Humiliation, Race, and the Law

Marilyn Rhames, an accomplished educator and blogger on EdWeek, whom I have had the honor of meeting at a Bellwether Better Blogging Conference, has a post up detailing the humiliating experience of getting handcuffed and taken in a squad car to the police station for the heinous and criminal act of . . . wait for it . . . .allowing her driver’s license to expire. And Marilyn, by the way, had been on her way that morning to attend a board meeting of Teachers Who Pray, a group she is the founder of.

Marilyn, in case you haven’t guessed already by such treatment, bears the skin color commonly referred to as “black.”

The ridiculousness and callousness of the situation is captured by the following description from Rhames:

So there I was—the mother of three on her way to a meeting to discuss the success of our recent third annual Teachers Who Pray conference and strategize about how to spiritually support teachers in 2015—in handcuffs and being pushed into the back of a squad car for having a driver’s license that was 22 days expired.

She goes on to say:

Just because I am a teacher I am not better than anybody else. Just because I hold two masters degrees doesn’t mean I am not above the law. But on Saturday, I felt that I was a victim of the law. I felt I was beneath the filthy foot of law, which was pressing against my neck and putting my face in the mud.

And finally, Rhames considers the actions of the black female cop who arrested her and informed her that this was “just following procedure” and “no big deal”:

She could have used discretion, like the cops in the suburbs. But discretion is not for citizens who look like me—educated or non-educated. Discretion mostly applies to people with white privilege, which I am guaranteed never to have.

If Marilyn were white, would she have been treated differently? And if your answer to that is “no,” or “depends,” then consider, if she were not an inhabitant of an area of poverty, but rather a resident in an area of wealth and status, would she have been treated differently?

Was it necessary to arrest her and humiliate her to enforce the law in this case? Wouldn’t simply writing a ticket have served the same purpose? Or, really, just a stern talking-to and directive to renew her license immediately?

Once, long ago, when I was a teenager in San Diego, the cops caught me breaking the law. They looked at my license. “I know someone who lives on this street,” one of the cops said to me. We chatted pleasantly about which house his friend’s was. He handed me back my license, and I got a verbal reprimand. That’s it.

That, my friends, is privilege. The privilege of skin, the socio-economic status of one’s neighborhood, and all the trappings such may bring.