What does it mean within our criminal legal system for a black man to be accused and acquitted of a crime? Does that represent progress in a society that has rarely applied the law fairly along the color line? What if that black man is accused of assaulting a woman? Does that signal progress considering our legal system’s poor treatment of women? Now, what if the man is a rich and famous athlete? Still progress, or more of the same?
Last week, NBA point guard Derrick Rose and his two friends Randall Hampton and Ryan Allen were found not liable on all charges in a civil suit brought by a woman accusing them of rape. The former MVP smiled as he walked out of the courtroom and many of Rose’s fans and supporters celebrated the results of the trial. Given that civil court trials have a lower burden of proof for wrongdoing than criminal cases, it seems unlikely that prosecutors will pursue criminal charges against Rose.
Celebrities and rich people often exist on a different plane when it comes to arrests, pleas, convictions, sentencing, and prison conditions.
The Rose case has been cause for debate. Some, including Rose himself, have claimed that the baller was targeted for a civil suit because he’s rich and famous. Others have argued the opposite, that his status is the reason he’s a free man. Even more, Rose’s trial raises questions about the ways race, gender, and class continue to operate in our legal system. Indeed, his case sits at the intersection of familiar faultlines: race, gender, class, and celebrity— dynamics that collided and perhaps colluded to produce the verdict in Rose’s case.
The U.S. justice system is rooted in white supremacy with anti-blackness at its core. Without question, the criminal justice system has been criminally unjust to black people for centuries. Specifically, there is a reprehensible and racist history of false rape accusations against black men. Nearly 20 percent of lynchings of black men in the U.S. from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century were fueled by rape accusations. Without evidence, but armed with the racist stereotype of black male predators seeking to viciously violate white women, a mere accusation of rape often led to brutal and fatal attacks on black men or in many cases, black communities. After the trial, Rose’s attorney cited the history of anti-black racism to invalidate the rape accusations against these three black men. Given this history, it is not surprising that many black people could and did struggle with the veracity of the accusations against Rose and his friends.
Nevertheless, there is also a history of rapists of all races not being tried or convicted. According to RAINN, only three percent of rapists spend a day in prison. This startling statistic accounts for the low arrest rate as well as low conviction and incarceration rates for rapists. Even when convicted, sentences tend not to align with the severity of the crime. Brock Turner, infamously known as the ex-Stanford swimmer and convicted rapist was lightly sentenced to six months and only served three. Notwithstanding the widespread outrage at Turner’s light sentence, the criminal justice system and general public have an inglorious history as it pertains to rape and rape trials.
Another factor to consider is the differential and often, preferential treatment celebrities and wealthy people receive in our criminal and civil justice systems. From the ability to afford stellar legal representation to having loyal and avid fans, fame and money can easily influence the outcomes of trials, typically in favor of those with either or both wealth and notoriety. Celebrities and rich people often exist on a different plane when it comes to arrests, pleas, convictions, sentencing, and prison conditions. Immediately after the delivery of the verdict, the judge wished Rose good luck on his season, except when he plays the Lakers and two jurors took pictures with the New York Knicks player outside of the courtroom. While those actions don’t prove that Rose received special treatment during his trial, they do suggest that his celebrity status was indeed a factor.
In the aftermath of the civil trial verdict, one of the most common refrains among those who believe Rose and his friends raped this woman is that “George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson were found not guilty too, but we know they are guilty.” The logic and passion behind this statement is based on the premise that our criminal justice system’s race politics are deeply and unquestionably flawed at best or broken beyond repair at worst. Conversely, supporters of Rose argue that he was found not guilty and that’s the end of it. Citing the aforementioned history of false accusations against black men as well as the justice system’s tendency to criminalize black men, supporters yield to the effectiveness and “fairness” of the system in this particular case.
How do we make sense of this? How do we parse through these parallel, but interconnected histories to arrive at a place where we can hold two truths—that black people are often not treated fairly in our justice system, as victims or as the accused AND that capitalism and patriarchy muddy the waters of outright anti-blackness, especially in cases where powerful men who make a lot of money for more powerful men are accused of crimes against women?
Ultimately, the Rose case doesn’t fit neatly into how we think of the criminal legal system, especially as it relates to race.
Anti-blackness doesn’t stop because one has money and surely not because one is a man. However, Rose as a superiorly talented black athlete is a highly valuable commodity within the sports entertainment industry. He is both reduced to something to be consumed while being highly valued for his labor. His value to a franchise and to his fans in conjunction with a global rape culture that slut shames and victim blames women must be considered when processing how and why he could be found not liable for rape.
While being deposed, Rose acknowledged that he had no idea what consent is. In fact, when questioned by the prosecution, Rose stated that he viewed text messages about the plaintiff being horny or asking him to come over as examples of her “consenting.” Rose’s admission to not knowing the meaning of consent is alarming. But more striking is that this admission of not understanding consent did not play a larger role in the jury’s decision. Did the jury view these messages, as Rose did, as conveying consent? If so, this says a lot about what many people continue to think consent means. More scarily, it intimates that far more people are raping and being raped without even knowing.
Ultimately, the Rose case doesn’t fit neatly into how we think of the criminal legal system, especially as it relates to race. Instead, it asks us—particularly within black communities—to think more critically about how identities and oppression intersect. Yes, black men are often treated unfairly in our courts, but so are women. And when you factor in money and sports, it’s a whole new ball game.