"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." -- Anatole France.
Feld's Corralary: "If we catch rich folks sleeping under bridges, they damn well better do time."
I will begin by saying that I do not pretend everyone necessarily sees the world in the same way, nor do I defend one way or another. As usual, I simply rely on my own experiences, observations and conclusions and recommend addressing the world on its own terms.
The subject of Jonathon Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life in solitary, is one that arouses passions in various segments of the Jewish Community. I recall when it happened my own mixed feelings. On the one hand, Pollard broke the law and betrayed my country and his. His actions made my life as an openly Orthodox Jew much harder, because he gave credability to those who claim that Jews (particularly religious Jews) cannot be trusted because they will put Israel's interests ahead of America's. At the same time, however, I felt a monumental injustic that Christian spies routinely got swapped with enemy Russia or got lighter sentences. But when it's a Jew, they throw the book at him. And is it a coincidence that the only people executed for treason during peace time have the last name "Rosenberg?"
No, don't comment on the substance, I've heard it all. This goes to perception, built on 2000 years of oppression as exiles in a foreign land. Even after generations of living in the United States, which never had antisemetism incorporated into its laws and where open antisemetism has been far less virulent or life threatening, the accumulated weight of history and the odd antisemetic incident (not to mention the continuing evidence of virulent antisemetism from the rest of the world) has left its mark. Triablism lurks just below the surface, ready to feel that the world ostracizes me and my people and that behind every high-profile scandal involving someone Jewish an antisemetic motive lurks.
And, of course, there is the companion feeling of shame that one of "my people" could behave so badly publicly. And the worry over how it impacts me and reflects on the Jewish Americans as a whole.
Which brings me to William Jefferson. I do not imagine that the majority of African Americans are any more immune to the weight of history than I am. And for many African Americans, the disparate impact of law and economic policy is not a matter of histroy. It happens every day.
Which brings me to Paris Hilton. Supposedly, our criminal investigations and economic policies that fall disproportionately on the African American community are fair and just and reasonable because they are neutral and neutrally applied. The law, in all its majestic equality, may seem to fall harder on some than others, but isn't that in part their responsibility? In theory, everyone who does the crime does the time. And if we have mandatory sentencing for possession of crack (which falls disproportionately on African Americans) and much lighter sentences (with discretionary sentencing) for white collar crimes (largely committed by white males, but not exclusively), that doesn't mean that the system is rigged. It applies equally to everyone.
Imagine hearing this line of defense everytime you try to explain to people why so many folks in your community feel angry and feel that the legal system is rigged against them and therefore do not respect it. Imagine getting met by the blank stares and the oft repeated "yeah, but they broke the law. And we need to apply the law to everyone equally, not give anyone special favors just because of their circumstances."
Unless, it turns out, you are a wealthy white blond celebrity. Then, it turns out, you do not "do the time" even if you "do the crime." No, don't bother to explain in comments how that is totally unfair, because you think that what happened to Paris Hilton was wrong and she should have done the time, but that doesn't change the fact that a U.S. Representative stands accused of taking bribes and commtting dozens of felonies and that is so much worse and besides we investigated and convicted lots of white guys too and there is no privilege to commit crimes to make up for past prejudice and blah, blah, blah...
Because the point of this is not about merits. Its about understanding the world on its own terms. I know how I felt about Pollard, and why I felt that way. Whatever actual policies we want to adopt, for whatever set of reasons, we cannot blind ourselves to impacts of them -- even when they are beyond our control.
I'm not defending Jefferson or saying we should not investigate in exactly the way we do. I'm not even proposing any specific changes. I'm just saying that, as I see the news media splashing everywhere how Paris Hilton -- the quintessential rich "bad girl" -- got sent home because she got a rash in her minimum security prison, I don't ask myself how "those people" can keep defending Jefferson and say the investigation is racially motivated. As with the behavior of profit maximizing firms, right and wrong doesn't figure in at the macro level. "Those people" are having an entirely rational and predictable reaction to the reality that while the law in its majestic equality forbids rich and poor from sleeping under bridges, poor folk found sleeping under bridges do time while rich folks found sleeping under bridges get a cab ride home.
That reality -- and the perception of that reality -- creates a particular world. It is refusal to recognize it, not the reactions themselves, that are irrational.