The details of the attack on Empire star Jussie Smollett are shocking.
But in America, the occurrence of racist, homophobic hate crime should come as no shock.
In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation—which, as ABC News reported on Tuesday evening, is now assisting in the investigation into an earlier threat allegedly made against Smollett by mail—has seen a recent increase in reports of hate crimes that were motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.
As the New York City Anti-Violence Project noted in a statement as the news about Smollett broke, “gay black men are some of the most vulnerable to violence in the LGBTQ community.”
The 36-year-old actor and singer, who came out to Ellen DeGeneres in 2015, told Chicago police early Tuesday morning that two assailants hit him in the face while yelling racist and homophobic slurs, poured an “unknown substance” on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck.
Smollett had just arrived in Chicago from New York to film Empire and said he had gone to Subway for a late-night bite before the attack took place.
The police initially told reporters that they were not aware of the phrase “MAGA country” being shouted by Smollett's assailants, as TMZ had originally reported. Smollett said in a follow-up police interview that his attackers had indeed shouted the phrase.
Chicago police are investigating the Smollett incident as a “possible hate crime.” On Wednesday, a spokesperson revealed, via Twitter, that “detectives located a surveillance camera that shows potential persons of interest wanted for questioning in reference to the assault & battery of Empire actor. A community alert w/ photos is being constructed and will be disseminated shortly.”
In the wave of emotional reactions to the alleged assault on social media, a debate arose about whether Chicago qualified as “MAGA country”—but the truth is that violent attacks on LGBT people, especially LGBT people of color, are all not uncommon in this country, whether it’s a “MAGA” region or not.
In 2017, the FBI counted 1,303 offenses reported by law enforcement agencies to have been motivated by sexual-orientation bias. That was an increase from 1,218 such offenses in 2016 and a comparable 1,219 offenses the year before.
It’s hard to say definitively whether the actual number of these offenses is on the rise because, as the Human Rights Campaign recently noted, reporting hate crimes to the FBI is not mandatory and the data is therefore incomplete.
The HRC also observed—citing 2017 FBI data—that hate crimes targeting black people made up 28 percent of all such offenses. In 2017, that amounted to 2,358 offenses—the highest number out of any type of reported hate crime that year.
In total, hate crimes rose in 2017 by 17 per cent (from 6.121 attacks in 2016 to 7,175 in 2017), with 2,013 aimed at African-Americans and 938 against Jewish Americans.
“Nearly three out of five hate crimes were motivated by race and ethnicity,” the New York Times reported. “Religion and sexual orientation were the other two primary motivators.”
“This shocking attack on our friend and tremendous advocate Jussie Smollett is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “There is an alarming epidemic of hate violence in our country that disproportionately targets Black people, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities—and particularly those living at the intersections of multiple identities.”
Every day, on average, there are at least three reported offenses motivated by homophobia or biphobia—not to mention the violent crimes against transgender people as well as offenses that go unreported.
It’s sadly not challenging to find incidents of horrific violence against LGBT people in the United States—nor are they confined to so-called “MAGA” country, as reported attacks in places like New York City and Seattle prove.
In 2017, to cite one example, a 29-year-old Mississippi man was sentenced to nearly 50 years in prison for killing a young transgender woman named Mercedes Williamson.
As the Department of Justice noted in a press release, the man shocked her with a stun gun, stabbed her multiple times, hit her with a hammer, and then tried to claim that he had murdered her “in a panic” upon discovering that she was transgender—even though he had long been aware of that fact.
Smollett's attack has received widespread publicity due to his fame, while the shooting of a black trans woman known as Pinky in Houston, Texas, as reported by Monica Roberts' TransGriot blog, has received considerably less.
In 2016, an Atlanta man was sentenced to 40 years in prison for pouring a pot of boiling water over two gay men as they slept together in bed. (“It was just a little hot water,” the man was reported to have said.) As the Washington Post reported, he could not be charged with a hate crime because Georgia has no hate crimes law.
By contrast, the state of Illinois, where Smollett reported his attack, has a hate crimes law that covers both sexual orientation and gender identity—one of 18 states to have such legislation in place, along with the District of Columbia.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, which tracks this legislation, 12 states have hate crimes laws that include sexual orientation but not gender identity, while an additional 20 states do not cover either category or have no hate crimes law.
That means it is often only possible to prosecute anti-LGBT hate crimes as such under federal law—specifically the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Williamson murder, for example, was the first successful use of the Shepard-Byrd Act in history to prosecute a crime targeting a transgender victim.
Even then, the Shepard-Byrd Act is an imperfect tool. As the Associated Press recently reported in a 20-year-retrospective on the legislation, the federal law has produced relatively few convictions in crimes with LGBT victims. The impact of the legislation, as groups like Lambda Legal and the HRC told the AP, can be measured mostly in its ripple effects on state and local enforcement—and through its symbolic impact on our culture.
As news of the alleged assault spread across social media, lawmakers joined in the Twitter reaction—but few offered concrete proposals to help curb anti-LGBT violence. Former Vice President Joe Biden said that “homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts.” Congresswoman Maxine Waters called for the “culprits” to be brought “to justice.” House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked that “we all commit to ending this hate once and for all.”
Democratic Senator Cory Booker and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris both renewed their calls to supplement the Shepard-Byrd Act with a law that specifically criminalizes lynching, as The Advocate reported.
On Twitter, both senators called the Smollett attack an “attempted modern-day lynching.” Their bill passed the Senate in December by a unanimous vote but did not have time to go to a vote before the House by the end of the 2018 legislative session and so far has not been taken up again.
President Donald Trump, who promised in his 2016 acceptance speech to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens,” has not tweeted about the alleged attack—but has tweeted about caravans and the border wall.
As MediaMatters noted, many “MAGA” accounts on social media have been theorizing that the attack was a hoax, thereby affecting social media search algorithms for those looking for further information on the story.
Meanwhile, as LGBT advocates have long observed, there are concrete steps that could help reduce anti-LGBT hate crimes in the United States, like Congress making reporting mandatory for local law enforcement agencies, state legislatures passing LGBT-inclusive hate crimes laws if they don’t have them already, or local police departments working to gain the trust of the LGBT community so they feel more comfortable reporting.
It’s clear that the the Jussie Smollett attack has had a tremendous emotional impact; whether that impact translates into remedial political action remains to be seen.