Opinion: Consider our hierarchy of violence
People were furious that Breana Harmon Talbott was raped by black men.
She actually wasn’t, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s concern ourselves with the way some folks responded after the then-18-year-old white girl from Pottsboro, Texas, stumbled into a church last March clad only in bra, shirt and underwear, bleeding from cuts and claiming to have been abducted by three African-American men in ski masks.
“This is going to be a brutally honest post,” her mother wrote on Facebook. “Today my daughter, Breana Harmon Talbott, was taken by force by 3 black men. 2 raped her and she is cut head to toe by a knife.”
The “brutally honest post” struck a chord with the far right. Social media lit up with angry demands for vengeance upon the nonexistent black men.
“Lord find these animals give them what they deserve,” said one.
Said another: “IF THE RACES WERE REVERSED, THIS WOULD BE NATIONAL NEWS. THESE MEN DESERVE TO BE HANGED.”
One railed about “black thugs,” another mused, “Whites need a mafia … so if you want to rape a white girl like Breana Talbott, the white mafia finds you and your family and puts you down.”
Actually, they tried that idea already — it was called the Ku Klux Klan — but leave that aside. Instead, let’s confront the glaring moral hypocrisy at the heart of all this outrage.
Meaning that these people were angrier at the idea that the girl was raped by black men than at the idea that she was raped. Again, she wasn’t actually raped at all. Rather, she staged a crime — complete with abandoned car and self-inflicted cuts — after arguing with her boyfriend.
Police doubted her tale almost from the beginning. She was arrested two weeks later. Last week, she pleaded guilty to multiple felonies stemming from tampering with or fabricating evidence.
But though the case now stands resolved, that moral hypocrisy is anything but. As has been noted before in this space, this country has evolved a hierarchy of violence wherein we assess threats by race and culture.
In that hierarchy, black and Muslim are automatically dangerous. People outside those demographic boxes are innocent until proven otherwise.
Consider the carnage in Parkland. The FBI ignored multiple tips that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz was planning a mass shooting. Ask yourself: Would the agency have been so laggard had it received the same tip about a 19-year-old named, say, Muhammad? Doubtful.
Similarly, for many people, the notion of this girl being raped was significantly less awful than the notion of her being raped by black men. Would any actual rape victim ever feel that way? Would any woman ever say, “I feel traumatized, violated and angry — but I’m thankful my rapist was white?”
It’s a ridiculous idea, but where race and culture are concerned, Americans are often a ridiculous people. Unfortunately, our hierarchy of violence is not just ridiculous, it’s also dangerous. In linking certain crimes with certain people, we miss threats right in front of us. Again: Consider Parkland.
Talbott understood this hierarchy, if only instinctively. And there is, for African Americans, a terrible resonance in what she did. No one will ever know how many black men have been lied into jail — or onto lynch ropes — by white girls and women just like her. And yes, the occasional white man — as in the Duke lacrosse team — has endured the reverse injustice, albeit without the lynch ropes.
Under her plea agreement, Talbott will receive probation or deferred adjudication. Either way, she will see no jail time. Nor should we be surprised.
There is a hierarchy of justice, too.
— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.