What Is…White Guilt?

Some terms are criticized as social justice jargon. However, many of these terms are important to know about and understand. One such term is white guilt.

Dictionary.com offers a concise definition of white guilt: it is “the feelings of shame and remorse some white people experience when they recognize the legacy of racism and racial injustice and perceive the ways they have benefited from it.”[1] While it sounds well-intended in certain ways—after all, it recognizes racism and injustice and ways white people like me have benefited from it—white guilt can also be extremely problematic in certain ways.

But why can white guilt be problematic?

The problem is that in many cases, feelings of shame and remorse can be so great that they prevent one from doing anything about the racism and racial injustice that’s so upsetting to begin with. While it is important to recognize racism and racial injustice around you, especially if you recognize some of the ways it benefits you, it’s counterproductive to be so upset about those systems of injustice that you feel unworthy of playing your part as an ally in the larger effort to ensure that Black lives matter. After all, the goal is not to wallow in guilt, but to turn the recognition of injustice into anti-racist action.

It’s also worth noting that one of the criticisms I often hear of white guilt is that white guilt doesn’t turn into white action.[2] That’s something to be conscious of, if you, like me, are white. It’s important to be conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to simply recognize how racial injustice benefits you, nor is it enough to feel guilty about how racial injustice benefits you. Instead of simply recognizing how racial injustice benefits you (or even feeling guilty about that), donate to and/or volunteer for racial justice organizations, attend Black Lives Matter marches (while practicing mask-wearing and social distancing, of course), vote for candidates who have an extensive platform on racial justice, and educate your own friends about the systems of racial injustice you’ve noticed yourself, among other things. In doing these activities, however, please note that it’s not about you or about erasing your guilt, but about racial inequality (because for too many people attending a protest march, for example, is about making them look like the “good people”).

In addition to the volunteering, marching, voting, etc., however, I also recommend that people struggling with white guilt should process those feelings with other people who have struggled with white guilt themselves and managed to turn that guilt into racial justice action. While it may be tempting to talk about your white guilt with anyone and everyone to show how “woke” you are, the most productive and healthy way of processing and overcoming white guilt is probably by talking with people who have that shared experience with you.

So, for those who are still struggling with white guilt, I know how you feel. I was there, and I can sometimes still be there. I just hope that you will be able to turn guilt into action, for guilt without action does nothing.


[1] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/white-guilt

[2] Some, such as Ciarra Jones, the author of a widely-read Medium piece on white guilt, argue that white guilt can even impede upon white action: https://medium.com/@ciarrajones/the-violence-of-white-and-non-black-poc-apologies-d1321c0ccb8e

On the Policing of People of Color and the Death of George Floyd

Someone with a face mask that says “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe” was said by Eric Garner as he was killed by police in New York several years ago, and it was also said by George Floyd recently as he was killed by Minneapolis police.

On Monday, May 25th, George Floyd, an unarmed person of color, was killed by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, even after he was handcuffed.

This was an extremely disturbing story—so disturbing that I am choosing not to show yet again to people the image of this officer kneeling on Floyd. It was yet another example of police using excessive force on an unarmed person of color.

And yet, at times over the past week, I have struggled to figure out what to say about the killing of Floyd. After all, I am white, I am conscious that I have a lot of privilege that comes with being white, and the last thing I want to do is drown out the voices of people of color advocating for justice. But then, I found that I did feel compelled to say some things, so here you go…

Growing up in New York City with all the friends of color my brother and I had, it was clear that there was a major disparity between the way the two of us were policed and the way our friends of color were policed. The two of us never got stopped, searched, or frisked by the police, but our friends of color frequently experienced that—so frequently that people would call it “walking while brown.” The stories of frequent stops from our friends also matched statistics for stop-and-frisk in New York City—blacks and Hispanics at one point made up only half of the population, but 85% of the stops.[1] I can go on and on with the statistics and the stories related to stop-and-frisk, but to read more, I encourage you to read my blog post about the institutional racism in the way I was policed. So when people suggest that racism does not exist with policing, I have personal experiences that show otherwise. Racism exists in policing.

What I didn’t do as much in that post on institutional racism and policing was show how said racism goes well beyond stop-and-frisk; after all, I was focused on my own experiences of privilege in that post. So, while an entire book could probably be written on racial disparities in the way people are policed (or are generally handled in the criminal justice system), here are some lowlights:

  • Blacks are 3.64 times as likely to get arrested for marijuana use as whites, even though usage rates are comparable. In some cases, those rates have become worse, even with the current push towards legalization in some parts of the country.[2]
  • Staying on the topic of drugs, even though usage of illegal drugs is comparable between blacks and whites, blacks are five times as likely as whites to go to prison for illegal drug possession.[3]
  • On average, police seem to require less suspicion of black and Hispanic drivers before they are pulled over than white drivers.[4] This statistic is particularly relevant to the current discourse on policing and people of color, as a few years ago a traffic stop of Philando Castile, a person of color, led to his being killed by a police officer.
  • Innocent blacks are about seven times more likely to be convicted for a murder they didn’t commit than whites.[5]
  • Unarmed blacks are about 3.49 times as likely to get shot by the police as unarmed whites.[6]

“How does this all relate to the killing of George Floyd?” you may ask. Floyd’s killing shows that the police murder of Mr. Floyd does not exist in a bubble. Far from it. To the contrary, this killing is a microcosm of a larger problem: there are vast racial disparities in the way people are policed in the United States of America.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonoberholtzer/2012/07/17/stop-and-frisk-by-the-numbers/#43c323106703

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2020/04/20/on-420-aclu-highlights-racist-marijuana-enforcement-in-new-report/#229dc03f7487

[3] http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf

[4] https://openpolicing.stanford.edu/findings/

[5] http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4634878/

What is the 1994 Crime Bill, and Why is it So Controversial?

Many of the readers who have listened to some of the debates between candidates for President of the United States may be aware of a line of attack often used against former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders: “You voted for the 1994 crime bill.”

It’s a line used when the candidates on stage, all of whom are trying to become the presidential nominee from the Democratic Party, are trying to distinguish themselves from Senator Sanders and former Vice President Biden on the issue of criminal justice. It is especially important for other candidates to distinguish themselves from those two candidates because Senator Sanders and former Vice President Biden are viewed as frontrunners for the Democratic Party nomination. It is also a line that the other candidates use to try and convince their voters that they, not Senator Sanders or former Vice President Biden, should be trusted on the issue of criminal justice.

Which begs the question: What is the 1994 crime bill, and why is it so controversial? With the first caucus of the election year happening in Iowa tonight, answers to these questions are important.

The tricky thing about summarizing the 1994 crime bill is that the piece of legislation tried to address many issues, ranging from funding for police to gun control to domestic violence. The short story is that the 1994 crime bill, whose proper name is actually the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, was supposed to focus on enforcement of and prevention of violent crimes, though it did some things beyond that scope (a couple of which I will talk about later in this post). For a detailed summary of the 1994 crime bill, view the bill’s summary here.

As one might expect with a bill trying to deal with a wide range of issues, the reality of how “good” or “bad” it was is actually more complicated than many candidates might make it out to be.

In spite of that fact, there are, undoubtedly, parts of the bill that should make one question Biden and Sanders on criminal justice (since they both supported the act and Biden helped write it[1]). For example:

  • The bill “stripped all Pell Grant funding for college education for prisoners.”[2] This sort of action counters the narrative among many (especially on the left) that incarceration should have a restorative element, that it should not just be about punishing someone for their actions, but that they also can be able to work towards being productive contributors to society when/if they leave prison.
  • The bill provided $6 billion (in 1994 dollars) in funding “for prevention programs which were designed with significant input from experienced police officers”[3]—money that was, from all accounts, spent on punitive measures for the most part. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea to let people with experience in law enforcement be able to have a say in how to prevent violent crime. The problem? As it turned out, that money was predominantly used for punitive measures[4]—measures that would go against the ideal among many Democrats that there should be a restorative element to time in prison.
  • The 1994 crime bill is blamed for being a factor in a drastic increase in incarceration in the United States.[5] The extent to which the current mass incarceration issues should be attributed to the 1994 crime bill is up for debate, especially since the increase in mass incarceration was already beginning to happen, but there seems to be significant agreement from criminal justice scholars that the bill made this problem worse.

However, there were also some aspects of the 1994 crime bill that are either popular with progressives or popular on a bipartisan basis. Three of those aspects are as follows:

  • There was considerable gun control in the 1994 crime bill. According to the bill’s summary, the bill, “Bans the manufacture of 19 military-style assault weapons, assault weapons with specific combat features, “copy-cat” models, and certain high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than ten rounds.”[6] While one could debate the effectiveness of this form of gun control, the fact is that gun control tends to be a major aspect of most candidates’ platforms on the Democratic side, and that therefore the 1994 crime bill did much of what a lot of Democrats want on guns (including Democrats critical of Biden and Sanders for their support of the 1994 crime bill).
  • One of the most popular aspects of the 1994 crime bill was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA, which was within the 1994 crime bill, added measures to better hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable.[7] For example, before the 1994 crime bill, “domestic abusers could cross state lines to avoid prosecution for beating their spouses, as law enforcement was not to required to listen to orders of protection filed in other states” (something that, from my understanding, was not possible after the act passed).[8]
  • VAWA, which as I said was under the 1994 crime bill, also created the National Domestic Violence Hotline.[9] Before finding out that this hotline was established so recently, I have to admit to taking the existence of this hotline for granted; however, the fact is that the hotline is younger than I am (I’m twenty-five) and was only established thanks to the 1994 crime bill.

So, while it might make for a good debate line to be critical of Biden’s or Sanders’ support of the 1994 crime bill, the reality is somewhat complicated. Some aspects of it, such as the generally more punitive approach to crime as a result of the bill, have been quite controversial and even problematic. Other aspects, such as the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, are quite important. Regardless, it’s important to recognize both the good and the bad in the 1994 crime bill (as well as Biden’s and Sanders’ support of it), because otherwise, we’d be doing an injustice to ourselves and to others when evaluating the platforms these candidates have on criminal justice.


[1] https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/15/politics/joe-biden-1994-crime-bill-incarceration-fact-check/index.html

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36020717

[3] https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/billfs.txt

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36020717

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/billfs.txt. I should note that this provision of the bill expired in 2004: https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/750656174/the-u-s-once-had-a-ban-on-assault-weapons-why-did-it-expire

[7] https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/billfs.txt

[8] https://time.com/5675029/violence-against-women-act-history-biden/

[9] https://www.vera.org/justice-in-focus-crime-bill-20/confronting-violence-against-women

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected How I, and Others, Were Policed

From a young age, I was taught that as long as I didn’t look for trouble, I wouldn’t get in trouble with the police.

Thankfully, for me, that has been the case. I’ve never looked to cause any trouble, even with something relatively harmless like marijuana, and I haven’t gotten into trouble.

But because of institutional racism, which I defined in my introductory post in the institutional racism series as “racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions,” the story is often different for those who don’t look Caucasian.

For example, some of my brother’s elementary school friends who were people of color got into troubling situations with the police, even though they weren’t looking to cause trouble (yes, you read that correctly: elementary school). For example, these friends were often searched thoroughly by police under a practice in New York known as “stop-and-frisk,” even though there was zero evidence of their carrying weapons. On the other hand, you never heard similar tales from my brother’s and my white friends or from my Caucasian family. It was therefore no coincidence that the bias against people of color in stop-and-frisk was so severe that some people called it “walking while brown.”

These stories seemed to fit with the actual statistics on stop-and-frisk. For example, a May 2012 New York Times article cited by Forbes said that “85% of those stopped were black or Hispanic even though those groups make up about half of NYC’s population.” With a statistic like this, there is validity to the claim that someone is stopped for “walking while brown.”

Readers might be looking at these statistics and thinking, “Fine…you have stories and statistics, but where does the institutional racism come in?” To find the answer, it’s important to look at how stop-and-frisk was justified—it was justified by saying that people who are deemed a threat need to be stopped. Hence, by using stop-and-frisk disproportionately on people of color, an institution (the police) was sending the racist message that a disproportionate number of people of color were a threat.


While stop-and-frisk in New York City is much less common than it once was, the idea among many law enforcement institutions that people of color are still a threat still exists. From two people of color getting arrested at a Starbucks in spite of doing nothing wrong to a graduate student at Yale having her ID taken away after she slept in a common room and was getting called in as a potential threat by a white student, there are still widespread stories of people of color—many of whom are doing nothing wrong—being treated like threats and criminals.

In contrast, similar stories are never heard of from light-skinned people like me. You see a white person sleeping in the common room at college? The thought is that, “Oh…the person has studied a ton. No big deal.” You see two white people at a Starbucks waiting to meet with someone? You don’t think anything of it, probably. But people of color doing these things are viewed as a threat by many people, law enforcement or not.


As I said in the beginning of this piece, I was taught from a young age that I would not get into trouble if I didn’t seek trouble. As it turns out, though, I might not have gotten into trouble even if I had sought some trouble.

At the same time, I recognize that it is a different story for friends of mine who are people of color. It is a different story because of the startling disparities between the way whites are policed and the way people of color are policed. Indeed, institutional racism exists in the way that I, and others, are policed.

Silent_march_to_end_stop_and_frisk_and_racial_profiling
This image is from a march against racially disproportionate policing. The racial disparities in the way practices like New York City’s stop-and-frisk was implemented raised concerns about racially disproportionate policing. By longislandwins [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Update as of November 24, 2019: While this series on institutional racism ended long ago, the issues I addressed in this post have become relevant again due to the renewed scrutiny on Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy while he was Mayor of New York City. In case you were wondering, the stories and statistics I have of stop-and-frisk in this post are from Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure in New York. The current scrutiny over this tactic exists because he declared his candidacy for President of the United States today, just one week after he apologized for his use of the tactic while he was mayor.

I am hoping that this post serves as a reminder that, regardless of his apology and regardless of whether you believe in his apology, the institutional racism that led to Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk is still relevant.

As for readers who didn’t expect a post from me until after Thanksgiving, sorry about that. I figured that this post is too relevant not to re-publish right now.

White Supremacy and Prisons

United States Women’s Soccer Team star Megan Rapinoe has become the most recognizable figure of that team, not just because of her play, but because of her outspokenness on issues ranging from race to LGBTQ+ rights. She was also the most controversial figure, because she knelt when the American national anthem was played before games.

But one side of her that some people may not know is that she has a brother—a brother she loves dearly, but a brother who has been on the wrong side of the law numerous times, who has spent time in prison, and who became a white supremacist for part of his time in prison.[1]

But here’s the thing—Megan Rapinoe’s brother, Brian, is far from a microcosm. He’s far from a microcosm because white supremacy has become increasingly widespread in prisons.

The Anti-Defamation League, back in 2016, observed the spread of and increase in white supremacy in our prison system, to the point that at least 35 states had at least one white supremacy prison gang at the time. These supremacy gangs have perpetrated violence; most notably, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which is one of the most prominent prison gangs in the United States, was responsible for 33 murders in Texas between 2000 and 2015.[2] And the violence is not isolated to Texas, either—Aryan Brotherhood prison gang people were also responsible for directing killings and drug smuggling from prisons in California.[3]

And yet, in spite of all the white supremacy in the American prison system, this is an issue that doesn’t seem to get that much attention. There are some racial justice and criminal justice organizations attuned to the realities of white supremacy in American prisons, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Vera Institute of Justice, but it’s an issue that I’ve never heard come up in mainstream dialogues about criminal justice reform.

But that should change. And here is why this issue needs more attention from all of us:

  1. It is a criminal justice reform issue, because if we want prisons to be a place for people to reform, we should not have prisons full of white supremacy groups that ruin lives instead of restoring them.
  2. It is a public safety issue, for white supremacist actions in prisons kill people.
  3. It is a national security issue, because violent white supremacists are terrorists, too.
  4. It is an issue of use of taxpayer money, because having prisons that perpetrates white supremacy (whether it be intentional or unintentional) is a dreadful use of taxpayer money.
  5. It is a racial justice issue, for white supremacy is antithetical to racial justice.

But how do we get this change, from a prison system where white supremacy is allowed to thrive to a system which doesn’t allow for this? I think that it needs to start with getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons. For most readers of this piece, getting more knowledge means knowing that white supremacy in prisons exists in the first place. For local and state governments, getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons means: a) figuring out what a prison gang is in the first place[4] and then b) figuring out the nature of what white supremacy prison gangs are like (and how much white supremacy in prisons is gang-related or not). For the Anti-Defamation League and similar organizations devoted to religions, ethnic, racial, and/or social justice issues, getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons just means continuing their work and hopefully learning more.

As much as I have a desire to end pieces on this blog with big solutions to big problems, I can’t really do that here. Before talking about solutions,[5] governments in particular really need to gain a better understanding of this problem than what they currently seem to have.


[1] https://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-womens-world-cup/story/3878587/why-megan-rapinoes-brother-brian-is-her-greatest-heartbreakand-hope

[2] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states

[3] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/leaders-of-white-supremacist-prison-gang-charged-in-killings

[4] On page two of the Anti-Defamation League report on white supremacy in prisons, it is noted that “there is not even agreement among prison officials as to what constitutes a prison gang.” Considering the fact that the problem with white supremacy in prisons may be related to white supremacy gangs in prisons, it seems like governments may not fully understand this problem, let alone have solutions:  https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/CR_4499_WhiteSupremacist-Report_web_vff.pdf

[5] The Anti-Defamation League talked about potential solutions. My personal opinion is that, while they seem to have interesting ideas, not a single suggestion seems to be preventative in nature (in other words, preventing people behind bars from getting taken in by white supremacy ideology in the first place): https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states