Why Are We Still Surprised by Leniency for White Rapists Like Brock Turner?
by Kristance Harlow
With Stanford rapist Brock Turner being released from prison Friday after a laughably short sentence, it’s time to look at privilege. Again.[Content warning: sexual assault]
It is kind to appreciate the spaghetti your little brother lovingly prepared for you even though the noodles were barely cooked and the sauce was burnt. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, and graduations all have something in common: countless inappropriate gifts are accepted with grace because of the cliché, “It’s the thought that counts.” When Great Aunt Ida white-elephants a vibrator because she thought it was a back massager, it eases the awkwardness to remember that she meant well.
Americans love to say, “It’s the thought that counts.” It’s such a common saying that white folks use that engrained ideology to justify and defend oppression. Widely publicized news stories paint a picture of the powerful (read: white and those benefiting from white male power structures) being protected because of their (imagined, good) intent — while the disenfranchised (read: people of color) are punished for theirs.
Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student and star swimmer, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The punishment for one count of assault with intent to rape and two counts of sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object was a measly six months in county jail and probation. He is being released this Friday, after serving only three months of his jail sentence. Turner’s father said, “He is truly sorry” and that being prosecuted was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” The reason for such a lenient sentence was, according to the judge, “the probation officer alluded to, I believe, the fact that alcohol was present.” According to the judge, there was a lack of criminal planning and intent.
It isn’t just Turner, either. David Becker, a high school athlete from Massachusetts, was charged with two counts of rape and one count of indecent assault and battery. Becker admitted to assaulting two females in high school. He even texted one of the victims after the assault, reportedly to apologize. Becker’s only punishment will be probation. If he complies with the terms of his probation, this charge will not appear on his record. Reportedly, Becker put his arm around one of the women and since she didn’t seem to object, he thought it was OK to do what he did.
John Enochs, a frat boy at Indiana University, was accused of raping two women. He pleaded to a lesser charge of moderate bodily injury. Punishment for that came down to only one year of probation. Nicholas Fifield, high school athlete, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman living in a group home for adults with mental and cognitive disorders. He pled down to assault with intent to commit serious injury and is expected to be given probation. Turner, Becker, Enochs and Fifield are all white student athletes.
OK, so what does race have to do with it? Contrast Turner’s story with that of Cory Batey. Batey, a former Vanderbilt University student, football star and young black 19-year-old male, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. His punishment for one count of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery was 15 to 25 years in prison.
Batey’s crime was despicable and he was punished accordingly. But we can’t ignore a glaringly obvious truth: Batey is black and the other perpetrators are white.
The list of rapists given outlandishly lax sentences continues to grow. New York City’s Education Department has been accused of punishing victims of sexual assault. It happens with higher frequency to black and poor teenagers. The New York Times published an article that summarized the complaints.
A 15-year-old girl reported being assaulted by seven boys, two of whom forced her to engage in oral sex with them. The day after she reported this, a school official came to see the girl with one of the boys who was involved with the assault. This official proceeded to rewrite the report as consensual sex, then the victim got suspended for six days.
A 13-year-old girl was raped by a male student who abducted her while she was waiting for the bus. He recorded the assault and the victim was bullied relentlessly for it. Instead of dealing with bullies and the rapist, the school just told her to stay home.
Here we circle back to systems of racist oppression that harshly punish people whose lives do not directly benefit and prop up white power structures. School administrators attempted to control these narratives. When we don’t hold people responsible for their actions and give them free passes based on imagined intent, we reinforce systematic oppression and institutional inequality.
We wouldn’t want to tarnish their bright-white futures by actually punishing them for destroying someone else’s life. Why should they lose their right to a lifetime of opportunities with the icky stigma of being labeled a sex offender? Since they didn’t mean to and they thought it was OK, it shouldn’t be such a big deal. In case it isn’t clear, the sarcasm is heavy here.
Really, Turner was let off because he’s a young white 19-year-old male in college with a glaringly bright-white future and good grades. The judge believes Turner didn’t intend to destroy his victim’s life. The judge buys Turner’s subjective recollection of events, because he didn’t mean to do something wrong. Turner has a good chance of growing up to be a “productive member of society” who will maintain the status quo and is unlikely to threaten current systems of oppression. That’s why he wasn’t punished severely for such an awful sexual assault.
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