely to say they were victims of a random act of violence by a make-believe black offender. Black people who create hoaxes are more likely to say they were victims of a hate crime by an imaginary white perpetrator.

These hoaxes have one thing in common: They tap into our conscious and unconscious beliefs about the nexus between race and crime. The accusers are counting on stereotypes to distract the police and the public from what actually took place.

People carry out racial hoaxes for all sorts of reasons—serious, mundane, or even silly. Here’s a short list of past accusers’ motives: to draw attention to a social issue, to get attention from a spouse, to stop making car payments, to get time off from work, to cover up a gambling loss, to cash in on an insurance policy, and to avoid punishment for violating curfew. In 2005, the “runaway bride” Jennifer Wilbanks made up a sexual assault by a Hispanic kidnapper to explain her absence from her own wedding. Or accusers fabricate crimes by others to cover up their own. In the Charles Stuart case in 1989 and the Susan Smith case in 1994, white murderers blamed nonexistent black attackers.

In the universe of racial hoaxes, Smollett’s case is noteworthy in a few important ways. It involves a celebrity hoax perpetrator, the only such case that I’m aware of. With his high public profile, Smollett could bring an authority and a personal appeal to the narrative that other accusers could not. His allegations of anti-gay as well as antiblack slurs raised fears across more than one marginalized community.

Still, the twists and turns in the Smollett case follow a familiar pattern. Many hoaxes have a lurid specificity—dramatic criminal flourishes such as a carved letter on the victim’s cheek, gang rape, a peculiar body odor, or in Smollett’s case, a supposed attacker’s claim that “this is MAGA country.” Initially, supporters provide public solace to the purported victim. Sometimes members of the targeted community make calls for change and demand greater protection and stiffer laws to protect victims. But, inevitably, there are unanswered questions and facts that don’t quite add up, which ultimately lead to the unraveling of the tale.

Once the lie is exposed, everyone is angry—those who believed the hoax, those who never believed it, and the police officers who wasted taxpayer dollars investigating a crime that never happened. Any relief that the alleged crime did not take place is de minimis.

What happens after that? Some perpetrators of past hoaxes were charged with filing false police reports, but most faced no criminal penalties. More and more, though, hoaxers are held accountable, such as being required to repay police departments for the cost of investigating their accusations.

Only rarely do hoax perpetrators serve time behind bars. One such case involved Bonnie Sweeten, a white Pennsylvania woman who falsely claimed that she and her daughter were kidnapped by two black men. In fact, Sweeten and her daughter were at Disney World. Sweeten spent six months in prison.

Smollett’s fate has yet to be determined. Chicago police say his accusation was a stunt to increase his salary; his lawyer has insisted the actor wants to clear his name. The impact of his case upon society is uncertain as well. Will the incident cause the broader public to harden on claims of victimization based on race or sexual orientation? If so, the hoax will cause real harm to future victims.

Amid what might now be a rush to close the book on the Smollett case, we should pay attention to what racial hoaxes tell us about our society. In the end, these hoaxes are a clarion call, reminding us of the work we still have to do to achieve racial justice.

* This article originally misstated that network on which Empire airs.