Robert Heiner, author of Social Problems, defines critical constructionism as “a synthesis of conflict theory and symbolic interactionalism” (Heiner, 2016, p. 10). Based on the work of Karl Marx, a revolutionary philosopher and sociologist, “conflict theory focuses on inequality, the social problems that are attributed to inequality and how the power of the elite use and abuse social structure.” “Symbolic interactionalism focuses on the interactions between people and the way people think and give meaning to the world” (Heiner, 2016, p. 8).
Combining conflict theory and symbolic interactionism, Heiner explains that “critical constructionism holds that the way social problems are constructed, conceived, and presented to the public, and more often than not reflect the interests of society’s elite more than those of the mainstream and often at the expense of those with the least power” (Heiner, 2016, p. 10). Simplifying Heiner’s definitions, the critical constructionism theory doesn’t yield solutions to a problem, but it does help with understanding social problems which generally favor the elite and how problems become social problems.
Racial discrimination and hate crimes have been social problems since the beginning of time and still continue to be prevalent social problems today. Racial discrimination can either be personal, meaning a person or group of people are discriminated against by another person or group of people or it can be institutional where discrimination is directed by society’s institutions such as the justice system, schools, the government, and religious organizations.
Jussie Smollett is a gay African-American actor who alleged that he was a “victim of racial discrimination. He claimed he was attacked by two MAGA supporters who yelled racial and homophobic slurs at him” (Maddaus, 2019). Smollett’s claims of being a victim of a racially motivated hate crime gained publicity with national news coverage. He received an overwhelming amount of support and sympathy from high profile public leaders, celebrities, and activists.
Quickly, that support turned into confusion, mistrust, and anger when evidence revealed that Smollett orchestrated the attack and then lied to the police about it. Adding to the slew of emotions, prosecutors created national outrage and controversy by dropping all sixteen charges against Smollett just two weeks after he was charged for his participation and involvement in the crime.
On April 2, 2019, The Weekly Variety Entertainment Magazine published an article written by Gene Maddaus titled, “Jussie Smollett Case Outcome Raises Questions of Celebrity Justice.” In the article, Maddaus voices the numerous opinions of different people including many celebrities, President Trump, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and several black and gay activists. The article quotes many responses from those who are outraged claiming Smollett not only used his celebrity status to gain national attention because he was upset over the amount of salary he was receiving from Fox Television Network, but he also used his privilege to help him succeed in having all charges against him dropped.
Maddaus quotes a public statement made by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “It reeked of celebrity privilege” (Maddaus, 2019). In the same statement, Mayor Emanuel also says, “the move was whitewash” (Maddaus, 2019), in which he was referring to the judicial outcome.
Activists preached, “Smollett can’t be the exception to the rule and the outcome better be something that is easily accessible and nearly available for all poor and marginalized people” (Maddaus, 2019). Black Lives Matter activist, Arewa Karen Winters said, “I think it’s elitism, and it’s black privilege” (Maddaus, 2019). Donald Trump along with Mayor Emanuel called for anFBI investigation.
The article reflects characteristics of the critical constructionist perspective based on Jussie Smollett’s actions. Smollett took a social problem and used his elite status for personal gain by orchestrating a racially motivated hate crime against himself and then counted on his privilege again to avoid facing the consequences of his actions. Analyzing the author’s view and the article itself, the perspective of a critical constructionist does not apply because the author isn’t focusing on the social problem, he is addressing the responses to the social problem which do not favor the interests of Smollett.
Maddaus could had written the article with more of a critical constructionist theory by addressing Smollett’s opinion or the opinions of the few people that continue to support him. Because critical constructionism tends to favor the interests of the elites, and this article does not favor the interests of Smollett, the article is written from the perspective of the social constructionism theory. The social constructionism theory mimics the critical constructionism theory without favoring the interests of the elites.
From a sociological view, the article reflects the social constructions of social problems. In chapter one of the textbook, Focus on Social Problems, Robin D. Perrin and Cindy L. Miller-Perrin state that “social conditions become social problems because the condition was defined by claims makers” (Stombler & Jungels, 2017, p. 5). Claims making is when a person or group of people express grievances that a social problem exists and needs to be fixed. Maddaus’ article demonstrates claim making by speaking for the many people who are implying Smollett received preferential treatment on the basis of being a celebrity and the social problem is unfair to those who are not in the elite class.
According to Professor Robert’s lecture on The Social Construction of Race, in part one of module six, the three premises that relate to social construction are based on Herbert Blumer, one of the founders of symbolic interactionism. The first premise is that meanings are founded on social interactions, the second is humans act based on the meanings we’ve assigned, and the third is meanings can change (Roberts,’The Social Construction of Race’).
These premises also apply to racial inequalities such as racism, discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping which are all conveyed in the article. Discrimination is the unequal treatment of others. Hate crimes are a result of discrimination, usually motivated by race or sexual orientation. Smollett’s accusations of being attacked were based on both racial discrimination and his sexual orientation.
As the story unfolded, discrimination against the lower class is also seen. As emphasized in the article, many believe if a gay black man with no elite status committed the same crime, he would be facing jail time, but because Smollett is in the elite class, he was able to his celebrity status in orchestrating the elaborate hate crime and again to avoid jail time.
Prejudice and stereotype labeling are also depicted in the article. Prejudices are based on social class, race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and political views. (Roberts,’Race and Ethnic Inequalities’). Smollett used prejudices against race and sexual orientation when he orchestrated his attack. Society responded by stereotyping Smollett as a privileged and elite black man.
Many believe that the prosecutor’s office used Smollett’s fame, and his elite status to drop all charges against him. Prosecutor, Kim Foxx, who was elected as the top prosecutor in 2016 on a platform of criminal justice reform is personally being publicly scrutinized. The article reports that many people in the community believe she used the restorative justice to “cut a break for a famous actor” (Maddaus, 2019). Further adding to the accusations against Foxx, the article states that Smollett got a much better deal than any other defendant that took part in the restorative justice program because he “did not have to wait a year or make any kind of restitution before completing the program” (Maddaus, 2019). His case was closed after two days of doing volunteer work.
Foxx defended her actions and the actions of the prosecutor’s office by saying, “The solution to what’s happening in our neighborhoods is not solved by institutions” (Maddaus, 2019). This is an example of how institutions can also contribute to social problems. Although the inequality is not directed towards Smollett, it does show inequality by dropping the charges against someone who has elite status. If a black man with no elite status was facing these charges, the outcome likely would have been different.
The very point of the article was supported with one final quote. “This wasn’t a full restorative process” (Maddaus, 2019), a statement that was made by Elena Quintana, an expert who monitors and evaluates Chicago’s restorative justice court.
Jussie Smollett has disgraced society, mostly people of color and people who are LGBTQ. His actions have undermined the seriousness of the social problems associated with racial and sexual discrimination. His celebrity status bought him a “get out of jail free card”. Whether one views Jussie Smollett and his actions from a critical constructionist perspective, or they apply the conflict theory or symbolic interactionism theory, there’s one thing that the majority of everyone will agree on. Jussie Smollett was wrong in what he did, his motivations for doing what he did was wrong, and he should be held to the same accountability as anyone else would be.