While the extent of Jussie Smollett’s grandiose deception is still being determined, the jig is quite unceremoniously up. The Empire star allegedly orchestrated and paid Nigerian actors to take place in his scheme, an arranged racially motivated assault in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood on January 29, 2019. As of February 18th, the false report is allegedly being presented to a grand jury for a decision on formally pursuing the lie in a court of law.
When the attack was quickly flagged as proof of the dangerous social climate for people of colour and sexual minorities, the case’s subsequent collapse became flagged as the opposite—a veritable criminal hacky sack. The political undertones existed from the moment the news broke, with major politicians and celebrities chiming in to signal and “send love” as Ariana Grande put it.
All of this undeveloped discourse has led me to ask: what is a hate crime, exactly? It’s not difficult to understand the legal definition, being a crime motivated by a particular prejudice or bias, but even that raises questions. Are all crimes, especially those which seek to physically harm or end the lives of the victim, motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice? Why is a racist murdering an individual because of their skin color more heinous than a husband murdering his wife because of a suspected affair, or a daughter murdering her mother because she wouldn’t let her see a certain boy?
Any true crime fanatic likely has a mental repertoire of horrific crimes committed for reasons ranging from the bizarre to the benign—each arguably no more or less absurd than skin colour, hair texture, eye shape, or sexuality. But the concept of “hate crime” denotes that these reasons are not only more irrational in logic than, say, a murder committed over sneakers, but that they are also more traumatic.
Put simply, hate crimes are the only types of crime that primarily focus on the social dynamics and identities of the individuals involved, rather than the actions perpetrated. Hate crimes can be, and are, easily exploited to meet political ends, with very little outrage over the manipulation of someone’s pain for another’s benefit because that’s their entire purpose. The creation of a superlative category of criminal activity, one meant to be considered particularly sinister in its motivation.
To demonstrate the absurdity of that point, I’d like to recall a case I reviewed in depth during my time studying criminology in college. Unfamiliar to almost no one, the 1999 Columbine High School shooting sent shockwaves across the world. Twelve students and one teacher were murdered during the unconscionable attack perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Among the passed was one hardworking African-American student by the name of Isaiah Shoels.
Shoels’ parents campaigned for particular recognition of their son’s death as a hate crime, specifically resulting from the general condition of racist hate, which understandably upset many Columbine parents and community members. During the subsequent lawsuit the Columbine parents waged against the gun suppliers Harris and Klebold sourced their weapons from, the Shoels had to be forced to accept the ultimate settlement by the court, feeling entitled to more than the other parents received because of their son’s race.
If Isaiah’s pain had been stamped a hate crime, it would have removed all caps on punitive damages, and significantly increased the Shoels’ settlements. The Shoels’ also perused separate lawsuits against the school and the parents of the killers, all while championing the issue of hate crimes on national television.
While I could never purport to understand the pain a parent must go through when forced to bury their child, the Shoels’ contention proves a rather interesting thought experiment on hate crimes. Ultimately, their assertion was that they did suffer more than the other families who also lost their loved ones that same day, in the same crime. That the introduction of racial dynamics into the crime made Isaiah’s death much worse.
And that is the problem.
Did Harris and Klebold not hate everyone in that school they murdered in cold blood? Why is the hate they might have felt towards Isaiah in need of special condemnation? Why is the hate of any murderer, batterer, rapist, or creep less significant if their motivation was not identity-based?
If criminal sentencing serves the function of attempting to place a value on the consequences of an individual’s actions, then hate crime designations provide some individuals with more value than others, even if every other element of the crime was equal to another where the identities did not have that magic mix.
If you are a black woman who was attacked by a white man, your suffering has more value than if you were the same person attacked by anyone else. There is something so fundamentally absurd about that, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. It’s even been difficult to articulate this post.
Returning to Jussie Smollett, while his case continues to deteriorate, it has proved an interesting study in the public perception of hate crimes. They’re a purely political artefact, snatched and hoarded by whatever group feels entitled to utilize them for the benefit of their agenda.
They’re exploited and sensationalized like no other crime, demanding fanfare manhunts and fanfare charges to meet the inflated idea of their prevalence and importance. But even if the official designation were to disappear overnight, the continued use would remain, and the results would be the same:
Nothing of benefit to anyone.