By Tim Wise · 27 Nov 2014
"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 who deserved to die that August day in Ferguson.
From the beginning, Wilson’s supporters used Brown’s strong-arm theft of cigars from a local market as justification for what happened to him. “Thieves deserve their fate,” came the refrain from many a (mostly white) Facebook feed—this, from people 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, whose theft of land and others' labor was central to the development of the country those 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 least might explain his “aggressive behavior” toward Officer Wilson. This kind of thing that could only be said by someone who has never smoked much weed. Attacking police officers is, as a general rule, the last thing on your mind when you’re high.
When I was Michael Brown’s age I spent quite a bit of time in just such an altered state, unconcerned 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 and confess 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 toward (and racial profiling and over-incarceration of) black and brown people, 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 I turned 19, 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 resale 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 30 years—several of these potentially at hard labor. Indeed, just the most serious (the theft and drug crimes) carried potential sentences of 10 to 20 years on their own.
I’ll highlight one of these in particular because it is so indicative of the way law enforcement, even when it comes across suspicious-looking white people, generally does 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. I was pulled over for going 73 in a 55 mph zone. When the officer came to my window and asked for my license, I couldn't find it. I looked in every fold and pocket of my wallet, but had 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. Sitting in the front seat of his squad car I began searching again, while the officer looked down at my wallet, 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 noticed something, right there in the little clear plastic window of the wallet. Staring right at him was a document with my photo on it, stamped with the words “Maine Driver License." It was my fake ID.
“Hey, isn’t that it,” he asked, pointing to the identification.
“Um, no,” I said, hastily. “That’s something else!”
“Are you sure?” He was 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 toward my wallet as if to grab it and check for himself, and it was precisely then that I managed to find my actual license.
“Here it is!” I exclaimed.
I handed it to him as his eyes locked on mine, a glance 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 was that in the car at that very moment, in the briefcase of our debate coach, was at least an ounce of weed, several dozen tabs of ecstasy and a few sheets of acid. Enough to send us away for several years, or at least cost us our college scholarships as well as the federal financial aid I was relying on.
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—the officer 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 with a $75 speeding ticket and a tip to drive carefully.
That is, for those who have a hard time with the concept, white privilege.
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 storytelling. The storytelling of those seeking to justify the imposition of Black Codes and segregation to protect whites from “black brutes.” The storytelling 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 silence about our own misdeeds, thereby allowing the conventional wisdom about criminality to remain unsullied.
It is time to come out, to admit the unjust privileges we receive every day in a system set up by people like us, for people like us. And then it's time to demand that such a system be replaced by justice.