Hate Crimes, Hoaxes, and Identity Politics

There are individuals who see opportunity in manufacturing victimhood around identity. At a personal level it’s prestige-seeking behavior. As victims they become the center of attention. But it’s more than narcissism that inspires hoaxes like the one Jussie Smollett, star of the popular TV show Empire, recently perpetrated. To be sure, being black and gay, the potential prestige was for Smollett substantial in a culture that values identity over accomplishment. In orchestrating a context for a fake hate crime by faking a letter telegraphing its details, Smollett could star in his own mini-drama, a compelling story about personal sacrifice in the epic struggle against the ubiquitous forces of whiteness and heterosexism. He could do his bit to support the narrative that America, always problematic, is, with the election of Donald Trump, now in the throes of fascist reaction. In the end, however, authorities couldn’t suspend their disbelief. Neither could I.

Identitarians, on the other hand, took the bait hook, line, and sinker. The story slotted too perfectly into the logic of their brand of politics. Democratic presidential hopefuls Cory Booker and Kamala Harris wasted little time in characterizing the hoax as a “modern-day lynching,” Booker telling reporters that “bigoted and biased attacks are on the rise” and using the incident to tout anti-lynching legislation he and Harris introduced in the US Senate (which passed unanimously on February 14). Booker repeated the meme that “since 9/11 a majority of the terrorist attacks on our soil have been right-wing terrorist attacks, a majority of them white supremacist attacks.” Amplifying the senator’s profile as an impressive force in the black community, USA Today implied that Booker’s notoriety made him a potential target of white supremacist violence. “Booker’s social media celebrity has turned him into a household name,” the outlet noted; “with that he became a focus for those unsettled at the sight of an educated, ambitious African-American unapologetically pledging an inclusive, post-Trump America.”

Manufacturing group oppression is an age-old tactic in the area of ideological warfare. Simulating victimhood is part of dissimulating ambition for privilege. Christianity is a useful example. Through the ages, Christians have been deft at weaving a story of persecution and martyrdom to disguise their power. Their big lie was unraveled by Notre Dame professor of New Testament and early Christianity Candida Moss (a practicing Catholic) in The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. In her book, Moss writes that “the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years.” Meanwhile, Christianity established itself as the hegemonic ideology of the Roman Empire, a degenerate system then sliding into a fascistic state; Christians used a rhetoric of victimhood and persecution to depict those they marginalized as hateful and oppressive. Christians weren’t fed to lions. They weren’t executed for refusing to deny their savior. They invented a history to advance their authority over others.

The New Church of Identity works with the same playbook. In Smollett The Resistance™ had a would-be martyr whose sacrifice would stand as a testament to the truth that the red MAGA hats worn by Trump supporter represent the new Ku Klux Klan hood. So, on January 22, Smollett received a threatening letter from “MAGA,” which contained crude drawings of a lynching and a hand gun. On January 29, two men, wearing red hats and yelling “MAGA country,” put a noose around Smollett neck and splashed bleach on his clothing. He paid them $3500 up front, plus cash to buy rope, red hats, and bleach, and promised to pay them $500 after the job. The police easily tracked them down and got to the truth of the matter.

Less than two weeks earlier there was another hate crime hoax involving MAGA hats. On January 18, 2019, in Washington DC, a band of American Indian activists led by Nathan Phillips attempted to intimidate a Covington Catholic high school student wearing a MAGA hat. Phillips is a notorious self-promoter and hoaxer who had repeatedly lied about his war record (claiming he served in Vietnam) and, in 2015, claimed Eastern Michigan University students, dressed as American Indians, attacked him. I wrote about Phillip’s latest scam in Sacred Drumming versus the Covington Catholic Kids: Shark Jumping or the Death of Truth? so I won’t recount the details here. It will suffice to say that, not bothering to vet Phillips, the media flipped the story, depicting the student as the perpetrator. More than just this one student, actually. It was a large gathering of high school students waiting for their bus at the Lincoln Memorial. They were condemned en masse, portrayed as a Trump-inspired lynch mob. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, Moveon.org described the situation this way: “A group of teenagers in MAGA hats surrounded and harassed an elder Native American veteran yesterday at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC.” Anne Helen Peterson, holding a doctorate in media studies no less, evoked Eichmann, tweeting: “It’s the look of white patriarchy, of course, but that familiarity—that banality—is part of what prompts the visceral reaction. This isn’t spectacular. It’s life in America.” Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing at UC-Riverside, invited violence against the teenager, tweeting: “Honest Question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” Actor Alyssa Milano tweeted: “The red MAGA hat is the new white hood.” And thus it appears an scheme was hatched in Smollett’s mind.

Fake hate crimes are a small percentage of hate crimes identified by the FBI. However, the claim that Trump’s election and rhetoric has sharply increased hate crimes is not obvious based on the statistics. The FBI defines a “hate crime” as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” The bureau clarifies that it does not treat hate itself as a crime, being “mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.” A hate crime is thus any crime with an added element of bias. Most hate crime is directed at individuals. By substantial margins, the main targets of racially-biased crimes are blacks, of religious-biased crimesJews, and of sexual-orientation biased crimes gay men.

The FBI has been publishing reports on hate crimes since 2011. In that year there were 7713 victims of hate crimes. In 2012, there was a 7.4% decrease in hate crime victims (7164). In 2013, a 1% increase (7242). In 2014, a 7% decrease (6727). Thus over a four-year period, the nation enjoyed a 13.6% overall decrease in the victims of hate crimes. However, this trend was reversed the following year. In 2015, there was a 6.4% increase (7173) and in 2016, a 5% increase (7615). Thus from its 2014 low of 6727, the nation saw a 12.4% rise in the victims of hate crime rise by the end of 2016. The latest published statistics are from 2017 and indicate a continuation of this trend, showing a 10.9% increase in hate crimes (8,493) from the previous year. Trump’s policies and rhetoric have been blamed for the increase, however the upward trend in victims started in the last two years of the Obama Administration, and it isn’t clear to what we should attribute this increase. Moreover, the percentage of those crimes classified as anti-Hispanic or Latino bias remained unchanged over 2017, as did the number of victims from transgender bias, and the percentage of those classified as victims of anti-Islamic hate crimes decreased by 28% over Trump’s first term as president. One might expect given the president’s rhetoric that the proportions would shift in the other direction.

The sharpest increase in hate crimes involves Jews. Again, it’s not clear what in the president’s rhetoric would inspire that, as he has expressed sympathy and deference towards Israel and the Jewish people. Perhaps his support for Israel—recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, for example—is what has provoked that increase? I discuss the contradictory place in which the Trump phenomenon finds itself with respect to antisemitism in The Trump Mood and Political Violence. Perhaps Trump is more of an effect of the rise in hate than a cause of it? We need more data. While 2018 numbers may tell us a different story, we will have to wait on the FBI to release those data.

Update 9/17/2019: Wilfred Reilly, who holds a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law and is on the faculty of Kentucky State University, finds that of the fewer than one in three high profile hate crime allegations are genuine. His examples are Air Force Academy, Eastern Michigan, Hopewell Baptist, Yasmin Seweid, Jussie Smollett, and Yasmin Seweid. He published his findings in Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War (published February 2019, the month I posted this entry). For the book, Reilly assembled a data set of hundreds of hate crime allegations (focused on the past five years), and finds that most of them to be hoaxes on the basis of reports in mainstream national or regional news sources. See this Wall Street Journal article to read more about this. His basic argument is that because racism and bias crimes are actually quite rare, there is a motive to manufacture the illusion that they are problem in order to advance the identity grievance industry.

Wilfred Reilly, Kentucky State University political science professor

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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