Today I’m going to discuss the concept of “white privilege” as it pertains to the criminology concepts of “labeling theory” and “strain theory.” But first, I’m going to give some brief adulation to the Normandy Police Department. Normandy, MO is the St. Louis County Municipality immediately south of Ferguson, Mo. Over the weekend Normandy officers talked a black male with a gun to his own head into voluntarily surrendering without any need for force. The officers involved in this case showed heroic restraint and care which saved a man’s life. Of course, you won’t read about this incident in the news and the media should be ashamed of themselves.
Anyway, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to define the following as:
White Privilege – The notion that current day white Americans are granted beneficial status due to deliberate disadvantages levied against minorities, and specifically African Americans. Slavery gave way to reconstruction era prejudice and Jim Crow laws. The ramifications of these actions are theorized still to be taking place today whether perceived or not by white Americans. White Privilege is differentiated from terms like “Institutional Racism” because White Privilege associates racism with an inherent benefit based upon skin color toward all white Americans.
Labeling Theory – Is the sociological / criminological theory that, with enough repetition and authority, one begins to characterize oneself according to a specific title and their perception of the roles associated with that title. For example, as a teacher if I repeatedly call a school child stupid regardless of their intelligence, labeling theory would indicate that the child would begin to express characteristics of a stupid child. The term is frequently used in corrections discussions in reference to labeling criminal convicts as “criminal,” “felon,” or “ex-con” and the belief that such titles will create a self-fulfilling prophecy of recidivism.
Strain Theory – Is the criminological theory that stress and perceived injustice drives individuals toward criminal behavior either as a way of acting out or as a last resort when all perceived modes of survival are exhausted.
Personally, I don’t find fault with the notion of institutional / traditional / historical racism. The United States has a shameful history as it pertains to the treatment of minorities and we have made great strides toward correcting the actions of our ancestral countrymen. What I find fault with is the notion that all whites benefit from the hardship, financial or otherwise, of our black brothers and sisters.
In modern times, the discussion of White Privilege largely revolves around poverty and income inequality. The problem with this discussion is that both concepts (poverty and income inequality) are prevalent in white America, even if that prevalence is disproportionate. My argument is that Institutional Racism, or perhaps more aptly put, the ramifications of Institutional Racism, can be argued to be valid even if the notion of White Privilege is not in my opinion. This phenomenon is evidenced by the notion that poverty is a widespread problem in all demographics.
Just because one group is disproportionately impoverished because of racism, doesn’t mean that another group has to be benefiting from their plight. This is not a zero-sum game where everyone in a group benefits from financial policy or no one benefits. I’ve discussed some of the problems associated with arguing measures of disproportionate statistics before. In the case of income, significant outliers who are admittedly stereotypically older white males, skew averages to make all whites seem like they’re doing much better off than they would without the top 1% to artificially inflate the stats.
Furthermore, poverty is a deep seeded problem that can take generations to overcome and generational hardship is also not simply a concept facing minorities. I worked in a small town when I first got out of the academy. Like many predominantly white small towns in Missouri, our citizens had a significant meth problem. This problem manifested in a number of ways but one of the most common was as follows:
Predatory white meth cooks in their late twenties / early thirties start dating sixteen / seventeen year-old girls who become addicted / reliant on their drug dealer boyfriend. Eventually they would become pregnant and subsequently give birth to little girls who in turn start dating meth cooks in their late twenties / thirties which is culturally acceptable because their mothers and their mother’s mother and so on engaged in the same activity. This was the common story of the trailer park and a self perpetuating cycle of drug use, domestic violence, child abuse (physical and sexual), and seemingly inescapable of poverty.
Of course, there were exceptions, but there are exceptions to every general statement and exceptions are hardly representative.
I bring up inescapable poverty as a means of segueing into a discussion of strain theory. The existence of strain theory (defined above) as a perception and use of justification for committing criminal acts is hard to argue against. Furthermore, it extends the conversation to personal hardship, which can include far more than racism. Can Institutional Racism be a significant factor contributing to one’s personal strain? Of course. However, just because racism is a significant factor of strain for one does not mean that those individuals not encountering racism are not facing strain of their own. Furthermore, one could encounter racism, while other environmental and situational strains could factor more heavily into one’s decision to commit criminal acts.
For example, if I’m a poor black man living in a racist town, but my daughter comes down with cancer, trying to provide for my ailing flesh-and-blood will be a much greater source of strain than getting hassled by racist police or called racial epithets. It could be argued that the impact of racism encountered while attempting to deal with the strain of the sick child would be greatly multiplied. However, the source of the multiplier, the source of predominant strain in this case would still be the sick child more so than racism even if it obviously contributes.
It should be noted that I’m not trying to pretend that these incidents of racism are acceptable or even that these incidents are representative of all discriminatory acts, but merely that encountered racism can rank behind other more important life events. Clearly there are also racist actions that would rank above what I’ve used in this example. However, if this discussion simply becomes a discussion of how bad things can get, then at some point we’re simply debating outliers and not representative or common occurences.
I bring up Strain Theory not because I think it is a term interchangeable with White Privilege but because Strain Theory helps to explain criminality which perpetuates poverty. At its heart, I think poverty is the clear underlying discussion in White Privilege. Personally I think addressing income inequality (which by the way is NOT a zero sum argument for socialism) would go a long way toward helping to reduce strain and thus criminality. However, an important factor of strain theory is the acknowledgment of individual responsibility for committing crimes even if that crime can be argued by the individual to be justified or necessary due to strain. The argument in Strain Theory does not revolve around disproportionate police/prosecutorial/judicial action and statistics, which only implies fault on the part of the system (and not the individual) when statistically cited on its own. However, Strain Theory allows for a more objective discussion that acknowledges that everyone has a part to play and contribution to the big picture. The sum of these parts is strain.