Smollett Case Highlights Reasons for Skepticism About Hate Crime Statistics

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"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett's hoax of the racial and homophobic attacks against him by Trump supporters is just the latest in a long line of racial hoaxes since the 1980s. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Staff/Getty Images)

Update: The Chicago Police Department took “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett into custody early Thursday on a charge of making a false report to police. “Bogus police reports cause real harm,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at a press conference announcing Smollett’s arrest.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good narrative.

For a time, that’s what happened in the case of Jussie Smollett, a gay, black actor who stars in the show “Empire,” who claimed he was the victim of a vicious and brutal hate crime in Chicago. On Wednesday, Smollett was charged with filing a false police report and disorderly conduct, according to Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

The case received national attention, in part due to Smollett’s celebrity and his immediate openness to the media, and in part because of how media and pundits latched on to the story.

The underlying narrative was that, because of President Donald Trump, violent hate crimes against minorities are rising. Smollett’s story—that he was beaten by two men who poured bleach on him, tied a noose around his neck, and yelled, “This is MAGA country”—fit the narrative just too perfectly, which is why more reservations from the get-go would have served everyone well.

But that skepticism was notably absent. Celebrities and politicians couldn’t help themselves from jumping in to condemn not just the crime itself, but a large section of the American population.

While you won’t hear this from mainstream media, much of the talk about hate crimes lacks crucial context.

For instance, a report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a far-left organization, claims that there is an all-time high number of hate groups since it began tracking in the 1980s.

Media out outlets ran headlines like “Trump ‘Fear-Mongering’ Fuels Rise of U.S. Hate Groups to Record: Watchdog,” and “President Trump Blamed for Rise in Hate Groups to Record High in New Report.

Of course, it makes sense that there would be more hate groups on SPLC’s list given that its definition of what constitutes a hate group continues to expand, extending to mainstream social conservative organizations like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom.

Furthermore, we have seen numerous hoaxes in recent years—in some cases, misreported incidents that turned out to be different from initial reports. Many of these were compiled on Twitter by Quillette’s Andy Ngo.

Peter Hasson at The Daily Caller News Foundation also catalogued 19 “hate crimes” in the Trump era that turned out much different than the media initially reported. This list included a woman who said a man threatened to light her on fire if she didn’t remove her hijab, which turned out to be untrue, and a Texas waitress who faked a racist note about Hispanics she said she received on a receipt.

It also bears noting that the data on “rising” hate crimes is deeply unclear, as Reason’s Robby Soave has documented.

“While it’s true that the FBI’s count of hate crimes rose 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, it’s important to note that 1,000 additional agencies reported information to the FBI in the latter year,” Soave wrote. “It should go without saying, but as the number of agencies participating in the FBI’s count of hate crimes grows more numerous, the total number of hate crimes will undoubtedly rise. This does not necessarily mean that hate crimes are surging—just that the authorities undercounted them previously.”

Soave then explained how one statistic about rising anti-Semitism, which the Anti-Defamation League said had risen 57 percent under Trump, “reflected an increase in bomb threats against U.S.-based Jewish institutions perpetrated by just one person: a deranged Israeli teenager. Anti-Semitic violence, according to the [Anti-Defamation League’s] count, actually decreased 47 percent.”

This is not to say that these sorts of crimes aren’t happening, or that they aren’t actually on the rise. It is just misleading to make such a claim based on the available data.

Unfortunately, too many are willing to make snap judgments, despite the examples of hate crime hoaxes.

Just consider the reaction to Smollett, who has gone from victim to suspect over the course of a month.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the Smollett incident “a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country.”

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