May 29, 2020

I am the beneficiary of white privilege

In 1994 I was a junior in High School working at a local sporting goods store. I had been there for a few months when I was promoted to supervisor — woot, a big deal! An extra $.75 an hour (to $5 / hour y’all). Leadership responsibilities. An extra break (no doubt to go out in the parking lot to listen to something on the new CD player I’d just installed in my car). More flexibility on my schedule.

And access to the store “merchandise credit” slips.

Well before the internet came to dominate our lives and the digitization of everything, when you returned something to a store you would get a slip of paper called a merchandise credit. They were stored in a trapper keeper and when I needed to take a return from a customer, I’d pull this magnificent binder out from under the desk, fill it out for whatever the value was, get my boss to sign it, and hand it over to the customer. No digital refund. No email with a dollar voucher. This was old school.

One January day I made a *really* bad decision. I took one of the merchandise credit slips, put $50 in the dollar amount field, and signed my boss’ name to the slip. I had just materialized $50 out of thin air.

At the time I lived in Gwinnett county, a suburb outside of Atlanta. If felt like the whitest county on earth (and it probably was though it has since morphed into one of the more diverse counties in metro ATL). The store I worked at was a chain and naturally I couldn’t use my $50 in invented money at the store I worked at. So I found the closest one to me — a store in Stone Mountain, GA in Dekalb county. A 20 minute drive closer to the city from where I lived, Stone Mountain was (and is) a diverse town. The county as a whole is 55% African American now and is home to one of the most diverse cities in the world (Clarkston, GA).

I say all this to mean that I was a white boy venturing into the city to commit a crime.

I walked into the store to use my voucher to buy golf balls. Yes. GOLF BALLS. When I do dumb shit, I go alllll in on it. As luck would have it, I handed my voucher to the store manager who immediately sniffed out that I was trying to pull a scam. She called the police. The officer, an African American, treated me like a son. He knew I was terrified. He also knew this 17 year old white boy from the burbs was getting carted down to Dekalb County jail, not exactly the friendliest of places.

This is the first part of where white privilege benefitted me in this story. He was kind to me. He let me walk out to my car to lock it up. He even tried to convince me to *not* talk about what I’d done lest I implicate myself (which I kept talking and I did implicate myself). I was not smashed against a car. I was not beaten or brutalized. I was gently placed into the back of a squad card and escorted to the jail. He gave me kind of the pep talk — he explained that we do dumb things and we shouldn’t let them define us. I remember wondering if he could give a similar pep talk to my mom.

My time in Dekalb county jail is a story for another time (36 hours in a holding area meant for 30 people holding about 130 people ain't no joke y'all). I was charged with a felony (forgery. Welp). A felony ain't exactly the sort of thing you can stroll into the magistrate's office and plead out. And since I was 17, I was charged as an adult. Shit was real. This would lead to the second instance of where my white privilege would come into play.

My family didn’t have a lot of money. We weren’t poor but weren’t exactly flush with cash. And we did not have the kind of money needed to defend my dumbass in Dekalb superior court. At the time, my mom worked as a secretary for an insurance firm. She related to her boss the story of yet another of her dumb kids getting into trouble. He offered to put her in touch with his law firm. A white shoe firm in Buckhead up on the 30th or 40th or whatever floor. We had been given access to an attorney we had no business having access to. And most certainly could not afford.

When we met with this attorney, he was very clear: for the offense in question, the DA would most certainly ask for “boot camp” over the summer and a weekend or two in jail. When I heard this I about fell to the floor. I have no idea if boot camp is still a way of disciplining teenagers who run afoul of the law, but back in the early 90s I vividly remember seeing stories about miscreant youth having to do boot camp. I was terrified.

Fast forward to my appearance before the judge. Our attorney had helped us round up letters of recommendation from teachers, neighbors, even the boss whose signature I had forged. All saying the same thing: TJ is a good kid who did something really dumb. The judge decided to let me off easy. I was given probation and community service.

The question I’ve asked myself a million times is what would have happened if I were black? Would the police officer have been as kind to me? Would I have been able to get such a good attorney? Would I have been let off easier than most under similar charges?

If I were black the outcome would have almost certainly been different. Perhaps the police officer would not have been so polite or the fancy baller attorney so helpful or the judge so forgiving.

I wish I knew how to fix this. But I know that step one for White America is to admit and confront that our lives are easier because of the color of our skin. That systemic racism exists and affords us benefits and opportunities not afforded to our black and brown brothers and sisters. We must first acknowledge this to start down the path of truly healing this division.