THE “DE-VICTIMIZATION” OF MIKE TYSON
In a few moments of quiet reflection about the Tyson-Washington incident, a number of things began to occur to me that were obvious in so many ways. Only two people actually know what happened that night in that hotel room. With the passage of time and the need to envision the incident in the way that supported their articulated versions, even Mike and Desiree may now have difficulty recalling exactly what happened. The others and I were collectively constructing a story of what happened, from bits and pieces of information and preexisting thought patterns. Like authors of books, makers of films, or writers of poetry, we were putting meaning into an otherwise meaningless situation. And once this was done, we acted as if our story was what actually happened.
Why was the view of Tyson as the victim so easy to formulate and to accept? The answer stared me in the face. Most of my construction of Tyson as the victim proceeded from one of the most fundamental beliefs in the African-American community. Justice is White. The postconviction redefinition of Tyson as a victim occurred because of the fundamental belief that a Black man could not expect justice within the American criminal justice system. Never mind the fact that Tyson could afford the best lawyer money can buy. Never mind the fact that there were (only) two African-Americans on the jury.
If Tyson had been convicted by an all-Black jury, with an African – American prosecutor and judge, my perception of the incident would have been significantly different. The ability to construct an image of Tyson as a victim of racism in the criminal justice system (defined in the African-American culture as the prosecution, judgment, and conviction of a Black by Whites) would have almost completely disappeared. With racism substantially eliminated as a concern, I could have quickly focused on other aspects of this situation. My concern about racism and oppression, however, had controlled my interpretation of the rape of Desiree Washington.
I began to think more and more about how my desire to struggle against perceived racism was keeping me from understanding other aspects of this situation. For starters, I had not been able to see Desiree Washington as the victim, and yet this is precisely what the jury saw when it convicted Tyson. As I began to think about the possibility of Desiree Washington as the victim, a number of issues about her came quickly to mind. Before, I was willing to believe that an eighteen-year-old college freshman could be so sophisticated that she could hatch a plan to take down the former heavyweight champion of the world. This required me to believe that she could easily outsmart a man who was not only seven years her senior and had been heavyweight champion of the world but who also had experienced a rough divorce.
Desiree often talked about how terrified she was that night. "Terrified" cannot possibly describe what she must have felt. I tried to imagine being an eighteen-year-old, 108-pound woman in a hotel room with a person who could arguably be considered the best fighter of all time. I had seen Mike Tyson fight heavyweights such as Michael Spinks, Trevor Berbick, and Razor Ruddick. "Terrified" is the word I would use to describe how they appeared entering the ring to face Mike Tyson. These men were heavyweight boxers, some even heavyweight champions at the time. They also had the safety and comfort of knowing that if things got out of hand, they could lay down on the canvas and take the ten count. At least for them, there was a referee who could stop the fight.
Then there were all of those who suggested that something was wrong because Desiree Washington might profit from being raped by Mike Tyson. I thought of how many times I have heard people express sympathy for the men Tyson beat in the ring—men who were receiving millions of dollars for about two minutes worth of work. Fights that people personally paid thirty dollars or more to see. Unlike Desiree, however, these boxers had volunteered to give up their bodies to be abused by Mike Tyson.
Victimization, however, was not confined to Desiree. The implications for African-American women were victimizing as well: "Don’t talk about date rape, because we won’t believe you; you must have consented." "Don’t cooperate with the Man in taking down a Brother, even if you think he is wrong, especially one who is a celebrity." "Your concern about your bodies and how males inflict pain on you has to be subordinated until the racial problem is resolved." Of course, I realized that African-Americans will never resolve the racial problem.
Then, finally, I realized that there was one last group of victims who were being obscured by the notion of Tyson as the victim: African-American males, including those who had rallied to support, explain, and justify Mike Tyson’s actions. In an effort to exonerate himself, Tyson used an explanation and defense of his conduct that drew on every negative stereotype about African-American males that exists. His defense portrayed Black men as oversexed, prone to violent and aggressive behavior, and dumb as a brick wall. Tyson literally had been responsible for producing millions of dollars of negative publicity, reinforcing the very social construction of African – American men in dominant culture of which I had so often complained. As I was envisioning myself as fighting racism by supporting Tyson, I was also embracing and approving of the image of Black males against which I struggle so hard.
1. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 5.
2. Many have debated the issue of whether there is an African-American culture and, if there is, the precise boundaries of that culture. I do not wish to join that debate in this commentary. My life, however, has convinced me that there is an irreducible set of shared ideas and themes that individual African – Americans can—though not necessarily do—use to interpret a shared reality in this society. At the root of this culture is a conception of society composed of racial and ethnic groups in competition for scarce material and psychological resources.
3. This piece does not report any discussion that I had with African – American women in Indianapolis. I did, however, discuss this issue with a number of Black women. Candor requires me to report that Desiree Washington did not have much support among African-American women, either. My personal experience was recently confirmed by a public opinion poll conducted by Indiana University Public Opinion Laboratory. According to the poll, which questioned 800 Blacks and 407 Whites, 68 percent of the African – American women and 66 percent of the African-American men questioned the fairness of Mike Tyson’s conviction. Andrea Neal, "Poll Finds Tyson Trial Is Racial Dividing Line,” Indianapolis Star, Feb. 21, 1993, A-12. It seems appropriate for me to discuss the rape of Desiree Washington by Mike Tyson because I grew up in Indianapolis and still consider it my hometown. From 1985 to 1988, I served as corporate attorney for the organization Indiana Black Expo, Inc., which invited Tyson to Indianapolis. Many of the leaders in the African-American community who rallied to the support of Tyson during this ordeal were personal friends and acquaintances of mine with whom I had worked on numerous community projects since returning to Indianapolis after graduating from law school in 1982. Because my current law school is only sixty miles from Indianapolis and many of my relatives and friends live there, I often visit Indianapolis.
4. Under normal circumstances, the rape of Desiree Washington by Mike Tyson would have been big news in Indianapolis’s African-American community. The circumstances surrounding it, however, guaranteed that it would be a principal topic of conversation for some time. The rape occurred during the Summer Celebration of Indiana Black Expo. In order to understand the high profile of the rape in Indianapolis’s African-American community, it is necessary for me to provide some background about the Summer Celebration. There is no bigger event in the life of the African-American community in Indianapolis than the annual Summer Celebration. It is primarily a five-day cultural festival that takes place in the heart of Indianapolis during the month of July. Organizers of the Summer Celebration estimated that more than 600,000 people (the overwhelming majority of whom were Black) attended the events last year. The Summer Celebration includes a number of cultural events such as boxing matches, talent shows, screen plays, beauty contests, music concerts, auto shows, exposition booths, a July 4th picnic, seminars on current national and international issues affecting African- Americans, parties, and receptions. The list of speakers and dignitaries who attend annually reads like a Who’s Who in Black America.
5. Tyson was convicted of one count of rape and two counts of criminally deviant conduct. Each count carried a maximum sentence of twenty years, for a total maximum sentence of sixty years.
6. Neal, supra note 3.
8. Tyson’s attorney was also White. But that is part of another story.