House rules

I’ve been reflecting on a story I told in my blog entry earlier today:

I was on site at Bally’s Park Place on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City (just in case you’re trying to place those names, the Monopoly board game took its place names from Atlantic City) when I heard a conversation about the customers.

Unlike in Nevada, casinos closed at night. This was on a three-day weekend and apparently the streets were filled with people waiting to get in on a Saturday morning. I don’t remember the precise words, but I do remember my impression. The managers I was listening to clearly viewed those people like cattle being led to the slaughter, not merely as means to richly profitable ends, but as pathetic in a sense that they deserved to be exploited.

Because I benefit from white privilege and because I’ve had relatively few encounters with the police (though enough to see whose side they’re on—and it isn’t mine), I’ve been reluctant to apply the lessons of Jeffrey Reiman[1] in my own case. But I had a reminder recently as I was driving back from the library at the University of California in Santa Cruz on the evening of Saint Patrick’s Day.

I’d been a little concerned about driving that day. Not because I was drinking, or because I lack a driver’s license, registration, or insurance, but because I anticipated checkpoints. As it happened, I didn’t encounter any. But I got pulled over, for the first time in quite a number of years, in Pacifica. And I believe the cop lied to me at least once, claiming that he couldn’t get a match on my license plate number on his computer. Since I have an amateur radio license, I have matching license plates with my call sign (N4RKY). When I was going through the process of getting these plates, I found on the web that there was controversy because California was incorrectly introducing a space into the call sign.[2] The DMV now offers replacement plates that correct the error for free without the space,[3] and, as it happens, my registration shows a space between the N4 and the RKY, but the plate is correct, simply reading “N4RKY”. My understanding is that is not a problem, that the police computers do not care whether or not a space is present when looking up license plates, and an analysis of the problem yields no advantage to introducing such a distinction. (There are numerous vanity plates in California with spaces in them, so the entire discussion about DMV numbering schemes is an obvious canard.)

I think I was actually pulled over, at night, for driving an old Toyota pickup truck that is popular with the migrant Hispanic population because it is a durable model—my mechanic thinks mine will be good to at least 400,000 miles (and he was trying to be conservative in his estimate). The cop also claimed that my tail lights are dim, which they are, despite the fact I put in LED replacements to combat the problem, but I doubt he knew whether or not they are visible for the required 1,000 feet, so I strongly suspect he was deceptive here as well. Certainly the fact that I have had these tail lights and this license plate without incident for quite some time undermines his credibility.

Reiman points out that at every step in the process, from which acts are criminalized, who is suspected, who is arrested, who is charged, who is convicted, and who is sentenced how severely, the criminal justice system discriminates against the poor, and especially against people of color.[4] My old favorite professor at California State University East Bay was more blunt, asking a criminal justice student in his class the awkward question of whose laws he was intending to enforce, the point being that laws are passed by a predominantly wealthy white male group against everyone else. By contrast, Reiman demonstrates that the system coddles the wealthy, subjecting their transgressions more frequently to civil rather than criminal procedures when it bothers to investigate them at all.[5] Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson join the critique, arguing that the rich have successfully influenced politicians to deregulate their activities, reduce their tax burdens, and weaken unions,[6] while, as Scott Sernau explains, they have exported well-paying jobs and replaced them, to the extent that they have created new jobs at all, largely with poorly-paid retail and service sector jobs.[7]

But I was raised in the middle class. I am white. I have had, for the entirety of my adult life, at least an Associate’s degree—low-ranking in the academic hierarchy, but nonetheless signifying of some college-level education. So I’m slow to recognize that I am among those “others” targeted by the criminal justice system. Being a “good boy,” I’ve mostly been playing according to the law as much as possible, even as I had learned of the deep-seated biases in the law.

In short, I’ve been playing by the house rules, rules which are rigged against me, just as surely as they are against those gamblers in Atlantic City. Reiman is harsh in his assessment, writing, “The criminal justice system in America is morally indistinguishable from criminality insofar as it exercises force and imposes suffering on human beings while violating its own morally justifying ideals: protection and justice.”[8] It is a system, which we see from its treatment of Occupy movement protesters and others,[9] whose agents revel in their privilege to apply brutal force, largely with impunity, while serving the interests of property at the expense of humans. It is, in short, a morally indefensible system, deserving of neither respect nor loyalty.

And it has cost me dearly.

  1. [1]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  2. [2]Cliff Cheng, No Space in Ham Radio Call Sign License Plates,
  3. [3]Department of Motor Vehicles, “Amateur Radio HAM License Plates,”
  4. [4]Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison.
  5. [5]Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison.
  6. [6]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  7. [7]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  8. [8]Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison, 188.
  9. [9]Paul Harris, “Police brutality charges sweep across the US,” Guardian, October 22, 2011,; Ted Mann, “The Occupy Movement Adds Volume to Police Brutality Complaints,” Atlantic, October 23, 2011,

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