Friday, June 9, 2017
White Privilege? Wealth Privilege?
Does being born white convey special privileges? What about wealth?
I attended a conference of the Georgia State Bar here on the island. I have about 9 months left on my law license before I go inactive, and I still need to maintain my continuing legal education. One of the programs was on Criminality and the law, which had some hard-to-get professionalism credits, so I took it. It was an interesting program, as it was put on by black attorneys, activists, prosecutors, and judges from the Atlanta area. There were few white folks in the room. Needless to say, their perspective was refreshing.
The central issue of the talk was about the amount of incarceration we do in this country and how this disproportionately affects black people. A young kid in his late teens gets busted for holding a small amount of weed. He ends up in jail. And when he gets out, he has a record, making it harder to get a job, and needless to say, going to college isn't in the cards. So he gets into more legal trouble, maybe dealing drugs, or stealing, and goes back to jail. Each time, the ante is raised. Maybe the next time he gets out, he robs someone at gunpoint - and goes back to jail. And as one of the speakers put it, this goes on until maybe one day he kills someone, and ends up in jail forever.
All because of a little weed.
Now the same kid, in suburbia, doesn't get arrested. The cops aren't doing "stop and frisk" in some wealthy enclave of Buckhead. If he gets pulled over for a speeding ticket, the cop doesn't search the car and find the roaches in the ashtray. And I know this, as I was a young, weed-smoking teenager living in suburbia, and got away with murder. Well, not murder literally, but we hung out smoked, pot, drank beer, and the crowd I was with maybe did some petty vandalism, shoplifting and shit like that. Being white and from the suburbs, we got away with it. That's white privilege. If I was black, I'd still be in jail.
But two others things struck me during the discussion. The people on the panel were mostly black, as were the folks in the audience. And these were mostly lawyers - fairly wealthy and successful people who lived in upscale neighborhoods, drove nice cars, and had nice clothes and all of that. They were used to being treated a certain way, due to their status in the community. They had acquired wealth privilege, but it was a very tenuous thing. While they didn't experience directly the sort of treatment a young black man from the ghetto gets treated, they knew it could happen to them - or their children - under the right circumstances.
One of the panelists recounted how he had to have "that talk" with his teenaged son about this. Because while he (the Father) was respected in the community and might be treated a certain way, driving a nice car, wearing a suit and all, his teenaged son, driving in an older car with three of his friends from school, wearing casual clothes, might be treated differently. The police don't realize the distinction between a wealthy young black kid and a poor one. The Huxtables' children still get hassled by the man.
And when he mentioned "that talk" many of the members of the audience nodded their head knowingly and knew what he was talking about. I never had that talk with my Dad. We always knew to call him at the country club if we got "into trouble." Different worlds.
The fellow sitting next to me was there with his wife, even though he wasn't a lawyer. Instead, he worked in the mental health field. One of the speakers made the analogy that the criminal justice system is the last safety net that "catches" people who fall through other nets. If their family fails then, their school system fails them, and the mental health system fails them, the criminal justice system will "catch" them eventually, after they have fallen through these other nets. It was an interesting analogy.
For people with money, living in the suburbs, these other nets tend to catch people before they fall into the criminal justice net. A large portion of those in prison have mental health issues, which is not surprising. The difference is, of course, that a young man with mental health issues (or drug abuse issues) gets sent to a "special school" or re-hab by his wealthy parents (or even middle-class parents) and thus avoids that final safety net. And that is yet another reason why we see more black people in jail (per capita) than white, perhaps.
Like I said, when I was growing up, I hung around with people who smoked pot, drank beer, and committed petty crimes. We call this class of people teenagers. One older friend of mine in particular got into "trouble" on more than one occasion, and he had some mental health issues as well. He got caught in the net on more than one occasion. Perhaps I was smarter than him, or maybe learned from his mistakes, or was shielded from the net by the fact he was older. The bottom line, was, I tried not to commit some of the stupid crimes he did, and I managed not to get caught in the net, or at least not very often.
What was also startling about this presentation was how many people are incarcerated for possession of marijuana, which I didn't realize was still a criminal offense. In many States and many other jurisdictions, marijuana possession is decriminalized (but not legal) so that the most the Police can do is write you a ticket for it. And many don't even bother to do that, given the hassle involved.
The one white judge on the panel did not make herself popular by noting that the use of marijuana among defendants was very high - like 95% or more (due to drug-testing, she could tell this). She made the conclusion that drug use lead to criminality, which may or may not be a correct correlation. I can only say from my experience that smoking pot is a dead-end, as it leads you to believe that trying hard and getting ahead is for chumps, and eventually, criminality seems like a good option.
But when you toss someone into jail for smoking pot, it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
What was also startling was that one of the black panelists admitted that after taking a test about racism, she flunked it, not realizing she harbored negative racial stereotypes about her own race. What was also shocking was that black defendants often end up getting a raw deal from black judges and black prosecutors - the racial bias is present even when the criminal justice system itself is black.
It was also admitted that none of this is going to be fixed by the white community, but requires more activism on the part of blacks. One reason Hillary lost, was the lack of turnout from the black community when it came time to vote. People simply didn't understand why it was important. Today, they do. Hillary lost Georgia by about 4.5% - if more black people voted, she may have even taken this Southern State. There is a special election slated for Georgia. Black voters could sway it - will they choose to do so, or stay home?
What I took away the most from the presentation is that I am a very lucky person - and most of us here in the United States are. The choices we make in life have a profound impact on our outcomes, as I harp on time and time again in this blog. But if you make bad choices in life, how they affect your outcome will also be determined by what social class you are in and your race to some extent.
And while social class and race may insulate you from some of your bad choices in life, even insulation is not enough if you make enough bad choices. My older friend kept making bad choices, and hit the net again and again - finally getting busted for drunk driving with open containers of booze, drug paraphernalia, an underage passenger, and a staggering amount of drugs in the glovebox. His Dad bailed him out of it, of course (wealth privilege) but it affected his self-esteem and well-being over time. It exasperated his mental health issues, sadly.
Other friends were not so lucky as I noted before. My friend Jim is a real person and stupidly fell for the oldest entrapment game in the book. He was, however, a stoner, living in his parent's house and going nowhere fast in life. The net caught him, as it eventually would. He ended up spending a few months in jail and had a felony conviction on his record - even though his Dad was quite wealthy and had influence. A prosecutor up for re-election is a very, very dangerous thing.
So what's the point of all this? I dunno. I guess we should understand how lucky we are not to face the horrific consequences many folks do here in this country, and beyond that, the world. It irks me that privileged people from the middle class whine and moan about "how hard they have it" when in fact, they have it better than their parent's generation did, but instead chose to squander their wealth and privilege.