As I prepare to celebrate the holiday season, I am struck by things that I am grateful for, but which are denied to many in our communities. In particular, I am concerned with privilege as it relates to the justice system. Basic rights become privilege when our system offers the rights only to some, while depriving others. Those who are denied certain rights are always aware of their second class status, while those on the receiving end of privilege often fail to even notice their advantages. We cannot achieve justice until our rights are universal, instead of perks only for some groups. An essential step is for the privileged to notice that not everyone gets the same rights. Here are a few to think about:
- Racial profiling by the police and the hazards of driving while black: I cannot write about privilege without beginning with white privilege because I suspect that most white people don’t expressly think about it all that often. As we’ve discussed here, it is disturbing how frequently law enforcement makes assumptions about people of color, with tragic consequences. For instance, take John Crawford III. Mr. Crawford was in a Walmart in Ohio, a state where it is perfectly legal to openly carry a firearm. Mr. Crawford picked up an air rifle that was store merchandise, on the shelf for sale. Seeing Mr. Crawford with the gun, police officers shot him on sight, killing him. It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening to a white person (I mean, these guns were for sale – presumably some people were able to pick them up without getting killed). People of color make up less than 38% of the United States population, yet almost half of all people killed by the police are minorities, and almost two-thirds of the unarmed people killed by the police are minorities. And so, I urge my white readers this holiday season to notice the luxuries of occasionally rolling through a stop sign, of not keeping your hands in plain sight as you shop, of being able to stop and ask a cop for directions without fear. At a minimum, notice this tiny fraction of the broad range of white privilege in the justice system.
- The privilege of wealth: People are not supposed to be criminally punished for being poor. And yet, we have a modern day debtors’ prison populated by poor people who are shaken down by the local police force and then jailed for their failure to pay outrageous fines and fees for petty violations, like traffic offenses. We have a bail bond system where the poor remain in jail awaiting trials, often spending longer incarcerated awaiting trial than they would have had to spend had they been convicted, simply because they cannot afford the bail. In contrast, anyone with the means to do so bonds out while awaiting trial. When a wealthy person runs into trouble with the law, they can buy a defense team to ensure the best possible outcome. A poor person, however, has a different experience entirely. In many parts of the country, the public defenders are so overworked and ill prepared that their representation is practically worthless. In Washington State, for instance, until recently public defenders had caseloads of over 1,000 per year, allowing them to spend less than an hour on each case. There are two justice systems in this country: one for the poor, and one for those who can afford better. This is privilege.
- Privilege and race in schools: These intersect when you look at how poor students, and particularly, poor students of color fair facing the school to prison pipeline. In affluent communities, a student struggling with behavior issues at school typically ends up with testing for a special individualized education plan (“IEP”), so that his needs can be met and his behavior struggles understood and addressed. In poorer schools, kids acting out at school often find themselves suspended, expelled, or in trouble with the criminal justice system. Police in Kentucky recently handcuffed an 8 year old Latino student and a 9 year old African American student for being disruptive in class. Can you imagine that happening in an affluent, white suburb? So, if your child goes to a school with a decent physical space, a sense of safety, and sufficient books, and your biggest concerns are with what or how your child is being taught, just take a moment to recognize how fortunate you are.
The stuff that I call privilege in the justice system are the basics that should be available to everyone: police officers who see everyone as human, a fair shake in the justice system, and schools that don’t criminalize our children’s challenges. Being part of the change requires you to start noticing. Be thankful for what you have and work to spread justice for all.