The White Benefit of the Doubt
October 18, 2018
Brock Turner, a blonde Stanford athlete, sexually assaulted a woman behind a dumpster. He was only sentenced to six months in prison. Charged and convicted on three accounts, he only served three months because of “good behavior.” Turner’s father argued that he should receive probation, not jail time. He argued that his son’s “life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” In other words, Turner deserved a second chance because those twenty minutes shouldn’t define him.
Why did Turner deserve a second chance? Why should 20 minutes not define him? Simply put, Turner is a white, privileged man and, therefore, his future had to be considered in the deliberation of the case. White male privilege in our legal system is omnipresent. Being white and male means you are a double beneficiary of a biased system. Whiteness is a defining characteristic in too many cases. In sexual assault cases, white men have a perspective that is valued, it feels, more than the woman accusing him. Cases can quickly devolve into he-said-she-said, where we consider the shades of grey, even when the case is black and white. When a white man is the school shooter, reporters and police ask about his mental health and family life.
This benefit of the doubt is uniquely white in nature. It is white privilege to the highest power. Men of color do not receive the same benefit of the doubt in sexual assault cases or any case for that matter. According to a 2017 study by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), black men, on average, receive sentences 20% longer than a white man’s for identical crimes. According to a 2014 University of Michigan Law School study, the incarceration rate in America is 500% higher for black men than white men. Lastly, with no difference except race, black men are 75% more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender. A mandatory minimum sentence means you aren’t released for “good behavior” halfway through your sentence.
The 1989 Central Park Five case perfectly illustrates these injustices. In April, 1989, several African American males were arrested in Central Park for vandalism and general mischief. Hours later, while the boys were already in custody, Trisha Meili was taken to the hospital, after being raped and brutally mutilated. Instead of looking for other suspects, the police decided the boys they had in custody were the perpetrators. Teen Vogue reporter Lincoln Anthony-Blades, in his recap of the case, described that one of the boys “informed the police that he was completely unaware of what happened to her, but the police responded by threatening him with a 25-years-to-life sentence in Rikers Island if they didn’t admit to the crime.” The police coaxed these five young men into confession. Four of them, minors, received sentences for up to fifteen years in prison, and the fifth, charged as an adult, was sent to Rikers Island, a maximum security prison complex.
12 years after sentencing, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist, confessed to the rape of Trisha Meili. Was the Central Park 5 case just lazy police work? No, it was racist police work. These boys were forced to plead guilty, despite there being no evidence to prove that they did it. Blatant racial prejudices were at play here and the five were never given the chance to prove themselves innocent. They were not given the benefit of the doubt or even a fair trial. This case was a police-said problem, which points to deeper racial biases in the legal system.
I’ve been thinking about the Kavanaugh accusations and trials, and how many male senators are willing to jump to his defense shows a problem with where our leaders’ morals lie: leaders who make our laws are uncertain about their definitions of sexual assault and, more generally, how men should treat women; however, their definitions are only in question when looking at privileged white men like themselves. Indeed, being male isn’t enough for Republican leaders to defend you. You must be white and male: the embodiment of privilege.
Donald Trump, during the Central Park 5 case, published an advertisement in the New York News calling for the return of the death penalty, yet we do not see such calls to arms against Kavanaugh, rather we see praise. With Kavanaugh and Turner, we see excuses: drunken teen, it was a mistake, and he’s a good guy. Excuses weren’t made for the Central Park Five. Excuses aren’t made for the victims of police brutality who are shot because of their skin color. We, as a country, need to evaluate those whom we deem credible and for whom we are willing to make excuses.