A Matter of Privilege

One of the joys of the practical blawgosphere is reading another blogger’s post and, boom, an aspect just clicks, provoking thought and, perhaps, putting an inchoate idea into words. When my buddy Ken White at Popehat triumphantly returned to blogging after the wounds healed from the tragic kiln explosion in Sylvia Plath Hall at Emily Dickinson College, his first post was the traditional STFU message.

One of the most consistent messages I offer here is about interactions with law enforcement, and can be expressed in two words — shut up — although “oh you dumb son of a bitch will you for the love of God shut up” might capture the flavor better.

This isn’t to say that Ken was being repetitive, as it’s a message that needs constant repeating, as new readers constantly find their way to the blawgosphere and, to the extent that anything offered here has the potential to save a life, this is it.

But Ken went on to delve a little deeper into the trade-off of invoking the right to remain silent and the concern that the failure to be cooperative might lead a cop to think you’re guilty of something. Or at the very least, a bad dude.

People ask commonly ask if this advice might lead police to suspect them of wrongdoing, or if it might even lead to their detention or arrest.  Yes, it might.  Life carries difficult choices and risk assessments.  One of those risk assessments is whether, in an interaction with police, it is more dangerous to talk, or more dangerous to shut up.

His explanation for why, along the spectrum of risk assessment, he urges people to choose silence over their natural inclination to try to talk their way out of a situation was the part that struck me:

Today I wanted to note that I recognize that my weighing of risks is colored by privilege.

“Privilege” is a term that’s overused and misused in modern political discourse.  Too often it’s used like a crass “shut up, I win” button in an argument.  But “privilege” is sometimes an apt descriptive term of a human phenomenon:  a person’s evaluation of a situation (like interaction with law enforcement) is colored by his or her own experiences, and those experiences are usually circumscribed by that person’s cultural identity and wealth.

While the phenomenon of assessing situations, and hence reacting to them, based on one’s experience and relative position in the world is well known, Ken’s connecting the concept to “privilege” struck me as a fascinating connection, a word and concept that I hadn’t before put together.

Any criminal defense attorney who has served affluent clients is familiar with this:  such clients often conclude that they are a victim of a conspiracy, or of a “rogue cop” or “loose cannon prosecutor,” because their life experiences lead them to assume that the system can’t possibly treat all people the way they are being treated.  By contrast, clients who have lived in poverty (or clients who are African-American or Latino) tend to recognize outrageous conduct in their case as the system working the way the system typically works — business as usual.

It appears that there are overtones of the “white privilege” view in there, that the life of a white person differs markedly from that of a black person:

The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white individuals may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal. It can be compared to and/or combined with the concept of male privilege.

For that matter, it can similarly be combined with rich privilege, power privilege, or any other privilege that distinguishes people’s sense of worth.  As Ken rightly notes, his advice comes from a person in the position of not only being a fabulously wealthy and beloved white male, but a lawyer as well, which remains a privilege even if not as much of one as it used to be.

The irony of Ken’s caution is that the folks most in need of this advice are the people most likely to be in the position of being the target of police scrutiny.  Thus, those with the least privilege in society are the most likely to be subject to police questioning and the risk of suffering arrest, or at least harassment, for their refusal to answer questions.

While the affluent are miserable at remaining silent, largely because they perceive no threat from the police by virtue of privilege, the poor, the black, the powerless, can’t remain silent because they are the subject of questions so often that the last thing they want is to force the hand of police to arrest them rather than push them around a bit before cutting them loose.

It’s a numbers game: there isn’t enough room in the back of a cruiser to fit the hundred black teens you tossed today, so save it for the one who invoked his right to remain silent.  If there’s a lesson to be taught about respecting authority, it compels a cop to not let some wiseass kid get away with it.  Next thing you know, all the kids will start invoking their constitutional rights, and that would be unacceptable.

Does this undermine Ken’s privilege message? Not at all, because the flip side is that the “first best lie” is the one that puts a kid in prison forever, and that’s a steep price to pay.  But as Ken says, the risk assessment comes from a position of privilege.  Having put that concept together with the advice that people should not talk to police, it makes far more sense why so many people who don’t come from a position of privilege ignore it and try to talk their way out of police interactions.  And so many people who are privileged do as well.

6 comments on “A Matter of Privilege

  1. Bill

    I was glad to see Ken back at first, but as a married man with children, I was sad to hear about the kiln explosion. I suspected he may have been having an affair with Ms Liebowitz but this incident confirms it. In any case, excellent post.

  2. Jim Tyre

    Ken got fired up because it was about 83 degrees here in L.A. yesterday. Might be hotter today.

    Winter? Feh.

  3. william doriss

    You and Ken forgot to mention demographic-geographics. Research shows: Put a privileged white male in a “bad” neighborhood, and sooner or later, he will be arrested (for something). I know wherefore I speak, being the so-called “privileged” white male. Once again, you’re talking about me!
    Did I mention that they put the Bad Cops in the Bad Neighborhoods? It’s like deja voodoo all over again!
    Who woulda thunk? And why would they do that? Hey, I’m a college-educated, privileged feller. Also a bona fide veteran of the armed forces during wartime. I never hurt anyone except the enemy. I can go into any neighborhood I want without fear or trepidation, from any corner. Well not so fast, Mister White Guy wearing the clean clothes and driving the late-model car or Ford F-250 pickup!?! You just wait right here.
    Finally, the cops did NOT interrogate me; neither did the State. Did they do me any favors? They knew by looking that I was not going to “cooperate.” Come to think, I don’t believe the Public Defenders Office interrogated me either. I could be wrong. What they did do was to “coach” me. This is the first time I’ve ever admitted this publicly. I passed the test. I know how to read, write and speak in public with a fair amount of clarity.
    Yea, this is a problem which needs to be addressed over and over again until we get it right. Sex favoritism, or lack thereof, is another related problem. Imagine going to trial without any authority interrogating you? It’s a violation of my Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. First Amendment anyone? It is totally “Kafka-esque.” I told you I went to colege,… actually several. The dark side of the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees your right to remain silent, is that if you should choose to speak on your own behalf, “they” have the right to shut you down [not listen]. The icing on the cake: There’s not a bloody thing you can do about.
    A good posting for those with eyes wide open.

    1. SHG Post author

      Blind squirrel moment: that was an excellent point about good guy/bad neighborhood (and vice versa). Dang. I bet Bonfire of the Vanities was written about you too. Wolf and you are tight, right?

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