Separate, but Equally Dangerous: How the Jussie Smollett and Liam Neeson Controversies Reinforce Racist Narratives About Black Men

Jussie Smollett attends the 2018 Fox Network Upfront on May 14, 2018 in New York City; Liam Neeson attends the screening of ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ during the 56th New York Film Festival on October 4, 2018 in New York City.
Photo: Dia Dipasupil (Getty Images), Nicholas Hunt (Getty Images)

As the survivor of a violent crime, I can attest that the aftermath is, in some ways, the hardest part. That’s when the physical pain, perhaps previously dulled by adrenaline, really kicks in—along with regrets, doubts, fears about the future, and that lingering beast known as PTSD.

Twelve years ago, after I was robbed and assaulted by two burglars in my apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I had the support of family, friends, and even strangers. The police could have been less indifferent, but no one ever doubted a word of my story.

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If only Jussie Smollett could say the same thing. At around 2 a.m. on January 29 in Chicago, the Empire actor and singer was beaten by two men whom he reported shouted racist and homophobic slurs at him, wrapped a rope around his neck, poured a substance believed to be bleach over his head, and shouted “MAGA country!” It happened eight days after Smollett received a threatening letter at FOX’s Chicago studio, where Empire is filmed. The attack left him bruised but not broken. It also left some skeptics questioning his version of events.

Citing supposed discrepancies in the story as repeated by Smollett to police, as well as his refusal to turn over his phone to detectives, cynics questioned whether the attack happened at all, dismissing it as a “hoax” and “fake news.” Was it a publicity stunt? Was it part of a left-wing plot to make “MAGA” enthusiasts and Donald Trump look bad? The skepticism put the victim of the crime on the defensive; a place that’s all too familiar to women—and to black men.

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It’s where we always seem to end up, in a society so used to casting black men as the perpetrators of crime, rather than as the victims. Last week, it’s precisely where actor Liam Neeson placed random black men —“black bastards,” in his poorly chosen words — in the revenge parable that plunged him into scalding water.

Tellingly, Neeson’s recollection, which he said took place some 40 years ago, revolved around a black man raping a presumably white woman. In the climax of his story, Neeson was roaming the mean streets with a cosh (a blunt instrument similar to a blackjack), looking for any black man unlucky enough to provoke him to pay the bill of the one who had raped his friend. The crime of one black man, in the mind of the then-young actor, had become the crime of all black men.

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Neeson says he’s since changed. But in so many ways, times haven’t changed with him.

If Smollett were white, would so many be intent on picking apart his account of what went down? Would the police have asked for his phone to verify that he was talking to his manager at the time of the attack? What difference did it make who was on the phone with him? Why did a black man have to become a defendant in his own attack?

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It reminds me of what happened to Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews, when he revealed that a white male Hollywood agent sexually assaulted him at a party in 2016. Doubting Thomases asked how such a big muscular guy — make that such a big, muscular, black guy — could have ended up in a #MeToo moment. Even some in the black community joined the naysaying chorus: Rapper 50 Cent trolled Crews on social media, while comedian D.L. Hughley recently called out Crews’ nonviolent response, saying, “God gave you muscles so you could say no and mean it.”

Rather than being unanimously applauded as the survivors they are, both Smollett and Crews ended up in the firing line of armchair critics. Many breaking news stories called Smollett’s assault a “possible hate crime” (and most media reports continue to do so), as if being asked “Aren’t you that f****t Empire n****r?” would make it anything else. The shadow-of-a-doubt reporting might have sown the seeds of disbelief that sprouted as speculation that Smollett orchestrated his own attack.

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It’s so easy to assume the worst about a black man, regardless of what side of a crime he is on. Historically, when white women accused black men of sexual assault, the latter were usually considered guilty until proven innocent—and often even after—in the eyes of much of white America. The Central Park Five were a prime example.

In 1989, Donald Trump took out full-page ads damning and demonizing that group of young black and brown men accused of raping a white woman. Ironically, the reaction of now-President and “MAGA” architect Trump to Jussie Smollett’s attack said so much by saying so little:

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“That I can tell you is horrible. It doesn’t get any worse.”

That’s it? Just a vague, nonspecific reaction, presumably intended to appease potential detractors without antagonizing “MAGA” flag wavers? If it had been, say, Neil Patrick Harris or Andy Cohen on the receiving end of those cowards’ fists, I wonder if Trump would have damned both the assault and the assaulters. If it had been just about homophobia without the lynching symbolism, would so many be so invested in it being a hoax?

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Far-right columnist Michelle Malkin offered her biased take on the Smollett attack one day later in an op-ed for Creators Syndicate, writing:

Question: How many racist homophobic menaces wander around the upscale Streeterville neighborhood of liberal Chicago at 2 a.m. carrying rope and bleach, yelling about ‘MAGA country?’ Question: How many racist homophobic menaces have ever heard of ‘Empire,’ could recognize Jussie Smollett, or know or care anything about his sexuality?

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In addition to dealing with hate crimes, must we now explain the psychology and pop-cultural predilections behind them, too? Why can some Americans only accept a status quo in which black men are the aggressors, out to sully white women and annihilate white men? The spin begins every time an unarmed black man is gunned down by a white cop and it somehow becomes the black man’s fault. A not-guilty verdict precludes having to rethink the racist narrative.

Smollett has been a vocal LGBTQ activist and opponent of Trump. Is it so unfathomable that two men, triggered by a gay black celebrity criticizing their beloved president might have sent a threatening letter to Smollett at work as a prelude to a planned attack? Smollett has less to gain by staging a racist, homophobic attack than “MAGA” flag wavers do by pretending it never happened.

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If it didn’t happen, they can continue to see “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” as nothing more than a campaign slogan. They can shrug off the homophobia that still haunts the U.S., 50 years after the Stonewall Riots. They can ignore that from certain angles, Trump’s America looks a lot like 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, revisited.

Most of all, they can continue to subscribe to that old comfortable narrative that black men are the dangerous ones. They can go on living in a fairy tale where the black man is always the villain of the story, the “big, bad wolf,” huffing and puffing, trying to blow the house down.

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About the author

Jeremy Helligar

Jeremy Helligar is a journalist, blogger, and author ("Is It True What They Say About Black Men?") from NYC. Since 2006, he has been living, working, and writing on every continent except Antarctica.