To hear Donald Trump tell it, his son and son-in-law are naive but well-meaning kids who have bumbled and stumbled their way into a political minefield they’re too pure of mind and heart to navigate. According to Trump, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner have adult-sized aspirations, but they’ve been tripped up by their amateur, almost childlike understanding of this whole confusing politics thing.
“Don is — as many of you know, Don — he’s a good boy,” Trump recently told reporters aboard Air Force One. “He’s a good kid. And he had a meeting. Nothing happened.”
This has become the party line for those trying to convince us that the Trump team is filled with innocent, doe-eyed 40-year-old political virgins. What seems like a pile of evidence pointing to collusion with Russia by Junior and Kushner is just proof the duo are basically live-action versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The defense actually rests on the idea that Kushner and Junior couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong because just look at them.
“The kid took a nothing meeting,” White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said, his first day on the job. “It was a non-event.”
An anonymous friend of Don Jr.’s told the Washington Post, “The kid is an honest kid. The White House should’ve never let that story go out on the president’s son.”
And Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host who reportedly engaged in workplace sexual harassment for more than a decade, wrote on Twitter Monday, “Kushner looks like a high school senior. Hard to believe he’s fixing elections with Putin. In fact, impossible to believe.”
Scaramucci is paid to lie; Don Jr.’s “friend” might well be Trump Sr. throwing his voice again; and O’Reilly has always done a piss-poor job of pretending to be a real journalist. But beyond all that, it’s incredible to watch them pitch this saintly reimagination of Kushner and Don Jr., two full-grown men aged 36 and 39 respectively, with eight children of their own between them. Put aside for a moment the question of why, if Don Jr. and Kushner are such unprepared political rubes, they were entrusted with so much responsibility in the first place. This infantilizing strategy isn’t just a cynical ploy to try to erase questions of their guilt. It’s a case-in-point example of how innocence is assumed of whiteness, a privilege black folks are consistently denied.
In fact, that privilege has been specifically denied in the past by the very same players involved here. Trump wants us to believe his son is just a sweet kid with the best of intentions, even though Don Jr. tweeted a string of emails that definitively prove he actively tried to work with a hostile foreign power to undermine democracy. The same man now declaring his son’s innocence bought a full-page ad in 1989 calling for the summary execution of five black and brown teens who were falsely accused, without a shred of evidence, of raping a white woman. The Central Park Five were all exonerated by DNA evidence. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from going around and claiming they’re guilty, because he simply can’t imagine black and Latino children as anything but criminals.
The same is true of O’Reilly, whose air-tight defense of Kushner is based on the fact that his babyface is white. Back in 2013, O’Reilly essentially declared 17-year-old Trayvon Martin guilty of his own murder because of what he was wearing. “The reason Trayvon Martin died was because he looked a certain way, and it wasn’t based on skin color,” O’Reilly said. “If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a jacket…and a tie…I don’t think George Zimmerman would have had any problem with him. But he was wearing a hoodie and he looked a certain way. And that way is how ‘gangstas’ look. And, therefore, he got attention.”
Got it, black people? O’Reilly says respectability politics will save us. Except that he also told black Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill — who happened to be wearing a suit and tie at the time — that he looked like a cocaine dealer. Guess racism can’t be distracted by the right clothing after all.
This belief in whiteness as innately innocent, and blackness as inherently guilty, is interweaved with this country’s history of racist violence, from lynchings to the murder of Emmett Till to the fatal shootings of nine black churchgoers by Dylann Roof. It’s why the tragic and unjust death of Justine Damond, an unarmed white woman murdered by Minneapolis police, has triggered an outpouring of emotion in white communities unmoved by other incidents of police brutality.
“[Justine was] the most innocent victim” of a police shooting, according to Robert Bennett, the attorney hired by the Damond family. “I’m not saying Philando [Castile] wasn’t innocent, too, or that Frank Baker wasn’t innocent. But here is someone who called the police and was trying to stop someone from being hurt…and ends up being shot in her pajamas.”
Whiteness is the only possible factor Baker can be using to quantify Damond’s death as more undeserved than black victims of police violence. Otherwise, what makes Damond more innocent than Carl Williams or Bryan Heyward, who in separate incidents were both shot in their own homes by cops they’d called to help them stop burglaries? How is Damond possibly more innocent than 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was fatally shot as she slept; or 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, shot in the head by cops as he left a party in a car; or Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old who approached cops thinking they’d help him with his stalled car; or Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot by cops as he played in a park with the same kind of toy gun that does not get white kids killed?
Damond is assumed more innocent than the teenage girl at a pool party thrown to the ground by a white cop twice her size and criticized as “no saint” by Megyn Kelly; more innocent than Mike Brown, who the New York Times called “no angel” and characterized as a “handful” as a baby because “when his parents put up a security gate, he would try to climb it.” It takes whiteness to achieve the innocence that compelled cops to at least give a dying Damond CPR, which police never bothered to perform on shooting victims Akai Gurley, Walter Scott or Eric Garner.
These attitudes show up in studies finding black boys and girls are perceived as being older and less innocent than white kids their age — and apparently, adults as old as 39. As a result, black children “can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” one study author noted. Black kids as young as preschool age are three times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. African-American children are more likely to be tried as adults than whites and, like black adults, are punished for the same crimes with longer sentences, including life without parole.
A 2012 Stanford University study found “simply bringing to mind a black (vs. white) juvenile offender led [white study] participants to view juveniles in general as significantly more similar to adults in their inherent culpability and to express more support for severe sentencing.” Researchers involved in a 2007 study from the University of North Carolina noted, “our most startling finding is that many whites actually become more supportive of the death penalty upon learning that it discriminates against blacks.” These are the very real consequences when the concept of innocence itself is racialized.
Don Jr. and Kushner benefit from the lifelong presumption of innocence this racist society confers on them. So does Trump himself, whose election and presidency have been one long daily demonstration of how white supremacy — and the national commitment to maintaining it — looks in action. (Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were both murdered at the age Don Jr. is now, and I’m pretty sure they were never hailed as wunderkinds.) Most of us can’t say with absolute certainty whether the Trump team is guilty of Russian collusion, though if we are sane and understand how evidence works, we probably have some thoughts on the matter. In any case, it’s safe to say it’s a scandal that is free of child actors. We’re all adults here.