Topic: Society

Genarlow Wilson Revisited: The Ethics of Kindness

The Scorebaord first discussed the case of Genarlow Wilson a year ago. [ “Ethics and the Tragedy of Genarlow Wilson” ] He is the 17-year-old Georgia high school senior who was sentenced to ten years in prison without chance of parole because he received oral sex at a party from a 15-year-old sophomore girl. The harsh and sloppily drafted statute he was tried under was aimed at adult sexual predators, not schoolmates, and it was repealed shortly after Genarlow’s trial. But the over-zealous prosecutor resisted pleas of mercy from the parents of the girl involved, the jury that convicted Wilson, and many others, and he fought to keep Wilson in jail for the full ten years. Despite his efforts, the Georgia Supreme Court finally ordered Wilson’s release after two years on the grounds that the prison term was cruel and excessive.

Now Morehouse College has stepped in to help Genarlow rebuild his shattered life by admitting him as a freshman, and The Tom Joyner Foundation, an educational non-profit, will pay for Wilson’s tuition, books, room and board. “He’s been through so much over the past couple years and I’m glad the Foundation can play a role in helping him shape his future,” said Joyner, a nationally-syndicated radio personality. Morehouse President Dr. Robert M. Franklin said, “Genarlow Wilson is representative of many of our young black men who must overcome incredible obstacles before finding a place — like Morehouse — where they are valued, mentored and given the opportunity to reach their full potential. We firmly believe that Morehouse is Genarlow’s ‘house’, and that he will grow to embody the tenets of a Morehouse Man.”

Some, however, are calling foul. Sex with a 15-year-old is still statutory rape, they point out, and Genarlow was one of five seniors involved. Wasn’t this statutory gang rape? The party revels were videotaped, and what was preserved was a wild scene featuring pot-smoking, under-age drinking and an obviously stoned young woman being eagerly passed around for the enjoyment of Genarlow and his friends. A blog called “Whataboutourdaughters” has posted a furious attack on Morehouse and the Joiner Foundation, asking why Wilson should be rewarded for exploiting a teen-aged girl. It also asks why the fact that the tape shows Genarlow and his friends having serial sex with a second girl, 17, who is semi-conscious, shouldn’t disqualify Wilson from sympathy and kindness by the college and the foundation:

“Who would Genarlow Wilson be if he hadn’t been stupid genius enough to commit sex acts with an underage girl on tape? Why he would likely be a Jr. or Sr. in college—a member of the football team. How many other young girls and women would he and his football buddies have run through? How many other “victimless” crimes would he have committed? According to many of y’all he was acting within the normal parameters of malehood in America. How many other drugged passed out/semi-conscious women would Mr. Wilson have dumped on a cold bathroom floor when he got through with her? How many other teenage girls would he have passed around? Tell me how being caught up in Georgia’s zany criminal code transformed Genarlow Wilson from gang rapist and kiddie pornographer into a saint worthy of a full scholarship?”

It should be noted that the unrepentant prosecutor, David McDade, distributed the videotape made at the party specifically to provoke this kind of response and build public support for keeping Genarlow in jail. But the blog also makes a legitimate point: Genarlow Wilson’s conduct recorded on the tape was far from admirable, to say the least. He was an active participant in treating two substance-impaired young women as de-humanized sexual playthings. Why should such an individual be rewarded with a full college scholarship?

The dilemma is that it’s difficult to be kind and fair to an individual who has been wronged—and Wilson was wronged—while tempering the kindness according to an independent judgement on his virtues or lack of them. It may even be impossible.

This was the pitfall that Senator Trent Lott fell into when he praised Senator Strom Thurmond too vigorously for critics at the latter’s 100th birthday. Naively thinking his excessive compliments would be regarded as a generous salute offered to an elderly colleague on his special day, Lott’s puffery that the old segregationist would have made a great president was attacked as an endorsement of racism. I was no fan of Lott’s, but it was obvious to me that he was just trying to be kind, and stumbled into the realm where kindness and consideration look like a general endorsement.

Since his release, Genarlow Wilson has been treated by some, including the NAACP, as a hero and a model of citizenship. He is neither. He is a young man who was excessively and cruelly punished for his own bad behavior, out of all proportion to the law, justice, precedent, and the customs of the country. Teenaged boys are simply not sentenced to ten years in prison for unforced oral sex with younger teens, nor should they be. The treatment of the second young woman, the 17-year-old shown having group sex on the tape, has to be irrelevant to the discussion. For whatever reason, the prosecutor brought no charges regarding her, and the video itself is not sufficient proof of a crime.

It is absurd and dishonest to argue that Wilson is being “rewarded” for his participation in the party orgy. He is being partly compensated for a jail term and a nightmarish ordeal that he did not deserve. A group of people who feel that a young man had his youth and future unjustly taken from him by a combination of a badly drafted law, an incompetent lawyer (the other participants in the party pled to a lesser charge and avoided prison), a fanatic prosecutor, bad luck and yes, his own poor judgement are trying to give him a second chance at life. Good for them. In the process, they have focused on Genarlow’s promise rather than the sordid aspects of his past. This is human nature, and also the nature of kindness. It is hard to imagine anyone saying, “Genarlow, we want you to be able to go to college because that’s where you were headed before all this happened, and you were unjustly treated by the legal system. But remember, we still think you treated those girls like dirt and deserved at least some of what you had to endure the last two years.” It is hard to be kind and unkind at the same time.

Genarlow Wilson spent two years in jail that appeared to be just the beginning of a life-ruining decade behind bars. Morehouse and the Tom Joiner Foundation are behaving ethically by helping him now, and anyone who pays attention to Wilson’s story should be able to figure out that their kindness was not inspired by what he did, but by what was done to him. He was a victim, not a hero.

Certainly the two girls on the tape, who have also been humiliated by the prosecutor’s circulation of it, were victims too. It would be wonderful if the blogger on “Whataboutourdaughters” and others who are concerned about their ordeals found some way to reach out to them. But being kind to one person who needs special help does not obligate one to give special help to everyone. And while making Genarlow Wilson appear to be heroic is an unfortunate and perhaps unavoidable bi-product of helping him, it does not change the fact that Morehouse College and the Tom Joyner Foundation are providing a kind and ethical coda to a truly awful story.

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