The narrative surrounding Brock Turner, from day one of his arrest, has been all about his “potential.” A Stanford student, a champion swimmer with Olympic aspirations, only 20 years old with no prior convictions ― the concept of Turner’s potential has been at the center of his defense.
It’s Turner’s potential that kept the police and most media outlets from sharing his true mugshot from the night of his arrest in 2015, a mugshot quite different than the clean-cut, wide-eyed, innocent photo from his sentencing that has been so widely circulated in the last several days.
His potential is what inspired his father, Dan Turner, to send a letter to the judge asking for leniency in his son’s sentencing, writing: “His life will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
And his potential is what ultimately moved Judge Aaron Perksy to sentence him to just six months in a California prison instead of the six year-sentence prosecutors originally asked for, because a long prison sentence “would have a severe impact on him.” Six months for a young man guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Six months for someone who assaulted an unconscious young women behind a dumpster. But potential really has nothing to do with how easily he got off.
“Potential,” in this case, is just another word for whiteness.
It has been pointed out throughout this case that the framing of Turner as a star athlete with everything to lose, a young misguided man who simply needs another chance, epitomizes the way rape culture operates. We’re socialized to question the victim, use the fact that she was intoxicated to poke holes in her accusations, while bending over backwards to highlight all the “good qualities” in her attacker.
Here, rape culture and "race" culture intersect in a disturbing, but unsurprising way. Let's just state the obvious: if Brock Turner were black or Latino, the likelihood of him getting a measly 6-month sentence for a brutal sexual assault would be very slim. His wealth, his gender and his whiteness have played a huge role in his protection, and we must acknowledge that.
It's already a known fact that incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color, and that black convicts are more likely to receive long sentences than their white counterparts. And no, this isn't because people of color are just more prone to crime. It's because our highly flawed criminal justice system is steeped in racial bias.
There is a long history in this country of black men being unfairly accused of rape. From Jesse Washington to Emmett Till, young black men have historically been branded as naturally predatory and sex-crazed, they've been found guilty by all white juries (if they even got a trial) on trumped up charges and false evidence. They've been lynched, executed, sentenced to lifetimes in prison. Why? Because there is no "potential" in blackness.
When five young black and Latino boys ranging in ages from 14 to 16 at the time of their arrests were handed decades-long sentences for the rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989, no one thought of their potential. No one was concerned with how long prison terms might affect them at such young ages. No one pondered how their punishment might impact the lives they dreamed of having. They were black, and they were poor, and that was enough.
But in the case of young white men like Turner or Owen Labrie of St. Paul's Prep School, it's somehow easier to humanize them, to look at their transgressions as youthful mistakes. This has always been at the center of the disconnect in how we view black and white youth. A young white man sexually assaults a girl and it's a terrible but once-in-a-lifetime mistake. A young black boy like 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is shot and killed for absolutely no reason at all, but a few photos of him flashing gold teeth or playfully throwing up the "West-Side" sign are used as a means for justifying his death.
To be absolutely clear: the injustice of Brock Turner's light sentencing does not mean we should absolve guilty black rapists. It doesn't mean that their sentences should be lighter, too. It doesn't mean that their crimes are not just as heinous, or just as worthy of punishment. It isn't racist to convict a proven rapist for his crimes, no matter his race.The point here is that all accused rapists should face the same kind of scrutiny under the law.
When Judge Persky said that a long prison sentence would have a "severe impact" on Turner, was he thinking of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed athlete surrounded by a sea of threatening black and brown faces? Out of place? Out of his element? Forced to rough it among the types of nefarious characters who he shares nothing in common with? Despite the fact that the one common thread, the most important, is that he, too, is a criminal?
We need to question why we're more likely to give young white men the benefit of the doubt, why we're more likely to protect them and shelter them -- even when they deserve the same punishment that every one else gets. We need to shift the narrative away from "potential," and accept the fact that race shouldn't play a role in how guilty or not guilty a criminal is, or how long the sentence he or she gets.