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.