We Need to Start Using the Right Language When We Talk About Hate Crimes
The difference between "racist" and "racially charged" is one lets the perpetrator off the hook
In the early hours of Tuesday, January 29, Empire actor Jussie Smollett took himself to a nearby Chicago hospital after he was the victim of a disgusting assault.
Shortly after arriving in the city from New York to continue filming the new season of the hit Fox series, the 35-year-old was reportedly exiting a Subway restaurant when two unknown Caucasian men approached him and got his attention by yelling out racist and homophobic slurs. “Aren’t you that f-ggot Empire n-gger?,” they spewed. The culprits then proceeded to physically attack him by punching him in the face, pouring an “unknown chemical substance” on him (which many news outlets have since described as bleach) and tying a rope around his neck before fleeing the scene.
As reported by TMZ, Smollett—who is an openly gay Black man—told Chicago police that his attackers also yelled out “this is MAGA country,” an obvious reference to Donald Trump’s infamous presidential campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
“The Chicago Police Department received a report of a possible racially-charged assault and battery involving a cast member of the television show Empire,” the department released in a statement. “Given the severity of the allegations, we are taking this investigation very seriously and treating it as a possible hate crime.”
Tuesday’s attack came literally just days after Smollett (who also plays an openly gay character on Empire) received hate mail via Fox Studios in Chicago that said, in cut-out letters: “You will die black f-g.” According to ABC News, the FBI is now involved and investigating the earlier letter, which is said to have been laced with a powdery substance believed to be Tylenol.
While law enforcement is still collecting and reviewing surveillance footage to identify the suspects, Smollett was thankfully released from the hospital that same morning in “good condition.” The also-talented-musician was even scheduled to perform at an L.A. concert the following weekend, and just spoke out publicly for the first time post-attack.
“Let me start by saying that I’m OK,” Smollett told Essence magazine in an exclusive statement. “My body is strong but my soul is stronger. More importantly I want to say thank you. The outpouring of love and support from my village has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words. ”
News of the assault quickly prompted an outpouring of support on social media from a slew of Hollywood elite, including Smollett’s entire Empire family.
“You didn’t deserve, nor does anybody deserve to have a noose put around your neck, to have bleach thrown on you, to be called ‘die f-ggot,’ ‘n-gger’ or whatever they said to you. You are better than that. We are better than that. America is better than that,” the musical drama’s co-creator Lee Daniels said in an emotional Instagram video. “Hold your head up, Jussie. I’m with you. I’ll be there in a minute. It’s just another fucking day in America.”
A number of politicians also took to social to express their horror, including Democratic presidential contender Kamala Harris, who classified the assault as a “modern-day lynching” in a tweet.
From the haunting noose around his neck, to the bleach (we can’t help but think about skin-whitening) , to the hurling of racist and homophobic slurs, it’s beyond obvious that, when adding up all the facts, Smollett’s attack was a grotesque act of discrimination. An act of open, proud hatred that clearly targeted the actor because of his race and sexuality, and that Smollett (an uber-talented, privileged, gay Black man who two idiots basically tried to reduce to nothing) exists on the fringes of both of these identities within our culture.
And while folks on social aren’t afraid of labelling Smollett’s attack for what it really is—a racist hate crime, defined by United States law as “a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin”—it seems that both law enforcement and major media outlets are continuously gravitating towards using popular euphemisms like “possible,” “suspected,” “apparent hate crime” and—probably the most aggravating of all—“racially charged” in headlines.
The huge problem with these widely used expressions when reporting on clear-cut, hate-based actions is this: They minimize the severe impact of what happened. They’re like a form of rhetorical gymnastics around calling something or someone straight-out “racist” or “homophobic.” By doing so, the media isn’t only protecting itself from litigations around being accused of libel—it’s also protecting the perpetrators of these hate-filled actions.
“In general our policy is to try to be neutral and precise and as accurate as we possibly can be for the given situation,” the Associated Press’s editor-at-large told The Columbia Journalism Review back in 2017. The article explored newsrooms’ decisions on placing “conclusory” labels on certain Trump coverage. “We’re very cautious about throwing around accusations of our own that characterize something as being racist. We would try to say what was done, and allow the reader to make their own judgement.”
Of course there needs to be a level of impartiality in reporting until all the facts are gathered, but when the evidence is clearly there using such language to describe a case like Smollett’s just feels downright disrespectful. And if you’re willing to call something “racially charged,” why not just say racist? The meaning is the same, it just lets the attackers off the hook by suggesting the act is somehow an isolated incident and not indicative of the person’s true character.
Hates crimes are on a clear rise in America (it feels like there’s a report of a new mass shooting in the U.S. daily), and the same goes for bias-based offenses this side of the border, too. In fact, the number of police-reported hate crimes in Canada rose 47 percent in 2017 alone, an all-time high. The Muslim, Jewish and Black populations were targets of the most incidents, the Statistics Canada report says.
And just like the American media, our newspapers are hesitant to name these heinous acts what they are. The case of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who went to trial in Toronto on the same day as Smollett’s attack in Chicago, and plead guilty to murdering eight men with ties to Toronto’s Gay Village, is a crystal clear example.
McArthur, a landscaper, was arrested back in January 2018 and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Police subsequently charged him with six other cases—with some dating back a decade. The city was horrified as police began uncovering dismembered remains of his victims buried in plant pots at one residential property, where McArthur worked as a freelance gardener, and also in a nearby ravine. What’s more, six of McArthur’s eight victims (all of them gay) were visible minorities—immigrants from South Asia or the Middle East.
But when the case first broke in early 2018, and mainstream media outlets began reporting on it, many headlines hesitated to call McArthur a serial killer. Meanwhile, many LGBTQ outlets were already digging into the spine-chilling case long before the mainstream media would even touch it. And what’s been equally disturbing is the fact that despite the copious amount of media coverage McArthur has received, his mugshot is still nowhere to be seen. One of the most widely used photos simply shows a jolly-looking, white-haired man posing in front of Niagara Falls, a rainbow peeking from the mist behind him.
What this entire discussion is really about is this: We need to stop softening the language we use to describe grisly, hate-filled actions, and start calling these behaviours by their real names. Because bigotry is alive and thriving—and will be as long as we keep dancing around the truth.