He was no angel.
That’s the refrain, repeated for over two months on social media by defenders of Officer Darren Wilson, convinced that Michael Brown was little more than a violent and dangerous thug, worthy of death that August day in Ferguson.
From the beginning, Brown’s strong-arm theft of cigars from a local market was used by Wilson’s supporters as justification for whatever happened to him. “Thieves deserve their fate,” came the refrain from many a (mostly white) Facebook feed—this, from persons who have never openly advocated death for, say, Wall Street bankers who stole a lot more than Swisher Sweets. Nor have they likely ever contemplated what such a maxim might suggest about the merited destinies of their own white ancestors, for whom theft of land and the labor of others was central to the development of the very country those same commentators now call home.
“He had weed in his system,” cried others, suggesting that marijuana use either justifies being shot by a cop, or at the very least might explain his “aggressive behavior” towards Officer Wilson—the kind of thing that could only be said by someone who had never smoked much weed. Attacking police officers is, as a general rule, the last thing on your mind when you’re high.
I should know, as I spent quite a bit of my time when I was Michael Brown’s age in just such an altered state, never once concerned that such a condition might serve as a rationale for my demise at the hands of law enforcement. Indeed, I never even gave much thought to the likelihood that such behavior might land me in jail. All this, despite the fact that…
I called for the initiation of this hashtag last night on Twitter to encourage those of us who are white to come out of the closet, as it were, with our admissions of just how non-angelic we have been, all while relatively secure in the knowledge that our misdeeds would likely go unpunished. To fully grasp the depths of racial disparity that plague our justice system, it is necessary not only to acknowledge the glaring evidence of aggressive policing towards (and racial profiling and over-incarceration of) black and brown folks, but also the flipside of that reality: the preferential treatment afforded those of us who are white, even when engaged in similar behaviors. So long as whites like me are receiving such preferential treatment—criminal justice affirmative action for white people, so to speak—we have no moral right to question claims of systemic racism made by people of color, who experience the downside of our institutional advantage every day. And we have no ethical leg to stand on when we complain about their anger in the face of yet again more evidence of that system, operating in its usual fashion.
So in the interest of full disclosure, and because Twitter hardly affords sufficient space for such a discussion as this, let me be clear: among the activities in which I had engaged, all before turning nineteen, and which—had I been black—would likely have ended quite differently for me, here are the ones I can remember, in order from least to most serious:
1. Underage drinking and public intoxication (hundreds of times);
2. Repeated use of fake identification for the purpose of obtaining alcohol (hundreds of times);
3. Manufacture of fake identification for myself and others for the underage purchase of alcohol (at least five dozen clients served);
4. Driving under the influence (can’t remember but plenty);
5. Leaving the scene of an accident after a fender bender with another person who was also drunk;
6. Criminal trespass;
7. Vandalism of government property;
8. Criminal mischief;
9. Fraudulent receipt of property;
10. Possession of illegal narcotics (weed, acid, ecstasy, cocaine);
11. Possession of illegal narcotics with intent to distribute;
12. Sale of illegal narcotics (only a few times, but still);
13. Theft of items worth more than $1500;
14. Illegal possession and re-sale of stolen items worth more than $1500
I have looked up the various statutes governing the crimes in the states where they were committed, and the combined potential period of incarceration for them exceeds thirty years—several of these potentially at hard labor. Indeed, just the most serious of these (the theft and drug crimes) carried potential sentences of ten to twenty years on their own.
I’ll highlight one of these in particular because it is so indicative of the way in which law enforcement, even when they come across white folks about whom they should have every suspicion, generally do not treat us as criminals.
It was early 1988, and several of us on the Tulane University debate team were returning from a tournament in San Antonio. In our rental car were four debaters—including myself and my partner—as well as our coach. A coach whom, I should point out, had just three months earlier taken us on a debate trip to California while carrying a briefcase filled with drugs: at least an ounce of weed, an 8-ball of cocaine, twenty tabs of ecstasy and about a dozen hits of acid. This was, needless to say, before 9/11 and security was lax. Even still, we had been astonished to see his stash upon arriving at the hotel in Los Angeles. We nicknamed him the “pharmaceutical gumbo” (a reference that seemed fitting given our school’s location in New Orleans), and then proceeded (or at least I did) to relieve him of some of that acid after the tournament was over and we went to Disneyland, which did indeed proceed to become (much as it is billed) the “happiest place on earth” that day.
Anyway, on the way back to New Orleans from the tournament in Texas, I was pulled over for going 73 in a 55 mile per hour zone. When the officer came to my window and asked for my license, I pulled out my wallet and began looking for it, but no matter how hard I searched, it appeared to be missing. I looked in every crook and crevice, every fold and pocket, but was having no luck. Because it was dark out, and the car’s dome light wasn’t working, the officer suggested I come back to his cruiser to look for it where the light was better. Nervous but figuring I had no choice, I complied. Upon sitting in the front seat of his squad car I began searching again, while the officer looked down at my wallet, no doubt curious as to why it was taking so long to procure a simple license. As I kept thumbing through pictures, my school ID, a Social Security card and assorted receipts, he appeared to notice something, right there, in the little “picture window” part of the wallet. Staring right at him was a document with my picture on it, and upon which the words “Maine Driver License” were clearly printed. Not because I was from Maine (indeed I wouldn’t set foot in the state until eight years later), but because that seemed like a good state from which to pass off a fake identification, and thus, was the state from which the maker of my particular phony ID (and whose talents far surpassed my own) claimed his clients hailed.
“Hey, isn’t that it,” he asked, pointing to the identification.
“Um, no,” I said, hastily. “That’s something else!” Great answer, a voice in the back of my head screamed.
“Are you sure?” He replied, clearly intrigued by this document, titled “Driver License,” but which I now insisted was absolutely not the thing it claimed to be.
I saw his hand moving towards my wallet as if to grab it and check for himself, but it was precisely then that I somehow managed to find my actual license, tucked away in a fold I had checked (or so I thought) a half-dozen times already.
“Here it is!” I exclaimed, hopeful that he would forget all about the fake he had seen and which he must have understood to be a fraudulent document by now.
I handed it to him as his eyes locked on mine, a glance exchanged that signified he knew full well the meaning of the other license, the one from Maine—and also that he was going to let it pass. He wrote down my information, called in the number, wrote me a ticket and sent me on my way. But what he didn’t know—could not have known because despite his obvious recognition that I was carrying a phony identification, itself a crime, he didn’t check—was that in the car at that very moment, once again in the briefcase of our debate coach, were at least an ounce of weed, another several dozen tabs of ecstasy and a few sheets of acid. Enough to send us away for several years, or at the very least to cost us our college scholarships as well as the federal financial aid that at least I was relying on, and to send our lives in very different directions.
But he did not search the car. Because despite my nervousness, barely concealed as I fumbled through my wallet—and despite the open-air evidence of a misdemeanor thanks to the fake license—he thought nothing more of my potential criminality. Had I been black, or Latino, driving along Interstate 10 to New Orleans, with a car full of other blacks and Latinos (as opposed to three whites, one South Asian and a very light skinned Creole), I cannot imagine things would have ended up with a $75 speeding ticket and a tip to drive carefully.
That, for those who have a hard time with the concept, is white privilege.
And please, I realize that professions of privilege and admissions of advantage may seem like cold comfort to people of color facing the heel of systemic oppression. It changes nothing, at least in the short run. Involved with such acknowledgements are no concrete policy proposals let alone the organized umph needed to make any potential policies likely. But that said, we should not dismiss the power of the narrative. After all, the narrative of black danger and criminality, of deviance and pathology wrapped in dark-skin did not emerge from data and statistical manipulation alone. It emerged from story-telling. The story-telling of those seeking to justify the imposition of Black Codes and segregation so as to “protect” whites from “black brutes.” The story-telling of the Nixon-era Southern strategy, or Reagan’s “welfare queens,” and the Willie Horton ad. Only by establishing counter-narratives that challenge those memes, that reveal the extent of our own illegal activity, and that call into question the operation of a justice system that winks and nods at ours—or simply never discovers it—while actively and aggressively prosecuting that of others (or simply shoots them without even asking questions), can we expect to move the ball forward in the fight for a more equitable system. We cannot continue to hide behind a veil of innocence or silence about our own misdeeds, thereby allowing the conventional wisdom about criminality to remain unsullied.
It is time to come out; time to admit the unjust privileges we receive every day in a system set up by people like us, for people like us.
And then time to demand that such a system be replaced by justice—now.