On Tuesday, Empire actor Jussie Smollett reported being assaulted in Chicago by two white men in ski masks. The brutal attack, which Smollett told Chicago Police included racial and homophobic slurs (as reported by TMZ), a noose, and the attackers yelling “this is MAGA country,” came as a shock to many. Celebrities, social justice advocates, among many others, voiced their horror on social media and gave messages of support to Smollett, who was released from the hospital later that day.
But as stories of the attack spread on social media, its users noted—and recoiled—at the way it was being described:
“A possible hate crime.” A “homophobic” attack, but not a “racist” one. “Racially charged.”
Some of it was bucking at old media industry conventions that sounded particularly galling and abrasive, given the severity of what Smollet said happened to him. Others noted news outlets’ repeated—and problematic—reluctance to describe things as “racist” had reared its head yet again.
An important thing to note here is that news outlets have a lot more discretion to describe an event as “racist” or “homophobic” than we do “possible” or “alleged.”
In the Smollett case, “possible hate crime” comes directly from the police assessment of the situation—a hate crime is a specific charge that meets a specific legal standard, and Chicago Police hadn’t levied those charges yet. And news publications, despite what its reporters might think of a specific case or situation, have to at least mention how police are describing and assessing it. Often times, we defer entirely to it.
There is certainly an argument to be made, and a separate discussion to be had, about whether these media conventions grant too much power to the state and its evaluation of an incident or event.
As a journalist, I look at the words like “alleged” or “suspected” as a blanket industry standard that can come up distressingly short, depending on the context. Hanging over each usage of these words is 1) the knowledge that yes, slipping up on the wrong story can get your ass sued, and 2) “alleged”—particularly when applied to a justice system that frequently dismisses charges or acquits people of crimes—is, many times, useful and necessary. Hoaxes exist. Stories and witness accounts change or are recanted altogether.
Where news outlets have a lot more discretion is how they describe a situation. We have the power to call a thing racist. Frequently, publications don’t—even when it’s the right word to use.
The Smollett case, in which several prominent news organizations felt comfortable calling the attack “homophobic” but not “racist” highlighted this collective reticence.
Here’s a screenshot from the Los Angeles Times Newsletter, “Today’s Headlines” from Tuesday:
Then there’s Entertainment Tonight’s tweet from Monday—one of the most widely shared versions of the story—in which the outlet describes the possible attack as “homophobic and racially charged.”
A subsequent tweet used stronger language—though the language was actually Daniels’.
TMZ, one of the first outlets to report the story, referred to the attack as homophobic, but entirely omitted calling it racist or racially motivated in the headline.
This was also true of the NBC News’ headline that ran on social media, though the headline on the site read differently (note: it’s not unusual for the social media headline to differ from the one that runs on the site).
Many outlets refrained from labeling the attack one way or another, referring to it as a possible hate crime and then describing different elements of the police report, including the use of racial and homophobic slurs and the presence of a noose, which Smollett says was slipped over his head at one point during the attack.
It’s that last point that continues to send chills down my spine—suggesting, among other things, the attack may have been premeditated. But it’s startling that prominent news outlets could feel comfortable with labeling an attack “homophobic” while watering down or altogether side-stepping its obviously racist elements.
It’s an ongoing problem with media, and one that’s particularly glaring at mainstream outlets, which substitute toothless phrases like “racially charged” or “racially tinged” for the word “racist”—a word that some people would have you believe is a slur itself, rather than an objective (and demonstrable) descriptor of words, behaviors, or policies.
Some of those people write news. Some of them run entire sites. And this plays into a news outlet’s comfort with labeling an incident “racist.” Specifically, the fear that the word will distract from the story, or will alienate the audience; that it doesn’t fit a standard for “objectivity” or “neutrality”—as if those standards weren’t subjective calculations made on the part of news editors and news writers themselves.
In doing so, news outlets reinforce the idea that “racist” is a dirty word, rather than a matter of accurately describing the implications and effects of something. We subtly reinforce the idea that in order to call a thing racist, we must divine the subject’s intent and feeling—making racism a matter of racial animus (that is, an assessment of one’s personal goodness) rather than one of material consequence.
Of course, anyone who’s actually experienced racism knows better.
Which brings us back to Jussie Smollett, a gay black man who appears to have been targeted and attacked precisely because of those two qualities. An attack in which he says his assailants called him a “faggot” and “nigger,” poured bleach on him, and then slipped a noose around his neck.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that there is no greater symbol of American racism than the noose, an inanimate object representing hundreds of years of lynching—of systematic, rampant racial hatred, violence, and death.
If you can’t describe that aspect of Smollett’s attack as racist, then pray tell, what can you call racist?