Is Smollett the New O.J.?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Trump wasted no time in lambasting the decision to drop the multi-count charges against Empire actor Jussie Smollett as an “embarrassment.” It wasn’t his embarrassment crack that meant much. It was Trump’s call for the case to be turned over to the Justice Department and the FBI. The message was clear. Trump wants a prosecution. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police officials want a prosecution. And there are more than a few hints in much of the media that justice wasn’t served with Smollett and he should be prosecuted.

The mania to get Smollett shouldn’t surprise. There’s a tried and true template for that. O.J. The instant Simpson walked out of the Los Angeles courtroom after his acquittal of the double murder charge, there was little doubt that the decision would not end the case. The public mood against Simpson was just too savage for that. There were good reasons.

Most Americans were convinced that Simpson was a murderer who used his name, notoriety, celebrity status, and wealth to shamelessly game the system. Simpson bought justice and, in the process, exposed the gaping dual standard in the criminal justice system. That is there is one standard for the rich and famous and another for everybody else. Simpson’s acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high-priced, high-profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts, and investigators that routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment.


Smollet seemed to fit the same pattern. He was news, big news, the moment he claimed he was the victim of a racist, homophobic hate attack. He was news not because of the attack. But because he was a celebrity and presumably had wealth. Like Simpson that instantly set him apart from the average Joe and ensured that every tidbit and scrap of information about the case would be fodder for endless media titillation. When the charges were dropped, the perception was that he, like Simpson, bought justice and therefore further perverted the criminal justice system. The public and official outrage that followed the Simpson acquittal immediately kicked in with Smollett.

It’s this perceived perverse play of the legal system by a celebrity that fuel another reason why Smollett stays in the spotlight. In the tabloid media era, the legal misdeeds and antics of celebrities are instant attention grabbers. That translates into ratings, more viewers, readers and listeners. The fascination with how celebrities fare against the system is captivating and endless. It’s like an on-going soap opera that people hunger for more of.

Simpson didn’t lose an ounce of juice with the media and the packs of tabloid struck media and gobs of the public after his acquittal. It continued to grow. Even if Chicago officials and Trump hadn’t uttered a word of indignation about the Smollett walk, the fascination with him and the case would have been just as intense. He was still a celebrity who got away with a crime.

But he was not just a celebrity, like Simpson, he is an African-American celebrity. He’s the walking, talking epitome of the seemingly eternal racial divide in America. During the murder trial a majority of whites raged that Simpson was a murderer and they were horrified that he might waltz away scot-free. Their worst fear was realized. Meanwhile, the same polls showed that a majority of blacks raged that Simpson was victimized by a racist criminal justice system and prayed that he’d be acquitted. They got their wish.

There are no polls-so far—on how Blacks and whites view the dismissal of charges against Smollett However, there’s enough anecdotal evidence from the endless comments on social media sites, that most Blacks cheered the decision. Even when the evidence suggested that Smollett may indeed have done what he was initially charged with doing, most Blacks still were disbelieving and bought the line that he was the victim of a racist hate attack.

Neither Smollett nor Simpson invented or originated the sometimes ugly and always frustrating racial divide. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But Simpson propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. Smollett does the same. When there is a racial tinge to an issue, the tormenting divide kicks in.

CPD officials further rammed the race angle home when the commissioner pointedly said he took offense at Smollett’s alleged crime, because he, like, Smollett, is a Black man. The implication being that it wasn’t just a crime but a racial crime and therefore a racial affront. This subtly, and maybe without intent, stoked the still very prevalent notion, that much of America’s crime comes with a young, Black male face. Smollett for the moment was that face.

So, as with the Simpson running drama, the Smollet one also punched to many of the same legal, social, racial, and emotional hot buttons for it to slip quietly from the media and public radar scope. It means one thing. We haven’t seen the last of him.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Russia Probe: What Did Trump Know, And When Did He Know It? (Middle Passage Press) He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

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