Can We Please Talk About Privilege?

Here’s something I would want to share with my students if I were still teaching high school:


“For two individuals, African American and White, of similar background, with similar characteristics and circumstances, who were booked at Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail from 2014 – 2016:


There was disparity by race in the determination of whether an individual was held with or without bond, with African Americans more likely to be denied release.


There was disparity in the length of time a defendant was held in jail prior to trial, with African American males’ length of stay being double that of White American males


There was disparity between the race of arrestees and the seriousness of the charge, with African American defendants having more serious charges leveled


There was disparity between the race of arrestees and the seriousness of the charge, with African American defendants having a larger number of total charges.”


  • CITY OF CHARLOTTESVILLE AND ALBEMARLE COUNTY, VA DISPROPORTIONATE MINORITY STUDY Final Report January 20, 2020


* * *


The patterns found in this study are typical of what happens across the country. Blacks make up 40% of the incarcerated population in the U.S., but only 13% of the total population. As often reported, that means Blacks are more than three times as likely to be incarcerated as the average U.S. citizen.


However, that’s a gross understatement of the actual level of bias because we need to look at differential treatment, Black v. White, rather than Black v. the national average. Whites make up about 64% of the population but only 39% of the prison population, so they are 40% less likely than average to be incarcerated.


If you compare the two groups, it turns out that blacks are more than six times as likely to be incarcerated as Whites.


This is, no matter whether you ‘believe’ in it or not, structural racism on a major scale: The entire system of policing and criminal justice is set up to incarcerate Black people at six times the rate of White people. There’s no getting around that fact, even if it makes many White people on the political right ‘uncomfortable.’ It also, by the way, makes many Blacks who are suffering in prison considerably less comfortable than their White counterparts!


I thought of this massive disparity as I read news reports about two people who stormed the U.S. Capital on January 6th and are now working their way through the justice system. Let’s take a look.


Trump supporter who stormed Capitol while facing attempted murder charge released into grandfather's custody (Apple News). Matthew Beddingfield (from North Carolina) used a flagpole with an American flag on it to attack police. At a recent hearing, “a Capitol Police officer said Beddingfield used a flagpole to take aim at his genitals.” The report indicates the defendant was one of the leaders of the Jan 6 attack: “Beddingfield, 20, was among the first rioters to rush past the barricades, and … he was on the front lines during battles with police.”


We could ask how a young Black man would have been treated. Would he have been allowed to go home in the first place? (Beddingfield was apprehended later at home after being identified in social media.) Or would he have been met with deadly force? Beddingfield survived the day unscathed and went home to boast about it and to “praise Hitler online.” He is now awaiting trial as a free man in the custody of his grandfather. Isn’t that nice?


Oh, I forgot another interesting fact about this defendant: He was already out on bail, facing an earlier murder charge. It’s unclear to me why anyone facing murder charges gets to galavant about the country in the first place, but here we see structural privilege at work. Would a young black man have been released the first time he faced a serious criminal charge, let alone the second?


Here’s the second case that popped up on my news feed: U.S. wants prison time for rioter who said she would 'absolutely' storm Capitol again (Apple News). Jenny Cudd from Texas won’t be serving much time for her role in the January 6 storming of the Capital. Prosecutors are asking that most of her sentence be served on parole, with only 75 days in prison followed by twelve months of supervised release. Apparently, she gained sympathy because her attorney argued that many of the violent and self-incriminating things she said about the attack were made while she was drinking beer and thus she shouldn’t be held responsible. Wait, she advocated and participated in a violent insurrection and showed no remorse afterward, but because she further incriminated herself while drinking she gets off lightly? Huh.


I forgot to mention that while awaiting sentencing she was allowed to go on an excursion to Mexico. You have to ask how a Black woman would be treated if she had stormed a Federal building, boasted about it online and promised to be “at the next one” too. Would she be released and allowed to leave the country?


The North Carolina study I quoted above also says that, “sentences for African American women were nearly 213 days longer in duration, on average, than sentences for White American women.” Some racial disparities are even more striking for Black women.


Roll back to January 6th, the actual day, and recall the streaming video we all saw of White people attacking the Capital and the police. It was horrible. But think about something else we saw; the part of the day that didn’t seem to shock the nation and thus got far less air time. Those same people were allowed to walk out of the Capital and go home.


That is perhaps the biggest way in which White privilege asserted itself for the January 6 crowd. They were allowed to break through police barriers and the locked doors and windows of a Federal building, attack, trample and abuse police, steal and vandalize, try to catch and hurt (or even hang) elected representatives, and then… Go back home! Many of them have not yet been identified and charged because nobody thought it might be a good idea to coral them on the way out to at least identify them, let alone booking them.


National statistics show that Black people who have any contact with police are at least twice as likely to experience use of police force against them as White people (Prison Policy Initiative, July 7, 2020). Such statistics support the intuitive response of many people of color who, upon seeing that the January 6th attackers were allowed to simply walk out of the building, ask the obvious question: What if this had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters instead?


The Associated Press reported (on August 30, 2021) that BLM protesters “who’ve been sentenced so far have gotten an average of about 27 months behind bars. At least 10 received prison terms of five years or more.” Thousands of protesters were arrested and hundreds received serious sentences, most with more prison time than the January 6th mob. Structural racism is alive and well and working hard to protect the White insurrectionists who attempted to overthrow our democracy last January.


Okay, okay, I know… New state and local rules are making it illegal for a blog such as this one to be read or even mentioned in classrooms across the country. I think that means we as parents have to do the heavy lifting instead. My feeling is that it now falls to us as parents to talk thoughtfully, honestly and accurately about bias and privilege–and about whether we want to see structural racism strengthened, or eliminated, for our children’s generation.


What’s your take?


Alex Hiam teaches creative writing and is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com








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