Last week I wrote of the problem of unintended consequences in the formulation and implementation of public policy: We may think a given course of action will do good, yet we may fail to see all the harmful side effects until it’s too late. This week I want to note the potential unintended consequences of two widely reported race-related hoaxes, and how they’ll hurt legitimate efforts to keep fighting racism. The better-known hoax to date is the Jussie Smollett hoax. The newer hoax, which is gaining national attention, is the false charge of racial profiling levied by Oberlin College against a merchant with which Oberlin used to do business.
You’ll recall that Jussie Smollett, an obscure, gay, African-American television actor, had claimed he had been attacked and beaten by racists in his home town of Chicago. Despite limited evidence supporting his claim, and widespread suspicions that he was perpetrating a hoax, authorities declined to prosecute him for filing a false police report. However, an ongoing investigation of the evidence collected by the Chicago police shows Smollett recruited two acquaintances—immigrants from Nigeria—to stage the phony attack on him. Whatever Smollett’s intentions—whether to win publicity, or public sympathy, or raise public consciousness of ongoing racism—he’s succeeded mainly in showing himself to be a self-absorbed and self-righteous liar who diverted the police from fighting real crime to going on his wild goose chase. Unless new facts mitigating Smollett’s hoax are revealed, the authorities who decided not to prosecute Smollett should be fired, and Smollett himself should be prosecuted—with due process—to the fullest extent of the law.
The newer incident, and the subject of a growing number of stories, can be called “the Oberlin Outrage.” Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, has long been recognized as one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges, as well as a bastion of progressive thought and social justice activism.
Recently, an Oberlin student tried to shoplift some wine from a store near the campus. When its proprietor tried to stop him, the student, and two accomplices, beat him. The store owner was white; his assailants were black.
The students pled guilty to their crimes, but Oberlin administrators, faculty, and students were not willing to let the matter rest. Despite the absence of any evidence of racist intent by the store owner, and despite the fact that the three thugs said racism was not involved in the store owner’s reaction to their theft and beating of him, Oberlin charged the store owner with “racial profiling.” Students, with the support of college faculty and staff, began picketing the store. The administration cancelled contracts with the store and promoted a business-damaging boycott. The Dean of Oberlin suggested that those faculty who opposed these measures could perform anatomically impossible sexual acts on themselves. The store owner eventually sued Oberlin and its administrators, and won 33 million dollars in damages. If Oberlin’s governing board has any sense, it will insist that the students involved in the racial profiling hoax be expelled, and that their enablers in the faculty and administration be fired.
So what does this all mean?
At one level, the stories of Jussie Smollett and the Oberlin Outrage can be seen to have happy endings: Smollett was revealed to be a liar and a fraud, and the Oberlin extremists were smacked down for their own toxic mixture of political fanaticism and outright lying. Smollett was not the victim of racism; the Oberlin thugs were not the victims of racial profiling. Whatever the state of racism in America, it’s not as bad as Smollett, the Oberlin fanatics, and their supporters claim.
But, as Aesop’s boy who cried wolf discovered the hard way, those who lie make the truth far more difficult to discern. Consider:
Last week Tarleton’s Texan News Service reported that a Tarleton professor was leaving the faculty and moving his family out of Stephenville, citing anti-Latino harassment as his reason. Reaction, at least on the social media platforms where I can frequently be found, has been mixed. Those who know him and his family—I don’t—say he’s an excellent teacher and an exemplary person, whose family has been subject to unprovoked racist comments. Others have said that anti-Latino bias remains in Stephenville, but whether the bias is strong enough to justify leaving Stephenville is a judgment call. And still others deny any bias at all. The possibility of a hoax has been raised, albeit with no supporting evidence to support it.
My personal take is that racism in Stephenville is far less than one could infer purely from this story. After all, the voters have elected African Americans and Latinos to positions of leadership in both Stephenville and Erath County.
Yet while the population, in general, may not be racist, there can still be some bigots who will do their best to make life miserable for the targets of their hatred. The fact that these bigots aren’t representative of the general population is cold comfort to their victims. Personally, I think the professor and is family may well have been subject to racist taunts from bigots who aren’t representative of the community; whether his decision to leave is warranted I cannot say–he simply has to do what he thinks best for his family and his career.
And the irony of the Smollett and Oberlin cases is that they’ll make it more difficult for legitimate activists to continue to fight racism or even to discern the degree to which it remains an ongoing evil in modern society. Such were not the intended consequences of Smollett and the Oberlin idiots, but they were too blinded by their own fanaticism, dishonesty, and self-righteousness to see that. It’s only logical that rational people, reviewing these hoaxes, may conclude that anti-racist activists have cried wolf too often. So the next time a person with a legitimate complaint of racism gives voice to it, he will be less likely to be believed and supported. Such are some of the unintended consequences of the fight against racism.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.