Sure, Let’s Pardon Mark Wahlberg for His Violent, Racist Past

The actor, who went to prison as a teenager for partially blinding a man, deserves a second chance—as do all the men of color who’ve been convicted of felonies.

Mark Wahlberg attends the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ 2014 Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2014.
Mark Wahlberg attends the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ 2014 Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2014. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Remember that time actor Mark Wahlberg punched a man in the eye so hard, he partially blinded him forever?

What about the time when he chased black schoolchildren, shouting racial slurs while throwing rocks?

If you don’t, better read up on it now because Wahlberg is petitioning (pdf) Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to have part of his violent past pardoned in order to further his business empire: the Wahlburgers fast-food chain.

Before Mark Wahlberg—the former Columbusing rapper, now-popular actor, producer and businessman—there was Mark Wahlberg, the once irresponsibly violent, high-on-cocaine, racist teenager. At 15 he, along with three white friends, attacked those black schoolchildren. According to court documents, someone in the group shouted, “We don’t like black n–gers in the neighborhood, so get the f–k away from the area,” and “Kill the n–ger,” as the children fled, finding refuge in a nearby Burger King restaurant. Later, at 16, he would attack two Vietnamese men, partially blinding one, after attempting to steal beer. Wahlberg, who was initially charged as an adult with attempted murder, would plead guilty to assault. It’s this crime that the actor is trying to have expunged.

Should it be expunged? Sure. Why not? Wahlberg is a perfect example of how anyone, no matter how horrible and seemingly racist, can be reformed. Wahlberg—as far as I know—hasn’t publicly beaten the crap out of anyone while screaming racist slurs in years. (Wahlberg’s last-known violent indiscretion was in 1992, when he beat up his neighbor.)

He never apologized for what he did to black music or how he initially made his fame off gross cultural misappropriation (while, you know, also seemingly not liking black people), but he did apologize for being a teenage drug-addict criminal. He’s never paid any reparations to his victims since becoming wealthy, but hey, he feels sort of bad. And he did his short time—45 days on what was supposed to be a two-year stretch—in prison through our highly flawed, but the only one we have, justice system.

Could a similarly violent young man of color have received the same breaks if he went around high as a kite, terrorizing white people? Hell no. Wahlberg spent only 45 days in prison for half-blinding a man. Black men’s sentences for crimes similar to white men usually are 20 percent longer, and black men and boys who get caught up in the system quickly get the “thug” label and are dehumanized. It’s the rare few that get to do what Wahlberg did: do the crime, do the time, then grow up. It’s the textbook example of white privilege. It’s a highly unfair system, but keeping Wahlberg from making more millions via a criminal record won’t make our justice system any fairer.

There are an estimated 5.85 million people with felony convictions in the United States, and 1 out of every 13 African Americans can’t vote because of a felony conviction. These people, many of whom are black, must be integrated back into society. If they’ve done their time, their punishment must end, not turn into a new shunning.

People with felonies need to be able to find jobs and start new lives in order not to return to the path that got them the felony in the first place. They should have the right to vote. They should have the right to reform themselves. Most people with felonies aren’t Mark Wahlberg, a now-devout Catholic family man shilling burgers on a reality-TV show, but they should get the chance to be Mark Wahlberg. And by “be” Mark Wahlberg, I mean find a way to become productive citizens whether or not they ever apologize for being nightmares.

We have to get away from this idea that people have to be perfect to get second chances. They just have to do their time and pay their debt. This shouldn’t be about, “But what if Mark Wahlberg is still a racist jerk?” Being a racist jerk isn’t illegal. Just as wearing sagging pants isn’t illegal, or listening to really loud rap music in public places. We can’t keep demanding that individuals stay tarnished forever, because otherwise, what’s the point? Why do we bother releasing people from prison if our intention is to create a permanent felon underclass, tainted and untouchable, trapped in a cycle of capture and release?