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White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.
Newport Beach in Orange County, California. (Photo: WPPilot/Wikimedia Commons)

Newport Beach in Orange County, California. (Photo: WPPilot/Wikimedia Commons)

The conversations I’ve been watching unfold about race in my social networks in the wake of the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner have me thinking about my teen years in Southern California, and Orange County in particular.

I don’t identify as conservative, but having studied and written a book about conservative evangelicals, and having grown up white in the suburbs of Southern California, I have quite a few conservative friends and acquaintances. In the comment threads in their networks, I am repeatedly seeing sentiments like the following:

Officer Wilson is a decent citizen who risked his life daily in the care of his fellow man. Michael Brown was a thug who attacked his fellow man. We should celebrate people like MLK, Rosa Parks, and Officer Wilson. We should repudiate thugs like Michael Brown.

Now, as a professor who teaches race, religion, and social movements in American politics, it’s easy enough to decode the chains of association operating in such statements. Humans have always used binaries, black-and-white oppositions, to mentally simplify complex realities. It’s easier to decipher the swift loss of life and the lack of even a trial in the Wilson case if one can align one’s own perspective with clean justice and another’s with base criminality. This writer, by affiliating his stance with now-lionized civil rights heroes like King and Parks, distances himself from the racist implications of calling Brown a “thug”—a term that increasingly, for whites, associates a certain kind of criminality with blackness. The officer’s disproportionate power and responsibility, and the age and unarmed status of Brown, are rendered moot. Through such rhetorical mechanisms, people wield race-loaded language while insisting Ferguson-like scenarios are entirely race-neutral.

None of this is particularly surprising in a nation whose majority has always needed to believe its justice system is difference-blind. To contend with competing information is to disrupt a cherished conviction and potentially destabilize a worldview.

Amnesia enables those of us most insulated from injustice to judge people in communities with very different, and unequal, experiences before the law.

Nonetheless, when I see this stuff in the threads of my friends raised in wealthy communities that were racially isolated in the extreme—places like Newport Beach where I spent most of my teens, or Manhattan Beach where I graduated high school—I can’t help but remember how people like us (white, privileged, and often deeply parochial) navigated the law when we were teenagers.

I WAS AN ’80S teen, but if shows like The O.C. carry even the slightest hint of truth, subsequent decades weren’t much different. When we threw enormous parties in our friends’ homes, unbeknownst to their out-of-town parents, and the cops came to bust them, we weren’t thinking about how these officers of the law were taking care of their “fellow man.” We were good kids, bound for college, upwardly mobile. But we were also breaking laws: defying noise ordinances, drinking, using drugs, sometimes damaging property, often driving while intoxicated when we headed to the next party—not to mention the minor stuff like tagging the fence around the community pool with the names of your favorite bands, or breaking into the golf course at night. When we encountered cops, especially as they herded us out of house parties, we muttered all the same nasty things about the “pigs” that Americans kids who can get away with it say. But we never expected to go to jail for it, unless things got really flagrant. Why? Because no one ever did.

You know what was easier for a teen to get her hands on than a six-pack of beer in Newport Beach in the mid-1980s? Cocaine. Half the time people just skimmed it off the top of their parents’ stash in the freezer, which was easier than trying to coax some stranger to buy beer. While just a few miles away the crack epidemic was enabling the Reagan-era Drug Enforcement Agency and police apparatus to effectively relocate whole swaths of the black community from the inner cities to prison under harsh drug sentencing laws, teens in Newport snorted coke from their BMWs and Jettas, barely looking over their shoulders.

I can only remember one young person I knew getting busted for illegal activities, and he was a successful dealer who got a little too tight with his product. His parents got him into rehab. But awhile back a friend on Facebook forwarded the mug shot of an old friend of mine: the lone half-black person we knew ended up in jail.

I’m not saying all kids in my era or in wealthy communities then or now are spoiled lawbreakers, or even that everyone used substances. Some certainly refrained, though sadly in the Newport Beach of my youth it was almost an outcast minority.

Nor is the fleeting rebellion of wealthy white teens the point; adults, too, could depend on the law when they needed it and ignore it in the face of other imperatives. One high school friend’s sixty-something year-old mother was dealing cocaine, pills, and pot literally from her closet, stashed between her Chanel suits and Neiman Marcus shoes. She wasn’t selling to us (she didn’t think we knew, but how else do 15-year-olds who never leave Newport end up with a bindle of uncut cocaine?), but her tidy suburban reality provided cover for a lucrative illegal enterprise.

Jordan Belfort, the wolf of Wall Street—who today is a member of the same Manhattan Beach tennis club my parents belong to—exemplifies a difference in scale, not in kind. That he occupies a house on the Strand rather than a prison cell says a lot about how the privileged can navigate the justice system.

In the end, we didn’t have much to fear, even if we did get in trouble, because we weren’t considered criminal from the outset. But the exact same or even milder behavior from a black or Latino kid is often read as evidence of moral failings—and such tagging of him or her retroactively validates any punishment meted out by law enforcement for minor or even merely imaginary infractions.

What worries me is the forgetting that lurks beneath the binaries through which some dismiss Ferguson and other sites of contestation about inequality in our legal and policing systems. Amnesia enables those of us most insulated from injustice to judge people in communities with very different, and unequal, experiences before the law. The Twitter conversation #crimingwhilewhite has sought to disrupt such amnesia in the broader culture, as whites share stories of law-breaking they shouldn’t have gotten away with.

Members of all socioeconomic groups sometimes break rules, violate laws, and challenge authority. When wealth, status, and race provide you all benefit of the doubt and due process in most cases, it is worth remembering that key distinction before weighing in on someone else’s reality.