• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Jussie Smollett and the Limits of Identity Politics

There has to be some happy medium between identity determining everything and identity counting for nothing.

March 5, 2019

There will always be selfish individuals who concoct crazy hoaxes for personal gain. No broader group ought to be implicated by their actions. 

But when an individual who has been part of the arts and activism world his entire life designs a scheme that is perfectly calibrated to manipulate the dominant intellectual paradigm of the moment - and swaths of prominent people and platforms fall for it - well then we need to ask some hard questions about broader problems.

Consider the story that Jussie Smollett told. He was out with a Subway Sandwich at 2 am in downtown Chicago during a historic cold front, where he was somehow recognized and attacked by two men in MAGA hats who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, poured bleach in his face and threw a noose around his neck. Amongst the many curious facts of his story: He held on to his sandwich and kept the noose around his neck as he entered the lobby of his building. 

And consider how so many of us responded. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both Senators and candidates for President, called it a “modern day lynching”.

The New York Times published a piece in its Race/Related newsletter in which the writer stated: “Reading about the attack on Mr. Smollett reminded me … that being black and queer presents a unique challenge: We have to fight twice as hard for acceptance, and often within our own communities. Our marginalized identities increase our chances of both racist and homophobic attacks.”

Robin Roberts on Good Morning America did a cupcake interview with Smollett in which he cried and said, “… it feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more. A lot more. And that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.”

Every single one of these supposedly credible and responsible entities, and countless others, simply assumed that the events had happened precisely as Smollett had said and used the case as an opportunity to offer a diversity progressive critique of the larger culture.

Well, to borrow a line from Mr. Smollett: What does it say about the place we are in as a country right now that an individual can safely assume that a story with several fishy details is immediately embraced not just by progressive activists but by mainstream politicians and news platforms who don’t even do basic fact checking before using it as an opportunity to blare their worldview to the world? 

And that, even once the Chief of Police in Chicago (a black man) presented credible evidence that not only was Jussie Smollett’s story a pack of lies, but that he had concocted it for the stunningly selfish purpose of pressing for a higher payday for his role on the television show Empire, the great Ava Duvernay decides to tweet out her general suspicions about the police, rather than any particular frustration with Jussie Smollett.      

I think what the Smollett case reveals is the dangers of identity politics when it is the dominant and exclusive intellectual paradigm that people employ.

To recognize that black and gay people are more likely to be victims of identity-based attacks in an era of racially-polarized politics and rising hate crimes is perfectly legitimate. To immediately believe a person because of his identity and entirely fail to employ other modes of intellectual inquiry – like interrogating the facts – is to fall into a trap.

Indeed, one test of an intellectual paradigm is whether it serves as a reliable guide to help you make sense of reality. The sine qua non of identity politics as a totalizing paradigm is that the most significant details of any given case are the race, gender and sexuality of the people involved. Those identities determine who you believe, what you see and which side you take. Whatever other facts, dynamics or dimensions might be at play are all secondary.

This is precisely what Jussie Smollett was relying on as he concocted his hoax. He knew that there would be enough prominent people out there in politics, pop culture, activism, thought leadership, the media and liberal twitter to create a blizzard of support that might just snow over the facts of the case.

It is interesting to note that identity politics as a totalizing paradigm is not something that we would normally accept in the human endeavors in which concrete reality really matters. If you ask someone for directions, and that individual gives you a lecture about the racist history of the transportation system, you might find it interesting but not especially relevant. And you would likely be pretty angry if that individual gave you a map of where to go based on her history lesson, and it landed you in the wrong place.

The same is true for most professions. If you go see your dentist and say your tooth hurts, and your dentist notes your race, gender, age and sexuality and says you need a root canal, without ever looking into your mouth, he loses credibility.

There has to be some happy medium between identity determining everything and identity counting for nothing.

I think we should apply the ‘does this help me see reality more clearly’ test to identity politics more often. If you assume, based mostly on the identities and social positions of the people involved, things are true that turn out to be false, you lose credibility. If you ignore relevant facts, you lose credibility. If you are constantly pointing to a partial picture of the world rather than making a good faith effort to gain and present a fuller picture, you lose credibility.

And it’s not like the Jussie Smollett case is the first time identity politics as a totalizing paradigm was a spectacular failure. Remember the Duke lacrosse case?

The single most important currency that intellectuals and academics have is credibility. In my mind, here is what credibility boils down to: the things you say, the predictions you make, the interpretations you offer, the directions you give … they turn out to be true. 




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