I recently came across an article in the Washington Post which completely caught my attention.
Heroin addiction sent me to prison. White privilege got me out and to the Ivy League.
Second chances don’t come this easily to people of color.
I was a senior at Cornell University when I was arrested for heroin possession. As an addict — a condition that began during a deep depression — I was muddling my way through classes and doing many things I would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for my own habit. I even began dating a man with big-time drug connections that put me around large amounts of heroin. When police arrested me in 2010, I was carrying six ounces, an amount they valued at $50,000 — enough to put me in prison for up to 10 years. Cornell suspended me indefinitely and banned me from campus. I had descended from a Dean’s List student to a felon.
But instead of a decade behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, I got a second chance. In a plea deal, I received a sentence of 2½ years. After leaving prison, I soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. Then Cornell allowed me to start taking classes again, and I graduated last month. What made my quick rebound possible?
I am white.
Second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the United States. But when you are white, society offers routes to rebuild your life. When found guilty of a drug crime, white people receive shorter sentences than black people. And even after prison, white men fare better in the job market than black men with identical criminal records.
It was prison that clued me in to just how much I benefit from systemic racism in our society. Until then, I hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which is exactly how privilege works – as a white person, I could ignore it. But sitting behind bars, I saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.
It starts at the gate — or rather, who comes through the gate. When I moved into the state prison, the racial disparity was immediately obvious. I was surrounded disproportionately by people of color. While blacks represent just 13.2 percent of the New York State population, they are nearly half of the state’s prison population. Reasons for the disparities are clear: Nationally, blacks are more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be searched, and, if arrested, likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime. Although whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rate and although whites are more likely to sell them, black youth are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than are their white counterparts.
Once in prison, minorities are at an even greater disadvantage. Some corrections officers (though hardly all) were overtly racist. Some used racial slurs. One was rumored to sport a tattoo of a black baby in a noose. Even if the rumor wasn’t true, it says something about the prison’s racial climate that prisoners believed it conceivable enough to repeat.
In one case, I watched prison officials send a black inmate to solitary confinement for wearing her pajamas at 10 a.m. Apparently, there was a little-known rule prohibiting inmates from wearing pajamas after a certain hour, despite the fact that they looked nearly identical to regular state-issued clothes. I never even thought about when to change out of my pajamas, so I’m sure I wore them after the appointed hour, too. But nobody ever troubled me about it, let alone sent me to solitary. There were many times that black inmates were hassled for things that white inmates weren’t.
To be clear, it is not only minority inmates who could get sent to solitary for little to no reason. Whatever their race, inmates routinely get put in solitary for trivial rules violations such as having too many postage stamps, missing appointments, or talking back. Overall, though, black inmates are treated worse. In New York State, they make up 49 percent of the prison population but 59 percent of the solitary confinement population. And the superintendents who decide how long prisoners will spend in solitary are overwhelmingly white in my experience. I knew of only one African-American superintendent or deputy superintendent in the five female facilities that existed when I was locked up. (The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision says they have two black superintendents now).
Of course, race alone doesn’t explain my story. There were other factors that led to my reduced sentence and my return to Cornell. I was arrested in in Tompkins County, a liberal jurisdiction with long-standing commitment to alternatives to incarceration and progressive sentencing. (If I had been arrested in any of the surrounding counties, my sentence could have been three to four times as long.) In another stroke of luck, New York rolled back parts of the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws the year before my arrest. Had I been prosecuted under those laws, I would have gotten 15 years to life.
Although Cornell has a process governing the readmission of suspended students, they never explained exactly what persuaded them to allow me to return. When I was arrested, officials told me that it is standard to suspend any student who is arrested, though the Campus Code of Conduct doesn’t specify that punishment. Readmission is allowed on a case-by-case basis. I gathered letters of recommendation from former professors, my parents and my parole officer and sent them to the judicial administrator. I provided samples of my freelance writing to show I was working to support myself. I answered a standard set of written questions about what I had learned, what I had done to change my path and what safeguards were in place to make sure I don’t recidivate. I had a 20-minute or so phone interview with the judicial administrator and then waited on pins and needles for a response. It came in the form of a brief e-mail: “I am pleased to report that you have been approved to finish your Cornell degree, starting in January 2014.”
It’s impossible to know if a black or brown student in the same circumstances would have been allowed back in. But I think it’s likely. Through its Prison Education Program at a maximum-security state facility, Cornell allows inmates to earn Cornell credits. Clearly, it is a school interested in second chances.
I regularly encounter people who deny that things like racism and privilege still exist, who believe that we are living in a post-racial world. And yes, I dream of a world in which every ex-con could enjoy the opportunities I have. But I saw firsthand how deep and structural biases shaped our criminal justice system. For some, the battle is about ending racism and privilege — behind bars or anywhere else. But for others, the battle is simply acknowledging that there is a battle at all.
The war on drug is an atrocity
The first thing I have to say is that the war on drug is a terrible moral atrocity. As I explained, I consider it deeply wicked to punish people for consuming drugs, most of them having, like Keri Blakinger, often started their consumption out of despair. I also do not believe that people dealing drugs for financing their own addiction should be punished if they’ve completely lost any control over their consumption. I think that a very good case can be made that countless addicts dealing drugs have got where they are through an unfortunate set of circumstances and unfavourable genetics.
Big dealers who do not take in the poison they sell ought to be punished extremely severely. Not their victims.
Besides the failure of providing poor children with a decent healthcare and its imperialistic policy, the war on drugs is another example showing that the US do not occupy any “moral high ground” Americans should feel proud of.
Is it really “white privilege”?
Now I want to go into the main topic of this post. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a differential treatment unjustly affecting African Americans. To quote the last sentence of Keri, it is undeniable that a considerable battle must be fought.
I beg to differ, however, with her views on the causes of this revolting state of affairs.
While she didn’t make it explicit, according to her things seem to be going like this (see the parts of her text I emphasised).
1) American society is incredibly harsh and unjust towards drug addicts.
2) Then “white privileges” step in. (Some) white junkies are helped just by virtue of their having the right skin colour. Black drug addicts do not take advantage of such acts of mercy.
While I’m open to being wrong on that, this seems to be the most straightforward way to read her.
With all due respect, I think she has it backward.
It might be that under rare circumstances, some people in the American judicial system decide to save a person otherwise doomed to a long stay in jail because they say to themselves “Oh! (S)he’s white! I wanna help her!“.
Likewise, it is quite possible that in some cases, people are helped because the officials like their physical appearances or voices.
I strongly doubt, however, that this is going to be a main factor in more than a few cases.
To my mind, the most likely explanation of the statistical disadvantage of black persons looks rather like this.
1′) While still being very unjust, the judicial system has become more merciful towards drug offenders, to some limited extent.
2′) African Americans do not take advantage of such opportunities because of lingering racist prejudices against them. A great number of law enforcement officials are still convinced they are far less to be trusted than their white counterparts.
In quite a few situations, I can very well imagine that white members of the judicial system are animated by egregiously hateful feelings against human beings having a black skin.
That my own explanation (namely that direct racism instead of “white privilege” is the culprit here) is much more likely to be true is well illustrated by the problem of discriminating policemen.
As she rightly wrote
“It starts at the gate — or rather, who comes through the gate. When I moved into the state prison, the racial disparity was immediately obvious. I was surrounded disproportionately by people of color. While blacks represent just 13.2 percent of the New York State population, they are nearly half of the state’s prison population. Reasons for the disparities are clear: Nationally, blacks are more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be searched, and, if arrested, likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime. Although whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rate and although whites are more likely to sell them, black youth are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than are their white counterparts.”
Of course, it’d be utterly absurd to think that days-in and days-out, policemen discover an equal number of white and black addicts and decide to leave most of the former alone because they’re white.
The true problem is that they are still persuaded that black people are inferior to white people and/or are driven by sheer racial hatred. Consequently, they’ll control disproportionately more black persons than white ones.
Does the difference really matter?
I guess that many liberals might react by saying:
“Yeah, I grant your point that these inequalities aren’t the results of a direct intention to privilege white people but stem from racist prejudices and racial hatred against black people. Still, what on earth does that change to this tragic injustice?”
Other might say that the distinction I raised is purely semantic.
If black folks are discriminated, it naturally follows that white people are privileged. Period.
My problem with that answer is that “anti-black racism” and “white privilege” do convey different meanings.
While the first involves racial prejudices and hatred against African Americans, the second suggests a conscious effort to favour a person having white colour.
As I explained in the case of the the policemen, it seems very likely that the former plays a much more important role than the latter.
Are poor whites to be punished?
Far from being a mere semantic choice, this concept of “white privileges” is very important to white liberals because it lies at the very foundation of their political worldview.
According to their deepest conviction, a white is always an oppressor and a black is always an oppressed, regardless of their relative well-being and plenty of other factors.
I mentioned elsewhere it is morally wrong to favour a rich woman over a poor man (or a rich African immigrant over a poor white) just because the latter didn’t have the chance to be born with the right genes.
Times and times again, I hear that the victims have to gladly accept that “positive” discrimination because they benefit of “white privileges” anyway.
As we saw previously, the problem is not that American officials do undeserved favours to white folks just because they’re white but rather that they’re much more severe and unjust towards African Americans because they believe them to be inferior.
It is cynical and inhuman to tell a homeless “white trash” that he cannot be aided because he belongs to the race of the oppressors. As I pointed out elsewhere, even more than 2500 years ago, an ancient Hebrew prophet preached against the notion that children have to pay for the sin of their parents.
How much more absurd is that to hold him accountable for misdeeds nobody among even his direct relatives committed?
Another thing I often hear is that there are worrisome statistical differences between whites and blacks in America in terms of successful careers, poverty, unwarranted incarcerations and so on.
(I agree this is a shame. )
They go on arguing that we must even out these statistics as soon as possible even if this means committing injustices towards members of the dominant group underway.
It is here I strongly disagree with the underlying philosophy.
Mean values, standard deviations and any other statistical values you can imagine are unable to feel anything.
The goal of any human system of morality should ultimately consider the well-beings of individuals who are capable of experiencing emotions such joy, pain, suffering and happiness.
Far from creating a society where race no longer plays any important role, affirmative action perpetuates such a state and hinders a real reconciliation between the white and black lower classes.
As Martin Luther King put it:
It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a “Negro Bill of Rights,” which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc. and does not take into sufficient account their plight (that of the white worker).
I believe we ideally need a race-neutral affirmative action which considers the relative well-being of the two candidates in question along their chances of getting hired elsewhere.
Racial peace can only be reached once we’ve given up collective punishment and the idea that children are responsible for the sins of those having the same skin colour or the same Y chromosome as they have.
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