White Criminals as Celebrities?

There seem to be a number of white criminals in the news just in these last few days, but no mainstream media analysts or politicians are discussing the “problem of white crime” these days.

There is the “image makeover” of the serial murderer, David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”), who killed six people and injured seven others. Now serving a 25-year-to-life sentence, he has attracted numerous, apparently mostly white, friends:

from outside prison who, though they deplore his murderous past, have become friends, acquaintances and in some instances a kind of ad hoc set of assistants. This circle of admirers, to a great degree, is made up of evangelical Christians, including a Town and Village Courts judge in upstate New York and a financial adviser in Manhattan, who have been moved by Mr. Berkowitz’s story of becoming a born-again Christian 23 years ago, and many of them have sought to publicize his account of redemption.

How many people of color put into prisons, including many who are eventually shown to be innocent or become converted, get this kind of attention and favorable public support?

Perhaps the most unusual of these white criminals is the “barefoot burglar,” Colton Harris-Moore, of Washington state. He has been on the run from the police over two years because of numerous burglaries, car, boat, and airplane thefts:

After fleeing a Washington halfway house in 2008, his run from the law took him across the country, including an alleged 1,000-mile flight from Indiana to Florida in a stolen airplane.

As one of our readers (thanks, Benjamin)–who pointed this story out to us—has noted: white privilege is written all over this story. How did he go so long and do so much criminal activity without being discovered? White privilege.

Now he is a celebrity with no fewer than 58,000 fans on his Facebook page. His story is being treated as a “human interest” story by the media and lots of Americans:

Moore’s story has captured the interest of tens of thousands on, many of them now offering encouragement, praise and advice. He’s also got a fan page on the Internet, which sells T-shirts with his face on them and is taking donations for a Colton Harris-Moore defense fund. . . . it’s easy to see why Harris-Moore, a tall, lanky, regular-looking kid, has garnered so much attention. While it’s yet to be seen how he will fare in court, there’s doubtless a book/movie deal in store somewhere down the line.

Apparently, a relative is lining up such a deal now. “Regular-looking kid” also seems to be code for “white kid” in some mainstream media analyses. Youth of color almost never get this kind of treatment. Black and Latino teenagers routinely get picked up and sent away to prison for many years for doing much less in the way of law violations than this young white man.

How often do youth of color get such beneficial mainstream media coverage and widespread sympathy for their exploits and difficult home conditions? Instead, as the experienced legal scholar and prisons specialist Michelle Alexander shows, they have gotten a new institutionalized Jim Crow prison system designed to imprison many youth of color for law violations that many similar white law violators do not even go to prison for.

Anna’s Story: Latino Counter Frames to Racism, and the Importance of Language & Culture

Anna grew up the youngest daughter in of Mexican immigrants who earned a meager living as farmer workers in Burley, Idaho. Who would have imagined she would become a successful attorney in a city like Seattle? Who would have imagined she would win the 2009 King County Bar Association’s Pro Bono award—an award usually reserved for attorneys from the big firms, not for lawyers in solo practice who devote themselves to the area of labor law helping undocumented workers collect wages they are owed? Who would have imagined she would unexpectedly become the legal guardian and new mom of her niece’s three- year-old son because her niece was shot and killed by her husband and the father is in jail?

As Anna recalls the experiences that motivated her to go to law school, she notes they weren’t all pleasant. Her reasons stemmed mostly from witnessing her parent’s being treated terribly. She hated that they weren’t treated fairly when they worked in the fields, whether it was in the sugar beets, the beans, or in the potato fields. Remembering the conditions in the fields made her cry, particularly when she described having to take their own toilet paper because they didn’t have bathrooms, or when the ranchers would give them unfair and illegal rules such as only allowing them fifteen minute lunch breaks. What was worse, she stressed, was that her parent’s would be even stricter by imposing only a ten-minute lunch on her and her family so that the rancher wouldn’t get mad at them for taking lunch at all. Her dad was always particularly cautious when it came to the ranchers or bosses because he didn’t have any power or rights. And that lack of power for her dad is what made her want to go on to law school.

As an undergraduate she told her advising professor that she was interested in going to law school. Her professor told her flat out that she didn’t have what it takes to be a lawyer. Of course, as a Latina from her socio-economic and racialized background, she had heard this kind of “advice” from her teachers before. While it made her angry, she didn’t internalize it. She had stopped doing this a long time ago. Instead she told herself that this political science professor didn’t know what he was talking about. After all, he wasn’t a lawyer. When she was offered an opportunity to attend Gonzaga University’s Summer Pre-law program and her life took off. It was at Gonzaga that she met other Latinas from different regions of the country, all from farm worker backgrounds and they understood each other. They knew the same Mexican musicians, they could speak Spanish, they shared many of the same experiences (including many of the same reasons for wanting to go to law school), they understood the same jokes, and they were all Latinas who were driven and ambitious and wanted to succeed. For the first time in her life, Anna felt comfortable and at peace with others from her culture who were also ambitious and driven.

Windy Field
(Creative Commons License photo credit: crowdive)

However it wasn’t easy. Her first year in law school was a difficult one. She was going through a divorce from a very controlling husband. She was having a lot of health problems from all the stress. In addition, there were family obligations and pressures to contend with during that crucial first year of law school: her oldest brother got into trouble with the law, her other brother became seriously ill with diabetes, her youngest brother’s family life was falling apart, and her mother had to return to Mexico because her aunt had passed away. So she was dealing with all these family pressures and problems and went to the Dean of the law school to see what would happen if she would just drop out that year. When the Dean told her that if she quit, she would not be guaranteed a spot the following year. At the time the doctors weren’t sure of her medical diagnosis, so they couldn’t postpone her final exams on medical grounds, and she knew she would just get further and further behind. She either had to finish the year or quit law school altogether. She decided to make it through her first year final examinations. She recalls that during one final examination she actually just put her head down and started to write her exam and to cry. She wrote the whole exam with her head on her desk while crying. Somehow she passed it. Somehow she passed all her exams that year and she made it through her first year of law school when at times getting to class was all she could handle.

After earning her law degree she returned to Idaho to try to help farm workers, but in many ways she felt she was in a straight jacket. Due to the systemic institutional racism that farm workers lived under, she felt as if all she could do was say, “I can’t help you” in Spanish. She described the story of people coming to her telling her that a brother was in Mexico because the rancher called immigration to avoid paying him, but since the brother was no longer in the country, she couldn’t collect his wages for him. She recalled another example of being powerless to help when a farm worker was injured on the job, because farm workers couldn’t receive workers compensation since farm work was exempt from workers compensation at that time. Frustrated and ready to leave Idaho behind, she was offered a position at the Northwest Justice Project in Seattle and took it. Now in solo practice, she has been practicing law in Seattle ever since.

Although far removed from the suffering she and her family experienced as farm workers, and far removed from many of the obstacles she had to overcome to attend and complete law school, Anna’s story is the story of many Latinos who must balance their lives in American culture by doing what is necessary to succeed, while at the same time, trying not to let the process of success change them in ways that are antithetical to traditional Latino culture and values. Her story highlights that for many first generation Latino professionals, the Latino culture is critical for survival and for success, it is the foundation and the motivation for all that they do. However, it also shows that because Latinos as a group are situated in a disadvantaged position in society, Latino professionals are never too far from the pain and dysfunction found in their communities of origin. It seems there is always a crisis when you come from a poor immigrant family without many rights in society.

Often the economic pressures, the cultural expectations of being available to the family (no matter what the situation may be), the fear of the unknown—many times from the parents’ negative experiences in a racist and unkind society, and the need to become too individualistic or too “Americanized,” make it extremely difficult for Latino professionals. In Latino culture one’s family comes first. La familia is one of the most noble and honored priorities of the culture.

Anna’s story of growing up in a farm worker immigrant household in Idaho to becoming such a successful attorney that won the King County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award, to raising her niece’s three year old son as her own son demonstrates that if you don’t give up, if you are there for the family, if you fight the good fight, then you can become a great success. But it isn’t easy. You have to be strong enough to resist the stereotyping, the questioning, and the racialization you encounter in your new professional role. And at the same time, you have to be available to drop everything you are doing and help out your family or it can be seen as an act of betrayal to your family that you’re not there for them. This is a lot to balance. However, as Anna looks back on her life now, she realizes that part of her is and will always be drawn back to her roots, to her family, and to her culture. She hopes she can instill this cultural strength in her new son as her parents did for her, because in the end her culture is what helped her persevere.

Anna’s story is reflective of many of the stories I heard from the Latinos I interviewed. Her experiences demonstrate not only the white discrimination and opposition her and her family encountered over and over again, but her story is also reflective of the many strategies of resistance Latinos use to confront the racial, class, and gender oppression they experience. Chou and Feagin observe that “among all groups of color, only African Americans have managed to create a strong counterframe and to teach it to successive generations” Yet they discovered in their study of Asian Americans, that communities of color such as Asians are displaying acts of resistance even if they are not direct. Similarly, the Latino respondents in this study are also actively resisting the negative framing of who they are. Often the strategies of resistance to the openly anti-Latino climate in America begin at home. Like Anna’s parents, most of the Latinos in this study came from families who wanted them to lay low and not to make waves. Why: because as an immigrant family, one doesn’t make waves or draw attention to themselves. However, one thing many of the parents insisted upon was that that the respondents learn and speak Spanish at home. Speaking Spanish become a way for them to maintain some sort of semblance of dignity when everything around them told them that they were inferior.

Professor Ron Schmidt understands this well when he writes, “Despite the controversy surrounding English-only debates, the importance of language, identity, and culture go hand-in-hand.” Professor Schmidt argues that language is central to one’s identity; to attack it is to attack the person. He states, “[I]f language, for example, becomes an important marker of ethnic identity, then language policy represents one avenue through which to gain greater public recognition and respect for a particular ethnic community” (p. 53).He is absolutely right. Nearly half of the Latino respondents in this study spoke Spanish as a first language and over thirty percent indicated that they currently speak both English and Spanish within both their family settings and social occasions.

Language and cultural maintenance become heroic acts of resistance on the part of immigrants and their children who often have so few rights.

~ This post is an excerpt from a book manuscript by Dr. Mária Chávez, Assistant Professor, Pacific Lutheran University