Fewer stories better illustrate the chasm present in America’s broken criminal-justice system than that of convicted sex offender Brock Turner. After being convicted of three felony counts for sexually assaulting an unconscious drunk woman, Turner, who is white, was sentenced to six months in jail with the possibility of being released in three months with good behavior. Part of the stated rationale from Santa Clara County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky was that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on Turner.
You don’t say.
Turner’s entire case is an instructive anecdote about white privilege, class and power. This scenario is eerily reminiscent of Delaware Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden’s 2014 decision to grant probation in lieu of a prison sentence to a convicted felon who had sexually assaulted his own daughter. In her decision, Jurden noted that the defendant, an heir to the Du Pont family, would not “fare well” in prison.
Turner’s case is hardly the first of its kind and will not be the last. Affluenza has become to white privilege what “thug” is to “n—ger.” But when considered in the context of America’s current political climate, Turner’s case may be as predictive as it is informative. In fact, this case arguably encapsulates the widespread appeal of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The America that Trump seeks to “make great again” is one where whiteness—particularly heterosexual male whiteness—isn’t just dominant but functions almost as a possession unto itself. It is both sword and shield and can be wielded by its possessor to assert its claim to any number of desires or impulses while also serving to protect that same owner against charges of wrongdoing leveled while he is in pursuit of conquest. It allows for unabashed, unabridged and unapologetic racism, sexism and xenophobia. It’s a space where characterizing these offenses as violations is inaccurate because doing so suggests that there wasn’t already an entitlement to begin with.
America’s justice system is already two-tiered, with levels being separated by wealth and, often, by race. The surface explanation is simple: Privilege and wealth both afford access—access to networks, better representation and ultimately to a different set of rules. Turner could very well be the invisible mascot to go along with Trump’s dog-whistle, not-so-coded language about the need for white men to take back carte blanche status: a literal birthright affording all of the country’s benefits without any of the responsibility of having to earn them, and no real concern about permanently losing them. It’s the American way.
Sadly, there are any number of stories similar to Turner’s, of other young men with promising futures—many of whom persevered through far more challenging circumstances than Turner’s—who found themselves in the throws of the criminal-justice system as a result of their own poor decisions. Yet many of these cases, particularly when the defendants are black, have resulted in starkly different outcomes.
Consider the case of Brian Banks, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to six years in prison at just 17 years old. Although he was eventually exonerated, Banks’ path was forever altered by that experience in ways that Judge Persky clearly sought to protect Turner from. There was no concern for Banks, his future or whether he would “fare well” in prison. And he didn’t even do what he was accused of.
Decisions like the one in the Turner case are the writing on the wall for what a Trump regime would look like in America. As a former prosecutor, I enter this discussion keenly aware of the ways that the playing field is already booby-trapped to the disadvantage of people of color. Establishing the precedent set in Turner’s case isn’t just reprehensible; it’s outright dangerous. It extends the reach of white male privilege to be practically above the law.
It is beyond worth noting that nothing in the discussion of Brock Turner can begin to approach a reconciliation for the victim of his crimes. This entire exercise is a chilling commentary on rape culture and misogyny in America. Not too far a stretch from the similarly shocking and offensive commentary on women repeatedly spouted by Donald Trump on the campaign trail. This, too, is an element of the America he would “make great again.”
For as hard as it is to imagine a society where the magic words are “Free. White. Male. 21,” decisions like the Turner case are scary indicators suggesting that this is the direction in which we may be headed. What’s even more frightening is that it could actually look worse once we arrive there.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.