The judge says it was not a rape case, nor was it about racial bias. While the determination of rape may be legally correct, the case was assuredly about race.
On February 24, Idaho Judge Randy Stoker sentenced a white high school football player, John RK Howard, to probation and 300 hours of community service for an attack in which a black, developmentally disabled teen (also on the football team) was lured into a hug with a teammate, and then another teammate shoved a hanger in the teen’s anus. Howard kicked the hanger further into the teen. Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, and ultimately pled guilty to a lesser charge of felony injury to a child.
The black teen is a transracial adoptee. It’s taken me a few days to post about the case, given its tragic outcome. While there certainly can be gains in adoption, there is also loss, and this young man has lost a great deal.
I cannot imagine the psychological and physical pain the young man has endured as a result of that vicious incident. My sense is that he was struggling to fit in, as a black person in a tiny almost all white, Idaho town, thinking that the football players were his friends, putting up with bullying and taunts because he wanted to be accepted in a football-focused town.
Probation and 300 hours of community service seems an astonishingly light punishment for the perpetrator. What a message it sends to a locker room culture that tolerates, if not encourages, violence and racism.
Equally disturbing, though, are remarks the Judge Stoker made about the case as he discussed his rationale for sentencing.
Stoker said it was not a rape case. I am not a lawyer, but I am guessing that this perspective is based on Idaho’s sexual assault laws that say rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the anal (or oral or vaginal) opening with a penis. Stoker said, “This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case…Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate.”
No, inserting a hanger in someone’s anus is not appropriate. It should be criminal.
Stoker also said this “was not a case about racial bias.” Speaking to Howard, the judge, a 66-year-old white man, said, “If I thought you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”
It’s hard to see the judge’s statement as anything but naïve, disingenuous, and dangerous.
Howard and other members of the Dietrich High School football team, in a town of 335 people, had taunted and bullied the victim for months before the October 2015 event. One documented pre-season incident, not directly connected with this case, reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote about it here: Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho.
But this case, says Stoker, was not about racial bias. Stoker may well be a qualified judge (elected to the district court since 2007). His understanding of racial bias, though, is, and I am being polite, sorely lacking.
“The coaches admitted the victim was called fried chicken, grape soda, and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things.” (You can see video of the judge’s comments here.) Judge Stoker then said, “I don’t think that’s a racial slur. If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”
I guess not. Those are all slurs, longstanding and historic. Here are a few explanations:
The judge might want to take a look at Code Switch and Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race. He might have more free time to peruse these things, as there is a change.org petition with over 166,000 signatures calling for his removal from the bench.
This is not a case entirely about race, I realize, though white privilege is absolutely at its core. At the end of the day, it is about the horrific, violent way one young human being treated another young human being. It is about how power and privilege play out when racial slurs are considered nicknames, when a vulnerable youth is abused verbally and otherwise yet school officials look away, and when bullying becomes physical violence in a locker room. Make no mistake, though: race plays a central, painful role here.
Imagine if it were your child, wanting to be part of the team, who was so violently violated. Learn, act, and do not look away.