16/03/2018 22:31 SAST

In the U.S., White Women Can Get Away With Almost Anything

Brianna Brochu used bodily fluids, including spit and menstrual blood, to contaminate the belongings of her roommate,

Hartford Courant via Getty Images
Brianna Brochu, right, listens as Judge Omar A. Williams addresses her in Superior Court in Hartford, Connecticut, on Monday.

Former University of Hartford student Brianna Brochu used bodily fluids, including spit and menstrual blood, to contaminate the belongings of her roommate, Chennel “Jazzy” Rowe. Brochu admitted to licking Rowe’s utensils and smearing blood from a tampon onto Rowe’s backpack, but told police she hadn’t done other things she bragged about in now-deleted Instagram posts: adding “moldy clam dip” to her roommate’s lotion and putting Rowe’s toothbrush in “places where the sun doesn’t shine.”

That Brochu’s punishment came more in the form of losing a scholarship than in the form of legal censure suggests Rowe’s victimization was deemed acceptable.

The court gave Brochu “accelerated rehabilitation” and special probation on Monday, basically declaring that the malice with which she acted should not be treated as a reflection on her character. The legal system essentially asserted that her reveling in getting rid of her roommate, whom she called “Jamaican Barbie,” was not inspired by hate.

For those who understand the need to declare not only #BlackLivesMatter but also #SayHerName, this outcome was not surprising. Especially when compared to their white peers, black girls and women receive much harsher treatment for minor mischief. Indeed, black girls and women don’t even have to victimize other people to feel the full force of the law and the public’s disapproval. 

This case places a spotlight on how wedded Americans remain to the idea that white women and girls simply do not perpetrate violence.

Because both the perpetrator and victim are women, this case offers an opportunity to consider how gender inflects the racism that greases the wheels of the U.S. (in)justice system. It places a spotlight on how wedded Americans remain to the idea that white women and girls simply do not perpetrate violence. This idea is so seductive that, even when a white woman’s violence cannot be denied, it is apparently part of our American duty to ensure she gets another chance to go back to her presumably natural state of innocence and virtue. 

As the Me Too and Time’s Up movements highlight how white women’s victimization hasn’t been taken seriously, it may be tempting to downplay white women’s aggression. That would be a mistake. After all, before it sparked coalition-building across race and class, Me Too demonstrated that white women can assume their own efforts to be unprecedented when they don’t consider women of color. It’s dangerous to critique sexism by flattening out the category “woman” in ways that ignore racism. Doing so can easily erase the work of women of color, as well as their varied experiences with violence.

Black women know better than most: White women sometimes revel in doing great harm. 

The dynamic at work in the Brochu case is not at all unusual or exclusive to women, though, so understanding the gender dynamics shouldn’t obscure the broader context. When people of color are wronged by white people, the common response is to find fault with the person of color. When everyone is so busy blaming the victim — black and brown people are just too sensitive, always reading bad intentions into harmless words and deeds — who has time to consider how the perpetrator could improve?

Professor David Leonard has consistently identified Americans’ insistence on manufacturing innocence for white people. The legal system approaches white people with a commitment to “continually aid and abet with innocence,” he wrote in 2013. Mass murderers provide the best example, according to Leonard: The people shooting up schools, churches and movie theaters are overwhelmingly white and male, and the courts, media and American public find ways to humanize them as “troubled” individuals and sympathize with them.

Violence based on a person’s identity has everything to do with the deeply held belief that the only real citizens are straight white men.

The Brochu case involves two young women, and the same dynamic is at play. There was evidence that Brochu’s actions were premeditated and continued over time out of sheer malice and racial hatred, but the court manufactured innocence for her. Understanding the ease with which this happened, and why Brochu’s defense could confidently press for more and more leniency, requires facing a basic truth about Americans’ resistance to acknowledging hate crimes.

My research on the similarities between lynchings 100 years ago and anti-LGBTQ violence today has taught me that violence based on a person’s identity has everything to do with the deeply held belief that the only real citizens are straight white men. Everyone else is a “guest” who should be grateful if they are tolerated and left unmolested. Facing this reality requires acknowledging a simple fact that all Americans are taught to avoid noticing: It matters that the nation’s laws overwhelmingly originated with straight white men. We lie when we act as if that fact is neutral.

White men have a gender and a race that shapes their experiences and worldview just as much as gender and race inform my experiences and perspective as a black woman. American laws have been written to reflect the biases and values of white men. Indeed, they have mostly emerged from white men’s feelings, especially their fear of losing an iota of power. This is true no matter how much everyone is encouraged to pretend that American jurisprudence is detached and based on reason, not emotion.

Hartford Courant via Getty Images
Chennel "Jazzy" Rowe, Brochu's former roommate, leaves Superior Court in Hartford on Monday.

It is because a small number of people who are not straight white men ― and who overcame tremendous obstacles to become attorneys and judges, spilling untold amounts of blood and ink to do so ― that some American statutes actually aim to project marginalized groups.

Overall, American jurisprudence has evolved to ensure that “real” citizens (white men) keep their license to do harm because others must sometimes be reminded that they are not truly citizens. Depending on how close someone comes to being a while male ― the demographic that is unquestionably the “real” citizen ―  the law will extend similar license, as long as their victim is even more of a “guest.”

In the Brochu case, a lesser citizen, a white woman, did harm to a black woman. No problem. Let’s manufacture some innocence!

This tendency does not simply affect the victims of white criminals; it shapes American culture. Manufacturing innocence for the most despicable white perpetrators inevitably means also manufacturing merit for white people whose only virtue is that they aren’t aggressively terrible.

In other words: As court decisions align with broader values and undeniable patterns in media coverage and public opinion, it is clear that white people hold themselves and each other to incredibly low standards.

If systematically poisoning your roommate with bodily fluids doesn’t bring consequences, white men and women who would not do something so disgusting can think of themselves as damn near angelic — even as they do nothing to make this country less hostile for anyone but themselves. This is surely why the U.S. is full of cities where some high schools look like college campuses while high schools down the street look and feel like prisons. Brianna Brochu has held up a mirror not only to the American criminal justice system but also to society at large. When will all the good and decent white people hold themselves and each other to higher standards?

Koritha Mitchell is a literary historian and cultural critic who teaches at Ohio State University. Her books include the award-winning Living With Lynching and other projects. Follow her on Twitter @ProfKori.