I was one of many people who found Jussie Smollett’s story a little off from the beginning. Two white men in ski masks are out in 10-degree weather in the middle of the night, equipped with a bottle of bleach or something like it and a rope that they fashioned into a mock noose. These thugs, who shouted Trump slogans as well as racist and homophobic slurs, seemed to know who Smollett was on sight, meaning they were aficionados of the splashy black soap opera Empire, on which Smollett is a main character. Somehow they were aware that Smollett, prominent but hardly on the A-list as celebrities go, was gay.
Yes, my skepticism made me feel a little guilty. We are justly sensitized to violence against people for being black and for being gay in the wake of incidents I need not name. We are also just past watching legions of people who should have known better refuse to credit Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Maybe fear and trauma distorted Smollett’s memory somewhat? Maybe the media were getting some of the details wrong? Wait and see, I and others thought.
According to CNN, which got the information from two law-enforcement sources—and other news organizations as well—Chicago police believe two Nigerians arrested for their role in the attack were paid by Smollett to stage it. Relevant equipment was allegedly found in their apartment.
Smollett’s lawyers have issued a statement insisting these reports are false. “Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” they wrote. But Chicago police have declared a significant shift in “the trajectory of the investigation.”
Until this twist, smart people were claiming that the attack on Smollett was the story of Donald Trump’s America writ small—that it revealed the terrible plight of minority groups today. But the Smollett story, if the “trajectory” leads to evidence of fakery, would actually reveal something else modern America is about: victimhood chic. Future historians and anthropologists will find this aspect of early-21st-century America peculiar, intriguing, and sad.
Smollett doesn’t need the money he would get from a court settlement, and he isn’t trying to deny someone higher office. So why in the world would he fake something like that attack—if he did indeed fake it? The reason might be that he has come of age in an era when nothing he could have done or said would have made him look more interesting than being attacked on the basis of his color and sexual orientation.
Racial politics today have become a kind of religion in which whites grapple with the original sin of privilege, converts tar questioners of the orthodoxy as “problematic” blasphemers, and everyone looks forward to a judgment day when America “comes to terms” with race. Smollett—if he really did stage the attack—would have been acting out the black-American component in this eschatological configuration, the role of victim as a form of status. We are, within this hierarchy, persecuted prophets, ever attesting to the harm that white racism does to us and pointing to a future context in which our persecutors will be redeemed of the sin of having leveled that harm upon us. We are noble in our suffering.
None of this is to deny that racism exists, and that it is hardly limited to acts as baldly depraved as that of Dylann Roof, who attacked worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015. However, one might argue—perhaps with the same kind of guilt I had in doubting Smollett’s story—that there is a degree of exaggeration in how Americans today discuss and process race. We operate according to a larger narrative, as it were, that at times renders fussing too much with mundane facts improper, beyond a certain point.
Certainly, the professional martyr is a race-neutral personality type. However, since the civil-rights victories of the 1960s, when whites became open in a new way to understanding black pain, that personality type has been especially useful to black Americans. With positive racial self-image possibly elusive after hundreds of years of naked abuse, the noble-victim position can seem especially, and understandably, comforting. It can also be handy, in a fashion quite unexpected to anyone who was on the front lines of race activism 50 years ago—as a road to stardom.
Notable in Smollett’s account is that he sought to come off as an especially fierce kind of victim—the victim as hero, as cool. “I fought the fuck back,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview. Smollett has long displayed a hankering for preacher status. His Twitter stream is replete with counsel about matters of spirit, skepticism, and persistence that sounds a tad self-satisfied from someone in his 30s. His mother associated with the Black Panthers and is friends with the activist Angela Davis, and in interviews Smollett has identified proudly with the activist tradition.
The problem is that amid the complexities of 2019 as opposed to 1969, keeping the Struggle going is more abstract, less dramatic, than it once was. Angela Davis is on T-shirts; it seems less likely that, for example, the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson will be. How do you make as stark and monumental a statement as a King or a Malcolm these days? With a touch too much thirst for glory, and a tad too little inclination for analysis, one might seek to be attacked the way they were.
In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a newspaperman advises, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One take on Smollett’s story, if he turns out to have orchestrated it, will be that it was true in essence—a teachable example of the very real phenomenon of hate crimes. For a long time, the enlightened black person was to pretend that O. J. Simpson was framed by the Los Angeles Police Department, out of concern about the way the LAPD actually had treated black people for decades. For similar reasons, even today the idea that Michael Brown in Ferguson died with his hands up, although soundly refuted by all lines of evidence, retains status as almost an “alternative fact” in some quarters.
However, Smollett, in crafting his own “legend”—if that’s what happened—is less channeling Simpson and Brown than Tawana Brawley and Rachel Dolezal.
In 1987, Brawley claimed that six white men had abducted her, raped her, and left her in the woods covered with feces. They had scrawled racial epithets across her torso. That account turned out to be as fictional as it now sounds, but Brawley claimed as late as 1997 that “something happened to me,” a deftly vague statement. However, a key difference between Brawley and Smollett, pointing up the difference between 1987 and 2019, is that while Brawley lied to escape the wrath of her mother’s boyfriend after she ran away from home for four days, Smollett may have lied to look good to the public.
Dolezal, white, spent years with a spray tan, “identifying” as black and even heading a local NAACP branch, and had fabricated episodes of racist discrimination against herself. As Bryan Cranston’s dentist character on Seinfeld adopted Judaism for the jokes, Dolezal, one might say, took on blackness for the victimhood. She felt that her existence was more meaningful while she was “playing” an oppressed black person than living as a white person despite all the attendant privileges. Few news events more perfectly illustrated that in our moment, a claim of victimhood from a black person is a form of power. Only in an America much further past the old days than many like to admit could a white person eagerly seek to be a put-upon black person out of a sense that it looked “cool.” A Dolezal would have been unimaginable until roughly the late 1990s.
One could imagine that Smollett, if he was playacting, had a similar motivation. For Smollett, being a successful actor and singer might not have been quite as exciting as being a poster child for racist abuse in Trump’s America.
Assuming, again, that the reports are accurate, Smollett’s clumsiness would be an especially poignant indication of how deeply this victimhood chic has taken hold—almost as if he thought this was such an easy score that he didn’t even need to think too hard about the logistics. This story has been reminiscent, again, of Brawley, except that she was 15 and Smollett is, at 36, more than twice her age then. Consider, for example, this saliently implausible detail: If thugs put a rope around your neck, your first impulse when they were gone would be to remove it, but he still had it on when police first made contact. Really?
Smollett told Robin Roberts, amid initial skepticism about his account, that people would have been more open to his story if he had said the attackers were black or Muslim—missing, apparently, that the attackers’ being white made the story the most interesting possible one to all the people he was seeking to reach. Then, suddenly, even an actor is awkward in playing his part. He addressed an audience recently using note cards and callowly compared himself to Tupac Shakur, unaware that all of this is the hallmark of someone making something up, speaking from a script—telling a story, as it were.
Did it not occur to Smollett that if this blew up in his face, he would be tarring by association actual and legitimate claims of racist and homophobic abuse? As someone seeking to be seen as a concerned activist in the vein of his mother and Angela Davis, could Smollett really not understand that a stunt all about making himself more famous was not exactly the wokest approach?
But that’s just it—Smollett, if the latest reporting is true, was an eager puppy, jumping with joyous inattention into American social politics as he has encountered it coming of age in the 21st century. He would have known that in this moment, very important people would find him more interesting for having been hurt on the basis of his identity than for his fine performance on an interesting hit television show. He would have known this so well that it didn’t even occur to him that his story would have to be more credible than the dopey one he threw together about being jumped in near-Arctic temperatures by the only two white bullies in America with a mysterious fondness for a black soap hip-hopera. (Yet again, I’m assuming the latest reporting is accurate.)
Only in an America in which matters of race are not as utterly irredeemable as we are often told could things get to the point that someone would pretend to be tortured in this way, acting oppression rather than suffering it, seeking to play a prophet out of a sense that playing a singer on television is not as glamorous as getting beaten up by white guys. That anyone could feel this way and act on it in the public sphere is, in a twisted way, a kind of privilege, and a sign that we have come further on race than we are often comfortable admitting.