Affinity hustling, identity hustling, and race hustling are alive and well in America. At the heart of each hustle is one of the oldest tricks in the cynical / criminal book: leverage the passion for your affinity group or those who identify with you in some manner, then covertly stage an attack on that very cause.

Consider what happened in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park back in 2012, when Frank Elliott set his own gay nightclub ablaze. It wasn’t enough for Elliott to commit the arson, either. He went to the extra effort of composing anti-gay comments inside the property before doing so.

Frank Elliott, former owner of the Velvet Rope
Velvet Rope owner Frank Elliott in 2012, shortly after the bar was burned in Oak Park, Ill. Elliott was eventually convicted of arson and insurance fraud. Photo credit:

That scrawl-on-the-wall touch is reminiscent of the likes of Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald, the so-called “Fatal Vision” doctor. He claimed that it was “drugged-up hippies” who in 1970 killed his pregnant wife and two young daughters. Among other evil deeds, he said, they wrote the word “PIG” over the couple’s bed, mimicking the Charles Manson murders six months earlier.

In the end, a jury believed it was MacDonald who was responsible. He was convicted of their murders and remains in prison.

A Hackneyed Play on Emotions

Closer to home, what Elliott did—and what others like actor Jussie Smollett infamously did a few years back—is a hackneyed play on people’s emotions. The key is to not let yourself get played. Don’t let all emotion override logic when these tactics are deployed.

Police refer to “possible hate crimes” for a very good reason–the “possible” is acknowledgement that what is at hand could possibly be a hustle-in-progress.

To be sure, there are well-intended, earnest souls who get duped. But there are also those who either should, or do, know better as they go along with the hustle.

Who knows the psychology involved? Perhaps with some it’s the end (of drawing support to your cause, of increasing funds to your bank account) justifying the means. However, those cynical, deceptive, short-term considerations pale in comparison to the long-term harm that is inflicted. When it comes to genuinely serving the cause of justice (toward racial equity, for example), these “boy cried wolf” hustlers are the enemies within.

Casting a Shadow on Actual Racism, Other Acts of Oppression

Each “false positive” that they concoct casts a shadow over legitimate instances of racism and other acts of oppression. As I wrote in March 2019, it’s infuriating to ponder the scope of damage wrought by Smollett. A partial list:

*Damage to actual victims of hate crimes, past or future, when people are that much less likely to believe them because of this grand fabrication;
*Damage to the City of Chicago’s reputation, which got dragged through the gutter as a place where such a vile attack could occur;
*Damage to the Police Department, which six weeks ago appeared foolish to have taken so long to get to the bottom of this outrageous scheme and which now appears to have been left hanging out to dry by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office;
*Damage to public safety, because the Police Department’s resources were diverted to chase these mythical bad guys; and
*Damage to the trust of everyone who stood behind Smollett. He used his small measure of celebrity to leverage a lie of epic proportions, and became a bigger celebrity through it.

Jussie Smollett in trouble

The Smollett Saga continues, with the next court date in that case slated for July 14th

Still reeling from four years of Donald Trump’s dysfunctional Presidency, and in our country’s highly volatile environment and intensively divided times, we ought to be leery of these nefarious sorts in our midst. For every Jussie Smollett who gets caught—and his unraveling was utterly unsurprising to me—there are any number of undetected hustlers taking aim at their next sympathetic marks.

Is There More Here Than Meets the Eye?

It brings to mind what I learned over 35 years ago as a young journalist: “If your mother tells you she loves you…check it out.” In short, don’t settle for what floats on the surface–dig in and get at the facts.

Likewise, if a “possible hate crime” pops up in your neighborhood, resist the temptation to drop “possible” prematurely from its description. If something seems too conveniently timed, too conveniently choreographed…well, then it may be time to ask: Is there more here than meets the eye?

This post was inspired, in part, by the Spotify podcast Fraudsters. Among other episodes, the podcast ran a series on race hustlers, including a look at David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Related Posts:
Setting the (Stilted) Stage: Jussie Smollett Tale Was a Cynical Checklist for Public Outrage
Epic math gaffe by Brian Williams & Mara Gay highlights great need for improved numeracy


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