Three weeks after claiming he was attacked by a pair of masked men yelling racist and homophobic slurs, Empire actor Jussie Smollett turned himself in to Chicago police on Thursday. Smollett has been charged with filing a fake police report portraying himself as the victim of a hate crime. Attorneys for the actor say they intend to mount “an aggressive defense” of the charges.
Shortly after a police press conference Thursday, President Trump tweeted at the actor. “@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA.”
The tweet felt familiar, reminiscent of ones that the president, a climate change denier, likes to send when there is a snow storm or unseasonably low temperatures, that confuse individual weather events with long-term changes in the planet’s climate. The difference is one of scale, and it’s the same difference the president is flouting when he chooses Smollett’s arrest as the occasion to call out “racist and dangerous” rhetoric.
One of the reasons that the strange saga unfolding in Chicago has attracted outsize media attention is because it is so unusual. False reports of hate crimes are exceedingly rare. Between 2016 and 2018, there were approximately two dozen false reports, either confirmed or suspected, according to figures compiled by the Center on Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. That’s a fraction of the several thousand hate crimes documented by the federal government over the same period.
The day before the president tweeted at Smollett, the Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual Year in Hate report, a snapshot of the long-term trends of hate crimes in America. The report found that, for the fourth year in a row, the number of hate groups in the United States grew in 2018. The SPLC counted 1,020 of them, the most the organization has seen since it began keeping track in 1999.
The number of hate groups it counted represents a 30 percent increase from 2014; a rise, the watchdog notes, that coincides with Trump’s ascent to the national stage. “The trend is unmistakable,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s intelligence project, in a video released with the report. “Trump has energized the radical right by fanning the flames of racial resentment over immigration and the country’s changing demographics.”
SPLC notes that white nationalist groups have grown 50 percent in the last year alone; there are now 148 chapters scattered around the country. Efforts to spread their message increased at the same time. There were 746 “flyering” incidents on campuses around the country this year, compared to 263 reported last year. The death toll from hate attacks more than doubled over the last year: 40 people were killed by white supremacists in North America, compared to 17 in 2017.
The reality is that, like the global temperature, hate crimes are steadily rising in America. And as with climate change, there is a danger in discounting a larger body of evidence because of an eye-popping anecdote that contradicts it. At a press conference on Thursday, a visibly frustrated Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson worried that might be the outcome of the fevered Smollett coverage.
“My concern is that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen,” Johnson said. He added, “I only hope the truth of what happened receives the same amount of attention the hoax did.”