On June 10, singer Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by a white man who then killed himself. There was no security at Plaza Live, the venue where Grimmie was performing. Orlando police chief John Mina said, (3), “This isn’t a crowd that you would suspect would be carrying guns into an event like this.” What goes unsaid is that there is a crowd “you” would suspect would be carrying guns into a different kind of concert. At a rap concert, for example, security is always visibly present. There are often metal detectors. This kind of security is simply a reflection of this country’s overall attitude toward race and crime.
When black men commit crimes or are alleged to have committed crimes, we immediately learn of their every misdeed from the womb forward. We see their mug shots. We are treated to a recitation of statistics on race, criminality, and incarceration rates. Rarely are these men seen as human, treated as human. They are not sons, fathers, brothers, or friends. They are not men. Instead, they are criminals, and worse, there is no hope for their redemption, there is no possibility that they are anything more than their misdeeds, their mistakes.
Black men receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than white men’s sentences for the same crimes. There are (4) along racial lines for all issues related to sentencing, including who gets life without parole for both violent and nonviolent crimes and who is sentenced to death.
Even when black men are victims of crimes, they are scrutinized and treated as criminals in waiting. Black boys in particular are never allowed to be boys. Manhood is ascribed to black boys because we are part of a culture where innocence and blackness are seen as antithetical. Look at Trayvon Martin. Look at Tamir Rice. Look, even, at the preschooler who climbed into the Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. A gorilla from the exhibit, Harambe, was killed in order to save the boy, and immediately afterward speculation began about why he entered the enclosure, as if there could be a reason beyond a child’s curiosity and naïveté.
White men who commit crimes don’t have to suffer such indignities. Instead, they get the Brock Turner treatment. Turner—someone convicted of sexual assault—who was sentenced to a paltry six months in county jail for the crime of rape. He will likely serve only half that sentence. In justifying the inadequate jail time, (5), “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.”
> Manhood is ascribed to black boys because we are part of a culture
> where innocence and blackness are seen as antithetical.
This is how whiteness works. Turner is seen as human, as a victim in the crime he committed. He is a “good young man.” He is allowed to have both a past and a future and this past and future are worthy of consideration. His crime is a mistake, not a scarlet letter, not a reflection of his character.
Brock Turner assaulted a woman behind a Dumpster in an alley. His victim was unconscious. He lifted her dress. He removed her underwear. He penetrated her without her consent. Turner took at least one picture of her breasts with his cell phone. Brock Turner was only stopped because two passersby noticed him and intervened. Before Turner committed this sexual assault, he had tried to kiss the victim’s sister, who rejected him. Twice. That’s when he found the victim, who was drunk and alone, and before long, unconscious. Brock Turner’s crime is revolting. His crime is deliberate.
The victim wrote (6) about her experience, about how she has suffered, about the repercussions of Brock Turner’s crime. Her words were not enough to overcome the power of Brock Turner’s whiteness.
In the aftermath, Brock Turner is remorseless for everyone but himself. He doesn’t seem to understand that he has committed a crime. In his statement to the court, he was preoccupied with how his life has been changed. (1), with flagrant arrogance and immaturity, “I wish I never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me.” He says this as if he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as if he is a victim of his blessings and good fortune, as if the true travesty here is the damage to his reputation. That sort of deluded attitude is what whiteness allows — a haven from reality and consequence.
(2) from Turner’s family and friends illuminate his willful ignorance. His supporters mourn for how he is suffering, for how his life has changed, how unfair this all is. Turner’s grandparents wrote, “Brock is the only person being held accountable for the actions of other irresponsible adults.” His father lamented how Brock is a changed person, how the man’s life has been ruined for “20 minutes of action.” His mother is so upset she cannot bear to redecorate her new home and she is bereft that her son’s “dreams have been shattered.” His sister made it clear that Turner’s actions were “alcohol-fueled.” A friend, Leslie Rasmussen, doesn’t think Turner’s life should be ruined because of “the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank.”
> This is how whiteness works. It provides instant redemption and
> unearned respect.
This is how whiteness works. It provides shelter. In most of these letters of support, everyone and everything must shoulder the blame but Brock Turner, the convicted sex offender.
This is how whiteness works. It provides protection. It took months for the Santa Cruz Police Department to release Brock Turner’s mug shot. Instead, the most prominent image of Turner was a school photo in a suit jacket and tie, his hair cut neatly, his smile wide. He wasn’t referred to as a violent criminal but as a Stanford student, a talented swimmer with ambitions of reaching the Olympics.
This is how whiteness works. It provides instant redemption and unearned respect. Too many articles refer to Turner as the ex–Stanford swimmer instead of labeling him as the rapist he is. Too many articles enthusiastically offer his résumé of accomplishments even though he is only 20 years old. He hasn’t been alive to accomplish that much.
I grew up in quiet, “idyllic” communities like Oakwood, Ohio, where Turner is from. I know all about these upper-middle-class environments where white children are raised believing they can do no wrong, where those same children are denied nothing, and where they grow up entitled and never learn that they should be otherwise. These are communities where good, wholesome kids drink and do drugs and make trouble. Everyone looks away because they are good kids who are “just having fun.” High grades and athleticism and sharp haircuts and “good” families excuse all manner of bad behavior.
I was a victim once. The boys who raped me were boys like Brock Turner. They were athletes, popular, clean cut. They came from *good families* and so did I. There is some benefit in reminding people that criminality lurks in all kinds of places and that goodness provides cover for all kinds of badness.
As sad as it is to say, there is nothing surprising about Brock Turner, his family, and their reluctance to place the responsibility for Turner’s crime squarely on their son’s shoulders. That’s not how they were raised. His whiteness allows his family, his friends, and far too many people who are following news about his crime to see Brock Turner as the boy next door. The white boy next door cannot possibly be a criminal, and so he isn’t.
Were it that black men received such indulgence. Everyone lives next door to someone.
*Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.*
*__Correction, June 20, 2016:__ The original version of this article misstated that the Santa Cruz Police Department released Brock Turner’s mug shot. It was released by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.*