When Jussie Smollett’s bombshell story of being assaulted in a vicious hate crime first surfaced on Jan. 29, it encapsulated the worst aspects of an America riven by racial and ethnic tension, homophobia, intolerance, xenophobia and unchecked aggression toward perceived enemies.

Now that Chicago police say they have debunked the “Empire” actor’s key claims, and he is facing a felony charge of filing a false police report, the scandal remains an indictment of an increasingly polarized cultural moment. Smollett has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

The fast-developing story has fed directly into the divisions between right and left, white and black, urban and rural, gay and straight, and binary and nonbinary gender identifications that have spurred a level of paranoia frequently compared with that of the McCarthy era. The deleterious effects of the 24/7 stream of agitprop and outrage that fuels social media only add to the toxic stew.

“This is a tragedy no matter what,” says Van Jones, CNN host and political commentator, who is founder of the Oakland-based nonprofit Dream Corps. “Either he’s telling the truth and not being believed or more likely he’s let down millions of fans and certainly hurt the cause of social justice for the true victims of hate crimes. Either way, we’re seeing a tragedy unfold.”

The Smollett case has grabbed the public’s attention not just because he’s a celebrity but because the dizzying arc of his fall from grace — after generating so much sympathy as a victim — so perfectly reflects the debates raging in a hyperactive and information-saturated news environment. Smollett was instantly catapulted into the global spotlight, some might say by his own design.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor at the University of Florida, has studied more than 100 racial hoaxes, involving both white people inventing black assailants and black people inventing white attackers. In the latter case, she says the assault is typically portrayed as a hate crime.

“This case fits right in,” she says. “It’s drawn as this fight for social justice and recognition.” With all the combustible elements — race, violence, fraud, celebrity and Trump — it was a media storm in the making. “It’s a story that everyone can talk about.”

Smollett was arrested Feb. 21 and released on $100,000 bail. He continues to assert that he is telling the truth about the devastating ambush.

A week after he earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for his work on “Empire,” Smollett was dropped from the final two episodes of the Chicago-based production’s 18-episode order for Season 5. His status on a presumed Season 6 is highly questionable. In the estimation of many, Smollett’s career in entertainment is effectively over, irreparably damaged as reaction to his stunning downfall runs the gamut from snickering to scorn.

“This is a moment where everybody needs to take a step back and look in the mirror,” Jones says. “You don’t get something this big and this messy unless there are a lot of things going wrong in the culture.”

Smollett’s story has garnered worldwide attention because it touched so many raw nerves. The actor told police that he was jumped by two men wearing ski masks who yelled homophobic and racial slurs and told him that Chicago was “MAGA country.”

“You don’t get something this big and this messy unless there are a lot of things going wrong in the culture.”
Van Jones

The reference to President Donald Trump’s signature slogan instantly turned the incident into a political act in addition to a hate crime. Smollett also said the men, who have since cooperated with police, poured a substance thought to be bleach on him and tied a rope around his neck in a noose-like fashion. The claims painted a picture of a real-world “Purge” mentality surfacing to endanger the lives of those in historically marginalized communities.

False claims about Trump supporters only widen the trust gap, making it harder for everyone to unclench fists and find common ground. But Trump also bears some blame for the current environment, asserts Jones.

“Unfortunately, we have seen people use dishonesty, manipulation and divisive rhetoric and make it to the White House,” he says. “The idea of alternative facts, and people only caring about their own tribes and selective outrage — this is not just a Jussie issue. This has leached out from the White House into our whole political culture.”

At the same time, Smollett’s case offers a lesson for the body politic about the danger of making instant judgments on social media — as many celebrities and politicians did — about abuse and misconduct claims. “We have to ask ourselves, are we overreacting to centuries of oppressed people not being believed to the point where we are creating an incentive for people to say things that aren’t true to get our support?” Jones suggests.

In an extraordinary public rebuke, Chicago Police Dept. Superintendent Eddie Johnson detailed the investigation that led authorities to determine that Smollett staged the incident with two acquaintances, who were paid $3,500. Johnson, who is African-American, didn’t hide his disdain for having to devote time and money to investigate what police believe to be a bogus claim spurred in part by Smollett’s “dissatisfaction” with his “Empire” salary. Most contemptible, in the view of Johnson and others, was Smollett’s willingness to “take advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”

Using a noose to invoke the harrowing history of African-Americans facing lynch mobs was a flash point for many observers.

“I’m left hanging my head and asking why,” Johnson said Feb. 21 during a news conference following Smollett’s arrest. “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”

Smollett, here with A.Z. Kelsey on Fox’s “Empire,” has been dropped from the season’s final two episodes.
Courtesy of Fox

CNN’s Jones also calls the use of a noose “the heart of the offense” for those concerned with social justice. He points to the irony that the history of lynching was put in sharp relief last year when civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson at long last opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Smollett himself appeared in an episode of the Epix documentary series “America Divided” devoted to hate crimes that included a visit to the Peace and Justice memorial.

Marc Feldman, a psychiatrist who specializes in factitious disorders, says that patients who make false reports typically do so out of a need for nurturing.
“They want to be cared for. They want to be honored and respected and loved,” Feldman says. “This behavior helps achieve that goal. They may have a lot of apparent success in life, but it’s not enough.” Feldman adds that some people may concoct false scenarios as a way of reasserting control over their situations. Some may also get a thrill from misleading people.

“This may have been the ultimate game and sport for Mr. Smollett,” Feldman says. “I think it was ultimately a selfish gesture.”

“Selfish” is the last word that Smollett’s friends and co-workers would use to describe the actor, who became a fan favorite for his role as the openly gay son Jamal who clashes with his music mogul father on “Empire.” Smollett has been highly regarded by Fox executives as a team player and tireless supporter of the show. The esteem with which he was held has made the turn of events since Jan. 29 that much harder for those around him to process.

Jones, who has done extensive work in the field of criminal justice reform and rehabilitation, maintains that there is still hope for Smollett, if guilty, to turn his reputation around.

“In the fullness of time, forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation are possible in all things,” he says. “He’s still a very young guy and a very talented guy. I don’t think God is finished with Jussie Smollett yet.”

Gene Maddaus contributed to this story.