Life behind imaginary bars will probably be hard for Jussie Smollett’s imaginary attackers — two hate-spewing, noose-wielding racist homophobes who don’t actually exist.
Maybe the imaginary men who committed an imaginary hate crime against the “Empire” actor will be assigned to the same hypothetical cell block as the make-believe black men who carjacked Susan Smith and drowned her children in South Carolina.
The imaginary black men who kidnapped Bonnie Sweeten and her daughter in Philadelphia in 2009 are locked up there, too. They’re a few cells down from the imaginary black man who shot and killed Carol DiMaiti Stuart and her unborn child in Mission Hill in 1989, when Charles Stuart dreamed him up.
Imaginary prison — where all the made-up criminals are sentenced for crimes that never happened — still doesn’t lock up very many imaginary white men, a few Trump-era hoaxes notwithstanding. The real criminal justice system is deeply unfair to people of color in this country, but the imaginary one is even worse.
America’s prison population was about 40 percent black as of the 2010 census; the imaginary incarcerated? They’re almost always black.
Thousands of imaginary black women perpetrating imaginary welfare scams are already out on imaginary parole, but the imaginary black woman who threw acid on Bethany Storro in Vancouver, Wash., in 2010 is still locked up here. So are the four imaginary black men who raped Leiha Ann-Sue Artman in Michigan in 2016, and the two imaginary black men who carjacked a Maryland woman at a shopping mall in 2017. And so is the imaginary 230-pound black man who Georgia police officer Sherry Hall said shot at her in 2016.
At this imaginary prison, a full bed check would take weeks. It’s a phenomenon so prevalent it has a name that’s only semisarcastic: Blame a Black Man Syndrome.
And yet, we are now told by Chicago’s police superintendent, and an army of commentators, that Smollett’s apparent idiocy is deeply injurious to real victims, who now won’t be believed when they come forward. Odd then, isn’t it, that all the Sweetens and Smiths aren’t accused of hurting anyone’s ability to believe white victims when they blame a black man?
What Smollett allegedly did is wrong, obviously — dishonest and criminal, in addition to being profoundly stupid. Pro tip: Don’t pay your accomplices by personal check. But anybody who’s now eager to write off the next black or LGBTQ accuser’s claim on the basis of a C-list actor’s apparent publicity play was probably already going to.
But you know who you won’t find in the imaginary prison? The many very real people of color who have been locked up, beaten down, railroaded, and killed for baseless accusations. When Charles Stuart shot his wife to death in Boston and blamed an imaginary black man, investigators quickly produced a real one — Willie Bennett, whom Charles Stuart picked out of a lineup before Stuart’s brother identified Chuck as the real killer. In the meantime, the bars Bennett sat behind for two months were not imaginary.
“African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated,” the authors of a University of Michigan study, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” wrote in 2017.
A false accusation by Amanda Knox, accused of killing her roommate in Italy, essentially bankrupted a black business owner named Patrick Lumumba. And one of the loudest accusers of the Central Park Five — black and Hispanic teens wrongly convicted of a rape — now sits in the Oval Office.
How many other black men around the country have been rousted and arrested, humiliated and harassed because they fit an imaginary description? And how many Willie Bennetts are there for every Duke lacrosse player?
Jussie Smollett embarrassed himself, probably destroyed his career, and wasted an awful lot of people’s time, and now he’s facing legal consequences on top of that.
But through centuries of Blame a Black Man Syndrome, through lynchings and false arrests and mass incarceration, we’re never told that these false reports will make the world less likely to believe people who look like Stuart or Sweeten or Storro.
People who look like Jussie Smollett? Well, the truth is that good deal of white America wasn’t going to believe them, anyway.