The first and only time I was stopped by police for drinking I was astonished. I was 25 years old, a month into my first year of graduate school at the University of Oregon. It was Halloween, and two friends and I were walking from one very not rowdy party to another, a few blocks away in a student neighborhood. We’d only had a few drinks when we left, but enough that I was absolutely sure that we could carry our beer bottles down the street. A pair of cops walking down the street stopped us. I remain certain that if it’d just been the one young man, who told me he, too, was from Idaho, like my license said, he’d have let me go with a warning. But he was with his partner, and I was with my non-Idaho friends, and we received citations for open container violations. We were white woman, it deserves saying. To attend our court date, a month later, we had to skip our first year seminar. Our excuses were poor.
The court was packed with others who’d received citations that Halloween night. But there were also others, there for other misdemeanor offenses, including a Latino man who’d been brought in for failure to pay a fine. The judge asked him if he was ready to pay, lest he be taken to jail. He assured the judge that he had to cash, but could pay. From beneath his shirt, he produced a matsutake mushroom. “There’s more where that came from,” he said. The judge sentenced him to 10 days in jail and increased his fine.
I felt shame during the 30-seconds when I had to stand in front of the judge, but I didn’t even have to plead guilty, at least not technically. It was a citation. I acknowledged that I had committed the action and paid the $40 fee. But I also remember the certainty that the citation, however embarrassing, would not harm me. It would become a party story, which it did — not a mark on my reputation. It was survivable because it was the first, and it was the first not because I was a model citizen, but because so much of my previous behavior had been exempted — because of my class and skin color and educational situation — from the discipline and surveillance that afflict those without my particular position in society.
I was reminded of this while reading political science/sociology professor Vesla Mae Weave’s recent piece in Vox, “The Kavanaugh hearings show who we afford a second chance and who we don’t.”
“If the accusations against Kavanaugh are true,” Weave writes, “they provide an extreme example of someone ascending to the peak of their professional career, having evaded punishment for serious criminal offenses and predatory behavior toward women. But the extreme example actually rests on a more pervasive phenomenon — namely, the under-enforcement of the criminal law against some groups of offenders.
We tend to think the criminal justice system contains few errors of this sort, that those who engage in a pattern of serious lawbreaking come to heel. But there is a large share of Americans who break the law and instead encounter “maximum tolerance.”
Studies document that while affluent white youth are just as likely to possess and use drugs as their poorer counterparts, they are much less likely to be locked up. They enjoy not just freedom from police interference of minor transgressions, but what I would term a kind of super freedom — the rational expectation of no adjudication even when they commit serious, violent, assaultive behavior. They live in spaces, attend schools, and play on streets largely walled off from police.”
In high school, my upper middle class background did not afford me the privileges of maximum tolerance — in that matter, class mattered less than your skill at football. I didn’t drink for many reasons, including the fear of an MIC (Minor in Consumption) or MIP (Minor in Possession). But college, at a small liberal arts institution nestled in the wheat fields of Washington State, was an entirely different story. On and off campus, we drank with the understanding of absolute impunity. On campus, the college, understanding that what they banned they could not then control, allowed all drinking in the dorms (save kegs), so long as the door was closed. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad policy — in effectively legalizing alcohol on campus, they decreased the sort of incredibly dangerous drinking (shot after shot after shot after shot) that often accompanies full bans, and also made it easier and safer for roommates and dorm heads to seek help for those who’d drunk too much.
The same policy essentially extended off campus. Like many exclusive, well-endowed, liberal arts college in small towns, Whitman has purchased much of the area immediately surrounding the college. They owned three of the four fraternity houses, and many of the houses that had become de facto party houses for the sororities (which, as the result of anti-brothel laws, had never been allowed to have houses; sorority women lived in a section of the sorority dorm for their sophomore year, generally went abroad junior year, and then lived very slightly off campus, for their senior year. My senior year house, The Barn, had been a sorority house for at least two decades by the time I moved in, passed down from one class of seniors to the next, with the expectation that it would also be the home base for sorority functions.
That home was also Whitman owned and maintained, and each of my three roommates and I paid $300 a month, full utilities included, to live a block from campus. Like the fraternities and all the other nearby student off-campus housing, Whitman owned or not, we also enjoyed an unofficial understanding with the local police. Occasionally, they’d show up and tell everyone to go inside. But they never issued citations. Never confiscated a keg. Never were mean or rough or aggressive. They were the off-campus extension of the on-campus police, who were so helpful and protective of us that my primary memory of them is after the Beer Mile — a tradition, the day before Spring Finals, in which students ran four laps around the college green, chugging a beer in-between, in various levels of undress — offering me a towel to shield my nearly nude body after I finished.
We walked where we wanted to walk, beers in hand, without consequence. On “away” weekends to nearby vacation spots, we did the same. The cops showed up to one of these weekends in Central Oregon, at a resort packed with drunken underage students, and my friend and I hid in a bed and pretended to be asleep. They questioned us. We said we’d just gotten in from a Lacrosse tournament. They didn’t issue a single citation.
There’s another conversation to have about the sort of behavior, especially towards women, as normal during that time. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and talking with my still very much best friends from that time: about the lines that were blurred, about what it meant to sit on the literal bleachers at the frat house and wait and watch while men played pong. And we joke about how we acted with impunity. But never talked seriously about what afforded it: Whitman’s knowledge that blemishes on students’ permanent records would make them less likely to succeed. Less likely to become the sort of alumni so crucial to the school’s success. And our parents less likely to recommend the schools to their friends, or to send subsequent children Whitman’s way. I’ll say it more clearly: Lack of specific, and consequence-driven, policing is part of what has long allowed my college, and dozens like it, to thrive.
In her essay, Weave points to a 2014 study affluent whites from the affluent whites, finding that just under two-thirds had “committed an offense that should have triggered an arrest.” But only 22% were picked up for their crimes, and far fewer actually went to court. “Under-enforcement conveys a powerful lesson to youth in their formative years: Even as assailants, white youth they know they are viewed and regarded as upstanding, law-abiding, and good boys who just had a little fun,” Weave writes. “They imbibe the lesson that our legal system and culture is willing to give them a pass.”
And here’s the kicker: “Because most youth ‘age out’ of criminal offending, this group has probably avoided punishment and adjudication for the rest of their lives. Without criminal or arrest records, they will go on to enjoy entrance to college, obtain promising employment, and earn access to credit all without the worry of being encumbered by their past,” Weave explains. “The rhetoric on the right around the Kavanaugh allegations represents a large group whose crimes are disconnected from punishment.”
Over the last thirty years, Whitman has endeavored to increase its diversity population. But there was a reason we were nicknamed “White-Man College.” The vast majority of my friends came from privileged backgrounds, either in terms of private schooling or class background. We did not experience consequences for actions that would result in jail time, permanent records, or fines. Our position — within the college, within the landscape of the town — inoculated us from ramifications of our actions.
The Kavanaugh hearings have brought up, elucidated, and obfuscated so much. Apart from the incredibly high bar for what it takes to be believed — something I wrote about last week — the continued conversations and revelations about Kavanaugh’s behavior have served to illuminate something that privileged white kids, including myself, have to this point internalized so thoroughly as to ignore entirely. There was, and is, a different standard for our behavior — one that facilitates our effortless and unquestioned rise to positions of power and continued privilege.
I say and write about this a lot, and I will keep writing about it until it makes sense to all of us: the current status quo in America relies on widespread faith in the ideology of the American Dream, which posits that everyone is capable of achieving greatness and success, that the deck is not stacked in favor of those who are wealthy or educated or white, and that an inability to rise above one’s circumstances is not indicative of systemic racism and class stratification, but moral weakness or laziness. That ideology thrives when we erase, elide, or ignore the machinations — like what Kavanaugh, myself, and truly millions of others have ignored — that insulate certain (racially and economically determined) classes of people from consequences while damning others to them.
I’m not necessarily saying that what we did should’ve been prosecuted. The fucked up thing is that what we did, and offenses far less grave, were absolutely prosecuted when moved out of our particular milieu. Others’ lives were derailed, and continue to be derailed, for things my friends and I did every weekend, and joked about afterwards. Some people sneer at the invocation of the word “white privilege” but that contrast is definitional.
Regardless of what happens to Kavanaugh this week, remember that he achieved his current appointment on the US Court of Appeals because of that insulation. You may or may not have enjoyed similar insulation. But again: this past week has been about many, many things. One of them is how a man like Kavanaugh has come to believe himself outside the legal system of whose judgment he has been immune to for the entirety of his life.
Some things I wrote this week:
The most immediate and raw response to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony
Can an unknown (feminist!) white guy from Montana be a viable candidate in 2020?
A few things I read and loved/felt infuriated by this week:
Long Live Jane the Virgin
How to Talk to the Women in Your Life Right Now
From my friend Lili Loofbourow, still one of the best things written on the specifics of the Kavanaugh allegations
This week’s “trust me on this one.”
If you know someone who’d like this sort of mishmash in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. Please excuse typos and weird sentences; relative imperfection is what makes it possible to send this to you every week. Keep fighting the good fight and remember I’m doing my best every day to be there with you.