07/17/2012 01:20 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Real Talk: Did Brandon White's Attackers Really Deserve Five Years in Prison?

Earlier this year, the Internet was set ablaze by grainy surveillance video of a young black man in Atlanta getting brutally beaten by a group of black men outside a local convenience store, some of whom could be heard calling him anti-gay epithets. The video swiftly went viral, and the men were apprehended and arrested. Last week, the men were sentenced to five years in prison, which was a move that was lauded by some gay-activist circles but decried by others.

Before the sentencing, a group of vocal LGBT activists in Atlanta had recently petitioned the judge involved for leniency, taking into account time already served, leading some to criticize them and question their motives.

While White's beating was absolutely brutal and needed to be dealt with swiftly and effectively, this is yet another example of young black men being thrown into the prison system with a seemingly excessive sentence.  I'm not saying that the beating wasn't wrong, because it is.  I'm not saying that these men don't deserve jail time, because they do, but we do not have a color-blind justice system. What we do have is a justice system that has been documented in various studies over and over and over again to give young black men the harshest prison sentences of any other group out there, and no, I don't need to provide a link for that statement.

This is what the LGBT leaders in Atlanta were saying in their impassioned arguments for leniency. What the leaders were pushing for is some kind of punishment and reeducation that doesn't involve these men's lives being ruined (let's face it, their lives pretty much are ruined with this sentencing).

The kind of punishment that would include some sort of prison sentence, yes, but also maybe probation, rehabilitation, anger-management classes, etc. just doesn't happen with young black men in American society. More often than not, they're thrown into prison as a first resort, not a last one. In fact, read Michelle Anderson's fabulous book The New Jim Crow to realize just how widespread this problem is.

Yes, I've turned a discussion about a brutal gay bashing into a conversation about black men and the prison-industrial complex, but for the segment of the community that is both black and gay, these are issues that aren't so cleanly separated.

Of course, homophobic, violent criminals need to be dealt with, but it still remains shocking and sad how easily young black men are thrown to the wolves in the prison-industrial complex. I can commend Brandon White for his bravery and join the chorus arguing for punishment for his attackers while at the same time shining a light on the troubling racial politics surrounding the amount of prison time they received.

I expect that this duality might be hard for some to understand, but as a community we need to know how to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.  

That's real talk.

Real Talk is a biweekly column focusing on politics, pop culture, and lifestyle from a gay perspective. Rob Smith is an LGBT activist, writer, lecturer, and proud provocateur living in New York City. Find him at