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Don’t expect the Jussie Smollett case to affect rates of reporting, hate crime experts say

“I think we can easily exaggerate the impact. The memory will be there. But the behavioral impact is fleeting.”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 21: Empire actor Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County jail after posting bond on February 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.  Smollett has been accused with arranging a homophobic, racist attack against himself in an attempt to raise his profile because he was dissatisfied with his salary.  (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 21: Empire actor Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County jail after posting bond on February 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Smollett has been accused with arranging a homophobic, racist attack against himself in an attempt to raise his profile because he was dissatisfied with his salary. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

When the Chicago Police Department confirmed that Jussie Smollett was a suspect in the alleged hate crime against him — that they believed Smollett orchestrated the whole encounter, paid two men to stage an attack and send a threatening letter to Fox, where he worked — a person could reasonably fear that a hoax like this would render actual victims of hate crimes less credible in the eyes of the public and the police. Should the Smollett case turn out to be an elaborate fabrication, what consequences could that have for the people who really are targeted with violence because of their race, sexual orientation, or religion? Will they struggle even more to be believed because of this high-profile lie?

According to hate crimes experts: No.

Jack Levin has been researching hate crimes for decades, co-authoring the first book on the subject back in 1993. Brian Levin (no relation) is a former New York City police officer and is now the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. He’s been studying hate crimes for more than 30 years. Both of them began their conversations with ThinkProgress by emphatically stating just how rare false reports of hate crimes are.

Asked about the rate of false reporting, Jack Levin replied, “You can’t even talk about a rate, because the number is so small. It’s a miniscule percentage of the population of hate attacks. I mean, every once in a while, there’s a hoax. And we don’t make a big deal about it because we see it in other crimes as well.”

Even though false reports do occasionally occur, “Do we want to hit every victim over the head with that kind of presumption when we have a relatively minuscule number of suspected, discovered false reports of hate crimes?” Brian Levin asked. “We have false reports of all kinds of crimes! We have false reports of vehicle theft, but we still don’t go up to people and say, ‘So, where is your car, really?’”

“The Smollett case, as bizarre as it is, isn’t really representative about what we see,” said Brian Levin.

Will the Smollett case affect the behavior of real hate crime victims in the future? “I don’t think it will,” Jack Levin said. “We talk about it for a while and, in this case, we’re going to talk about it a lot more than in most cases of hoaxes…  But will it affect the reporting of hate crimes in the future? I really don’t think so.”

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“What I’ve seen, after studying violent crime for decades, is that Americans have very short memories,” he went on. “They may, if you press them on an event that happened a year ago or five years ago, they might remember. But it doesn’t seem to have an impact on people’s behaviors.”

While the Smollett case is likely to be more memorable — it involves a celebrity who implicated Trump supporters in a hoax that included some especially gruesome and vivid details — “people have short-term memories for crime,” Jack Levin said, and he doesn’t expect many people to refer to this incident when hate crimes arise in the future. He pointed to the 2017 wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the U.S. and around the world, which turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by an Israeli teenager. “How long did we talk about that? 24 hours? Two days?”

The issue with hate crimes, really, isn’t the extremely rare false report. It’s the growing prevalence of real hate crimes, which are “vastly underreported.” Fears that, post-Smollett, those reports will drop even more are “unfounded,” Jack Levin said. “It’s already as low as it’s going to get.”

In reality, hate crimes are on the rise and have been for several years. F.B.I. reports indicate as much, as does a preliminary study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism based on vetted police data that looked at 30 of the largest cities across the U.S., comprising 11.5 percent of the American population. Those numbers, from 2018, show that 14 out of the 30 cities hit decade highs of hate crimes reported to the police, and 7 out of 10 were up from 2017.

Still, that data is only so telling about hate crimes in any specific part of the country, Brian said. “While we do have nationwide trends, that’s like saying national weather.” And some, though not all, of these rises can be attributed to increased reporting efficiencies, and to police taking those reports more seriously.

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Why are hate crimes so underreported? Victims are reluctant to come forward, for a variety of reasons: fear that they won’t be believed, a general distrust of police, concern on the part of immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, that bringing any attention to themselves could result in their deportation. Also, it is difficult in the United States to categorize a violent act as a hate crime. You have to prove the attacker was motivated by, for instance, racial animus, and while some assailants might helpfully spray-paint a swastika or shout a racial epithet as they go, it’s still quite rare. “Not all perpetrators are stupid,” Jack Levin reminded.

On top of that, reporting of hate crimes to the F.B.I. is voluntary. “So every year, a different number of police jurisdictions report,” said Jack Levin, who pointed out that a handful of southern states, including Mississippi and Alabama, report close to zero hate crimes each year.

“And even when we do report, even when we arrest, we don’t prosecute. Very few hate crimes are prosecuted. And those few that are prosecuted often don’t result in a conviction anyway. We’re so low that we can only higher from here,” Jack Levin said.

With Smollett, Jack Levin said, “I think we can easily exaggerate the impact. The memory will be there. But the behavioral impact is fleeting.”