A lot of people are saying that white privilege is rampant within the criminal-justice system. Let me correct that. White privilege is the criminal-justice system. And the recent case involving a privileged college student convicted of sexual assault with a whiny father is just one of many of white men getting the benefit of the doubt after committing horrific crimes.
A 2014 study (pdf) by the American Civil Liberties Union found that, at the federal level, African Americans and Latinos receive sentences that are 20 times longer than whites.
A 2015 study (pdf) by the Sentencing Project found that judges are more likely to give individuals of color longer sentences than whites, even if they have less of a criminal record. It also found that juvenile probation officers, in many cases, view crimes committed by whites as momentary lapses of judgment, or the products of a poor environment. For African Americans, the cause of crime is viewed as being related to poor attitudes or personalities.
But this is not new. These disparities within the criminal-justice system have been around for years.
The recent case involving Brock Turner reminded me of two cases I covered several years ago as a police and courts reporter in upstate New York. Both involved high school seniors accused of doing terrible things just months before they graduated. But the treatment they received from the criminal-justice system was vastly different.
In one case, a white male, who was the son of a prominent businessman, engaged in a group fight involving 20 people. During the fight, which took place in a Wal-Mart parking lot, one of the teens was left badly injured. Surgeons had to remove part of his skull, and he was in a coma for several weeks. In other words, he is lucky to be alive.
Around the same time, a black male, who was also a senior, was arrested after a sexual encounter. He and several other people sexually assaulted an underage girl in Utica, N.Y.
Both seniors reached plea agreements. The black male, by all accounts a good student, was sentenced and taken away in handcuffs by court personnel before sobbing friends and family members. Before he was taken away, the judge in the case urged the young man to get his life on the right track.
The white male? His deal was a tad bit more favorable. As in Joe’s Crab Shack-versus-Long John Silver’s more favorable.
According to news reports, the white male pleaded guilty in November of that year. But the judge in the case allowed the white male the privilege of being sentenced for his crime in June—at the end of his senior year.
What was the white male doing during the time he could have been in jail? Dude was ballin’.
While his case was still being investigated, he was the leading rusher for his high school football team. Then, after receiving what was likely a whopping 10-game suspension following his plea deal, he helped lead his high school’s basketball team to second seed in the playoffs, averaging nearly 12 points per game.
Meanwhile, the young man who sat in a coma for three weeks was continuing his rehabilitation. His father said that his athletic career—he, too, played football—was finished.
On a Saturday in late June, the white male graduated, earning several awards for his athletic prowess. Five days later, he was finally sentenced.
I bring this up not to ridicule the individuals in the case. They aren’t the real problem, which is why I didn’t mention any names (that and the fact that the two young men had youth-offender status, so their cases are not entirely public). I also do not wish to absolve the black male of his crime. When you engage in 20 minutes of stupid “action,” your ass deserves to go to prison.
But the fact is—and it is a fact—white men, particularly white men of privilege, receive something more that people of color do not receive when they enter the criminal-justice system. While the stereotyping of and implicit bias against blackness lead white people (and, frankly, a lot of brown people) to believe that African Americans are out to kill them, this same process of stereotyping leads white people (and, frankly, a lot of brown people) to believe that white Americans, notably those with wealth, deserve the benefit of the doubt. It is probably the greatest form of privilege enjoyed by the majority population.
Even in cases where the victims involved were brutalized, maimed or killed, white privilege normalizes the idea that white men of privilege are capable of being rehabilitated. That such individuals didn’t really mean to do what they did and are really, really sorry. Most disturbingly, the system says that the lives of privileged white males matter more than other lives and that they should be spared the horrors of the criminal-justice system.
That is why Brock Turner can sexually assault an incapacitated woman behind a trash container and get six months in jail—out of concern for his future. That is why a rich white teen with “affluenza” gets 720 days in jail for getting drunk and driving into a group of people, killing four of them. It’s why the son of a small-town mayor outside of Pittsburgh, and three of his friends, can get no jail time even though they yelled racial epithets at a black man, stole his property and watched as another friend threw him onto train tracks, breaking some bones. And that’s why, in a case you never knew existed, a kid from a small town got the same treatment as Turner. You can be certain that in every town and hamlet in the nation, there are hundreds of other cases of privilege that we will never discover.
This is the criminal-justice system as we know it. A system stacked against women and people of color, and designed for the protection of privileged white men. Been that way for years, and will still be that way years from now without a concerted effort to systematically expose and change it.
Letrell Crittenden, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communication at Robert Morris University and a newly elected board member of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation. He studies and writes about issues related to diversity and inclusion within the media industry and community journalism.