A while back, Ben Pogue, who’s running to be the next solicitor in South Carolina’s Ninth Circuit, released a video on his campaign’s social media accounts. The clip called out Scarlett Wilson for bungling the Michael Slager trial, and it clearly suggests the incumbent does not have the racial sensibility to supervise prosecutions in South Carolina’s Ninth Circuit, which is 25% African American and still suffers from a legacy of racism.
Cindi Ross Scoppe, a columnist at the Post and Courier, then called out Ben Pogue for being a “snow flake.” According to Scoppe, he “truncated” Wilson’s words, to the point of misrepresenting her, to “score a win.”
“A prosecutor who wants to convict a cop for killing an unarmed fleeing suspect,” Scoppe wrote, “must start by addressing [the] elephant in the room”—which means we have to admit “that victims sometimes put themselves in situations that contribute to their victimization.” In other words, we must apportion to those victims some share of responsibility for the crimes committed against them. Scoppe was quick to add: “that does not mean [victims] are to blame.”
Can you have it both ways? Can someone “contribute” to getting shot, as Wilson and Scoppe would have it, without being partly to blame? Let’s see.
The facts, under spin
We all remember the case: Officer Slager pulled over Walter Scott for having a faulty break light—the third light, the one in the back window, which is to say Scott was pulled over for driving-while-Black. Scott handed over his license, and while Slager was putting it through the database, Scott decided to run. Slager chased him down, they scuffled, Scott broke free and took off running a second time, and then Slager pulled out his pistol and shot Scott five times in the back. (The shooting was filmed by a bystander, and you can watch the video at the New York Times website, but you should be reminded that it’s very disturbing.)
Here’s how Scarlett Wilson opened the trial: “If Walter Scott had stayed in that car, he wouldn’t have been shot. If Walter Scott had not resisted arrest, he would not have been shot. He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness.”
It is true, as Scoppe points out, that Wilson then pivoted to the “choices” that Michael Slager made. She says that the police officer “went too far,” that he “let his sense of authority get the better of him.”
But that’s a strange way for a prosecutor to describe a murder. The dead man was “foolish” and he “paid . . . for his conduct.” Plenty of blame there. Meanwhile, the shooter was assailed by a “sense of authority” that he wasn’t able to fight off; it got “the better of him.” It sounds like Slager was a victim. In the climax to her remarks, Wilson actually said that Slager’s real crime was his failure to protect Walter Scott from his own foolishness!
No matter how much Wilson went on to criticize Slager, she had already activated the long-standing prejudice all-too available to white people that Black victims of police brutality partly deserved it. That’s the real elephant in the room: white bias. And Wilson’s audience was white, because she tends to stack her juries with white people. In 2016, she was seven times more likely to strike Black people from juries than white people, and in the Slager trial just one of twelve jurors was Black.
How much blame the jurors would assign to Scott is a matter of their own consciences but it was foolish to invite them to make such calculations at all. Unwittingly, Wilson planted doubts in their minds about Slager’s guilt.
The defense attorney, Andy Savage, watered those seeds of doubt. He told jurors that Wilson’s remarks showed that even she didn’t really think Slager was guilty of much. In the end, two of the white jurors doubted Slager was responsible for any crime, not even manslaughter.
The veteran prosecutor made a rookie mistake. But is Wilson really a veteran? Nearly all of her experience is in convincing white people that Black men are guilty crimes. Twenty-eight of her thirty trials had Black defendants. When it came to persuading white people that a white man victimized a Black man, Wilson was a novice, and Andy Savage took advantage of her naiveté.
Black people know how counterproductive it would be to tell white jurors that Walter Scott “lost his life for his foolishness.” In fact, they’ve been warning Wilson for years that her inability to imagine a Black perspective was impeding her performance as solicitor.
The National Action Network and People United to Take Back Our Community urged Wilson to assign the case to someone else for that very reason. Activist Thomas Dixon (pictured here) said that the Black community “doesn’t trust that at the end of her prosecution we’re going to see what we perceive to be justice.” If only Wilson had listened to them.
Instead, Wilson bristled defensively and denied she’s a racist. As if that’s the issue!
Wilson need not exhibit any personal animosity towards Black people, and she can be emotionally committed to equality, yet still reproduce white bias. The point here is not to question Wilson’s sincerity: she later helped convict Slager of the federal crime of violating Scott’s civil rights. The point is systemic racism in our justice system. It’s why protestors keep telling us that our institutions of law are unjust. If you don’t believe me, I really recommend you read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
How do you take off the blinders? You can start by hiring Black people in the institutions of power. Wilson surrounds herself almost exclusively with white people. Under her leadership, the Ninth Circuit averages just two Black attorneys out of nearly forty.
I’m tempted to say the real elephant-in-the-room is the SC Republican Party. The GOP, which runs the legislature, the governor’s office, all state agencies, the judiciary, etc., is virtually all-white and seems blithely deaf to Black voices on public policy, be it the justice system or voting rights or health care or education.
But the elephant is bigger than the GOP. It includes most institutions of influence and power, including the Post and Courier. While the P&C’s reporting has been incredibly responsive to the community–take the recent stories on the lack of affordable housing as a case in point–the op-ed staff remains stubbornly white. Today, five years after Mother Emanuel, not a single Black journalist is on the op-ed team of the region’s only daily newspaper. A Black voice might have pointed out that you can’t persuade white people that Michael Slager is guilty of murder when you insist that Walter Scott “paid the extreme price for his conduct.”
Ben Pogue was right to call out Scarlett Wilson for white bias. White folks can’t keep putting that work on the shoulders of Black people. It’s time to hold people to account.
(While I would hardly describe The Glebe Street Hacks as an institution of power or influence, we are just as guilty: our own list of writers does not include a single person of color. We need to improve. If you’d like to write for this blog, please contact me at email@example.com.)
Excellent and careful analysis. This is as good as it gets as far as explaining what systemic racism looks like and exposing the way that the Republican party dismisses it out of hand and insists that unless there is a personal and abiding hatred of black people there is no racism. Of course, increasingly the party is a congenial home for that kind of racist as well. A related recommendation: the first episode of the podcast “Nice White Parents” is also an excellent way to introduce someone to the idea of systemic racism.