It’s all so complicated.
The upsetting case of Jussie Smollett took another turn today, as the “Empire” star turned himself into Chicago Police before dawn after he was charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly staging a racist and homophobic attack against himself last month. He made no statement to the police.
At the press conference, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson gave a masterful introduction, destined to be studied in communication classes on how to frame a difficult conversation.
“I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention, because that’s who really deserves the amount of attention that we’re giving to this particular incident,” he began, which I imagine elicited “hmmm-mmms” and “oh-reallys” from the thousands of advocates who fought to get justice for the family of Laquan McDonald, a black teen who was shot by a white Chicago officer in 2014.
Johnson referenced this history in his unflinching testimony, with anger in his voice:
This morning, I come to you not only as the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, but also as a black man who spent his entire life living in the City of Chicago. I know the racial divide that exists here, I know how hard it’s been for our nation and our city to come together. And I also know the disparities and I know the history. This announcement today recognizes that “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. I’m left hanging my head and asking ‘why.’
The Smollett story was an emotional one from the start, a dramatic tale of being beaten, splashed with bleach, and threatened with a noose by two men who used racist and homophobic slurs. Then the kicker: “This is MAGA country,” it turns out nobody said.
The story triggered an online outpouring of support from fans, celebrities, and political figures, and mocking jeers from skeptics, many of whom are avowed conservatives, determined to debunk a larger narrative that the current president’s divisive rhetoric is responsible for an uptick in hate crimes.
That it took place in Chicago, a city with a deeply troubling history of racism, police misconduct, and corruption triggered a different form of skepticism.
A 13-month Justice Department investigation, released in 2017, put into words what many already knew. Among other problems at the Chicago PD, “excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos,” said The New York Times of the blistering report.
This is the same police department, including Johnson, that many worried was incapable of giving Smollett a fair investigation.
Now it is Smollett himself, once a beloved inclusion advocate, who may have made it harder for victims of real hate crimes to be believed.
And yet, we know there will be more hate crimes.
As the Smollett story was unfolding, a white supremacist with hate on his mind was apprehended before he could execute a plan to kill as many people as possible. Christopher Paul Hasson, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and an extremist hiding in plain sight, dreamed of mass murder. According to prosecutors, he intended “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”
He did all the things: Abuse narcotics, stockpile weapons and bathe in hate speech from pro-Russian and neo-Nazi sites. And he wrote like he was rehearsing a manifesto. “I am a long time White Nationalist, having been a skinhead 30 plus years ago before my time in the military.” In addition to targeting media figures and Democratic officials, he hoped to release a lethal virus if he could get his hands on one.
Hasson’s plan was both horrifying and cartoonishly fiendish, as hate crimes often are. It’s part of what made Smollett’s story plausible to the ear, at least at first.
What drives a young star to commit a fraud that could only damage the community who loved him? What compels an otherwise privileged man to be so consumed by hate that he is prepared to kill indiscriminately?
There are many answers, and also none. It’s all so complicated, sometimes all you can do is hang your head and ask ‘why.’
And then, get back to work.
|Nothing but trouble in Virginia|
|Democratic voters have joined voices from the right in demanding the ouster of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. It’s been a journey for Northam: After admitting to wearing some form of blackface, he’s remained defiantly in office, whiffed a 60 Minutes interview, and is now promising to dedicate part of the state’s budget to racial reconciliation. But his plans for a new woke reading list and listening tour doesn’t seem to be helping his case. And then there is the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who is black and now credibly accused of sexual assault. “There is now turmoil at the confluence of Virginia’s Democratic Party and its black political establishment,” explains Vann R. Newkirk.|
|The color of money|
|Andrew McCaskill, Nielsen’s Senior Vice President Global Communications (and also a raceAhead treasure) reminds us that black consumers deliver some $1.3 trillion in annual spending in the U.S. In fact, if black consumers were a country, we’d have the 15th largest GDP on the planet. He predicts that the African American audience will only become more vocal in their need for culturally relevant marketing, and are thinking well outside the Black History Month box. “One close examination of the popularity of searchable content amongst Black consumers will show just how much Black consumers want to SEE and HEAR themselves in content,” he says. Diversity behind the scenes matters. “We want to see ourselves. If we don’t see ourselves, we want to know why, and when we do see ourselves, we want to like what we see.”|
|Paramount unveils a new diversity initiative|
|Paramount’s chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos announced yesterday that he is requiring all studios to complete a diversity plan, in part to align themselves with the 4% Challenge introduced by Time’s Up and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Only 4% of the top grossing films over the last ten years have been directed by women, and this challenge aims to add more women in leadership and production positions across the board. “[O]ur productions will be required to complete a plan designed to enhance access and opportunities for groups historically underrepresented in the media industry,” said Gianopulos. He also announced the creation of a new content council, which will establish metrics and accountability.|
|An interview with diversity expert Katrina Jones|
|Longtime raceAhead readers will recognize this name. Jones, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the gaming entertainment service Twitch, was a central figure in The Black Ceiling, a Fortune feature that explored barriers facing black executive women, and a co-host of a recent MPW Next Gen town hall conversation on blind spots and inclusion. In this interview with Crescendo, a Slack app for D&I education, Jones offers a blueprint for creating or finetuning an inclusion strategy for any organization of any size. “Engage employees to understand their experiences, their viewpoints, and their perspectives. This is fundamental to the process – don’t underestimate the value in conversation,” she says. But her first step starts at the top. “I look at leader interest,” she says, which includes whether there is a real budget for the work. “They are usually on a learning curve and part of my work is to help them through those stages, through education and equipping them with the right language and strategy to talk about diversity & inclusion.”|
|A young Native girl and the librarian who helped her find the world|
|Storm Reyes was only 12 when she was brave enough to peek in the window of what turned out to be a bookmobile that was visiting the migrant camp where she lived and worked. She was abused and neglected, largely abandoned by her alcoholic parents. “I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle,” she says. The oral historians at StoryCorps have taken an audio recording of Reyes’s and matched it with a spare and touching animation of her journey that is sure to bring tears. Happy ones, I promise.|
|The bias against black women’s hair|
|It starts as a story familiar to many. The sudden burst of affirmation that young girls of color suddenly enjoy when their curly locks are tamed by hot combs and chemicals, usually under the supervision of older, well-meaning women. After years of being affirmed for smooth, treated hair at the expense of her love for black culture, Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of the Perception Institute, decided to create a quiz that identifies implicit biases toward black women’s hair. “Everyday we receive subtle and not-so-subtle messages about our hair – associations that our brains categorize into what’s good, bad, appropriate, or professional,” she tells Essence. Her research bears this out: White women are more likely to concider black hair to be less professional and attractive, and black women feel more pressure to straighten their hair for work than white ones. More findings below.|