I Used to Be Different. Now I’m the Same

By Kate Boccia
Edited by Mark Olmsted

I am a white American. My ancestry is Danish, Scottish and English. I’m just enough of a WASP to have ancestors who were patriots of the American Revolution.  But I certainly didn’t feel superior to the blue-collar Italian and Irish kids in the lower middle-class neighborhood near where I grew up. In fact, I would have laughed at the notion that merely as white people, any of us were privileged. I reserved that term for the rich kids living in big houses across town. In my book, privilege meant you had a lot more than my family had.

We weren’t exactly poor and I was taught to have compassion for those who were less fortunate than me. But it was mostly an abstract idea, a compassion felt from a distance that rarely had to be put to the test.  And those I felt compassion for didn’t really include criminals. I was raised with the same belief still held by most white people in this country: that the criminal justice system is by-and-large fair, and if you’re in jail, it’s probably because you deserve to be.

I knew that people of color were somewhat more skeptical about the system’s fairness, but I didn’t ask too many questions as to why.  That would have involved imagining their experience at a much deeper level, and probably questioning the received beliefs I thought of as objectively true.  Only when my personal reality was shattered did I realize all of my assumptions were built on quicksand.

October 24, 2012 is when everything changed. That was the day my son went to prison. As one of the new friends I made in line waiting to visit him later told me: “Honey, that’s the day you became black.”

She was wrong of course, because when I drive home from Georgia Central State Prison to my house in a white neighborhood in Alpharetta, I am many times less likely than her to get pulled over for missing a stop sign. If I do get pulled over, I am more likely to get a warning than a ticket.  And if I get a ticket, paying it probably doesn’t mean my lights could get shut off, or worse, that I could put less money on my son’s books next month so he has enough to eat. (I bet you had no idea how bad hunger is in prison. Something else that had never even crossed my mind until my son told me how common it is.)

But my friend, also a mother, was a little bit right.  As I witnessed the machinery of the criminal justice system chew up my son, she saw that I was getting a crash course in the experience most black people in this country were all too familiar with. My friend’s entire family had been colliding with the criminal justice system their whole lives – or rather, the system had been colliding with them.  I was simply in more shock about what was happening to my son because, for most of my life, prison had only been something that happened to other people. Those people.

When you are suddenly one of those people, it’s deeply uncomfortable to realize how much you used to think of yourself as fundamentally different from them. The fact is that you needed to imagine that seeing a son go to prison was somehow easier for them because you knew how intolerable it would be for you.  It is awful to discover that you were right – it is exactly as painful as you feared it would be. I literally thought I was going to die from the pain more than once.  No wonder I distanced myself from even the idea of it. On some level, we think if we label the experience unimaginable, we are increasing the odds against it happening.

As I got to know other mothers like me, and my son Daniel got to know other inmates, it also become clear that there were plenty of white inmates who’d had it rough in life too, and certainly black inmates from comparatively advantaged backgrounds.  But you’d have to be willfully blind to conclude that whites and blacks were generally treated equally by the system.

Ironically, my son was treated very unjustly by the system. I could have used that as “proof” that whites get the shaft, too.  But to my mind, the exception proves the rule. They certainly can be treated as bad or worse than any person of color, but they almost never are.

When I tell the story of what happened to Daniel to my white friends, their jaws drop; when I tell the story to my (new) black friends, they nod with identification.  It’s not that they claim their son was innocent – although some do (because some are.) But in almost every case, African-American boys begin to get sucked into the system at much younger ages than white kids, usually because of behavior that is the logical result of a child reacting to the harsh realities of growing up exposed to a level of poverty and violence that no human should know, much less a young one.

My request – my plea, really – is for all people, but particularly those who check “Caucasian” on their census forms, to take the opportunity to challenge the boundaries and quality of the empathy they extend to those caught up in the American criminal justice system.  I pray you never have a son or a daughter who goes to prison. But you shouldn’t wait for such a personal disaster to shock you into awareness that all of these men and women are coming from families who love them just as much as you love yours.  If you find it hard to put yourself in their shoes because the external circumstances of their lives are so different, then put yourself in mine, and others like me whom you feel look like you. For although I am grateful that the trauma of my son’s ordeal has led me to found the National Incarceration Association, getting to this place of acceptance and purpose has involved a baptism in fire I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I’ll finish with a statistic: One in 9 African-American children have an incarcerated parent, while this is true for only 1 in 57 white children (for Hispanics, it’s 1 in 28)*.  It should come as no surprise that these children are far more likely to live in poverty, and hence to do poorly in school or end up in foster care.  In our “lock-‘em-up” hysteria of the past two decades, the desire to score big in the competition for political and popular favor has made us lose sight of the fact that retributive justice doesn’t just punish the criminals, but also their completely innocent families and every other community of interest connecting and spreading across towns.   If it merely punishes and doesn’t restore, that’s not smart justice.  That’s targeted collective punishment. And we all end up in endless suffering.

Don’t wait to experience the heartbreak of finding a family member behind bars to question your unconscious assumptions about incarceration in general. There are hundreds of solutions being proposed and tried by advocates and reformers all around you.  I hope you’ll join us in pursuing some of them. But all of the fixes start with your willingness to imagine the experience of people with whom you may not think you have anything in common.  And ultimately, it means embracing the idea put well by the Governor of Georgia, that absolutely “no one is irredeemable.”

*  https://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/nrccfi-fact-sheet-2014.pdf