New Evidence the Stanford Rape Trial Sentencing Had a Racial Subtext
Judge Aaron Persky disgusted feminists around the world earlier this month after sentencing a convicted rapist with just six months, not even in prison, but in county jail. To many, Persky’s decision not only sent the message that rape isn’t a serious offense, but also that rape is less severe if the victim isn’t conscious to say “no,” and ultimately, that victims are second-class citizens undeserving of justice. Additionally, some pointed out racial undertones in the case, suggesting that white privilege played a role in making convicted rapist Brock Turner appear less dangerous, criminal-like, and deserving of a harsher sentence. New evidence suggests this was probably the case: in a nearly identical rape case, Persky gave a Latino man three years of state prison time. Note that he sentenced Turner to six months… in county jail.
In this latest case, Raul Ramirez, a 32-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, reportedly gave his female roommate a “love letter” and then entered her room and fingered her for five to 10 minutes without her consent until she started crying.
There are obviously a lot of factors to be considered in sentencing anyone, but it’s worth noting neither Turner nor Ramirez had prior criminal records of convictions for violent felonies, and where Turner fled the scene of his crime and tried to deny that it was nonconsensual, Ramirez stayed until police arrived and told police “he knew what he did was wrong,” according to The Guardian.
The point here isn’t that Ramirez, who has been charged with sexual assault, is deserving of a lighter sentence: it’s that Turner is deserving of a much, much harsher one. Ramirez’s defense attorneys aren’t contesting the three-year sentence, which is the minimum the judge could order. As Drew Salisbury at Death and Taxes points out, it’s “troublesome” enough that Persky is “giving out the minimal sentence for sexually violent crimes as is in his power to do.” It’s even more troublesome that Persky’s “treating the perpetrators of those crimes differently because of their backgrounds,” having graduated from Stanford like Turner.
While sympathy for Turner because of their shared educational roots might have played some role in Persky’s decision, racism and white privilege have long played a role in the dialogue around rape and our treatment of it in the U.S. criminal justice system. Rhetoric about foreign barbarians coming in and raping “our women” has long been a rallying cry that either mobilized men to go to war or justified violence against communities of color, whether it was the 14-year-old Emmett Till being murdered for whistling at a white woman, or the false conviction of the Scottsboro boys. It doesn’t help that relatively recently, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump identified Mexican immigrants as “rapists” in his June 2015 presidential announcement speech.
Just as racist portrayals of black women and Latinas as promiscuous and American Indian and Asian women as submissive in popular culture tend to undermine or downplay any sexual abuse experienced by these women, portrayals of black and Latino men as sexually aggressive in popular culture, as well as perceptions of them as inherently more dangerous than white men, arguably make them fit the perceived mold of “rapist” better than white men like Turner do to the authorities.
Ex-football player Brian Banks was tried as an adult despite being a minor at the time of his trial, and served five years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Banks’ situation is frequently compared with Turner’s as evidence of a racial disparity, although it’s worth noting that his charges of forcible rape and kidnapping are more severe than Turner’s. Just in general, Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst with the Sentencing Project, told Broadly, “Prosecutors are likely to charge people more harshly if they’re black than if they’re white,” but this arguably rings true of people of color in general who are popularly portrayed as more dangerous than white people.
Michele Landis Dauber, a Stanford professor leading the recall against Perksy, offered similar insights in light of Persky’s decision regarding Ramirez, telling The Guardian: “[Ramirez’s sentence] shows that Turner got consideration not available to other defendants who aren’t as privileged.”
Both trials, as well as Persky’s blatant bias and abuse of power, show that as complicated as it is for victims just to be respected and believed despite favorable statistics about their credibility, the process of getting justice even when they are believed is equally complicated.