Victim-Blaming vs. Skin Color Privilege

Marcella Chester has an interesting posting on the Timothy Cole case and the backlash the rape victim has received by some. She and I agree on much with regard to this case, but there is one key sticking point.  As Marcella and I are both rape survivors, we have our own internal biases and emotions to bring to this subject.  I have tried to balance my own feelings as rape survivor with regard to what this woman endured vs. the travesty of justice that occurred to Timothy Cole.  I believe there is room for understanding and compassion for both sides without unduly expecting one party to ignore current realities in the process.

The facts are this:

  • A white woman (Michelle Malin) was raped by a black man.
  • Police put an innocent, non-smoking asthmatic black man (Timothy Cole) in the lineup knowing full well that the perp was a chain-smoker.
  • A white woman ID’d said innocent black man in lineup for said crime.
  • Innocent black man was sentenced to 25 years and died in prison while having an asthma attack.

It is not uncommon for the police to orchestrate a witness ID to achieve a pre-determined result, especially if the perp is black and the victim is white. It sounds like this was likely the case here.

In addition, cross-racial witness IDs are notoriously unreliable. Both police and prosecutors know this well and exploit same regularly. The prosecutorial staff and police involved in this case need to be investigated thoroughly by an independent entity and the guilty parties should serve some real time. An “oops my bad” does not suffice when someone’s life is ruined, regardless of what crime they were investigating at the time. The legal system is supposed to be about punishing the guilty and securing justice for the victim(s), not ensuring a win for the prosecution the facts be damned as it is all about today. The police and prosecutors murdered this man by ignoring key pieces of evidence, like his status as an asthmatic. He should have been ruled out as a suspect in 5 seconds. PERIOD.

Further, a woman who was raped was set up by the system to make a bad ID and she will now be haunted by that for a long time.  Cole should never have been presented to her as a possible suspect.  She couldn’t have ID’d him if he had not been shown to her in the first place by the police who knew he was not a smoker.

I am glad to see that she was helping to clear his name upon learning of his innocence. She could easily have been drowning in PTSD and self-guilt right now or even denied that an innocent man was convicted, as sometimes happens in cases of wrongful convictions for any violent crime. I also have to say that I am impressed by Cole’s family for not being angry with her over the ID. Regardless of what happened to her (which is not their fault or concern), their child was innocent and he is dead forever. They very easily could have blamed her and justified it to themselves with little effort. It would be misdirected blame, but it would ridiculous of anyone to expect them to be superhuman in their grief for a son who was murdered by the Texas justice system for the sole crime of sharing the same skin color as Mallin’s rapist.

I’m going to guess that Cole, given his asthma was not some big, tough athletic guy and probably did not fare well behind bars. While there has been no disclosure in such regard, I’d not be surprised if he was raped in prison as well – given his asthma was not treated properly by the state and eventually led to his death behind bars.

In the end, we have a rape victim who is going to be haunted by the role that authorities orchestrated her into playing by including this innocent man in the lineup and then relying on a cross-racial witness ID, and a dead man who may have endured the same crime he died in prison for after so many years.

This is a horrible tragedy no matter what angle we examine it from.

Marcella takes exception to the idea of Cole’s family having any justification for being angry with her for the false ID in her response to my comments on her blog entry. I disagree and point out the fact that many black men have served decades in prison for crimes they did not commit after being accused by white women. I went into great detail about how the police and prosecution should have never put Cole in front of her in the first place. There is some serious racial baggage involved with such cases that Marcella is clearly not grasping and is falsely labeling disagreement in that regard as victim-blaming. Pretending that such baggage does not exist is a form of skin color privilege that only those clueless to the reality would/could assert in such a cavalier manner.

As Marcella pointed out, the ID was bad. The victim did not intend to ID the wrong man. We both agree there.

However, and this is important and some may not understand this or want to, but the point that has many upset is not just that an innocent man went to jail, but an innocent black man was, once again by a white victim ID, incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and only later found to be innocent decades after it was too late. There is a bit more to it than just a bad witness ID. It would be a form of victim-blaming itself to expect the Coles to live in a vacuum with regard to how black males are treated in the criminal justice system. Having been married to a black woman for 15 years, I understand this on a level cannot be easily discerned by someone outside of such experiences.

It is not as simple as just understanding how witness IDs work as Marcella asserts in her comment responses to me. The same understanding she grants to the victim for the bad ID she is denying to the family of Cole for any anger they could be feeling for that bad ID.

As the father of two multiracial (half-black) sons, I am aware of this on a daily basis as my boys go out into the world. I have to worry not only about how justice can be miscarried without malicious intent, but how it can happen in conjunction with skin color prejudices.

This case is about more than the misuse of witness IDs. It was also about race, which the Coles have very good reason to be angry about. To be perfectly clear, once again because I am being falsely accused of such, I did not say they should blame her for being raped, which is what Marcella’s reference to victim-blaming clearly seems to imply. Disagreeing with Marcella’s assertion that the Coles should be expected to only be angry at the police and prosecution and ignore the role the victim who ID’d him played in the process does not equal blaming the victim for being raped.  Do I think they should blame her?  No, but I recognize that while there should be understanding toward this woman for this mistaken ID, there should also be a requisite amount of understanding given any of his family members who were angry about the ID.

Being angry about a bad witness ID that cost a man his life is not the same thing as blaming a woman for being raped or claiming she was never raped, contrary to Marcella’s ridiculous assertions. The two concepts are not even close and I consider any inference to the contrary to be a deliberate misrepresentation of my comments. One cannot possibly confuse the two without trying.

Further, had this country not had a history of incarcerating black men for crimes they did not commit, there would be no need for the Coles to have a very large emotional hill to climb in order to not be angry about the ID. To expect them to ignore this history is unrealistic. Marcella may not see it that way, but to imply that equals victim-blaming is simply false and something that requires further education for many who don’t have to worry about such things on a regular basis.

In the end, Marcella ignores the fact that even Michelle Mallin disagrees with her on the point of anger as far as Cole’s family is concerned.  She went to Cole’s mother to seek forgiveness for the multiple bad IDs and testimony that contributed to her son’s death in prison.  Clearly, Mallin recognized that the Coles may have cause for anger too, and not just at the legal system.  Cole’s mother refused the apology as she said none is necessary choosing to focus on getting her son exonerated completely.  I say they are both to be applauded and that Mallin should not be second-guessed.  Clearly, Mallin’s own feelings on the matter are not in alignment with Marcella Chester.  I think Mallin, as the victim, gets the final say.

With regard to his dying in prison not being murder, I wholeheartedly disagree with Marcella on this point.  I understand her point, but disagree.  Unless however, there is evidence that he received far better treatment for his asthma on the inside than he would have as an employed college graduate on the outside had his life continued without interruption by the criminal justice system. Downplaying his death in prison by calling it something other than murder seems abhorrent and callous to me. The man died in prison serving time for a crime he didn’t commit.

I’d call that murder any day of the week.




James A. Landrith, Jr.
Founder and Publisher,
The Multiracial Activist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.