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Daniel Penny tries out the Trump-era version of 'I have Black friends' 

It's impossible to know how racial prejudice may have shaped Penny's behavior. But this doesn't help him.
US Marine veteran Daniel Penny, 24, is escorted in handcuffs
U.S. Marine veteran Daniel Penny is escorted in handcuffs by the NYPD after turning himself into the 5th Precinct in Lower Manhattan on May 12.Michael Nigro / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images file

Daniel Penny, the man charged with second-degree manslaughter for putting Jordan Neely in what authorities say was a lethal chokehold on the New York subway, recently sat down for an interview with the New York Post. Penny and his lawyers may have calculated that an interview could provide some good press for him as he sits at the center of a political and cultural firestorm and awaits trial. But the most striking quote from the interview doesn’t do the defendant any favors. 

Penny told the Post that the incident — in which Penny, who is white, is accused of killing Neely, who was a homeless Black man — “had nothing to do with race” and vowed that “I’m not a white supremacist.” But his explanation of why the incident couldn’t have anything to do with race warrants skepticism: “I was actually planning a road trip through Africa before this happened,” he told the Post. 

I’d call this the latest version of “some of my best friends are Black” defense.

OK! I’d call this the latest version of “some of my best friends are Black” defense. This reasoning neither rules out nor confirms whether Penny was motivated by racial prejudice, but ironically it should heighten our suspicion that race was at play.

On May 1, Penny reacted to Neely behaving erratically and using threatening language on the New York subway by placing him in an extended, and ultimately lethal, chokehold. According to at least one eyewitness, it lasted around 15 minutes. Some critics have argued that racism was at play in the incident.

Penny responded to those criticisms in his interview in the Post: “I mean, it’s, it’s a little bit comical. Everybody who’s ever met me can tell you, I love all people, I love all cultures. You can tell by my past and all my travels and adventures around the world.” That claim is a hollow deflection from accusations of racism. Even in an era in which the GOP has become an overt white nationalist organ and Fox News pundits float racist conspiracy theories about immigration, it’s still difficult to find people who would say in polite company that they dislike specific races or cultures. You may recall that in the same campaign season that then-presidential candidate  Donald Trump maligned Mexican migrants as  “rapists” he also tweeted, “I love Hispanics!” (alongside photos of him eating taco bowls). One can harbor bigoted ideas about a nation or ethnicity and also make blanket statements of appreciation for the world’s cultures.  

But the big red flag is his next statement: “I was actually planning a road trip through Africa before this happened.” The “actually” has an interesting connotation in the sentence — it could be interpreted as striking a tone of “contrary to how this incident makes me look.” But there is nothing about planning a trip somewhere in Africa that would exonerate him from a charge of racial prejudice. There is, in fact, a long and dark history of racist white people visiting Africa, as Penny ought to know. Traveling to a place doesn’t necessarily suggest one’s respect for that place, nor does it mean one has immunity to bigoted beliefs or actions about people from there. There’s also something vulgar about the subtext in Penny’s statement that suggests that he may see Neely as more African than American.

It’s reminiscent of the “I have Black friends” line — a classic maneuver in which someone accused of racism rushes to point out some fact that is rarely relevant to the question at hand, and it’s usually used as a dodge. That’s what’s happening with Penny’s claim about Africa. Notably, he has not been accused by prosecutors of acting out of racial animus — they aren’t seeking to prove that Penny was a white supremacist, only that he wrongly killed Neely.

I have no opinion on whether Penny harbors deep levels of prejudice toward Black people, or whether any such beliefs motivated his actions on that fateful day. But someone who speaks so flippantly about race — and suggests that a trip he says he’d planned to Africa is proof of some kind of antiracism — doesn’t strike me as exactly progressive on the subject.

Penny is well within his rights to defend himself against accusations of racism. But that defense is undermined by retrograde dodges. More importantly, it will not acquit him of the charge that he committed manslaughter against Neely.