Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s hard for me to think of Jussie Smollett without thinking of Amy Cooper. They each did something horrifically stupid and dangerous, echoing the worst of this country’s racial history for their own selfish reasons.
On Thursday, Smollett was found guilty on five of six felony counts of disorderly conduct for falsely reporting a hate crime. He tarred Trump supporters by claiming that in January 2019, two men put a noose around his neck, poured bleach on him and hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, shouting, “This is MAGA country” in an attack prosecutors said he staged.
Cooper, on the other hand, is a White woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park in May 2020, falsely reporting that he was threatening her life and that he had tried to assault her. The false report stemmed from a dispute over her unleashed dog, and she fell back on the racist trope of a savage Black man threatening the virtue of an innocent White woman.
The two cases are of course different. In Amy Cooper’s case, she apologized after the video showing her 911 call went viral and the Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) decided not to cooperate with the investigation, saying it didn’t seem necessary to bring her more misery. Authorities determined Smollett, on the other hand, orchestrated the scheme that led to his false report. He continues to maintain his innocence and was charged with making four separate false reports in what ultimately led to a $130,000 investigation, according to the city of Chicago.
But both Smollett and Cooper were tapping into the worst of American history, conjuring up the lynching era, which saw Black men and women hung from trees or in the town square in front of large mobs of White people eager to take home a relic of the event. If Smollett and Cooper didn’t know what they were doing, they certainly should have. They both ended up setting off controversies that led to partisan and racist bickering.
They were both criminally charged. And yet, as it stands today, one of them faces possible prison time while the other’s misdemeanor charge of falsely reporting an incident was dropped after completing a therapeutic program that addressed racial biases.
The criminal legal system should have handled the Smollett case similarly to the Cooper case, because it’s not clear who benefits from the harsh punitive punishments Smollett now faces. In fact, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office had dropped the initial charges in exchange for a fine and community service – but the decision was heavily criticized. A special prosecutor ended up opening an independent investigation into the matter and a grand jury indicted Smollett on six counts of disorderly conduct. (Smollett has yet to be sentenced, but a disorderly conduct charge for a false crime report is a Class 4 felony, punishable by up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The judge will decide whether he serves concurrent or consecutive sentences for each of the five counts.)
By appointing a special prosecutor, a judge wasted taxpayer dollars to further punish a man who had already been punished by derailing his burgeoning acting career with his own stupidity. And for what? Because of the public’s bloodlust? Because the union representing Chicago police officers condemned the State’s Attorney’s decision and called for Smollett’s prosecution? Or maybe because nothing is easier – or more predictable – than using the flawed criminal legal system to put an imperfect Black man in his place even when other options are available and would lead to a more just outcome.
And let’s be frank. Even though he is a wealthy celebrity, and she was unknown to most Americans before she was launched into the public eye through viral infamy, it’s not particularly surprising that it is the Black man who might lose his freedom while the White woman might parlay her false claim into a payday by suing her former employer, claiming she was a victim of racial discrimination.
We’ve seen our criminal legal system dole out disparate outcomes that too often fall along racial lines in ways that can’t be explained away by wealth disparities. A similar thing happens in the court of public opinion. When the crack epidemic had a Black face, the public and the criminal legal system went into overdrive to villainize and harshly punish those on the wrong end of a crack pipe. Even Black comedians such as Dave Chappelle mocked those suffering from a crack addiction. When the opioid crisis had a White face, the narrative shifted to be more sympathetic to users and the vast majority of resources Congress allotted in 2018 went towards research, treatment and prevention rather than police and prisons.
Ultimately, I think it’s a shame Smollett and Cooper have commanded so much of the public’s attention and sparked so many arguments that I question whether we would all be better off if the actor’s charges were dropped and the case was never revived. That’s why I’m also unmoved by those criticizing people like Vice President Kamala Harris for immediately expressing shock and disgust when Smollett claimed he had been the victim of a violent attack. (Former President Donald Trump also responded to the attack in 2019 by calling it “horrible,” before turning his ire on Smollett.) Harris’ sin, supposedly, was being too quick to believe a gay, Black man had suffered a racist and homophobic attack in a major American city, as though that’s unimaginable. Only later was it found that particular gay, Black man had lied.
Turning the initial support for Smollett into a trump card against a slew of public figures erases any semblance of nuance. Yes, a jury found Smollett guilty. But his lies don’t negate the reality that too often, gay Black men, and others in the LGBTQ community are targeted and harmed because of who they are, just as Cooper’s lies don’t mean it’s unreasonable for White women who are alone in a park to be afraid of men, no matter their race.
Was Smollett unspeakably selfish and stupid? Certainly. Does he deserve to go to prison? No, I don’t think so. What’s unfortunate is Smollett and Cooper have caused so much outrage and divisiveness by invoking some of the worst of what this country has seen.
It would be more unfortunate still if we allow their lies to blind us from the reality of race in present day America – including the progress we’ve made, and the long road to racial equality that lies ahead.