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Jeneé Osterheldt | Commentary

Jussie Smollett may have lied. But that doesn’t change the truth: Hate crimes are rising

Jussie Smollett left Cook County jail after posting bond Thursday in Chicago.Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images/Getty Images

Jussie Smollett may have lied about being beaten for being black and queer. But we can’t hide the truth: Hate crimes are real.

People readily believed Smollett not because of bias against MAGA supporters, not because they love his show “Empire” on Fox, but because of lived experience.

The kind of life that means you are regularly lied about, questioned, and demonized on the basis of your blackness.

The kind of life that means you are singled out and attacked because of who you love and how you identify. Like the 11 LGBTQ+ survivors of hate crimes that Fenway Health’s Violence Recovery Program has seen this year.


Xavier Quinn, manager of the Fenway program, says the Smollett case is hard to grapple with.

“A hate crime isn’t just an act of violence against an individual,” Quinn says. “It’s an act of violence against a whole community. When this case first came out, and it was so public, a whole community felt less safe, and afraid.”

Quinn continued: “And the fact that it might not be real does not change the reality for LGBTQ folks, especially transgender women and LGBTQ people of color.”

From 2013 to 2017, Fenway Health saw about 45 to 50 survivors of anti-LGBTQ+ violence a year. Last year, Quinn says that number jumped to 75.

Across the country, hate crimes of all kinds increased 17 percent in 2017 and have been rising for the past three years, according to an FBI report released in November. In Massachusetts, that translated to a 9 percent increase.

Another FBI finding: The largest number of hate crimes involve biases against race, religion, and sexual orientation. In that order.

In Boston, those numbers differ. In 2017, a Globe analysis found that the LGBTQ+ community was the most commonly reported target of hate crimes in Boston — black people were the second.


If you are someone like Smollett, who is black and gay, that is twice the bias against you.

When people stood up to believe him, to believe survivors, it wasn’t half-baked. But the delight people are taking in making fun of Smollett, the fervor to discredit him, and the need to make this lie about hurting MAGA supporters is twisted. And a sad reflection of oppression.

“The point is never in the veracity of the story or not, the field day is in yet another opportunity to dehumanize black people,” says Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology and African American Studies at Boston University. “We’re talking about an immediate recent history in this country when lynchings were literally family pastimes for whites. To suggest that they’re reveling because it was staged is to suggest that they are somehow displeased when the events are real.”

“When these race-based hate crimes are compounded by race-gender crimes or homophobic racist crimes, there is undoubtedly an additional zeal because black women and queer black people have never been fully believed in this country to begin with.”

President Trump isn’t worried about the actual victims of hate crimes. He’s worried about his supporters. On Thursday morning, after Smollett was arrested and charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report, Trump tweeted, “.@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA”


Meanwhile, he failed even to make a statement about Christopher Paul Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant arrested in Maryland last Friday and alleged to be a gun-hoarding white supremacist planning a mass attack on prominent Democrats and members of the media.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson wants Smollett to apologize to all of Chicago. Are black people going to get an apology from the Barbecue Beckies or from Emmett Till’s false accuser Carolyn Donham and all the white lies that led to the murders and lynchings and dehumanization of black people?

Johnson said he wished gun violence victims in Chicago got the same level of attention Smollett got. It would be awesome if actual LGBTQ+ victims got this level of awareness, if Chicago police cared this much about the truth when officers lied about the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots into McDonald as he walked away in 2014. Van Dyke lied and said McDonald was going to stab him. In October, he was convicted of second-degree murder.

If Smollett lied, there are no passes for him. But he’s being inundated with a vitriol rarely directed toward white people who have made up things that caused irreparable damage.

The real harm here is any hate crime hoax hurts hate crime victims — yet false reports are rare.


Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, told Quartz there were about 21,000 hate crimes between 2016 and 2018. In that time, he’s only counted 49 fake reports — making false reports about 0.2 percent of hate crimes.

The problem with Smollett, if proven guilty, is that LGBTQ+ and black people have always faced the hurdle of getting sympathy and support.

“I worry it will make survivors feel less safe coming forward,” Quinn says. “They are already afraid to come forward because people already don’t believe them, there is victim-blaming and backlash, and people question their experience. But this is so public, even the president is weighing in. It sends a really intense message to survivors.”

To combat that antisurvivor rhetoric, Men of Melanin Magic and The Theater Offensive are holding a Boston event for the LGBTQ+ community on dealing with the trauma of Smollett’s case.

“This is not something that just happened,” says Lambert Rahming, codirector of Men of Melanin Magic, an events and advocacy group for queer and trans people of color. “It’s happening, and while it’s happening people are having and experiencing feelings that are serious and valid.”

The event, “Processing Jussie: A QTPOC Exclusive Dialogue Session Using Art and Critical Conversation to Examine Identity and Trauma,” will be held at the Theater Offensive Artist Studio on Saturday, March 2, at 6 p.m.

Harold Steward, Theater Offensive director, says people have asked whether the Smollett scandal will set back the LGBTQ+ community. That depends on what we do next.


“Boston can invest in a lie, if it is a lie, or invest in the truth,” he says. “For us, as details came out discrediting and making a mockery of the situation, that still doesn’t solve this emptiness, fear, and trauma we have from actual, credible situations. We are going to hold space and hold each other.”

If we really cared about each other as humans, we’d get busy tackling the truth of hate crimes rather than be hung up on a lie.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at and @sincerelyjenee.