Ryan Lochte represents something truly American. He’s charming, jovial in a way that most serious competitors can’t be, and always seems to bring an infectious energy to every situation he’s involved in. His world-class swimming ability puts him into a category with very few Americans; instantly recognizable, exceedingly wealthy, with a career built on athletic ability. He also happens to be a white male, which affords him a degree of prestige in American life that every individual outside of that group strives to attain. The model of everything pure, right, and honest. Oh, and he’s a total liar.
When he shared his account of being robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the night somewhere outside the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, users from all over the web went out of their way to instantly affirm his account, while simultaneously condemning the Olympics, the IOC, the police whose responsibility it was to secure the athletes’ safety, and even the country itself. Though the police could not confirm it, and the Olympic committee had no record of it happening, the narrative was that there was no way, or reason, that Lochte could be lying. The ‘benefit of the doubt’ was never in question, it just simply had to be right. Those with the strongest criticism went so far as to blast the Olympics as a whole for hosting the games in a “third world country”. (Which totally shouldn’t be a thing).
Meanwhile, on streets all across the ‘ol U S of A, victims of police violence have been recording and recounting fatal interactions with police, with ample evidence and history to back up their claims, and many members of the public are still “waiting for the facts”. The benefit of the doubt isn’t simply withheld, it’s dangled in the face of victims and thrown swiftly into the fire. Where Lochte is instantly believed because of his status as an exceptional American, victims of police abuse, often armed with irrefutable evidence, are disregarded, discredited, and frequently blamed for their role in the horrific acts perpetrated by those who are sworn to serve and protect.
Now, you may be thinking these two things are totally unrelated, but that’s flat wrong. Consider for a moment, that the location of the alleged incident involving Lochte and friends was a gas station; a setting becoming increasingly perilous for black Americans across the country. Eric Garner was choked to death by police outside a corner store for selling cigarettes, Alton Sterling was shot to death by police while being detained because he was supposedly waving a gun that he owned. For over two years, detractors of the Black Lives Matter movement have sought to delegitimize the efforts of protesters and perversely justify the death of Michael Brown because he stole cigarillos and intimidated a gas station clerk in the hours before his murder.
Fellow swimmers involved in the situation at the gas station in Rio said Lochte was “the most responsible for the vandalism”, and other witnesses said they were intimidated by the size and aggressiveness of the Olympians. Lochte’s fabricated story has continued to change, and his drunken improprieties aren’t being linked to some cultural deficiency. His belated –flimsy– apology has just made things worse.
This isn’t intended to parse the infinite possibilities and realities of vastly different situations, but rather to draw parallels and similarities within them. Ryan Lochte is a wealthy white male, which is seemingly (unfortunately) becoming something of a pseudo-protected class in the American legal system. His story was from the outset believed to be true, and only after days of careful investigation have the inconsistencies begun to chip away at the benefit of the doubt that his status and entitlement award him. The people who are overwhelmingly and frequently the victims of police brutality start by facing a system of disbelief. Even with HD-quality recordings of violence, recklessness, and intimidation, victims are consistently doubted and often rebuked as if there’s no way their account could be true without some official corroboration. Even that isn’t always a given.
Awareness of these evident disparities is not something that should cause unease, but rather it should enable you to view the two as symptoms of something much larger, and help reshape your perception to question why it’s so easy to accept and believe some things, and why you almost instinctively doubt others. We live in a diverse world where perspective matters, and it’s always useful to remember that before you rush to judgment, or to the defense.