Racism and ableism play a role in sexual assault cases

John Howard, a 19-year-old Idaho student who sexually assaulted his high school football teammate in October 2015, was sentenced to 300 hours of community service with probation on Feb. 24. Howard’s black and mentally disabled teammate testified that his teammates helped Howard forcibly rape him using a hanger.

The case, which has drawn uproar for its numerous implications — sexual assault, racially targeted abuse, ableism and Howard’s privilege as a member of a notable family in the town of Dietrich, where the assault occurred — is now under even more fire. District judge Randy Stoker said that slurs that the slurs used against the victim, such as “fried chicken” and “watermelon,” were not racial in nature, and that the attack “was not sexual.”

This sentence demonstrates a deliberate blindness to racism that a number of racial minorities in this country already know to exist. It is not relevant whether Stoker knew the harmful racial stereotypes implied by the terms he used. The point is that he should have; acknowledgement of the racially motivated nature of the abuse would have had a profound impact on Howard’s sentence. In the judge’s own words: “If I thought that you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”

Yet even this hypothetical promise doesn’t seem likely. One of the proposed sentences for Howard had included racial sensitivity training along with community service hours — but still no jail time.

This blindness to racism not only reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the buildup of trauma for the victim, who was consistently subjected to racism even before the attack, but also cushions the blow for Howard, who is white. His drastically light sentencing has been compared to that of convicted rapist Brock Turner, who served only three months out of his six month jail sentence for sexually assaulting a woman. Critics of the Turner case have pointed out that Turner’s status as a wealthy white male from an elite university allowed him to wield influence to get out of serving the punishment he should have faced. Similarly, in the case of Howard, ignoring the fact that he is white would be to our peril.

The privilege of a white perpetrator is even reflected in Stoker’s assertion that there was nothing sexual about the crime, and that Howard should not be treated as a sex offender. If a judge cannot see rape as a crime of sexual assault that requires due punishment, it is more than reasonable to examine a racial pattern among white assailants, such as Turner, who receive lighter sentences for sexual assault.

What makes this cover-up of a racially motivated sexual assault even more sinister is the way in which it has been systematically carried out, from the halls of Dietrich High School to the courtroom. The racial slurs directed at the victim by his teammates were not condemned by his coaches, but rather made even worse: In court, the victim recounted that head football coach Mike Torgerson allegedly “offered him grape soda if he made a good play in a game.” Yet not one of the acts of racism towards the victim were enough for Stoker to see the assault as racially motivated — or even as sexual assault at all — exemplifying a top-down blindness to racism.

There is one part of the case that has come under suspicion and has unfortunately given leeway to those eager to dismiss racial motivations. In a recorded conversation last May with Torgerson and another football coach, along with several of the victim’s friends and teammates, the victim is heard saying that he was “fed lies” by his parents and pressured to lie when he testified in court because his parents sought the money from a $10 million civil lawsuit.

He is even heard saying that he “[loves] those guys” in reference to the perpetrators, and that they “shouldn’t be charged.” He retracted these statements in February, saying that he “told them what they wanted to hear because he wanted his friends back.” Regardless of whether we can find truth in this confusion, there is one key fact that remains the same: The victim, against all attempts by his perpetrators to dismiss it, was attacked at least in part on the basis of his race. Even the judge did not dispute that terms such as “fried chicken” were used against the victim.

Events in this case and its final outcome serve as an underhanded effort to hide racism as thoroughly as possible, obscuring an already deeply suppressed reality that racial minorities have no choice but to face. This singular situation does not even begin to highlight the erasure of sexual assault by the judge. The victim’s life has been altered for the worse — he attempted suicide last June. While hospitalized he wrote a poem, and it reveals perhaps the strongest indictment of the blindness to racism: “It liks [sic] to pound you to the ground, and lock the door for your opportunities, and leave you helpless, without a sound.”