by John Ellis
I’ve recently finished reading A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, a thought provoking and engaging book. It’s power and truth are of such importance that I believe white people should read it, even (especially) if it makes them uncomfortable. There are many reasons to commend it to you; it’s an optimistic book, a compassionate book. A book about forgiveness and growth. A story of how R. Dwayne Betts morphed from a scared boy to a man but doing so while in prison. As powerful and important as those reasons are, though, there’s another reason white people should read Betts’ memoir: It peels back the curtain on systemic injustices that we (white people) rarely need to navigate. It’s a book of hard truths.
One thing in particular has stood out to me as insightful in an extra impactful way considering the current state of malaise drowning out the cultural conversation around racism. Gross injustice deceitfully clothed in the robes of justice exists in society. A masking that allows us, white people, to move forward and away from our collective guilt. A Question of Freedom asks us to consider how the system silently colluded to make sure that society squeezed every ounce of payment from a black teenager.
R. Dwayne Betts never shirks away from what he did, his crime. He freely owns the carjacking and robbery that put him in prison and doesn’t seek to blame anyone else. In fact, he goes out of his way, time and again, to hammer the point of his guilt. Never once does he seek to excuse himself or absolve himself of punishment. And I want to be careful what I say because his story has subtexts mine don’t. He went from an honor roll student hoping “to play point guard and get a degree in engineering” from Georgia Tech to a number in the system because of a crime he committed. I, too, was an honor roll student dreaming of playing shooting guard in the NBA, and I, too, committed crimes as a youth. But Betts’ experiences were not mine, and not just because I never got busted for my crimes, but because he’s black and I’m white. His story is intimately connected to the injustice that is an inseparable function of systemic racism. And although he owns his crime, majority society needs to own his story because we’re part of the hand that is writing the script.
Read it, white person. Soak up the edges of Betts’ confession that place his story outside of your experience. Allow his memoir to confront you with a reality that you didn’t have to struggle through to get where you’re at. Yes, we should celebrate Betts’ growth, but that’s too easy; it allows us to absolve ourselves of our complicity and guilt. His success isn’t ours; his downfall is. His admirable struggle isn’t ours; the obstacles he was forced to battle are. So, in reading, we should also lament – and lament in ways that provokes change in ourselves and society – the obstacles placed in his path and how the color of his skin disadvantaged him while he confronted those obstacles.
The system has rules, written and otherwise, that help determine which paths a person ends up on. The unwritten rules don’t have to be taught to the majority culture; they’re part of our birthright of privilege. Even the written rules aren’t necessarily accessible unless you know where to look or, most likely, are shown by someone already possessing helpful levels of epistemic ownership over the system. For example, my kids know that if they ever get picked up by the cops, the only thing they say is, “Lawyer!” With that magic word, a high-priced colleague of my wife will swoop in and before you can say “Miranda rights,” they will be escorted safely back into their privilege. R. Dwayne Betts didn’t know that rule; he didn’t have that privilege. He freely confessed all, unburdening his soul, and then slowly sat in jail for nearly a year before his sentencing. A 16-year-old boy, the same age as my daughter, locked up with adults because he didn’t know to say, “lawyer.” How is it justice if one man, the man who knows to ask for a lawyer and can afford a good attorney, pays one price and another man, the man who doesn’t know to ask for a lawyer and can’t afford a good attorney even if he does, pays another price? Justice in this country is not blind. Justice in America is in service to money and privilege. That’s one of the subtexts of R. Dwayne Betts’ story that white people need to be confronted with and answer for. Systemic racism doesn’t require codification to exist. That’s one of the lies told by people who understand that the rules protect their power and privilege. It’s the lie of people who believe that power and privilege are zero sum games. Being asked to confront yourself with your privilege isn’t a path towards losing that privilege. It’s a journey to seeing how your privilege and power can be used to kick down the unequitable systems and rules (written or otherwise) that deny entry to those on the outside. And that journey is one of humble listening and personal growth. It’s a journey that requires magnifying the voice of the marginalized. This Juneteenth, A Question of Freedom is a good place to begin that journey.