“Heroin addiction sent me to prison. White privilege got me out and to the Ivy League.” This is the provocative headline of a piece in the Washington Post about a senior at Cornell University who was arrested for heroin possession.
As an addict (a condition that began during a deep depression), he was muddling his way through classes and doing many things that he would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for his own habit and dating someone with big-time drug connections that put him around large amounts of heroin.
When the police arrested him in 2010, he was carrying 6 ounces (an amount valued at $50,000), which exposed him to a possible 10-year prison term. Cornell suspended him indefinitely and banned him from campus. However, he shares that instead of a decade of behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, he got a second chance and received a sentence of 2½ years through a plea deal.
After leaving prison, he soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper and then Cornell allowed him to start taking classes again, and he graduated last month. He is white and believes that society offers routes to rebuild your life to Caucasians, whereas second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the U.S.
He explains that it was prison that clued him into just how much he benefits from systemic racism in our society. Until then, he hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which he believes is exactly how privilege works … as a white person, he could ignore it. Sitting behind bars, though, he saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.