Lately, I've been telling people that I'm a criminal. This shocks most people, since I don't "look like" one. I'm a fairly clean-cut, light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University and Stanford Law School. I'm a law professor and I once clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice -- not the sort of thing you'd expect a criminal to do.
What'd you get convicted of? people ask. Nothing, I say. Well, then why do you say you're a criminal? Because I am a criminal, I say, just like you.
This is where the conversation gets interesting. Most of my acquaintances don't think of themselves as criminals. No matter what their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else -- in ghettos, mainly.
They have an unspoken, but deeply rooted identity as "law-abiding citizens." I ask them, "Haven't you ever committed a crime?" Oddly, people often seem perplexed by this question. What do you mean? they say. I mean, haven't you ever smoked pot, didn't you ever drink underage, don't you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven't you gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks? Haven't you broken the law?
Well, yeah, they say, but I'm not a criminal. Oh, really? What are you, then? As I see it, you're just somebody who hasn't been caught. You're still a criminal, no better than many of those who've been branded felons for life.
Perhaps there should be a box on the census form that says "I'm a criminal." Everyone who has ever committed a crime would be required to check it. If everyone were forced to acknowledge their own criminality, maybe we, as a nation, would second-guess our apparent zeal for denying full citizenship to those branded felons.
In this country, we force millions of people -- who are largely black and brown -- into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime. Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe. You can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits -- forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind.
Full piece at: CNN