Good kids, bad kids: the privilege of legal protection

I grew up on Peaks Island, an island 3 miles off the coast of Portland, Maine. It was a fairly tight-knit community in the winter that swelled over the summer months as tourists and summer folks arrived from all over. During the summer months, we islanders tended to work like crazy serving the tourists. Beginning at age 12, I typically worked (under the table until I was old enough) 2 or more jobs (or one job that didn’t mind it if I put in 60 or 80 hour weeks – of course, there was no overtime pay or benefits). The motivation was the money, of course. However there was also the implicit idea that working and working hard is just what people do.

During the tween and teen years, I didn’t have many active friendships with my island “cousins.” After work many island youth tended to congregate “down front” – island speak for the small commercially-developed area close to the pier. They would eventually move on to doing something else that I would hear about the next day at work. Whatever it was often involved drinking, building a fire on the beach or in woods  and hooking up. I often felt jealous and lonely when I heard about their exploits and I would wonder why it was I was never invited. But then, inevitably, I would recognize that it was because I never hung around long enough to tag along. Instead I went home to the stack of novels I planned to consume that summer. “What is wrong with me,” I would wonder, “that I am not a part of this?”

It was a question that almost anyone on the island could probably answer. I was a goody-goody and a brain. Kids like me didn’t go out drinking, breaking into summer cottages, stealing onto boats to take them for a ride, and having sex on the boulders or in the cabs of the heavy machinery left in the city lot. I don’t recall it even being stated explicitly but the underlying sentiment was that I was a “good” kid who was going off to college and getting out of there and I needed to/would behave appropriately – not like other kids who, in many ways, were already living the lives they would be living as adults.

Imagine my surprise when I got to college and learned that some of my fellow students, had and did engage in many of the behaviors I had been taught to recognize as the mark of people on the other side of the good kid going somewhere/ bad kid going nowhere moral divide. Sex, drugs, theft, violence, exploitation – they were on campus, too.

Like “good” behavior, “hard work” was redefined and demoted on campus. The life of the mind combined with a part-time job always seemed a life of leisure compared to what I came from.  I remembering being shocked when I first encountered students who did not experience their lives as privileged. I often met people who did not need to or want to hold a job and sometimes students failed their classes on account of lack of effort.

In other words, when I got to college I learned that the moral interpretation I had applied to social boundaries was wrong. The primary differences between the “good kids” in college and the “bad kids” back home was that when one of my fellow students drugged and assaulted another student he was expelled without a criminal record instead of serving time, when student parties were getting too crazy and the police were called they would give a polite heads up to the university administration so they could forewarn the students and minimize legal repercussions, and that often when students lied, cheated, destroyed things, and stole they successfully mounted defenses that centered on their true natures as good kids who were otherwise talented individuals with a bright future that would be a shame to waste. Any behavioral problems demonstrated that they were troubled or engaged in some poorly channeled intellectual or physical drives.

The idea that good things (safety, economic security, fame, power, etc) come to good people and that people who have more have it because they earned it by working hard and making smart, moral choices is a convenient story that masks the ways in which, on balance, American society is structured to maintain the existing hierarchies. The criminalization and over-policing of poor and minority Americans is half of the story. The economic, legal, and symbolic benefits bestowed upon privileged people (and that means everyone who benefits – not just the elites) is the other half.

Like many Americans, I am sickened but not surprised by the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. Young black men, other people of color and poor people are abused and exploited in our legal and economic system. What I want to focus on here, however, is the fact that, just as much as Zimmerman’s exoneration demonstrates the ongoing failure of our society to recognize that it is open season on black youth and that many of our laws validate racial discrimination against blacks and other people of color, Zimmerman got away with murder because the system worked the way that it was supposed to – it provided legal protections to someone who symbolically, despite the material evidence to the contrary, is one of the “good guys.”

First, Zimmerman was granted the protection of an advantageous application of the rules: The court decided that the jury should not be instructed about the fact that Florida’s stand your ground statute actually includes a limitation on applicability of the law if it could be argued that Zimmerman provoked Martin.

Second, as much as they likely were racially-biased against Martin, the jury granted “George” the benefit of the doubt as to his status as a good, understandable person whose “heart was in the right place.”

This is not a one-off case. Bias systematically favors the legal claim to self-defense of white people who murder black people and stand your ground laws even increase the rate at which black people are killed with impunity by whites. “In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.

You cannot end discrimination against racial minorities if you do not also end the privilege of the majority.

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One Response to Good kids, bad kids: the privilege of legal protection

  1. Pingback: Sociological Crisis | Vermont 2 China

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