The Shame of a Nation: On Jussie Smollett and the Damage Being Done

Whatever the ruling, there's no coming back from this for Smollett, or for America.

“I’m an advocate. I respect too much the people—who I am now one of those people—who have been attacked in any way. You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”

That was Jussie Smollett in his interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America last week when he tearily, vehemently denied that the attack that had polarized the nation was in any way fake.

Thursday morning, Smollett was charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.

The Chicago Police Department claims Smollett faked a threatening letter, then a week later paid two brothers $3500 to stage an attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on the TV show Empire, reports The Chicago Tribune. Chicago PD says it has the check Smollett used in the transaction.

Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called Smollett’s alleged ruse “shameful” and “despicable,” questioning how an African-American could orchestrate a racist attack as a “publicity stunt.”

Empire actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson told reporters at a press conference this Thursday, February 21. “It makes you wonder what’s going on in someone’s mind to be able to do something like that.”

It really does make you wonder.

My own reluctance to question Smollett’s veracity stemmed from a belief that no one in their right mind—certainly no one who claims to be an advocate, nor anyone who has experienced the intersecting discriminations of two marginalized minorities—would ever fake anything like this. And do it so badly—even amateurs know you never leave a goddamn paper trail.

Looking back on the whole thing, there were obvious loopholes and plot points that wouldn’t pass muster on a half-decent episode of CSI: Miami: the threatening note with cut-out magazine letters was riddled in every ’90s cliché; the attack that was supposedly random but smacked of deliberation that happened a week later; and the convenient confluence of hot-button issues debated the nation and world over, crystallized by the reference to “MAGA.”

It was simultaneously too neat and too sloppy, but hindsight is 20/20, and there’s no point in deliberating the past. Now we have to start figuring out where we go from here once this is all settled. If it all ever truly gets settled. Make no mistake about it: this is a fucking shitshow that will have far-reaching repercussions.

Of all the emotions I feel, disappointment rises most often to the surface. Of course, I’m angry—angry that Smollett has seemingly given right-wing pundits and opinionators an easy victory, a gift to reopen time and time again when a victim of assault or racism or any other form of discrimination needs to be discredited or undermined.

“Identity politics is a scam,” claimed noted scam artist and the answer to “What if white privilege was a person?” Tucker Carlson, “and it is not so different from the one that Jussie Smollett just pulled.”

And of course, I’m also a bit embarrassed that I, like so many black and queer people, rode very hard for Smollett based, once again, on the assumption that no one sensitive to the current socio-political climate would fake anything like this. Not when America is a powder keg of racial animosity, as embodied by this literal white nationalist who wanted to start a race war.

That being said, it was easy to believe Smollett’s story because of people like Christopher Paul Hasson, because of events like Charlottesville, because of the spate of police violence perpetrated against black people, because of the history of racial terrorism in this country, because of the numerous queer and trans people victimized and threatened, even by our own government.

Why would anyone do anything as dangerous as fake a hate crime, especially someone who claims that he is an activist and an advocate? Someone who elicited the support of celebrities and his own family, and then went on national television in what can only be viewed now as the performance of his career? And the end of his career. Because there’s no coming back from this. Whatever the ruling, there’s no coming back from this for Smollett, or for America. The damage has been done.

You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.

Indeed, it does make you wonder what is going on in the mind of someone who would and could try to fake an assault predicated on, and subsequently stoking, the flames of hate burning brightly across this country. But then again, this is the world in which we live. This is a world post-shame, post-truth, post-nuance.

If I’m disappointed more than anything else, I’m almost as equally dismayed that this is the defining moment of a month dedicated to celebrating black history. What should be a month of pride has been marked by national shame after national shame. As if the triumphant return of blackface wasn’t bad enough, this latest bit of minstrelsy has set us back as black people, as queer people, and as a nation.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a roaming writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat