What If You Were Branded Your Whole Life By Your Single Worst Act?


I’m whiter than a whale’s tooth. Can’t do much about it. Not that I’m complaining. As a middle aged caucasian male I’ve been the beneficiary of just about every privilege society can bestow.

I’m probably unqualified to offer much in terms of the recent events surrounding the SAE chapter at OU.  But since good judgment has never been my guidepost, here goes anyway.

My initial reaction was probably not unlike most people. I was disgusted and I thought President Boren handled it in an appropriate manner.

We have a serious black and white issue in this country that isn’t so black and white. As a white male I want to fit the entire spectrum of the racial divide into a tidy package. I want a villain. Someone about whom I can say isn’t at all like me. David Duke. Paula Deen. Parker Rice. I would never chant the “n word” on a bus full of coeds.

But Parker Rice and Paula Deen and every other Neanderthal spewing racial epithets aren’t the characters of racism. They are the caricatures of racism. It’s easy to distance ourselves from these people.

Individual racism isn’t the real problem; institutional racism is. We have disproportionately segregated almost an entire population of minorities through the prison system. It’s modern day slavery.

Look at the numbers. A black defendant is 22 times more likely to be convicted and given a death sentence than a white defendant. One in three black males born today will spend time in prison. If Hispanic and African American men were incarcerated at the same rate as whites the prison population would drop by 50%. In urban areas, upwards of 60 % of the adult black males are in prison. Sixty percent. Five times as many whites use drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites.

We shake our heads and voice fleeting outrage at the individuals who embarrass us and our race of privilege. And we wait for Hollywood to make a quick Sandra Bullock movie about saving a black boy from the clutches of poverty and sending him to the NFL so we can pat ourselves on the back for our collective beneficence.

We decry the stupidity of a racial slur but we give tacit approval to widespread discriminatory incarceration without so much as a thought. But they’re criminals, you say.

And you’re partly right. Our prisons are full of drug dealers, murderers, rapists, thieves and thugs. But they’re also full of sons, fathers, hard workers, artists, potential scientists and social workers, mistake makers.

What if you were branded your whole life by your single worst act? I shudder to think, especially when I consider all of the stupid shit I’ve said and done. What if I were always branded as a liar? Or a cheater? I haven’t always been known for having the best judgment. Suffice it to say, I’m a big fan of second (and third and fourth) chances.

If a young black man goes to prison for selling drugs, should he have to wear that label the rest of his life? How about the time you drove home drunk? Sure you made it home safely but shouldn’t that act of stupidity define you? Of course not. In either instance.

Worse yet, what if I was defined by the actions of others just because I was “one of them”? What if I was always a suspect because of the color of my skin? And what if I was labelled  a racist because someone in my fraternity said something inflammatory? Sound familiar? I know that some, perhaps many, of the kids in the SAE house don’t share the same views on race as Parker Rice.

The older I get the less I see things in black and white. As much as we want tidy labels, there just aren’t any. Will a young black boy who killed someone at age 15 get discarded without any chance at rehabilitation? Has a college freshman ruined his life because he sang a vile song?

I hope not. For their sake….and ours.