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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Legal Racial Inequity and the Sociology Department at UVa: thoughts from an uneducated, uncultured child

[Correction--this view I'm arguing against was only one of several presented in a UVA sociology class, and does NOT actually represent the view of the professor or the department]

If I am not mistaken, the argument presented to me follows this train of thought: when a white middle class juvenile and an innercity black youth commit the same crime, a harsh punishment will ruin the white teen's chances at college and any white collar job he aims towards. The black youth, who in all likelihood will not take a white collar job, will not receive the same career ostracism. The punishment for the black boy lasts only the duration of the punishment; it would ruin the white boy's entire life. Thus, it is not wrong for a judge to prescribe a different, lighter punishment for the white boy than for the black boy to protect his future. This idea, when first presented to me, bore a progressive, attractive-sounding name, and apparently it is espoused by the sociology department at the University of Virginia as contrasting with the stiff, backwards interpretation of equal law for all people.

In actuality, the “progressive” idea of adjusting punishments to career potential dates back to the ancient world. The Greeks and the Chinese both subscribed to punishment adjustment for social class, and, often, for race. Not until the Christian Paul of Tarsus did anyone pen an idea as revolutionary as, “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” and not until the apostle James did someone say there should be no favoritism in treatment based on social class. Both men supported the Hebrew legal belief in an unchanging Law dictating every situation, and the idea permeated Western civilization from their writings.

The different-punishment for different-people system stands, proudly and boisterously, on a weak humanist foundation of assumption. Statistically, the middle-class white youth does have a higher probability of achieving a successful white collar job than the inner city black kid, and studies do show that the environment in which the child grew up will affect his career possibilities. However, although the statistics support the statement, “he will probably grow up like such and such,” scientifically they prove nothing about the particular individual and certainly do not predict his future until someone produces an experimental study providing causation, not correlation, of race and ability. Barring the invention of a time machine, the assumption that this particular child will follow in the footsteps of others like him is not only unfounded, but an attempt on the part of the judge or sociologist to take upon himself the dangerous and blasphemous occupation of a divine prophet.

The prediction-assumption does not merely provide a weak foundation for a theory, nor is its only crime blasphemy. Ideas have power, and the supporting idea that a black inner-city child will probably not achieve as much quickly evolves into the idea that he will not because he cannot. Not only does the pseudo-legal inequality limit the black child's future career choices in the irony of self-fulfilling prophecy, it poisons the minds of the youth to believe that they cannot. Besides aiding the creation of an expensive welfare-dependant population, this mentality becomes one of the greatest obstacles for socioeconomically disadvantaged people to overcome. Ideological shackles, the shackles of the mind and heart, are made of a stronger iron than any physical cuffs, and I pity the man who feels he can stand before judgment clean having promoted such a slavery.

Providing the same punishment to both the black and white youth prevents the devaluation of the black person by saying to him, “I put full responsibility for your actions on you as an able human being. I expect you to take the consequences because of your worth as a sentient person.” It says the same to the white youth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that not punishing the privileged child does him a great injustice, for it says to him, “You are not responsible for your actions before this court. Your parents may disapprove, but the law ultimately does not consider you truly able to make your own decisions as a person.” Interestingly, this attitude permeates Enron and Martha Stewart-type scandals, where white collar professionals and businessmen who do not believe in personal responsibility hide behind the dual excuses, “it's not my fault” and “I deserve better.” Would we save the white youth from social and career damage only to nurse a lifelong and far more dangerous disease in his mind and soul? By attempting to predict the future, we destroy it, because we are not, and never will be, God.

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