“We were always playing on the white man’s court… by the white man’s rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher…wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn’t.”
By Manisha Matthews
Subedited by Jasmine Wing and Yasi Qureshi
This is one of the lessons Obama recalled in his memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, whilst growing up in high school. Is it possible that one of the most renowned Presidents of the United States, who had been sworn in twice to serve a second term due to his unwavering popularity, believed in the existence of white privilege? Lessons, as he goes on to mention in his memoir, such as “any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning,” can make one wonder whether a person of such status, especially for the past 8 years, can be accused of embellishing the truth?
It is no shocking secret that racial stereotypes still exist to this day. Going back through history, racial differences were chiefly established during the height of the slave trade in which justification for arguably one of humanity’s lowest moments was sought after through white supremacy, casting black people as inferior.
From this born ideologies, as portrayed by Fields in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, wherein the black community were believed to be of lower intelligence when compared to their white equals and due to such, were more likely to engage with criminal behaviour. Delgado and and Stefancic stated in their book, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, that too often black people tend to be labelled as “criminals” in contrast to white people, bringing into question whether such ‘ancient ideals’ still affect the present society we live in.
After all, this is the 21st century, in which we stay connected to the outside world through our state of the art touch-screen phones, possess the freedom to explore the other side of the world in just a matter of hours and have discovered so many cures to illnesses that would have taken lives in an instant.
It would seem almost preposterous to assume that a society as advanced as ours, that we take such pride in belonging to, that we enjoy so much of the benefits from, would allow these very ideals to govern us and could be the difference between life and death for those arguably born with such a racial disadvantage.
White privilege and the justice system
However, no amount of scepticism can be held, especially in regards to the more recent, infamous Stanford sexual assault case, (People v. Turner – 2015), which was publicised by every news outlet, making it almost impossible to not see the reality Obama had described whilst growing up. On 18th January 2015, it was reported that two students had intervened after, what later turned out to be, the Stanford student, Brock Turner, sexually penetrating an unconscious and heavily intoxicated 22 year old. He was later convicted, under unanimous decision by the jury, for two felony sexual assault charges and a charge set against him for attempted rape.
These convictions collectively carried a 14 year prison sentence but on 2nd June 2016, the Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge, Aaron Persky, sentenced Turner to six months imprisonment followed by a 3 year probation period in which he only served half his sentenced time.
Persky cited Turner’s age and lack of criminal history as grounds for such a lenient ruling, stating that, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him … I think he will not be a danger to others.”
However, this sparked outrage when compared to a similar case in which the only seemingly significant difference was the man happened to be black. Brian Banks was an American football linebacker but in 2002 was accused of raping a fellow classmate, Wanetta Gibson, who had claimed that he had dragged her into a stairway at Polytechnic High School in which he then proceeded to rape her.
Similar to Brock Turner, he was an athlete, had aspirations, had a spotless criminal record, but instead he received six years from the judge. Despite being even younger than Turner, which was one of the reasons given by Persky for granting such a light sentence, he was not treated differently.
It was only in March 2011 where Banks took matters into his own hands, recorded Gibson’s confession to having lied about her accusation of him raping her, which then aided prosecutors in overturning his conviction on May 24, 2012, already having served 5 years in prison. This shows that the criminal justice system applies almost primitive ideology when deciding cases, paying special attention to that of race.
How many more times does it have to be proven that being black does not automatically push you towards retaining “criminal” behaviour? How are people meant to put faith in the justice system when such severe crimes committed by that of a white man are punished with essentially a ‘slap on the wrist?’ The father of Brock Turner was quoted to say in regards to the guilty verdict, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” However, why should one sympathise with that when Banks served 5 years in prison for a crime he had not spent one second committing.
Furthermore, what does this tell people though? This very case sets precedent for the fact that if you are a middle to upper class, white male that you will not be treated subject to the law. This brings into question the entire criminal justice system if something as prehistoric as a social construct could affect your freedom. A case which we could spend days, and thousands of words debating and depicting. Legal scholar and author, Michelle Alexander begins to exhibit these uncomfortable truths in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
A Netflix documentaries begin to unravel some of the prejudice behaviour happening in America, ‘3 1/2 minutes, 10 bullets the disturbing tail of the death of Jordan Davis. In relation to the past judicial system, Walidah Imarisha states, in Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption, that, in America, ‘the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released slaves. Black people became the prime targets of a developing convict lease system, referred to many as a reincarnation of slavery.’ A notion which is echoed in the Netflix documentary, ’13th’, which explores the “intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States.
Though this may be a rather extreme view to apply to the current state of affairs, it does not seem as if the institutionalised racism that she describes has truly dissipated and the courts will still adopt an unnecessarily unfair attitude when a black person approaches the dock.
Another case that adds fuel to the fire is that of Oscar Pistorius. This involved yet another case involving a star athlete, who gained attention from the media for overcoming the struggle of dealing with his disability and later competed in the Paralympic Games as well as the 2012 Summer Olympics. He was said to have thought there was an intruder in the bathroom and thinking that his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was still in bed fired four shots through the locked bathroom door, of which 3 had hit Steenkamp, killing her in the process. Typically, the minimum prison sentence in South Africa for murder is 15 years but Judge Thokozile Masipa sentenced Pistorius to six years in prison for murder.
This can be said to be another instance in which “white privilege” has been exercised. This man was guilty but served 6 years for murdering someone whereas Banks served 5 years for an empty accusation of rape; he was punished for a crime that he was not even guilty of committing.
White privilege outside the court room – Crime Rates & Police Brutality
Moreover, white privilege exists outside of just the court system. According to Mapping Police Violence, 37% of unarmed people killed in 2015 by police were black despite the black community only making up 13% of the U.S. population.
Furthermore, they went on to state that unarmed black people were killed at 5 times the rate of unarmed white people in 2015. Even more shockingly, the graph representing the level of black and white people that were arrested in 2014 for the various charges set against them. When analysing the first graph, it questions the entire notion of the existence of white privilege as it is clearly evident that those that are white are being arrested on a much grander scale in comparison to those that are black.
However, according to the CIA World Factbook, black people only made up 12.85% of the population in 2014 whereas white people comprised 79.96% of the population within the United States. When calculating the percentage of each community for being arrested for the above same charges, the black community are being arrested at least 16 times the rate at which the white community are being arrested.
These statistics, despite deplorable, should not even come as a surprise given the amount of cases publicised by the media each and every day about the black community suffering at the hands of the police. Charles Kinsey was a therapist who was trying to calm down one of his autistic patients and despite having his hands in the air and declaring to the police he had no weapon, he was shot in the leg.
Two weeks prior to this case, Philando Castile was pulled over by 2 police officers, and despite telling police that he had a license to carry a weapon, the officer deemed him threatening enough to fire multiple shots at him which was witnessed by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter who were still in the car.
A day before this, Alton Sterling was mistaken for another man who had threatened someone with a gun outside of a convenience store which resulted in him being killed due to multiple gunshot wounds found in his chest and back.
The examples are endless… It begs the question that if these people were white, would the same circumstances have befallen them? It is clear that the system currently put in place is severely flawed but what of the cases that go unreported and are never caught out by the media?
The only common trend here is that black people are stereotyped to be “criminals” whereas white people seem to retain a certain behaviour, characteristic of their race, which deems them to be safe. There is no better way to summate the current state of affairs than Fields in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American life, “Everyone has skin colour, but not everyone’s skin colour counts as race, let alone as evidence of criminal conduct.”