BROWN, BLACK, AND WHITE: As we bask in the self-satisfied afterglow of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am reminded of the early brilliance I exhibited in being born white. I understand that since King put an end to racism in the United States, having a pale pigmentation no longer offers quite the leg up it did before he led all his marches nearly 50 years ago. We are no longer immune, for example, to such existential realities as gravity and friction. But pound for pound and ounce for ounce, being born of the Caucasian persuasion remains perhaps the single shrewdest business decision I ever made. Yes, making fun of white people has become a cottage industry among stand-up comedians. And no, not all of us are like Mitt Romney. Even as we are forced to endure the slings and arrows of such cruel stereotypes, white people know they will always get the last laugh. That’s because we live longer. And we make more money, too. When white people are born, it’s not just expected they will succeed; it’s assumed. Given that most of us go through stretches where we couldn’t find our own ass — even with the aid of a GPS — that’s huge.
The other big advantage, it turns out, is that white people don’t break the rules as much as other people. I guess we’re just more honest. How else do you explain the Santa Barbara School District’s revelation this week that Latino males are expelled at twice the rate of their Anglo counterparts and suspended three times as often? For Latina females, the differential is even greater: six to one when it comes to suspensions and four to one with expulsions. In years past, we might have attributed such glaring statistical discrepancies to some insidious form of ethnic profiling. But since Martin Luther King put an end to such vile practices, we know it has to be something else. The School Board is struggling with just what that might be, and I wish them the best of luck. I know I’ve been struck by the same thing. Every time I sit in Judge Brian Hill’s courtroom, I am amazed at how so many of the criminal defendants happen to have brown skin and last names ending with a vowel. I find this coincidence both astonishing and mystifying. The cops, I know, are color-blind. Hell, the chief is a Latino and so are many of his top commanders. I also know Santa Barbara’s prosecutors are color-blind, too. Hell, our District Attorney is such a screaming liberal she used to work for Head Start.
I sure hope the school district figures out how it is that Latino kids are more prone to smoke pot and use drugs — as the disciplinary statistics clearly demonstrate — than their pale-faced peers. Not that I would ever notice such things as skin color, but anyone taking a casual stroll down “Loadie Lane” by Santa Barbara High School would be struck by the statistical over-representation of Anglos among the stoners that congregate under their ubiquitous cloud of smoke. But that must be a statistical anomaly. It must be what they call the exception that proves the rule. It would have been illuminating had the school district presented a similar statistical breakdown tracking which of their students drop out, which ones graduate, and which ones go on to college according to ethnic origin. I have a hunch the same pattern of coincidence would prevail. And while entirely unrelated, I also have a hunch this phenomenon — whatever it is — might help explain the statistical under-representation of Latinos among the waitstaff of Santa Barbara’s more expensive restaurants. But then again, I never did that well in math.
White people, as everybody knows, hate taxes more than just about anything else. And it turns out that we’re paying a lot of these taxes to keep people locked up. It just happens that a lot of the people locked up happen not to be white. Again, not being good with statistics, I don’t know how that happens. In 1980, we had half-a-million people behind bars in the United States. By 2009, it was 2.3 million. And although I am constantly told by law-enforcement officials that hardly anybody is behind bars because of simple drug possession, I am struck by the fact that the explosion of our prison population just happened to coincide with the federal government’s all-out declaration of War on Drugs.
Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State law professor who just wrote a book, The New Jim Crow, stated that if the United States were to return to the pre–War on Drugs rate of incarceration, we’d have to release 80 percent of the people behind bars. When you calculate the $50,000 a year it takes to lock someone up, that’s a lot of taxes for white people to be mad about. Likewise, Alexander estimated if we returned to the pre-War number of prison employees, about a million people would be out of work.
Much has been written on how the get-tough-on-crime laws have had a disproportionate impact on Latinos and African Americans. How was it, people asked, that the sentence for using crack cocaine — an inner-city drug — was so much more severe than using cocaine — a more suburban recreational escape? The politicians pushing such laws have explained they were seeking only to protect populations most victimized by crime and drug addiction. That may be. But when you consider that in California, Latinos are incarcerated at twice the rate as Anglos, and African Americans eight times as often as that, then maybe the cure is out of control. Or maybe that’s just another statistical coincidence I don’t understand.
In the meantime, I’m not saying Martin Luther King Day is a sham holiday. But I’m really curious why it is we never hear about any Martin Luther King Day sales.