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police brutality

All Victims Should Be 'Ideal Victims'

An expert on criminology explains what it takes for black men brutalized by police to get the benefit of the doubt.
Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Whenever young black men are killed by the state, their lives get put on trial. The lens through which America views these men often harkens back to the same nasty stereotypes of inherent criminality that have been around since the days of slavery. This perspective helps justify the grossly unequal way in which police violence is meted out to blacks across the country. Grieving relatives not only have to face the Kafkaesque nightmare of getting justice from the same system that struck their kin down, they also have to argue in the public sphere for their slain 's very humanity.


We saw this in the death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was shot in the head by white police officer Roy Oliver as he sat in the passenger seat of a car last month. Police initially alleged that the vehicle was backing up toward "officers in an aggressive manner," a story proven wrong when body cam footage showed the car was actually moving away from them. Even with strong evidence that Edwards's rights were fatally violated (Oliver has since been fired and charged with murder), a family friend was left to argue that he's worthy of justice: "He was not a thug. This shouldn't happen to him," Chris Cano said. So in defending a dead black child in America, it's still necessary to refute their assumed criminality while vouching for their right to be alive.

But not everyone faces the same challenge when they become the target of a crime. In 1986, criminologist Nils Christie published a piece examining what he called the "ideal victim." In short, his theory tries to tease out the types of victims most likely to draw sympathy from the broader public. By Christie's logic, an old lady who is attacked by a drug user while on her way home from caring for her sister will get more sympathy than a young man who gets into a bar brawl with a friend. "Society's responses to different types of victims," Christie writes, "also show that victims must have power and visibility if they are to gain legitimacy as victims."


The very concept of an "ideal victim" is a serious paradox in a country that at least claims to be all about equal protection under the law. Because of entrenched racism, I recently found myself wondering if this rarefied status is ever attainable for black men who endure police brutality. For some perspective, I called up Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here's what we talked about.

VICE: What do you make of the idea that there is such a thing as an "ideal victim" in America?
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: It seems like the ideal victim theory has a certain kind of bias that anybody could be ideal. Ideal based on what? What would be the criteria? Too often that fits into socio-economic, demographic, regional [characteristics]—all those things fall into what's "ideal."

Then when we get to the next word, "victim," you talk about who is the victim and to what degree have they been victimized. We've been wrestling with this issue in college rape [cases]: "What was she wearing? Why was she at the party? How much did she have to drink?" When you start thinking about this ideal victim, too often you have a gender bias, you have a culture bias, and you have all these other biases.

So this concept is dependent on who's applying it?
Definitely. Usually, it's going to be a construct that has a bias toward a group in power, because that group is going to create the definition. When you look at the burden of proof, somebody is coming into this from the majority, stating that they have fewer sins than somebody else. And nobody is as big and as bad and as important as the majority, so no one can force them to look at their sins. The ideal victim is going to be somebody who the majority chooses—before we have a crime, they're already seen as innocent and other people are already seen as guilty.


What purpose or whose interest does the concept of the "ideal victim" serve?
This [phenomenon] takes the weight off of who is presumably the person who's done bad and who is more innocent among the two. Here's one of the ideas that comes to me: You have police officers shooting unarmed black men, but a black man is someone who's seen as [criminal]. So they could be shot in the back while running away and still not be seen as the "ideal victim." In many people's mind, "They must've done something," because they are black and male.

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If an African American male is shot, regardless of circumstance, is he excluded from being the "ideal victim"?
Not excluded, but it's the degree of inclusion. Some people, based on the majority viewpoint, are always ideal victims until they're proven otherwise. I'll give you a great example: When you have something like a school shooting in Connecticut and people would say, "How could this happen here?" You get this question all of the time when it comes to this middle-class neighborhood. The idea here is bad things are supposed to happen to certain people. When you have the "ideal victim" on one hand, you have this assumption that bad things are supposed to happen to certain people on the other hand.

How do you think more recent cases like Jordan Edwards fit into the theory?
There's this idea of respectability—you have the assumption that some people are already respectable, and then you have to create respectability for people of color, the poor, and immigrants. One way to create that respectability has been to say they're in school, they're getting good grades, and—just like with Michael Brown—they're going to college. So life by itself has no value and has no respectability, and you have to figure out what will bring respectability to it. That's the assumed burden that's connected to the poor, connected to people of color, and connected to people who're outliers in our community.


Who or what are some other examples of this?
Alberta Spruill. She was in her apartment when police knocked down her door at 6 AM in the morning. She's a government employee working for the city. They say there's a drug deal going on there, and she has a heart attack and dies. Many people still don't see her as an ideal victim. She's minding her own business, police open up the wrong door, and she's not seen as an ideal victim? She was in her 50s just getting ready to go to work.

Yeah. People don't look at her the same way they look at other older women.
Right. And when you go to Jordan Edwards, you see something similar. Once again, people go, "OK, but what was he really doing?" There are too many instances where the facts are gruesome and horrendous, [but they don't matter]. Obviously, it's all part of an oppressive government that cares very little about people of color. In situations where if you just change the person—make it a white 12-year-old boy—your mind can't even wrap your mind around it, because that white boy would be the ideal victim.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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