About Penn State

Extreme trigger warning for details of child sexual and physical abuse and cover ups; racism. Please consider carefully before reading this post.

I hadn’t been following the Penn State child abuse cover up case closely until tonight, when the university announced that the long-time coach of the football team, Joe Paterno, and the president of the university, Graham Spanier, had been fired over the case. Paterno, Spanier, and others failed to report to to any law enforcement officials that a team assistant witnessed Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coach who had free access to Penn State facilities, raping a 10 year old boy in the locker rooms.

Paterno and university officials above him claim to have only been informed that Sandusky had been engaging in vaguely “inappropriate contact” with a minor. But they knew or suspected enough about his behavior to decide that he should be told he could no longer bring children with him on campus. [Grand jury report – goes into specific detail about assaults and grooming of victims. Extreme trigger warning.]

Tonight hundreds of Penn State students have swarmed the campus to protest Paterno’s firing. Overturned a media truck. Chanted for “Joe Pa” to have one more game, one more year. Screamed that he “deserves to be treated better than this,” and that he’s “done so much for the university.” They’ve demanded that he remain coach for life. They’re shouting school cheers and “We are Penn State.” They’ve had to be disbanded by tear gas and riot police.

Meanwhile a brave but tiny group of 50-75 Penn State students have gathered in a vigil in support of the victims.

Think of how the victims feel tonight, how they’ll feel tomorrow, watching a crowd riot in defense of a man who did nothing to inform police that his colleague was a child rapist. Think how the victims’ families feel. Think how many other people who survived abuse were triggered last night watching this display of rape apologism.

As many people have said tonight, this is just one example of why so many survivors of abuse do not come forward with their stories. Because this is what happens. People rally in defense of those with the most power in the situation – institutional power, power to report abuse, power to stop abuse, power to prevent future abuses. And the people who have actually been abused, the ones who are the most vulnerable, are at best erased, and often attacked.

People are calling this a “sex scandal.” Talking about sad it is that such a sports legend and great man has been felled by a “sex scandal.” Because even when the people being raped are 10 year old kids, rape culture still doesn’t recognize that rape is not sex.

The athletic director and other officials who knew about the “inappropriate contact” felt it was serious enough to ban a man who ran a children’s charity from ever bringing kids on campus, but not serious enough to inform campus police, or any police at all. They only took steps needed to move the abuse off campus. That’s it. And they admit even that restriction was completely unenforceable.

It’s all so familiar. I can’t help but read that and think of SGM pastors declaring that “no abuse ever occurred on church property,” as though that’s a point in their favor. As though that’s a defense for harboring and covering up for abusers.

All they cared about was protecting their own and protecting the reputation and interests of the university.

Also familiar: the way adults who I want to feel should have known better repeatedly responded as though telling a child rapist to just stay away from children would be sufficient to address things. The police officer who HEARD Sandusky admit to showering naked with an 11 year old child and “maybe” groping him, later simply “advised Sandusky not to shower with any child again.” ADVISED him.
The Penn State officials who only told Sandusky not to bring kids on campus, as though that was the root of the problem.
The SGM pastors who tell known abusers not to be alone with kids at church events, and think that’s enough.
Who are far from the only pastors who think they can manage pedophiles by telling them to just say no to being around kids.

And then there are the racial and class aspects of this case.

Apparently most of the boys Sandusky is known to have abused are black. He found his victims through a charity he founded to serve “troubled” and “underprivileged” children, many of whom were foster kids and from single parent homes. Like most abusers he looked for opportunity and vulnerability. It’s not a coincidence that he targeted and groomed kids who were economically disadvantaged, were in rough and perhaps abusive family situations, or were being raised by single parents who probably had to work constantly and might have seen Sandusky’s organization as a safe space for their children when they couldn’t be there. He took them to NFL games. He gave them gifts. He gave them the attention and time that for various reasons they didn’t get at home, or their parents didn’t have to give.

eta (11/9): The race of Sandusky’s victims has not been confirmed. However, I’m leaving the rest of the post as written for the sake of transparency and because 1) Sandusky still targeted poor kids, kids with single parents, foster kids – demographics that are disproportionately black and brown – and “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” youth, labels that are frequently applied as shorthand for being black or Latin@. There’s a strong likelihood that his victims were disproportionately children of color. 2) Relatedly, the point about institutional privilege and power being linked to whiteness and wealth still applies. It’s hard to imagine this going on for as long as it did if Sandusky had been a black university employee at a mostly white institution like Penn State (and a black university employee would be much less likely to have the high position and access that Sandusky did, or the capital to start a charity like The Second Mile). Original post resumes below.

eta (11/17): The New York Times reports that Sandusky “tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family.” As I said in my previous eta, even if Sandusky only targeted white boys (which isn’t clear from the NYT report), his own race privilege remains a factor here. It’s a factor in his being able to found a charity like The Second Mile, a  factor in his being able to present himself as a mentor and role model to children of any race (men of color are not often held up as role models for white boys), and a factor in his status and position at Penn State. Again, the original post resumes below. (thanks to John for leaving a comment that brought this to my attention).

This is how privilege works. It’s how whiteness and wealth as privileged classes work. Sandusky was a wealthy white grown man who used his socioeconomic, racial, and age privilege to procure and groom black kids to rape.

Let’s be clear on this. We understand that adults who rape children are exploiting the privilege, power, and authority they have as adults over children in our society. We need to understand that whiteness and wealth are similarly constructs invested with privilege, power, and authority. Recognizing this is no more an indictment of all white people or all rich people than recognizing the reality of adult influence over children as a factor in child molestation is an indictment of all adults.

It’s not that it’s worse that Sandusky targeted black boys. It’s that it shows who the most vulnerable youth are in our society. It shows how lines of power fall in our society.

Sandusky is not the only white person who has exercised his privilege to abuse children of color. Recall the case of Frank Lombard, a white North Carolina man who adopted two black children, apparently for the purposes of raping them:

In the chat transcript, “F.L.” is asked how he got access to a child so young. “Adopted,” he replied, and said that the process was “not so hard … esp (sic) for a black boy.”

Recall the cases of Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams, two black African girls adopted by white American fundamentalist Christian families, only to be beaten and neglected to death.

And these are very specific cases of white individuals abusing black children, just one part of a much broader pattern of the systematic devaluing of black and brown children, evidenced by the shunting of black and Latin@ (Latino+Latina) children into the juvenile and adult detention systems, the way black children are funneled into and then become stuck in the foster care system, where again, there are racial imbalances in terms of who has the power, and where abuse is endemic, the underfunding and understaffing of majority black and Latin@ schools, the willingness of society at large to believe children of color are thugs, criminals, or deviants in waiting (and therefore not worthy of investing in or helping).

Yes, it matters that someone who has the capital to create a program for underprivileged kids is more likely to be white, and the kids in such a program are more likely to be children of color.
Yes, it matters that people who have the resources to adopt interracially or transnationally are more likely to be white people adopting children of color.
Not because all white adults will abuse children of color that they have access to or authority over.

Because institutional and cultural racism makes disproportionate access by white adults to children of color or non-Western children possible (the same goes for rich adults and access to children from poor backgrounds).
Because while all children are vulnerable to abuse, racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable and defenseless.

We get that rape and other kinds of abuse are about power. We get that we have to talk about sexism and misogyny and gender inequity to talk about rape and gendered violence. We need to start getting that racism and classism are also about power and privilege and inequity and we can’t fully speak truth about violence against poor or brown people without addressing these forces.

But I have this sinking feeling that the fact that the victims were targeted because their race and class made them more vulnerable isn’t going to be part of the public conversation about this case.

17 Comments

  1. Grace, what a powerful post! Thank you for raising an important aspect especially since as you put it, the race and socioeconomic class of the victims will likely get little discussion in “the public conversation about this case.” – Mo

  2. Just started reading your blog from a reference off FB- I wish I read that trigger warning before I read the charging documents yesterday- I have a son and this has been my worst nightmare for him. I had NO idea most of the victims were African American boys, not that it would sadden me less if they weren’t – this whole thing breaks my heart.

    • Thanks for reading, Abbie. I’m sorry that the documents triggered you. I have a kid as well. It’s frightening to think of this happening and no one looking out for the kids involved, but it happens so often. Just fyi – I’ve edited the post to reflect that the race of the victims is unconfirmed, though as I say in my edit, I think race privilege and racism are still factors in the case (especially since race and class are strongly tied). I agree that it doesn’t make the case any sadder either way…it just points to the ways in which inequality causes harm to people in so many ways.

  3. As a survivor of abuse, I can applaud the passion involved in writing this article. You, young lady, keep up the righteous fight, knowing you are not alone in it! We work differently, but to same goal.

  4. “People are calling this a “sex scandal.” Talking about sad it is that such a sports legend and great man has been felled by a “sex scandal.” Because even when the people being raped are 10 year old kids, rape culture still doesn’t recognize that rape is not sex.”

    yes.

    • It’s sickening. A sex abuse scandal, ok. But a “sex scandal?” No. This isn’t at all comparable to politicians having affairs.

  5. This was a breathtaking post. Thank you for sharing your commentary on this heartbreaking situation.

    I too was flabbergasted when I learned that hundreds of students rioted over Paterno’s honor. Where was all this anger when they learned of the sexual abuse allegations? Their anger is completely misdirected, and as you observed, their tendency was to defend the people in power rather than empathize with the victims.

  6. “People rally in defense of those with the most power in the situation – institutional power, power to report abuse, power to stop abuse, power to prevent future abuses. And the people who have actually been abused, the ones who are the most vulnerable, are at best erased, and often attacked.”

    This is a very powerful statement! It is true in many realms of our society.

    This is a terrible situation. I hope the victims can find peace.

  7. Our radio just interviewed a psychologist on the supporters of Joe. His explanation was that even nice people who are good 9/10 can still mess up. It was so trivialized I felt sick. This is not the same as forgetting to hand in a memo, this was ongoing. It shows an attitude that is desperately wrong, not a simple mistake.
    They psychologist also excused the rioters by saying that they were so into sports that they identified with the sports team personally and it felt like a personal attack. You know what is not a personal attack? Firing someone for endangering someone’s life.
    No mention at all was made of the people who were personally attacked. If I didn’t know what had happened, I would have thought he messed up handing in his time sheet once.
    Thank-you for speaking out for the victims.

  8. Thank you for this insightful blog, Grace… I had been taking heat from some very uninformed and emotional supporters of Paterno for posts regarding my reflections on this link in the context of institutional racism, white privilege, and power… you speak the truth and I thank you. I am disgusted by the fact that they now see this man, paterno, as the victim. good god… it’s beyond my comprehension and yet, totally predictable that the oppressed/victimized are blamed… I am in prayer and vigil right now with the victims of this monster… carry on Grace…speak the truth! Deborah

    • Should clarify that I understand the actual perp to be Sandusky … he is the “monster” in my post above… but, I do see the whole good ole’ boy network as monstrous… deborah

  9. And look at how the cloud mushrooms:

    I was reading a story earlier about a Black man named Leeronnie Ogletree who says he was raped (by the way, THANK YOU for using that word. All this “inappropriate touching”, “fondling” and “molesting” vocabulary really belies the gravity of the situation. It was straight out RAPE!) by someone on the Red Sox staff as a child.

    The story described how many of this man’s victims turned to drugs, which led to crime and prison. Those poor victims, ill-equipped to deal with the trauma they suffered, dealt the best way they could and ended up in a legal system that didn’t care about them as humans, as individuals. I doubt anyone ever cared to figure out why they were doing the things they were doing or how they could be helped. As you said, they were probably just viewed as sub-humans who were destined for jail just by virtue of their race and socioecenomic status.

    So there they were, thrown in jail while their offenders walked freely and lived happy lives. I just can’t help but wonder how many minorities have a similar story. Black people are generalized and stereptyped as worthless, monstrous animals, but how many evil whites are their Dr. Frankensteins?

    Just my personal thoughts.

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