Amidst the stories of nationwide protests in response to the
grand jury decisions in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner shootings, actor Mark
Wahlberg’s request to have his decades-old criminal record expunged is poorly timed, to say the least. But Wahlberg’s story nicely exposes a concept that’s sometimes hard to pin down: white privilege in America.
Let’s take it piece by piece. For one thing, there’s the fact that Wahlberg was unharmed while being arrested, despite having committed two violent crimes. According to media reports, while strung out on cocaine, Wahlberg brutally assaulted a Vietnamese man named Thanh Lam while stealing two cases of beer from him, in the process calling Lam a series of racial epithets. Wahlberg then assaulted another man, Hoa Trinh, beating him so badly that he was left blinded in one eye. Yet like so many other white, violent criminals—even heavily armed, rampaging mass shooters like James Holmes and Jared Loughner—Wahlberg suffered no injuries while being apprehended by police. That’s as it should be. But given how many African-American suspects, like Brown and Garner, are wounded or killed during their encounters with police, the discrepancy is striking.
Even more striking is the degree to which Wahlberg was able to leave this incident behind. Although the assaults culminated in years of criminal behavior for Wahlberg, including two incidents of harassing African-American schoolchildren among more than twenty encounters with the police, he was sentended to just two years in prison and had to serve just 45 days.
When he emerged from his month and a half in prison, Wahlberg professed to be a changed man. Aided by the connections of his older brother Donnie—who was, at the time, already famous—Wahlberg moved smoothly into a successful entertainment career. Less than three years later, Wahlberg and The Funky Bunch released the album Music for the People (1991), featuring the #1 single “Good Vibrations.” In the following years, he famously modeled for Calvin Klein and began his acting career with roles in TV and feature films.
For so many Americans, especially Asian-Americans, Latinos, black women, and most of all, black men, a criminal record permanently impacts their professional and personal futures. A criminal conviction—indeed, even a simple arrest—can reduce their options in every part of their lives, from employment to travel to child custody to voting. Wahlberg claims his record has denied him certain recent opportunities. Maybe so. But his record clearly didn’t stop him from making millions and becoming famous.
There is a larger historical and cultural story at play here. In response to both the recent police killings and the subsequent protests, many commentators have emphasized supposed racial differences. Rudy Giuliani argued that African-Americans commit more violent crimes and so require police response–and he is not alone in making that argument. Others say that African-Americans riot far more readily than other communities. Yet Wahlberg’s childhood neighborhood of Dorchester reveals the inaccuracies in both those narratives. This impoverished white community has seen decades of systemic crime and violence, often tied—as Wahlberg’s assaults were—to drugs and gangs. And in the busing riots of the 1970s, Dorchester featured sustained, brutal communal violence on the part of whites against African-Americans, the latest in the long series of American “race riots” targeting African-American communities.
Many Americans might prefer to erase the histories of white crime and violence from our collective memories, just as Wahlberg now requests that his own history of violence towards people of color be legally erased. This ability—to write history the way we choose, regardless of the facts—is a frightening example of white privilege. Until we make these histories a fuller part of our understanding of our shared American identity, our sense of ourselves will be as partial as a bio of Wahlberg without his teenage crimes.
Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.