February 21, 2019


What the Jussie Smollett Story Reveals: It shows a peculiar aspect of 21st-century America: victimhood chic. (John McWhorter, 2/20/19, The Atlantic)

Smollett doesn't need the money he would get from a court settlement, and he isn't trying to deny someone higher office. So why in the world would he fake something like that attack--if he did indeed fake it? The reason might be that he has come of age in an era when nothing he could have done or said would have made him look more interesting than being attacked on the basis of his color and sexual orientation.

Racial politics today have become a kind of religion in which whites grapple with the original sin of privilege, converts tar questioners of the orthodoxy as "problematic" blasphemers, and everyone looks forward to a judgment day when America "comes to terms" with race. Smollett--if he really did stage the attack--would have been acting out the black-American component in this eschatological configuration, the role of victim as a form of status. We are, within this hierarchy, persecuted prophets, ever attesting to the harm that white racism does to us and pointing to a future context in which our persecutors will be redeemed of the sin of having leveled that harm upon us. We are noble in our suffering.

None of this is to deny that racism exists, and that it is hardly limited to acts as baldly depraved as that of Dylann Roof, who attacked worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015. However, one might argue--perhaps with the same kind of guilt I had in doubting Smollett's story--that there is a degree of exaggeration in how Americans today discuss and process race. We operate according to a larger narrative, as it were, that at times renders fussing too much with mundane facts improper, beyond a certain point.

Certainly, the professional martyr is a race-neutral personality type. However, since the civil-rights victories of the 1960s, when whites became open in a new way to understanding black pain, that personality type has been especially useful to black Americans. With positive racial self-image possibly elusive after hundreds of years of naked abuse, the noble-victim position can seem especially, and understandably, comforting. It can also be handy, in a fashion quite unexpected to anyone who was on the front lines of race activism 50 years ago--as a road to stardom.

Notable in smollett's account is that he sought to come off as an especially fierce kind of victim--the victim as hero, as cool. "I fought the fuck back," he told ABC's Robin Roberts in an interview. Smollett has long displayed a hankering for preacher status. His Twitter stream is replete with counsel about matters of spirit, skepticism, and persistence that sounds a tad self-satisfied from someone in his 30s. His mother associated with the Black Panthers and is friends with the activist Angela Davis, and in interviews Smollett has identified proudly with the activist tradition.

The problem is that amid the complexities of 2019 as opposed to 1969, keeping the Struggle going is more abstract, less dramatic, than it once was. Angela Davis is on T-shirts; it seems less likely that, for example, the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson will be. How do you make as stark and monumental a statement as a King or a Malcolm these days? With a touch too much thirst for glory, and a tad too little inclination for analysis, one might seek to be attacked the way they were.

It's given us our first Grievance President in quite some time too. 

Posted by at February 21, 2019 4:15 AM