In 1880, Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, one of the earliest black cadets at West Point, was found bound, gagged, and unconscious in his room. He had been slashed with a knife; pages of his Bible were found torn and strewn around the room. Whittaker had been ostracized by white students, who now insisted that he had made the whole thing up. The school decided that a threatening letter Whittaker had received matched his own handwriting, and that he had fabricated the entire incident to make West Point look bad.
Black papers such as The People’s Advocate called the West Point report “partisan, unjust and flagrantly prejudiced,” and stood by Whittaker. But as the historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in The Death of Reconstruction, white newspapers, Democratic and Republican alike, attacked Whittaker, describing him as a “clumsy trickster and deceitful rogue” guilty of a “mad criminal act.”
The America of the 1880s did not lack for examples of racist violence. The end of Reconstruction three years earlier had come with steel and fire; white terrorist groups aligned with the Democratic Party violently suppressed the black vote to regain control of Southern state governments. The Whittaker incident came at the beginning of the lynching era, the period from 1880 to 1950 when more than 5,000 people were murdered in a campaign of racist terrorism that stained the nation with blood.
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.”
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.
The speed of the Trump-era news cycle can obscure the extent of the politically motivated racist violence that has convulsed the nation in the past six months. The president himself has encouraged his supporters to engage in political violence, and praised a congressman for assaulting a reporter. In October, Cesar Sayoc sent bombs in the mail to Trump’s critics and political enemies. That same month, Kentucky* police said Gregory Bush gunned down two elderly black Americans at a Kroger store after unsuccessfully attempting to break into a black church. Then Robert Bower, a white nationalist angry over the Central American migrant caravan that Trump had made a focus of his midterm campaign, gunned down 11 people in the worst incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history. On Wednesday, federal authorities quietly announced that they had arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, whom they described as a white-nationalist Coast Guard lieutenant who had planned a mass killing aimed at liberal targets. Terrorism deaths were higher in 2018 than in all but three years since 1970, and the perpetrator in every fatal attack had ties to white nationalism. America is far from the bloodshed of Reconstruction, but the ghosts of the Confederacy linger.
Those alarmed by the politics of prejudice in the Trump era should take seriously the criticism from conservatives that the constant search for powerful symbols of Trumpist intolerance has left them open to being manipulated. But the right should be under no illusions that the climate Smollett sought to take advantage of is a left-wing invention, or that the Smollett incident is a blanket exoneration of Trumpism. What’s striking about Smollett, a harsh critic of the president, using a falsehood to exploit racial and cultural divisions for personal gain, with no regard for how it would affect others, is how positively Trumpian it is.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted Whittaker his commission after the historian John Marszalek wrote a biography arguing that the cadet had been railroaded. Historians today look back at the white-supremacist consensus that shaped the post-Reconstruction era as tragic.
Smollett won’t receive that kind of vindication. Yet his apparent decision to take advantage of this climate of fear and violence for personal gain does not alter the larger context of the Trump era. Staging a hoax hate crime is deceitful, reckless, selfish, and ultimately pathetic. But Smollett does not have the power to make Americans disbelieve future victims of hate crimes, nor does he have the ability to convince the country that hoax hate crimes are a bigger danger than the real thing. Americans will make both decisions themselves, based on the kind of country they want to live in.
*Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that the Gregory Bush shooting was in Georgia; it was in Kentucky.