In October 2015, in the small, predominantly white, north-western US state of Idaho, a racially motivated case of sexual assault caught national headlines. In the locker room following football training, John R.K. Howard, Tanner Ward and a third 16-year-old boy lured their mentally disabled, black teammate into what was meant to seem like an embrace, yet instead physically assaulted him and proceeded to rape him with a coat hanger, all the while chanting racial epithets.
During last Friday’s court hearing, ring leader, Howard, was allowed to reach a plea bargain, allowing him to avoid jail time on the account of pleading guilty to injury of a child, instead. It seems likely he will walk away with two to three years of probation and community service hours, instead of the jail time that it seemed certain he would receive.
A law suit has been filed by the victim’s adoptive parents against the school and his attackers: they state that the attack was the culmination of months and months of racial taunting and abuse, and that members of the school who should have protected him, failed.
Who do we turn to when our own judicial systems are very clearly shown to not be on the side of those they are meant to protect; when our courts, judges and attorneys can be allowed to conspire against a vulnerable young person whose life has been turned upside at the hands of three nasty, vindictive, racist, white boys?
The attack was found to be neither a sex crime, or racially motivated.
The terrible reality of the case and its findings is that none of this, in reality, is surprising. The US court system has been found to favour and protect successful, young, white football players more times than it seems possible, despite heavy opposition and criticism from activists. The protection of the abuser over the victim is an all too familiar trade mark of high-profile rape cases, and national media outlets have been heavily criticised for doing the same. After all, a young white boy’s football career is obviously far more important than someone’s physical and mental health.
How can we encourage victims to come forth and seek protection and justice when the cases dominating our headlines all send out the message that if you’re a young, successful white boy, you’ll more or less be let off with a slap on the wrist? The judicial system in America is setting a terrifyingly damaging precedent, one which will have repercussions on countless people’s lives, let alone the victim of this case himself.
We are seeing the coming together of two already incredibly worrying trends in the US court system, one being that sexual assault victims (more often than not, women) are often stripped of their dignity and not handled with the sympathy or care that they deserve, and repeatedly fail to receive the justice one would imagine. The second of these two trends has swamped headlines over the past few years with a proliferation of high-profile cases, and that is the difficulty many African-Americans face in receiving equal and racial prejudice-free treatment by their own country’s law and order enforcement teams, a trend that has, in the worst cases, resulted in African-Americans paying with their lives.
A comment by Bruce Harnett from the University of Pittsburgh on a news page discussing this case struck a chord with me. He highlighted his point by stating how it seems ‘there is very little affluent white people can do to warrant prison sentences’ and pointed out that ‘neither judges, white juries, nor prosecutors, feel prison is an appropriate place for a white person’, a point that, when looking at the figures of incarceration levels, appears to ring true. Our media outlets and TV shows reflect this notion of stereotyping on a near daily basis, of the black man being the thug and the middle class white man being the respectable, good person: to pretend that these stereotypes are not a precondition in many people’s minds when judging cases of law and order violations would be naive.
In the face of oppression and prejudice, we must be loud and vocal in our disgust and opposition. We must make it clear that we will not stand for this, that we can do better. Not only must it be made clear to those that allow and decide on these ridiculous rulings and the perpetrators themselves, but it must be made clear to victims and potential victims too. Whilst there is potentially little we can do in the direct court rulings of individual cases themselves, by sharing our sense of injustice on behalf of victims of both racial abuse and sexual assault, we at least send out a message that we are on their side, even if their law and order systems aren’t.