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A Look At Why Victims Of Hate Crimes Often Aren't Believed


All week, we've been covering the changing story of Jussie Smollett. He's the "Empire" actor who was arrested and charged with filing a false police report. Smollett is black and gay, and Chicago police say he faked a hate-crime attack against him. We're going to take a step back now and look at one of the broader issues this story raises. Here's something Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson said during a news conference yesterday.


EDDIE JOHNSON: My concern is that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn't happen.

SHAPIRO: Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team has been thinking about who gets believed when they say they've been a victim of a crime. And we should note that our conversation will include a graphic description of a lynching. Hi, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. How are you, man?

SHAPIRO: I'm good. There is a long, sad history in this country of people being attacked because of their race or sexual orientation or other reasons. Historically, who has been believed in these kinds of cases?

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, these stories have always been about the illegitimacy of the victims in a lot of ways, right? Throughout American history, we can find these really, really powerful examples of people who could not cross the sort of threshold for credibility. If you look at the first-ever spectacle lynching in the United States, which was in 1893, in Paris, Texas, 10,000 people - the entire town of Paris, Texas - came to see a black man who was falsely accused of a crime be tortured and burned at the stake in the town square. It was on the front page of the paper. The governor of Texas called for investigations. He wanted someone to be arrested for it, and that never happened because the victim was seen as illegitimate.

And that kind of lynching, just as an example of these kind of hate crimes, happened for the next 40 years in America. They were very public. And in some ways, the spectacle of those attacks, the sheer, like, heinousness of them, was a way for the people who were skeptical about those attacks to sort of weigh them off, like, oh, well...

SHAPIRO: It seems like in so many of these early cases especially, the details were so extreme and gruesome and grisly that it was hard for people to believe those kinds of things actually happened, even if there were thousands of witnesses.

DEMBY: And that's the thing, right? When the Jussie Smollett case first came to attention, like, the details of it seemed sort of outlandish and, like, sort of hard to piece together. But if you look at the details of any of these famous hate crime cases, whether you're talking about Matthew Shepard, or whether it's about James Byrd in Texas, you hear all these details that feel so gruesome and so random and thorough, like, even though they're random that it's almost hard to wrap your mind around how people could be so cruel. And yet, that is the rule.

SHAPIRO: So that's the history. But more recently, there have been movements, from Black Lives Matter, to #MeToo, that argue victims should be believed. How is this changing the conversation?

DEMBY: Right. I mean, part of what they're trying to do is to, like, shift the gravity of legitimacy to people who haven't historically been legitimate. And so part of that is, when people tell their stories, let's take them seriously. So we don't have great numbers on what the universe of hate crimes looks like in the United States right now. Part of that is because hate crimes are underreported. Part of that is because some states don't even count them. But Brian Levin, who's the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, he's tried his best to keep track. And he says that just from the data that they have that hate crime hoaxes are exceedingly rare.

BRIAN LEVIN: Over the last three years, we've counted about 48. During that time, we estimate that there's about 21,000 hate crimes.

DEMBY: Forty-eight out of 21,000. I mean, that's less than a percent. And so, you know, it's worth asking why an outlier case like this has gotten so much attention, why it's gotten so much oxygen. But Levin also went on to say that the number of hoaxes has been dropping, but the number of incidences of hate crimes, from their calculations, has been on the uptick.

SHAPIRO: The total number of hate crimes appears to be going up. The total number of hoaxes appears to be going down. But it looks like one of those hoaxes was this case that we've all been talking about, Jussie Smollett, the "Empire" actor. The police superintendent in Chicago says he worries it will make people less likely to believe hate crime allegations. How does this fit into the whole landscape we're describing?

DEMBY: Yeah. It seems like - I mean, and we can't play telepath here, but it seems like Jussie Smollett was especially attuned to the shift in thinking around who gets believed, right? In an interview last week on "Good Morning America," he sort of talked about and addressed the skepticism towards this story.


JUSSIE SMOLLETT: The next time that you see someone report something, maybe well after the fact that it happened, and you say to them, well, why're you waiting till now, just remember that mine was reported right away. And look what has happened.

DEMBY: I mean, that doesn't sound dissimilar to what we heard during Christine Blasey Ford's testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, right, doing his confirmation hearings, or Anita Hill, right? That criticism was that, like, they'd waited too long to say anything, and so that was a reason to be skeptical of them. And it sounds like, it feels like, Jussie Smollett was especially aware of that shift. And if you just watch some of the conversation around this case, there are a lot of people who seem especially hurt, right, that he was sort of weaponizing this thing, this larger project of, like, legitimizing these claims that they had fought so hard to advance.

SHAPIRO: That's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team. Thanks, Gene.

DEMBY: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.