White Male Privilege in the US Legal System

Rogue Stone on his way to court (Victoria Pickering, Flickr).

On February 21, Roger Stone, one of Donald Trump’s most trusted confidants of forty years, testified in front of U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson after being brought in for his threatening post about her on social media. While it was not expected of him, Stone took the stand and expressed his remorse to the court over his egregious behavior, offering an apology to the judge while attempting to display some level of sincerity.

I let you down. I let myself down. I let my family down,” Stone told Jackson. “I believe the lapse of judgment was the outgrowth of the extreme stress of the situation.” “I’m being treated for emotional stress,” he continued, “I’m having trouble putting food on the table and paying the rent.”

Given Stone’s well-documented propensity for “dirty tricks,” and the underlying pretentiousness of his comments, Jackson found his testimony not credible. But despite having “serious doubts” whether Stone learned any lesson at all, the judge simply reprimanded him and issued a final warning, deciding not to incarcerate Stone after breaching the terms of the court order.

The outcome of Roger Stone’s hearing is a poignant reminder of the racial and economic privileges afforded to white men within our legal system. Stone was able to violate a partial gag order and publicly threaten a federal judge, then submit an implausible testimony and thus walk out of the courtroom unscathed.

Stone benefited from a system that operates under the presumption of his innocence–provided to him by his identity–which guarantees him a different fate exempt from the detrimental consequences of his actions and that readily extends an opportunity for redemption.

In most U.S. courtrooms, a different outcome awaits Black men, especially those with children to support, and often without the freedoms afforded to Roger Stone.

Over the better part of three years as part of my ethnographic research, I’ve bore witness to the causes and consequences of child support enforcement in the lives of low-income fathers, both inside and outside the courtroom. These men, who are disproportionately affected by the rates of arrest and incarceration in the U.S, face tremendous barriers to employment and housing, while navigating a system that rarely acknowledges their value as parents.

Many of these men struggle to find formal employment that pays a livable wage or an employer willing to give them a chance. Often relying on the assistance of job training programs and temp agencies, some have no choice but to work under the table or do odd jobs to piece together what they can. Some are homeless, others move from couch to couch in the living rooms of friends and family, and a few find cheap rooms to rent just so their children have a place to call home.

Contrary to Roger Stone’s testimony, these are the men who are truly under emotional stress, struggling to support themselves and their children, while under the constant gaze of the state. Despite their financial hardship and the assumptions often placed on them, the majority of these men remain a persistent force and presence in the lives of their children. Yet, because our system only privileges the earning capacity of these individuals, many, if not most, will find themselves “behind the eight ball”–in contempt, before a judge, and facing a real threat of incarceration.

While Stone may have tried to evoke the “decent daddy” image and lay claim to a personal responsibility narrative–similar to the political rhetoric found in U.S. child support legislation–his credibility as a parent was never at stake.

For Black men, and particularly Black fathers, navigating “white space,” or in this case the confines of child support court, often means bearing the burden of the “iconic ghetto,” a concept developed by sociologist Elijah Anderson. Symbolic of “the place where Black people live,” the icon of the ghetto serves as a powerful source of stereotype that hovers over the unknown Black person in public. Here, for the anonymous Black father standing before a child support magistrate, there is no presumption of innocence. Rather, there is an underlying “deficit of credibility.”

In stark contrast to Roger Stone, these men don’t get a “pass” and are rarely afforded the credit they deserve. Instead, they face the uphill and almost insurmountable feat of trying to prove their worth as “good” parents, while attempting to disabuse others of their racialized assumptions.

In the end, many fall short–unable to put together a persuasive demonstration of their moral authority, or more accurately, provide a significant enough sum of money to stay out of jail. But one thing is clear: their “credit” doesn’t extend as far as Roger’s.

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Stephane Andrade

Stephane D. Andrade is a Graduate Policy Fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University and a Ph.D.Candidate in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University.

Comments on “White Male Privilege in the US Legal System

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    This is a powerful truth every black father knows and shares. Moreover, it speaks to a system that invalidates black identity without due process. I can’t wait to read your resulting ethnography.

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