My son’s brush with incarcaration was the closest I’ll ever come to knowing how white privilege feels
Binge-watching is one of my family’s guilty pleasures. A few weeks ago, we powered through Your Honor, a limited series on Showtime starring Bryan Cranston. Without spoiling the plot, Cranston plays a judge whose son is involved in a hit-and-run accident resulting in a fatality. Set in New Orleans, the series explores just how far outside the law he will go to keep his kid out of jail. Cranston uses his power and authority as a judge to illegally manipulate the wheels of justice— including the police and even the jury in a different criminal case.
After watching the show, our family critique focused not on the morality of Cranston’s choices (spoiler: his choices were immoral) but on the show’s subplot. At its core, Your Honor is a story of white privilege and the imbalance it creates. As we discussed the show’s conclusion, I realized that it reminded me of my family's encounter with a judge years ago. The outcome is probably the closest I’ll ever come to experiencing the power of privilege.
One Good Friday in the early aughts, I got a call just before leaving my New York office for the holiday weekend. It was one of my brothers calling to inform me that my eldest son was in jail. I was shocked but not surprised – my 18-year-old son, who lived in Arkansas with my ex-wife, had a history of run-ins with the police.
Although he was no angel, the state's legal system is so draconian it arrests folks for late rent. In Little Rock, where he lived, the police department is so bad that attending Ku Klux Klan meetings doesn’t disqualify you from being hired. So instead of leaving for the subway, I went to work making calls to get to the bottom of things.
I finally connected with someone in the Pulaski County Sheriff’s department that had the information I needed. My son was “in the system,” and due to the Easter holiday, he would spend the weekend in custody, with a hearing before a judge the following week. A few days later, I connected with the public defender the court assigned to my son. One of the first things he said was, “Mr. Weems, I don’t think your son understands how much trouble he’s in…”
When I received a copy of the police report associated with my son’s case, I zeroed in on the section describing my son’s offense. The charges were very serious, but the crime had to rank among the stupidest of all time. My son and a few of his friends decided to attempt an after-hours break-in to steal an archery set from a local pawn shop instead of purchasing the sporting equipment.
The more I read, the more convinced I was that a large amount of cannabis surely factored into their ill-advised decision-making process. Since none of the teens were seasoned criminals, they possessed none of the standard equipment for their late-night break-in attempt. Instead of giving up, they used an old Ford Pinto in the lot behind the pawnshop as a battering ram, shoving it repeatedly into the building’s rear door.
But they failed to notice the numerous video cameras outside the pawnshop, all recording their activity. Even worse, a SWAT team dealing with a different crime a block away heard their assault on the pawnshop’s back door and decided to investigate. The officer who wrote this report must have been dying with laughter, I thought, continuing to read. By the time my son and his cohorts noticed that a SWAT team surrounded them, it was too late.
Since my son’s friends were under 18, they went to the nearest juvenile facility. At worst, they faced incarceration until reaching adulthood. Because he was 18, my son went to jail with adults. I remembered the list of charges in the police report, all of them felonies. There were nine counts: burglary, trespassing, resisting arrest, and a laundry list of other infractions.
Conservatively, he was looking at a 15-year prison term if found guilty on all counts. Bottom line: he was the only defendant tried as an adult, so prosecutors threw the book at my son.
As bleak as things seemed, what happened once he went before the judge was the difference between a lengthy sentence at an Arkansas prison farm and freedom. It’s also an example of how privilege works.
At the time, another one of my brothers living in Little Rock was a bail bondsman. He’s also a former player for the Razorbacks, the University of Arkansas’ football team. When he showed up at the hearing in my place, everyone from the judge to the bailiff — even the court reporter — already knew him.
Then there was the judge. Luckily for my son, the judge not only knew my brother, but he also knew me. We weren’t close friends, but we all knew each other from college. We were part of a tight-knit group of Black students at the University of Arkansas in the 70s, so there was a special relationship. Even though I was 1,500 miles away, we still had that connection.
When he entered the courtroom, the judge immediately recognized my brother and acknowledged him. The bailiff read my son’s name from the court filing. The judge frowned, looked at my son, and asked, “Which one of the Weems boys is your father?” Shocked, my son answered with my name, “Marlon Weems.” “Does he still work on Wall Street?” the judge asked. At this point, my son embarrassed this interrogation played out in open court and responded, “Yessir.” The judge: “Does he know you’re here in front of me?” My son: “Sir, I don’t know.”
Then the judge summoned my brother to the bench for an off-the-record conversation. My son didn’t hear what was said, but he was out of jail by day’s end. Several hearings later, my son received his sentence. It was not the 10-to-15-year sentence an offender whose father didn’t know the judge could anticipate. Instead, the judge found a way not to send my son to prison.
Instead of a decade or more in prison, my son spent several weeks in a local drug treatment facility. According to my brother, the judge later told him, “I just couldn’t send that boy to prison.”
Unlike the judge in Your Honor, the judge in my son’s case did nothing illegal. All he did was exercise the same discretion that white defendants receive every day in courtrooms across the country. My relationship with the judge, casual as it was, benefited my son, even from a thousand miles away. On the most basic level, that is how privilege works; the standard rules don’t apply because of a unique set of circumstances. And that probably saved my son’s life.
So as I watched Your Honor, I thought of my son. He’s managed to stay out of trouble in the decade or so following the pawnshop caper. The near-prison experience scared him straight. In the years that followed, I’ve told the pawnshop story dozens of times. It has evolved into a water cooler tale — “the time my kid tried to break into a pawnshop” story.
Calling out white privilege is the low-hanging fruit of the social justice movement. So the idea that I may have reaped a similar benefit, even that one time, sometimes makes me uncomfortable. But what would’ve happened to my son had the judge in his case been white? What are the odds of the same result? Because I know the answer to those questions, I think I can live with the discomfort.