White Privilege and the Limits of Public Forgiveness

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White Privilege and the Limits of Public Forgiveness

(Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

In America, public forgiveness is largely dependent on race. In the weeks after Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, pundits and media outlets were quick to jump on a robbery Brown allegedly committed minutes before being fatally shot. Among them was 2016 hopeful Mike Huckabee, who told NewsMax TV, “It's a horrible thing that he was killed, but he could have avoided that if he'd have behaved like something other than a thug.” For Huckabee, (alleged) theft was grounds for death.

That is, if you look a certain way. Contrast these statements with Huckabee’s recent defense of reality TV regular Josh Duggar, who admitted last week to having molested young girls as a teenager in 2002 and 2003. The 27-year-old son of Jim Bob and Michelle, Josh Duggar is a star of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting, and was executive director of the Family Research Council—a right-wing organization that prides itself on family values—until last week after news of his crimes went public. TLC quickly pulled episodes from their line-up.  

After the story broke, Huckabee wasted no time. “Janet and I want to affirm our support for the Duggar family,” he posted to Facebook less than a day after Duggar went public. “Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, 'inexcusable,' but that doesn’t mean 'unforgivable.' Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things.”

Huckabee’s sentiment was echoed by Duggar’s parents and wife, who together released a statement on Facebook on May 21. The word “teen” was used four times and “mistake” was used three. Not long after, fans of 19 Kids and Counting went to the Duggar family Facebook page to voice their support for the admitted sexual abuser. But the statement of support from Huckabee, who has been close with the Duggars since they endorsed and campaigned for his 2008 presidential bid, was the strongest. Sexual abuse may be a crime, yet for a straight, white, Christian man, it seems sympathy has no bounds.

For daring to be black and exist, their names were tarnished by white America, even in death. 

And if you fall outside of these categories, forgiveness only goes so far. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Sanford, Florida, when victims of police violence make headlines, major media scurry to dig up the often petty mistakes of their past. How many times was Trayvon Martin called a “thug”? Before his family could even bury his body, The New York Times declared that Michael Brown was “no angel.” Even 12-year-old Tamir Rice was smeared for having an abusive father. For daring to be black and exist, their names were tarnished by white America, even in death. 

But if as a teenager you molested children, even presidential candidates will give you a pass—at least, if you’re white and male.

And, it seems, even if your crimes include a cover-up. According to the police report, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar knew their son had committed these crimes. They met with church members and sent Duggar off to help a friend remodel homes—their version of counseling. They believed that this was the help their family needed. Who knows what kind of help the victims were offered—stories like these are tragic and my heart aches for the victims, who will hopefully receive any help that they want or need. For Duggar’s part, aside from his career, he’s pretty much off the hook: Arkansas law mandates child sexual abuse charges be filed within three years (Duggar’s crimes were committed in his home state of Arkansas). With charges never filed, Duggar will face no prosecution.  

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

Of course the same is not true for millions of black Americans, who routinely face prosecution, violence, and even death at the hands of police for often minor or nonexistent crimes. Adding to this confused morality, in January, Huckabee criticized Barack and Michelle Obama for letting their teenage daughters listen to pop juggernaut Beyoncé, calling her music mental poison. If you are keeping score, listening to Beyoncé: bad parenting. Sexual abuse: forgivable.

When you’re straight, white, Christian, and male, even horrific crimes can be forgiven. When you’re a black teenager who has been accused of shoplifting, you’re a thug—your life has no value. White privilege is being a sexual abuser and finding more support than a 12-year-old shot by police while playing in a park.

Nathalie Baptiste

Nathalie Baptiste is a Haitian-American contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She holds a BA and MA in International Studies and writes about Latin America and the Caribbean. You can follow her on Twitter at @nhbaptiste.

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