When I was president of Lee College in Baytown, Texas, one of my responsibilities was the college prison program, the largest in the state for male inmates. One of the reasons I was successful in that position in Texas was that I had taught and served as academic advisor to female student inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. In my three years in that role, I had learned about necessary prison policies and procedures via on-the-job training.
In Texas, the colleges involved in prison education in the Houston area held an annual graduation at the Chapel of the Prodigal Son, located in one of the prison units. In case you have forgotten, or never knew, in Luke 15: 11-32, Jesus Christ is teaching his disciples and others moral lessons via parables. This particular one is the story of a man with two sons. One requested his inheritance and squandered it in a host of questionable ways and returned home penniless, i.e., the prodigal son. His father welcomed him with open arms. The other son, who had stayed home and worked hard, questioned the behavior of their father. The father’s response was that the wayward son had been lost but was found. This, thus, was the reason for using this facility for graduation exercises. And when I awarded the degrees to the graduates, I always said to myself, There but for the grace of God are my sons.
This brings me to the subject of privilege and what research reveals of many of those who spend parts of their lives in prison. Have you ever taken the privilege walk? This is an exercise in which participants are asked a series of questions about their experiences in living in the families into which they were born or adopted- situations over which they had no choice. The questions involve basic things like having nutritious food and access to medical and dental care, living in a home in a safe neighborhood, having supportive and nurturing caregivers with a reliable source of income, attending a safe school with effective faculty, etc. Persons who have these elements move forward and persons who don’t move backward. The goal is to demonstrate in rather concrete ways that some of us are more privileged than others and are more likely to claim the prizes: education that results in quality careers and the ability to make good choices that impact many aspects of our lives.
I recently read Alysia Burton Steele’s Delta Jewels-In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. Steele is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi and a Pulitzer Prize winner. This volume features her story and the stories and photographs of African American women in Mississippi. Some of her subjects are older than me and others are younger. As I read the book, I realized, again, that in spite of being brought up in modest circumstances, I have enjoyed white privilege.
Some who know me would disagree, but allow me to share with you some of the incidents in the lives of these Mississippi women which I have never experienced: a car dealership refusing to sell me a quality car and steering me toward less desirable ones; requiring me to pay a poll tax to vote and still not letting me vote; refusing to allow me to drink from particular water fountains or to use specific bathrooms; needing to relocate because of fear that my children would be murdered (as was the case of Emmett Till); being kept out of school to work; being ignored when trying to make a purchase in favor of other persons behind me in line. There are many others, but one that raised my hackles and which I will never forget is a case in which in 1980 a teacher was still being called the “N” word by her principal.
You might be telling me that times have changed, that laws have made these incidents no longer possible. We, however, still have children in our country who live in neighborhoods with gunfire and dreadful schools, who are hungry, who live in ways that blight their possibilities. And some will succeed despite their circumstances. Just ask yourself, however, how privileged you have been and if you have any responsibility to those who are not.