Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a Federal District Court judge in California. Born in East Chicago, Indiana, to parents who immigrated from Mexico and eventually became United States citizens, Curiel graduated from Indiana University and then Indiana University School of Law. After working in private practice and then as a federal prosecutor, Curiel was appointed to San Diego county court by Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2011, President Obama nominated Curiel to the federal bench and he was approved by the Senate.
Judge Curiel is now the subject of sustained criticism from Donald Trump, who insists that because Curiel “happens to be, we believe, Mexican” he cannot fairly adjudicate the two class action lawsuits filed by former students against Donald Trump’s “University” over which he is presiding. The plaintiffs argue that Trump and his “University” used illegal, predatory tactics to push worthless real-estate classes on customers. Curiel initially certified the plaintiffs as a class and subsequently ordered several documents to be released to the public. For doing his job, Curiel has been smeared by Trump and his surrogates. Trump called Curiel “a hater” and said that because Trump wants to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, Curiel has an “inherent conflict of interest.”
On a call with his campaign’s surrogates this week, Trump ordered his surrogates to keep up their criticism of the judge. “I should have won this thing years ago,” Trump said according to Bloomberg Politics. He added that Curiel is a “member of La Raza”—not, it must be noted, the national Latino rights advocacy organization but a Latino bar association in California.
Meanwhile, also in California, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky announced sentencing on Monday that Brock Allen Turner, a Stanford University freshman convicted of three felonies. After being discovered sexually assaulting an unconscious woman near a dumpster behind a fraternity house in January of 2015, Turner was ultimately found guilty of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
Turner faced a maximum possible sentence of 14 years. In its sentencing menu, prosecutors asked for Turner to receive a six year prison term. But Judge Persky sentenced Turner to a mere six months in jail. Persky said that Turner had no “significant” prior offenses, that there was “less moral culpability attached to the defendant” because he was allegedly drunk during the assault, and that Turner had already been harmed by the intense media coverage. It’s almost as though Persky felt badly for Turner that he had to suffer the consequences of his own heinous crime.
Meanwhile, during Turner’s sentencing hearing, the woman he assaulted read a stunning and powerful statement that has now been widely shared online. In her statement, Turner’s victim pointed out that news coverage of the arrest of Turner, a star swimmer, included his swim meet times and the probation officer considered how Turner had surrendered his hard-earned swimming scholarship as punishment he’d already endured. In her statement, Turner’s victim said:
How fast Brock swims does not lessen the severity of what happened to me, and should not lessen the severity of his punishment. If a first time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be? The fact that Brock was an athlete at a private university should not be seen as an entitlement to leniency, but as an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class.
It appears Persky very much decided to send the opposite message—that privileged white men should be treated with kid gloves.
And herein we have the conflation of these two situations, in which Donald Trump—a white man who very much demands to be treated with kid gloves and whines about unfairness when he is not—lambasts a non-white judge for doing his job and makes his attack entirely about the judge’s ethnicity and race.
Yet it appears Persky, a white man, treated Brock Turner with kid gloves in part because Turner is a white man. We see difference where we want to and in turn privilege sameness. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others,” Persky said during the sentencing hearing. Would he have thought the same thing, let alone said it, if Turner were black?
Recently ProPublica documented how a criminal sentencing software program is inherently biased against black defendants. If a computer designed by human beings can be that blatantly racially biased, is it that hard to understand—as study after study has shown—that human beings are biased too?
Research shows black defendants receive, on average, 60% longer sentences than white defendants for the same crimes. Brian Banks, a black former football star who was exonerated only after spending five years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, was shocked by Turner’s lenient sentence. “It’s a case of privilege,” Banks said.
It’s impossible to miss the echoes of Donald Trump railing against “political correctness” in Judge Persky’s ruling. Indeed a friend of Turner’s, in a letter to the Persky, sounded like she was parroting Trump: “where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
In Trump’s mind, and perhaps in the mind of Turner’s friend and certainly the mind of many of the white supremacists Trump’s candidacy has energized, people of color and women are the ones getting an unfair leg up in society and white men are the ones being oppressed. Specifically, the men’s rights extremists argue that feminist vigilance against sexual assault and “rape culture” amounts to anti-male oppression — attitudes that have found support among even mainstream conservative thinkers. The implication is that feminists and people of color are the ones making trouble for white men. In fact, sometimes this isn’t just implied but outright stated.
“The people asking the questions,” Trump said about journalists challenging his statements on Curiel. “Those are the racists.”
Poor Brock Turner and Donald Trump, they’re just white men trying to make it in this world. Haven’t they both suffered enough?