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Smollett trial puts racism on trial — or does it?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Actor Jussie Smollett finally gets his day in a Chicago courtroom. He is charged with six counts of disorderly conduct. But the charges are an afterthought to the real charge, that even a celebrity Black man can be the victim of a racist hate crime. That’s what Smollett loudly and publicly claimed in 2019. The case got gobs of national media attention. Smollett got sympathetic and outraged support from many African Americans, including some notables such as then-Senator Kamala Harris. Smollett appeared to the world to be the near-textbook victim of racist and anti-gay hate.

But like so many other things when race and racism are tossed on the table, things may not be what they seem. Smollett’s story started to unravel when some of the initial details about the time, place and circumstances of the alleged attack just didn’t seem to fit. A county prosecutor wasn’t persuaded by that and declined to press charges against Smollett. That might have settled things, except that a couple of guys then came forth who swore that Smollett paid them a few grand to stage the attack on him.

Smollett then and now protested his innocence. Maybe, but things about the case and the instant cry of racism never set right with me. At the time I posted a Facebook comment, “Be careful on this.” The responses I got were swift and brutal, and boiled down to “How dare you question that Smollett was anything other than a Black viciously assaulted by venomous racists?” Anything less than outrage at homophobic, anti-Black hate was racial heresy, tantamount to spewing Fox News talking points.

The counterattack made some sense. Smollett was young, Black, male and gay, attributes that seemingly made him a prime target. What didn’t make sense were the holes in his story. And what made even less sense is the history of knee-jerk screams of racism in such cases.

That history goes like this: A celebrated Black entertainer, athlete or official comes under fire for a personal and or criminal indiscretion or wrongdoing, and they scream race. Even Bill Cosby flipped the race card when he pleaded for the Black media to remain “neutral” in the mounting furor over his alleged rapes of multiple women.

Cosby quickly walked this well-worn path for a good reason. Others have done it before him, from O.J. Simpson to Tiger Woods to Clarence Thomas. They have some things in common. They were wildly lionized as pillars of society; they said or did little about racial issues; and they likely were guilty when dumped on the legal and public scrutiny hot seat.

They have another thing in common: They knew that by claiming to be victims of a long-standing diabolical plot to malign and dehumanize Black men, especially prominent Black icons, they could get a sympathetic ear and a circle-the-wagons pushback by many African Americans.

Here‘s the great damage done by wantonly screaming racism, and it has nothing to do with the proverbial crying wolf. It has everything to do with taking the legitimate sting, public outrage, and action that real racial acts stir. Manufacturing a racial assault, which almost always is uncovered, does give aid and comfort to the Fox News talking heads and those who delight in finger-pointing at Blacks for screaming race about everything. At the very least, it’s counterproductive.

With Smollett, a jury will decide whether he was indeed the victim of a racist hate crime. However, when there are clouds of doubt about his or any other such claim, one would be wise to put instant belief on pause and wait to make sure the claim is fact. Smollett is the best warning of that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.