I read the controversial “Being White in Philly” article from Philadelphia Magazine this week. It’s stirred up a lot of hostile reaction from some Black folks, but I’m pretty sure most of them didn’t actually read it or didn’t need to read it because their vociferous and indignant rage was really just an excuse to score some cheap political points by picking on the white guy who dared to point out the fact that some Black folks steal and some White folks are racist.
I thought about writing a column this week called “Being Black in Georgia” in which I would detail my adventures the past two weeks – being pulled over by the police on my drive home in Atlanta because the make believe brake lights above my license plate weren’t working (my car doesn’t have brake lights above the license plate and neither does yours) and being literally dragged out of a McDonald’s in Savannah because a security guard didn’t like my attitude. That’s not to even speak of my inexplicable inability to hail a cab while in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
And I have a degree. With Latin honors. From a private school.
Thing is, my experience isn’t abnormal or even particularly noteworthy. Just about every Black person in this country can detail a time when we were mistreated or disrespected because of the color of our skin, many within the past two months.
The problem I had with “Being White in Philly” was not that it was racist, but that it seemed to ignore the fundamental blessing of White privilege. There’s been a prevailing sentiment of late that White privilege in America somehow went away because we’ve got a half-Black president that 55 percent of the country likes.
As Chris Rock so perfectly pointed out in his HBO Special “Bigger and Blacker”:
“There’s a White, one-legged busboy in here right now that won’t change places with my black a**. And I’m rich! He’s going, ‘No, man, l don’t wanna switch. l wanna ride this White thing out. See where it takes me.”’
Though, a more perfect illustration of White privilege than a theoretical one-legged busboy is an actress we’ve all come to know and love for her drunk driving, cocaine abuse, club fights and occasional acting: Lindsay Lohan.
Since 2007, Lohan has been arrested four times, had seven probation violations and a total of 12 run-ins with the law. Not only has she been accused, arrested and pled guilty to possession of narcotics and driving under the influence, she has also been arrested for burglary and accused of stealing thousands of dollars worth of merchandise from photo shoots and boutiques on multiple occasions.
For those indiscretions, she has served a grand total of 16 days and a few hours in jail, despite being sentenced to more than 240 days. Here’s a link to the complete list of her legal issues, if you’re interested. She was back in court again this week.
You could write her “good luck” off as part of the cult of celebrity here in the US, but the actress, in truth, is the personification of the perpetual chasm that exists between Black folks and White folks when it comes to our legal system, sentencing and jail time, particularly for crimes that are drug related.
The numbers clearly show that Black defendants and White defendants are far from equal in an American court of law. In Illinois, for example, The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission found that 19 percent of black defendants charged in 2005 were sentenced to prison after being charged with a low-level drug possession felony.
Only 4 percent of white defendants went to prison under the same charges, the group reported in a study released in September 2012.
Nationally, African-Americans make up 15 percent of drug users, but 74 percent of drug offenders sentenced to prison, according to the ACLU (59 percent according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, 45 percent according to Politifact).
Non-Hispanic White people make up 63 percent of the US population; Blacks make up a little over 12 percent but about 39 percent of those in the US Correctional System. Bureau of Justice statistics show that the rate for incarceration for women is nearly three times as high for Black women as it is for White women and people of color make up two-thirds of all people in prison for drug offenses.
Conversely, of the almost 4 million adults on probation as of the end of 2011, 54 percent were White and 31 percent were Black.
The same disparity presents itself when it comes to celebrities and arrests for driving under the influence. From 2006-2010 there were 21 celebrities arrested for DUI. Fourteen were White, four were Black, two were Latino and one was Asian. Only six of the 14 White celebs arrested were sentenced to jail time for their crime and, of those, only two served the full length of their sentences.
All four of the Black celebrities were sentenced to jail time. Two served the full length of their sentences.
So what if Lindsay Lohan were Black?
What if she had achieved the same level of on-screen success as she has – since 2008 she’s appeared in five films, two were made for television, one went straight to DVD, one was the directorial debut of “Slap Chop” pitch man Vince Offer and the other is a soon-to-be released independent movie for which she was reportedly paid $100 a day – and had not been blessed with what comedian Paul Mooney calls “the complexion for the protection?” Would she still be a working actress? Would she even be able to get a job? Would she have served less than three weeks in jail?
“It is clear to me that my life has become completely unmanageable because I am addicted to alcohol and drugs,” Lohan wrote in a statement released to MTV News in 2007.
This week, for her latest violation, which included crashing her car into a dump truck, lying to police and likely being under the influence of alcohol while operating a motor vehicle and being on probation, Lohan once again received an extension to her probation – an additional two years and a required 18 months of psychotherapy.
“This is it,” Los Angeles Superior Judge James Dabney told Lohan during her hearing. “You violate your probation, and we’re not going to have discussions of putting you back on probation.”
But the thing is, we probably will.