We are barely two months into 2019, and the United States has already been rocked by struggles and tragedy, revealing some of the serious flaws in our country. The government shutdown alone highlighted the social, political and economic issues facing our society, not to mention serious issues in governmental structure and function. Another such incident which has revealed flaws in our society is the hate crime committed against actor, musician and openly queer black figure Jussie Smollett.
In the early hours of January 29, Smollett was attacked on the streets of downtown Chicago. He had gone out for a late night snack when he was assaulted by two unknown men. They placed a makeshift noose around Smollett’s neck, and poured an unknown chemical, possibly bleach, on his clothes, all while beating him, shouting derogatory slurs and reportedly declaring, “This is MAGA country.”
This last detail is a reference to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. Through their words, actions and inaction, the current administration indulges and condones the discriminatory fantasies of some Americans that have rightfully been denied for years, particularly under the previous presidential administration.
One such moment occurred during 2017, Trump’s first year in office. In an interview with a legal scholar from the New Yorker. The president made disturbing jokes about Vice President Mike Pence’s homophobic beliefs. When asked about LGBTQ+ Americans and issues, the president gestured to Pence and jokingly said, “Don’t ask that guy- he wants to hang them all!” It’s moments like these, made in public statements, which establish a norm for the country and validate the dangerous beliefs of our nationalist citizens.
On Thursday, Jan. 31, openly lesbian actress Ellen Page spoke out against Mike Pence on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, in relation to the assault of Jussie Smollett. During the interview Page told Colbert: “Let’s be clear: The vice president of America wishes I didn’t have the love [I have] with my wife. He wanted to ban that in Indiana. He believes in conversion therapy. He has hurt LGBTQ people so badly as the governor of Indiana.” This is my point. The open promotion of bigotry at the highest level of government in our nation is an encouragement of bigotry to our nation. The beliefs of Vice President Mike Pence, combined with his political and social power, are literally and figuratively harmful; they promote a culture of hate where violence is justified by it.
Smollett has since reportedly recovered, and in a statement released following the attack, Smollett said, “My body is strong, but my soul is stronger.” He also wanted to make clear in the public announcement that his assault is not an isolated incident, and he’s right. In a report released last year by the FBI which presented the hate crime statistics for 2017, nearly 16 percent of reported hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation. Hate crimes against black individuals increased 16 percent from 2016 to 2017, jumping from a total of 1,739 reported incidents to 2,013.
I believe that it is important to stop here and stress that these are reported hate crimes- incidents which the assaulted individual felt safe or confident enough to bring the matter to the police. According to the Department of Justice, between 2011 and 2015, 54 percent of hate crimes went unreported. To narrow down even further what the FBI statistics consist of, their findings only represent those reported hate crimes which were taken seriously by police- this means incidents which were formally documented, and willingly reported to the FBI for these statistics. In short, this is a grossly incomplete picture of the bigotry facing minority groups in the United States.
To make matters worse and to further drive home Smollett’s point, this FBI report is only making the rounds in popular media feeds in the wake of an assault on a celebrity. But it is not just Jussie Smollett who has been targeted. Literally thousands of people are being attacked in this country every year on the basis of their race and sexuality.
While I hope the perpetrators of Smollett’s assault are caught and punished, I hope even more that meaningful social, political and legal reform will come of this. In light of the assault, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California have called upon Congress to pass their bill which would categorize lynching as a federal hate crime. Senator Harris called Smollett’s assault a “modern day lynching.” If we do not use these tragedies as a means of reflection and betterment for our society, we will never change our ways, and we will watch these same stories unfold time and time again.
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