Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see Point: Don’t Destroy An Innocent Man
The “presumption of innocence” isn’t a right enjoyed by all in the United States.
Ask any black man who scans his surroundings on the sidewalks, in stores, on the roads, to find out where the cops are and mentally assess if there’s anything — about his appearance, his clothes, what he’s carrying, how he walks, what he drives — that may turn the constant presumption of his guilt into a dangerous situation.
The tragic list of Trayvon Martins, Kalief Browders, LaQuan MacDonalds, Philando Castilles, Tamir Rices and Emmet Tills is long. It is the brutal history of this nation.
Ask a black woman who enters a place of business and has the audacity to raise her voice or complain or contest her bill, or to change lanes on a quiet road without using a signal. The presumption of her guilt may get her arrested, or worse.
And ask any woman or girl who experiences sexual harassment or assault.
She may tell you that she reported the incident and was presumed guilty of the attack against her because of her clothing, attitude, untrustworthiness, wild imagination, shameful desire or her femininity itself. Or she’’ll tell you that she didn’t report the assault because she’d either internalized the presumption of her guilt or was deeply aware that others had.
By contrast, white males with higher economic status are almost always presumed innocent.
A wealthy male — especially a white, wealthy male like Brett Kavanaugh — not only expects and receives the presumption of innocence. He also feels entitled to violate the standards and laws the rest of us must live by because he knows he’ll be protected by his privilege. The laws are made and executed by people like him. It’s a club.
In the wake of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s credible allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh, the conservative Weekly Standard published a piece boldly headlined “Brett Kavanaugh Needs no Defense.” In it, his presumption of innocence is assumed as the allegations are presumed false.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham’s indignation that one of his own should be questioned raged through the Senate hearing, screaming that Kavanaugh had been “put through hell,” his good name besmirched. Faced with serious allegations of violent and unethical behavior by Kavanaugh, Graham unflinchingly declared, “I hope you’re on the Supreme Court. That’s exactly where you should be.” On Sean Hannity’s show after the hearing, he said, “Ms. Ford has got a problem, and destroying Judge Kavanaugh won’t fix her problem.”
Even Republicans who bothered to ask questions showed an almost comical lack of rigor. “None of these allegations are true?” Louisiana Republican senator John Kennedy asked Kavanaugh. “Correct,” Kavanaugh answered. Kennedy followed up: “You swear to God?” Kavanaugh: “I swear to God.”
Kennedy, satisfied: “That’s all I have, Judge.”
Despite credible testimony against Kavanaugh, and evidence that he wasn’t truthful under oath, never did it occur to the GOP senators that Dr. Blasey might be presumed innocent of slander. The presumption of innocence is sometimes reserved for her privileges as an upper-income and white woman, but not when it challenges the privilege of an upper-income white male. Never then. (“Lock her up!” chanted Trump supporters at a rally.)
Finally, this was a job interview. Kavanaugh wasn’t being prosecuted in the criminal legal system, he was being interviewed for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
Not only is the legal standard of criminal guilt inappropriate here, but the stakes aren’t at all the same. In a worst-case scenario, Kavanaugh settles for being the federal judge he already is. Black people not afforded the presumption of innocence end up incarcerated or dead, while women and girls of any race end up living in a society that systematically excuses assault against them.
The courage and credible testimony of Dr. Ford comes at a time when the #MeToo movement has begun a cultural shift in favor of believing women like Ford. At least in sexual-assault allegations from prominent women, the conversation is shifting from “he said, she said” to #IBelieveHer.
It isn’t yet enough to hold more than a handful of powerful men to account. And it’s many years away from granting a presumption of innocence to black and brown people. But make no mistake: It’s shifting.