Yet the Whittaker incident seemed to confirm the emerging bipartisan political consensus among white Democrats and Republicans that, in Cox’s words, “not content with equality, African-Americans were deliberately exploiting popular sympathy to win extraordinary concessions so they would not have to work for their own success.”
Read: Jussie Smollett’s alleged hoax will feed bigger hoaxes
The allegations that Whittaker staged the attack against him fit the narrative that many white Americans, North and South, wanted to believe: that despite the emerging Jim Crow regime in the South, the nation had done all it could for the freedmen, and that any further difficulties were the result of black Americans’ own considerable shortcomings. Most white Americans at the time simply did not believe that black people were equal to white people, and the Whittaker case provided them with a story that helped reinforce those beliefs.
I thought of the Whittaker case when Chicago police charged the actor Jussie Smollett with staging a hate crime against himself on Thursday, following weeks during which Smollett claimed to be the victim of racist and homophobic violence, an act that drew expressions of sympathy from all over the world. Citing evidence ranging from phone records to a check for $3,500, police said Smollett paid two Nigerian brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, to orchestrate the incident as a PR stunt. Smollett maintains his innocence; the Osundairos have told police that Smollett hired them to stage the attack.
As hoaxes go, this one appears remarkable for its brazen stupidity, its recklessness, and the voluminous trail of evidence left for the police to find.
The Chicago police have a record of dishonesty and violent racial discrimination that has crippled their ability to solve many serious crimes, but the evidence they claim to possess would conclusively prove that Smollett staged the assault.
Smollett’s decision to accuse supporters of the president of being responsible for the attack turned the situation from volatile to explosive, with conservatives insisting early on that the attack was a hoax. On Thursday, President Donald Trump singled out Smollett on Twitter: “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” The president’s rebuke of Smollett for falsely claiming to be the victim of a politically motivated crime is somewhat puzzling—the president himself has made such false claims over and over again since taking office, and Smollett does not have the power of the federal government at his command.
If nothing else, the Smollett incident is a reminder that it’s prudent not to publicly voice an opinion on something until you know what actually happened. For the right, the Smollett incident has become yet another example of how Trump supporters are unfairly maligned and persecuted as racist, and proof that the left fabricates examples of discrimination to elicit public sympathy. Others fear that Smollett’s actions will make life difficult for real victims of violence, increasing public skepticism toward those who have survived harrowing trauma or discouraging genuine victims from coming forward. Hoaxes, such as the Tawana Brawley incident in 1987, seem to linger even longer in the American imagination than real incidents of racial violence. The reasons why have everything to do with politics.