Have you wondered why we are seeing an uptick in race hoaxes lately? Sure, you may be familiar with the highest profile case – that of Jussie Smollett - but let’s be honest: He’s not the only one. And as much as many of us won’t want to hear this, Jews are not immune from perpetuating these hoaxes either.
Race hoaxes have been around for as long as racism has been around - so since people discovered other races. But in this country, race hoaxes have been historically used against minorities. As recently as the 1970s (and probably even later), black people and other minority groups were blamed for heinous acts they did not commit, or even accidents that should be pinned on no culprit. This concept should not be foreign to our community, as the Jewish people have historically had to deal with blood libels and other antisemitic race-based hoaxes. These hoaxes ended with a large number of targets dead, either via lynching, sentencing, or just straight-up murder. The goal was always simple: Harm as many of the target population as possible.
However, as of late, the race hoaxes have changed. Hoaxes no longer have the intent on harming the target, but rather bumping up the profile of the victim. Our society has elevated the victim, and as such, it is no longer enough to simply be from a historically-victimized group; in order to be treated with respect, one must actually be a victim.
This is why Jussie Smollett perpetuated being attacked by Trump-supporting racists. It is why an 18-year-old invented a story in 2020 of someone spraying her with lighter fluid and lighting her on fire in Wisconsin. It is why a Columbia University professor, who was later fired for plagiarism, allegedly hung a noose outside her own office in 2009. It is why in 2019, owners of a kosher restaurant in Winnipeg, Canada, vandalized their own restaurant on Erev Pesach. And it is why just last week, a 16-year-old Muslim student in Fairfax, Virginia, had to lie that the fight that got her an in-school suspension started with her adversary using racial slurs. Everyone wants to be a victim today.
But it is not only the hoaxers who are at fault here. It is also how the world reacts to the hoax. If the “victims” are on your ideological side, you are more likely to believe them. Just look at the immediate reactions of the communities to whom the above “victims” belong. Nobody wants to believe that these attacks are faked because they would rather be able to shout their message to the world. “See!” they want to yell. “This stuff happens all the time. You’re just too racist to see it!”
But the issue is that fabricating these stories has the exact opposite effect of what the perpetuators - as well as the reactors - want it to have. The hoaxers themselves obviously no longer get treated like victims - more like pariahs. The hoax promoters, who opted to jump on the story instead of waiting for more information, obviously look dumb and ruin their credibility. But they do something much worse than that: They give rise to the notion that racial crimes (or at least a good portion of them) are false.
Conservative commentator Matt Walsh makes the claim that if racism was as prevalent as the Left claims, there would be no need to promote every hoax that comes up. It’s a supply-and-demand issue, and the supply of racism is nowhere near meeting the demand. To be honest, he has a point. If we are so quick to jump on every single racial story that appears in the public eye and treat it as gospel without looking into the story, why should the public believe us when the “knockout the Jew” game comes back? And that’s the damage the reaction to false claims provides. It allows others to dismiss the actual problem.
There is no question that racism still exists, but it seems that more often these days, it does not exist the way it did back in the ‘70s. The symbols of the past, like burning crosses and nooses, are not being used anymore. Traditional outright racism is on the decline, and it is being replaced by secretive racism – the snide comment, the losing a job or not getting a raise, the crossing the street. And yes, there are the odd swastika and public comment from a politician, but those are few and far between. Yes, they should be highlighted, but we need to wait longer than 12 seconds before we decry anything. The hoaxers tug at the most sensitive parts of us and we fall for it every time. In this age of instant-everything, we need to stop before jumping on any story that proves our priors. If the story is too perfect, there will probably be some holes.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.