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Don’t conflate racial violence with crime

When we use the language and logic of crime control to condemn racial violence, we help normalize the image of policing and prisons as socially good

What’s the risk of calling racism a crime?

I thought about this after watching the reaction on social media to the news conference held the day after Robert Aaron Long killed eight people at three massage parlors in Atlanta, where Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jay Baker said Long claims “it was not racially motivated.” Six Asian women were among the victims.

Responses on social media were understandably disgusted, with some suggesting Baker was helping Long craft a self-defense. Many said it was an effort to deny that hate crimes were committed.

I was struck by the frequent mention of the phrase “hate crimes” in people’s responses. I sensed many were really critiquing an all-too-familiar reality: that white people commit racial violence against nonwhite people and, with the help of authorities, often get away with it. For many, the term hate crime might serve as a shorthand for racial violence.

The limits of hate crime legislation in terms of how hate is apolitically measured – where white people and heterosexuals can be the victims of “hate”­­ – are well established. So, too, is the reality that hate crime laws are used against nonwhite people and/or those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender if they are taken as too aggressive when resisting racist and gendered violence.

How do the language and logic of crime control inform conversations of racial justice? If racism is talked about as a crime, how might being “soft on crime” be viewed as being “soft on racism”? We see this logic when nonwhite people who have been victimized in highly publicized incidents of racist aggression don’t seek to punish, through the criminal justice system, the perpetrator to the degree we crave, with some of these victims of racist harm being criticized as racially weak or white sycophants. And in this moment of increased attention on anti-Asian violence, we see how elected officials are being encouraged to get tougher on crime vis-à-vis hate crime legislation or increased policing, to prove they “care” about Asian Americans.

Such gestures serve to legitimize the criminal justice system as concerned about racism rather than one of the main enforcers of the color line. And when we use the language and logic of crime control to condemn or solve racial violence, we help normalize the image of policing and prisons as socially good.

To illustrate the problems of associating racism with crime, I want to explore some of the details regarding celebrity Mark Wahlberg’s criminal justice record for racial violence against Asian Americans and African Americans. Committed when he was a teenager, Wahlberg’s racist acts have received renewed scrutiny as more attention is given to anti-Asian violence.

For decades, I’ve been familiar with Wahlberg’s history and this is why I usually loathe seeing his face even in good movies, especially since he often plays, quite convincingly, white men who flaunt getting away with doing whatever they want. Wahlberg’s rap sheet shows a teenager charged with committing violence against a group of Black children in 1986 and against two Vietnamese men in 1988. He used racist epithets in both cases and was sentenced to prison for the 1988 assaults. He served only 45 days.

In 1993, the New York City-based community organization CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities (then the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) partnered with the New York chapter of GLAAD (then the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to protest designer brand Calvin Klein making Wahlberg a poster boy. GLAAD initially targeted the fashion company in response to Wahlberg not protesting an anti-gay statement made by Shabba Ranks when the two artists appeared together on a show.

On Feb. 18, 1993, the two organizations held a news conference in Times Square. It was reported that Wahlberg agreed to create public service announcements “against bias crimes,” but according to more recent sources, that never happened. The news conference was part of a bigger CAAAV informational campaign, which was spotlighted in the organization’s spring 1993 newsletter: “Central to the campaign were the 1500 neon orange bumper-size stickers, declaring ‘Marky Mark: CONVICTED RACIST,’ which CAAAV members plastered all over New York City …” This shared talking point of “convicted racist” appears in a November 1993 GLAAD/LA Report.

As I read the CAAAV newsletter and GLAAD report I wondered, what work does “convicted racist” do in the public imagination? Does it make this racism seem more violent, as it resulted in a conviction, than that which is not addressed through the criminal justice system? And how does the phrase “convicted racist” rely on legitimizing a fear of crime – which only encourages punishment via the criminal justice system – to garner condemnation of racism, even when the political demands of a campaign only call for a public apology or acknowledgment of harm?

Years later, the talking point of Wahlberg being a “convicted racist” would be repeated, but with a twist. In response to his 2014 petition for a pardon, Judith Beals penned the succinctly titled Don’t Pardon Mark Wahlberg. Noting she “prosecuted Wahlberg for his actions 26 years ago when I was an assistant attorney general,” Beals recounts that after his attack on Black children on Savin Hill Beach in Boston, “Wahlberg was not criminally prosecuted for his actions. … Instead, we secured a civil rights injunction – a court order – that essentially amounted to a stern warning: If you do this again, you will go to prison.” Beals then dramatically unveils, “In the 13 years I served in the attorney general’s office, I recall only one instance of a defendant violating a civil rights injunction – Mark Wahlberg.” This violation is the attack on the two Vietnamese men, which, Beals concludes, “showed the same tendency toward serial acts of racial violence.” Pardoning Wahlberg, Beals states, “would highlight all too clearly that if you are white and a movie star, a different standard applies.”

Once again we see how the language of crime control merges with critiques of racism, “serial acts.” Also concerning is how Beals situates her opposition to Wahlberg’s pardon as a type of challenge to “white privilege,” which relies on normalizing the racism of the criminal justice system given the racial disparities regarding who is charged and convicted of crimes and may need pardons. And in the process of calling for the continued punishment of Wahlberg via the criminal justice system, Beals sanitizes the Vietnam War – what many in Vietnam call “The American War.” Beals’s account recuperates the image of the United States as a benevolent refuge for the Vietnamese men who were then racially victimized and reportedly traumatized by only one racist individual: “Thanh Lam and Hoa Trinh immigrated to Boston after the Vietnam War, believing in this country’s ideals. Wahlberg’s actions shattered their very sense of themselves, and of the city and country they now called home.”

The former assistant attorney general was not the only one to publicly oppose Wahlberg being pardoned. Before moving to an abolitionist position, the Asian American social justice organization 18 Million Rising (18MR) started a petition opposing a pardon for Wahlberg, which at the time of this writing, has collected almost 19,000 signatures. It garnered significant attention from entertainment media before Wahlberg’s petition was officially closed in 2016 after the actor didn’t respond to a letter inquiring if he wanted to keep it open. Published before Beals’s opinion piece, 18MR’s petition also paints an image of the Vietnamese men as shattered victims: “Wahlberg claims that he is a changed man, and no longer the person he was in 1988 when he shamelessly shattered the lives of two Asian men.” 18MR concludes the petition with, “Not only is granting a pardon an affront to justice, but even asking for one completely disrespects Wahlberg’s victims.”

The emphasis on disrespecting victims gets complicated when we consider two harmed by Wahlberg diverged on whether he should get a pardon. Kristyn Atwood, who was one of the Black children attacked on Savin Hill Beach, opposed a pardon, stating, “If you’re a racist, you’re always going to be a racist. And for him to want to erase it, I just think it’s wrong.” One of the two Asian American men assaulted, Hoa Trinh, said, “I would like to see him get a pardon. He should not have the crime hanging over him any longer.” Trinh also clarified that, contrary to what has been widely circulated, “I was not blinded by Mark Wahlberg,” but rather his eye was permanently damaged during the Vietnam War, the very war Beals sanitizes to paint the United States as a welcoming place for Vietnamese people seeking refuge.

The differing positions of the two victims raise significant questions regarding how we as observers often couch our political desires regarding punishment as “supporting the victim” and how, when we define victimization only through the language of crime, “supporting the victim” tilts toward criminalization. Nonwhite people being victimized by racism is real, but the criminal justice system is not concerned about us living free from the threat of racial violence or in protecting us from racist harm enacted by individuals or institutions. The criminal justice system has an investment in victims of harm becoming victims of crime to serve the specific function to charge, convict and sentence people for crimes and to rarely let them stop being punished as criminals.

In many cases, those who have been harmed are often forced to become victims of crime by cooperating with authorities, even when they don’t want to. They are also expected to always be understood as victims whose lives are forever shattered so that perpetrators will remain criminalized. The rest of us are expected to side with victims of crime in a superficial fashion to serve criminalization, which, in the cases where racial violence or harm are enacted, only works to confine our political challenges to racism within the parameters of the criminal justice system. Indeed, Beals notes in her opinion piece that she heard about Trinh’s support of Wahlberg’s pardon, but she nevertheless disagrees. He remains only a victim of crime.

Appropriating the demand to not whitewash history, Beals conflates racial violence with hate crimes and then, being tough on hate crime vis-à-vis the criminal justice system as an act of anti-racism: “A larger public policy question is also at stake: What types of crime do we collectively forgive and expunge from the record? History tells us, again and again, that when it comes to hate crimes, forgetting is not the right path. Truth and reconciliation are all important in moving forward – but not a public wiping of the record. Not now when hate crime remains so high in Boston; not now when tension remains acute over the unpunished killings of Black men at the hands of unaccountable white men. And frankly, not ever. Not in our name. Please.”

As someone who has studied how institutions discursively address racism and often defend it in a variety of ways, I am not surprised by Beals’s rhetoric. She was part of the machine locking people up, after all. I am more concerned about how those of us who are both vulnerable to racial violence and are understandably seeking relief from its threat and harm express our critiques and what this helps mobilize. We cannot afford to have our political critiques of racism and our quest for safety from racial violence become narrowly defined by the criminal justice system. Doing so helps sanitize the criminal justice system as purportedly caring about us as victims of racism and works against valiant efforts by protesters, cultural workers and organizers to expose the carceral state as one of the main institutions inflicting and enforcing racial violence.

Ultimately, conflating racial violence with crime results in dangerous limits on our critical analyses and political and cultural challenges to racism, which only leaves us more vulnerable.

Tamara K. Nopper is a sociologist, writer, editor, and data artist. She is the editor of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, a book of Mariame Kaba’s writings and interviews (Haymarket Books), and researched and wrote several data stories for Colin Kaepernick’s Abolition for the People series.