Just a few weeks ago, to help kick-start Black History Month, Judge Avelina Jacob of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court gave a post-inauguration gift to five teens who vandalized the historic Ashburn Colored School in Ashburn, Virginia, in October.

Jacob sentenced the teens—who spray-painted the abandoned school with swastikas, obscenities, and the words, “White power”—to read and write, according to The Guardian.

Yes, you read that correctly, instead of ordering them to either perform community service or something more severe, the judge ordered them to read books about diversity, watch films, and write book reports and film reviews.

Each teen has to read selections from a list of 37 books over the course of a year, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of American History, and write reports about these trips.

The group is comprised of two White and three students of color. I submit that the students are color are extended the cloak of White privilege because of their two White co-defendants.

While I don’t oppose novel (no pun intended) punishments, I do oppose the badge of White innocence, or White privilege, that is just as powerful as the police badge. If and when it is ever found guilty, its lenient sentence reveals its privileged power.

While I don’t oppose novel (no pun intended) punishments, I do oppose the badge of White innocence, or White privilege, that is just as powerful as the police badge. If and when it is ever found guilty, its lenient sentence reveals its privileged power.

According to Christopher Day, the attorney for the two White teens, the vandalism was just one big misunderstanding. “The boys really had no idea what they were doing,” says Day, according to CNN. “They were just being pranksters and so I think in that regard this punishment is very appropriate.” This statement is problematic because it assumes that the teens truly didn’t know what they were doing, and that a good ol’ education will curb their childish ways.

Wrong. These teens—all 16 and 17 year olds—knew that it was illegal to sneak onto city property, vandalize it, and write racial slurs. If knowledge is so powerful and change-inducing, why didn’t this knowledge stop them from breaking the law? What’s to guarantee that acquiring more knowledge will change them?

As someone who spent years educating young minds, I am one of the biggest advocates for a solid, multi-cultural education, but Judge Jacob assumes that education equals prevention and essentially shells out homework as a cure-all when it’s not. I know first-hand how forgettable homework is: every time I need to remember when World War II ended, I have to look it up on Wikipedia.

You know what’s not forgettable? Doing one thousand hours of community service, or cleaning the graffiti off of every public space for a year. It’s easy to either forget books, or not even understand them. I remember reading Orwell’s 1984, not understanding the symbolism, and getting a “C” on my middle school book report because I didn’t get it.

Now, I’m not dismissing the importance of reading, but the punishment does have to fit the crime. In this case, it does not. The judge presumes that these books will help the teens “get it.”

Does she understand that teenage students are masters of regurgitation and doing the minimum to get by? To expect them to learn from books and field trips alone, without discussion with others about these experiences, and without the presence of an appropriate punishment—because that’s what they deserve—is to minimize to brutishness of their actions.

But this isn’t the first time the badge of Whiteness has been shoved in our faces. The affluenza teen’s legal team flashed it when it argued that he shouldn’t have to face any consequences because his privilege prevented him from even understanding the concept of consequences. His punishment was 10 years probation for killing four people while driving drunk.

Similarly, the Stanford University swimmer who was found guilty of rape after witnesses had to pull him off of his victim, was sentenced to a mere six months when the standard sentence is several years. These young men showed their badges, and the judges acquiesced.

These five Virginia teens wrote and drew racial slurs that are associated with murders and lynchings in the U.S. and abroad. And they did it on a school that was built to fight racial injustice, a school that is being restored and converted into a museum. They did all of this, and were rewarded with field trips.

The badge of White innocence lets you do wrong, claims you didn’t know any better, and assembles a team of advocates, lawyers, and judges to help you find your way. The badge of White innocence says that you are unequivocally right, even when the camera and evidence show that you are undeniably wrong.

The badge of White innocence is so powerful that it shields those who aren’t even White. Those who wear blue, and in this case—the three minority teens who wrote “brown power” on the school-house alongside their two White peers—get equal protection under the badge.

The badge of White innocence, White privilege, is so powerful that when it’s flashed, the focus of the news cycle isn’t the gravity of the fact that a historic Black church  was vandalized with racial slurs, but the fact that its “accidental” perpetrators got to take a trip to the library.

Chanté Griffin is a Los Angeles-based writer and entertainer. She majored in Media Studies at Pomona College and Spelman College, studying how the media constructs and intersects with race, culture, and gender. When she’s not blogging at Beneath the Surface, she’s producing her YouTube sketch series, 14 Days of Funny. Tweet with her! @yougochante

SEE ALSO:

Virginia Authorities Charge 5 Teens For Defacing Historic Black Schoolhouse

Vandals Deface Historic Black School Outside Northern Virginia With Racist Messages

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