Through my work and the experiences of my clients, I am constantly reminded what a privilege it is to be a tall, blue-eyed, blond man in his 30’s. It is completely remarkable how many people take for granted what sorts of opportunities are bestowed upon them simply because of their physical appearance. It probably does not hurt that I can afford to dress in business attire, I keep a short haircut, and I was fortunate to receive an education that allows me to present myself as confident and articulate.
Very early one morning last week, I was rushing to get to a court appearance on the other side of town. “Town” is Detroit, where “other side” means a full county away. Sometimes this can take hours. I was groggy. My mind was preparing questions for cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses and objections to evidence I anticipated the prosecutor would try to submit. This mental exercise was looping in the back of my mind as I artfully dodged the first potholes of spring and listened to a morning news program on the radio.
Next the low fuel light came on. It was another distraction but also an opportunity to grab some much-needed coffee. I arrived at the gas station near my office, parked at the pump, took a mental snapshot of the pump number to give the clerk, and went inside to perform my usual morning ritual. Music was playing inside the busy store, which was bustling with commuters. Only one clerk was working, and he was going back and forth between fuel purchases at one register and lottery ticket sales at another. He seemed stressed. His English skills were limited. The other customers were bumping into me. I had to get out of line to grab some napkins and dab up coffee that spilled on my coat.
As I was paying, I ran a mental check of my available credit and pending credit card transactions for my account versus the small bills in my wallet and the need for a certain amount cash for parking later that day. I debated whether to use cash for the fuel price discount. Ultimately, I swiped my credit card. My smart phone started to buzz with alerts. Yes, iPhone Calendar, I know I have to be in court in exactly one hour. Delete. Next a reply to a text from my assistant. I’ve already been to the office. No need to brew coffee, but thank you. And into my car to race to court.
Ten minutes later another alert. This one a dinging sound from my dashboard. Low fuel. “How is that possible?” I thought. “I just put in $20.” But I didn’t. In all of the chaos, I made a mistake. I did not commit a crime. However, I did make an honest mistake in a confusing situation. But I’m a white man, and fortunately more often than not I am given a pass when I make honest mistakes in confusing situations. As I have learned through decades of working in law offices, the same thing is not always true for people of color.
Ironically, I was on my way to a court appearance involving a mistake at a gas station. My client is a black man. He and his wife together earn a six-figure household income. Like me, he dresses for work in a very respectable way. But this incident happened at nighttime when he was in casual clothes. This incident happened with another immigrant store clerk who has limited English skills. But it happened in a predominantly white suburb that neighbors some predominantly black, low-income communities. My client’s “look” immediately made him seem out of place amid the other customers of that bustling gas station.
Unlike the stressed but friendly worker I encountered at my gas station where I had spilled coffee, my client encountered a stressed and hostile worker. The clerk actually shook his carbonated beverage purchase and told him it would “make it taste better, buddy.” I was offered napkins. My client was given insults.
Unlike my situation, where I was confused and made a mistake that was not a crime, my client’s mistake got a completely different reaction. During an argument that boiled over, my client was physically attacked, cash that fell from his pocket was stolen, and he was later charged with a crime. Not just any crime: a felony with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
He did the right thing. He hired an attorney. He can afford to do that. He did not attempt to negotiate with the police department detective or the prosecuting attorney the way some people who were “just confused” or “trying to do the right thing” often do. But over the next few months of litigation, his finances, his relationship, and his job are all going to be impacted while the specter of a criminal charge hovers over him.
As for me, I’m out twenty bucks. I’m still a white guy. And I do not take that privilege for granted.