Actor Jussie Smollett may well have lied, committed mail fraud, paid off accomplices, and, of course, staged a fake racist, anti-gay attack on himself.
He may have badly tarnished the credibility of those who legitimately and justifiably demand justice when they are the victims of racial and homophobic slurs, insults, and, yes, physical attacks.
He may have schemed and connived to use the fake attack as a steppingstone to advance his acting career. He may have banked that his scream of racism and homophobic assault would predictably stir and enrage legions of outraged civil rights activists, entertainers and political leaders to denounce the alleged attack and rally to his defense.
Yes, he may well have done those despicable things. And for that there should be a price to be paid. But that price could and should not have been paid in a courtroom.
Start with Chicago police officials. They just couldn’t let the investigation, the evidence and the testimony of his alleged accomplices speak for itself.
No, there was a police commissioner holding a nationally televised press conference and then following that up by making like a reality show star trotting around on national talk shows declaring that police had Smollett dead to right and he was guilty as sin.
Next, you had media that feasted on every ounce of titillation about Smollett and the case. This firmly planted the notion that Smollett was a self-serving, attention-grubbing and greedy bad guy.
The final thing against Smollett was the outrageous, outlandish and beyond overkill multi-count grand jury indictment. Talk about throwing the legal kitchen sink at a guy.
That quickly turned the public tide. Politicians, much of the public and scores of blacks who had jumped quickly on the Smollett-is-a racial-martyr bandwagon, just as quickly jumped off.
He was written out of his fairly prominent role on the “Empire” series and the producers left little doubt that he likely wouldn’t be back. All claimed they had been both gamed and played. The back pedal from him was nothing short of breath taking.
Smollet was tried, convicted and sentenced by media-struck police and city officials and a media that shamelessly fed on the Smollett is guilty line. That made the betting odds good that if he ever did wind up in a trial docket, the legal taint of the case was so malodorous that he had a good chance to get most if not all the charges tossed at trial or on appeal.
There was one other thing that badly muddied the Smollett escapade. He is young, black, male and gay. These are the prime attributes that seemingly make him a prime target. They also made him an inviting, if not natural, target for the type of instant guilt assumption that propelled Chicago police officials to boast publicly that they had their man.
At that point, Smollett became not simply a suspect and a defendant in a criminal case, but a stereotype.
It’s the shortest of short steps to believe that if Smollet can be depicted as a caricature of the negative image that much of the public still harbors about young black males, then that image seems real, even more credible, and the consequences are just as predictable.
The hope was that former President Barack Obama’s election buried once and for all negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat racial stereotypes posed to the safety and well-being of black males. It did no such thing.
Immediately after Obama’s election, teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty, crime and blacks remained just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceived those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black.
The study did more than affirm that race, poverty and crime were firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it’s virtually impossible to root out. That’s hardly new either.
In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope peddling gang bangers and drive-by shooters.
The Penn State study found that even when blacks didn’t commit a specific crime, whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African American.
Subsequent studies in the years since then have found little has changed. Researchers still found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. Many still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn’t commit them.
Smollett then was guilty in the media and public eye of faking the attack on himself, whether he did it or not. That’s not what the law is supposed to be about and because of that, Smollett deserved to walk.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the new eBook, “The Second Death of Michael Jackson” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.