Gina Florio
June 14, 2016 5:14 pm
Twitter/Roxane Gay

In the recent issue of Lenny Letter (a free newsletter by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner you should definitely sign up for), feminist author and Associate Professor of English at Purdue University Roxane Gay wrote a powerful essay about the role race plays in the Brock Turner sexual assault case. She brings to light many issues in the criminal justice system that have been happening for years, but many of us have simply been trained to overlook them.

Gay recognizes how upsetting it was to hear of Turner’s short sentencing, but she also reminds us that it was to be expected. It’s reported that black men receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than the ones white men receive. For the same crime, however violent or heinous, the America Civil Liberties Union states that black men will always be more likely to do more prison time than whites.

The discrimination doesn’t end in the courtroom, though. Gay writes about how we tend to look at and treat black men differently in our society, particularly in the media. She writes:

“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.”

Black men who are convicted of an offense are quickly reduced to being called “criminals” and “offenders,” when Brock Turner has the luxury of being dubbed a successful swimmer and “a good young man.”  Gay points out that Turner is allowed to have a history — one that all but excuses him for raping a woman — while black men have their humanity stripped away from them in the public eye. She continues,

“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.”

On the other hand, Turner has a multitude of people who are coming forward and insisting that he be granted leniency because of his good character. Gay prompts us to think about how Turner’s grandparents responded: “Brock is the only person being held accountable for the actions of other irresponsible adults.

His father wrote a now infamous letter to the judge presiding over the sexual assault case, pleading with him to be reduce the sentencing for “20 minutes of action.” Leslie Rasmussen, a friend of Turner’s, says “the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank” shouldn’t affect his life so severely. The judge himself, Aaron Persky, pathetically said, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.

And let’s not forget which of Turner’s mugshots was released for the world to see. Gay writes:

“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.”

The other side of the coin is that black men and teenagers are shown as the villain, even after they’re dead and proven innocent. Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were victims of crimes who ended up being unfairly “scrutinized and treated as criminals in waiting.” Gay even highlights the young boy who fell into the Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. “Speculation began about why he entered the enclosure, as if there could be a reason beyond a child’s curiosity and naïveté,” she says.

Turner is seen as human, as a victim in the crime he committed,” Gay says. She also walks us through exactly what Turner did, in order to give us a solid sense of how horrendous it was. She finishes with, “Brock Turner’s crime is revolting. His crime is deliberate.” Yet the criminal justice system doesn’t see it that way.

Throughout this poignant essay, Gay gently nudges over and over again, “This is how whiteness works.” She says the privilege of being white “provides protection… instant redemption and unearned respect.” There will always be family, friends, and a judge out there who sympathizes with white men who commit crimes, exonerating them of even the most atrocious of acts.

One of the most frustrating parts of this is how remorseless Turner is for everyone but himself. Gay reminds us that he said in court,  “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.” What a disgusting response, full of “flagrant arrogance and immaturity,” Gay says.

“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.”

Gay is brave enough to share her own story of assault that happened years ago. She grew up in a quaint, all-American town very similar to the one where Turner is from, a place where bad behavior is excused if you’re a white kid from a family of privilege. “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,” Gay says.

“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.”

Hopefully this essay will help us all open our eyes to the racial injustices that still hover over our country as we continue to send love and support to survivors of sexual assault.

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