Shon Hopwood robbed a bank, and served 11 years in prison. While incarcerated, he studied in the prison law library and -- incredibly -- authored two cert petitions that were ultimately granted by the Supreme Court. This caught the attention of former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who collaborated with Hopwood once the first of these cases was accepted for argument. Upon release from prison in 2009, Hopwood attended the University of Washington Law School and later clerked on the prestigious United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
His story is already familiar to many lawyers -- his sentencing judge, Judge Richard Kopf of the District of Nebraska, publicly ate crow after admitting that he thought Hopwood was a low-life who'd never make anything of himself -- and for my part I distinctly recall read his clerkship application when I worked for Judge Diana E. Murphy on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. His was a remarkable tale, the sort of once-in-a-lifetime story one doesn't soon forget.
Now Hopwood is back in the news after he was hired to teach at Georgetown Law School. And a few people, including my good friend Joel Sati, have reacted by labeling his case one of "white privilege". I checked in with another friend and official privilege expert/skeptic Phoebe Maltz Bovy, and she was okay with the usage in this case. But -- despite generally being more comfortable with "privilege" discourse than Bovy -- I found it's deployment here to be off-base, and I thought I might explain why.
The obvious angle of attack, of course, would be to say that to talk of "white privilege" in Hopwood's case obscures his incredible accomplishments, talent, hard work, and so on. The retort to this would be that "privilege"-speak actually denies none of these things, but rather is the observation that a similarly-situated Black man would never be given the same opportunity Hopwood had for redemption. And so the crux of my hesitation is that I'm actually not convinced that this is true. I actually think academia would respond quite positively to a Black man whom, while in prison for bank robbery, authored two cert petitions that were ultimately accepted by the Supreme Court. That's an incredible (in the literal sense -- it defies credibility) accomplishment, and one that I think would be difficult to overlook no matter the race of the inmate. Of course, it is so incredible because it is breathtakingly rare -- there almost certainly isn't another inmate of any race who has managed to walk that particular path, and so the counterfactual remains wholly hypothetical.
Let's say I'm right, and our hypothetical black male inmate did author two successful cert petitions and then was upon his release accepted into law school, allowed to take the bar, hired for a prestigious clerkship, and ultimately employed as an elite law professor. And suppose someone pointed to that man and said "Aha! There's no 'racism' in our prison system! Look at [Black Shon Hopwood]: He worked hard and made something of himself, and see how successful he is now. Instead of complaining so much about 'racism', why don't people try following his example?"
Such an argument would not be remotely compelling. Why not? Because the fact that a truly extraordinary individual can transcend the barriers of the incarceration system tells us virtually nothing about how that system operates on average men and women. To say to a regular prison serving out a prison term "your destiny is in your hands now: all you have to do is teach yourself law while incarcerated and become so proficient at it that you can write two briefs that will be accepted for hearing by the Supreme Court, and you can successfully reenter society" is a ridiculous joke. It is the beyond-parody version of thinking of civil rights in terms of the "talented tenth" (or tenth of a tenth of a tenth) instead of the "normal ninethieth." We would, in the case of "Black Shon Hopwood", rightly reject the notion that his story tells us anything useful about racial inequality or injustice as it pertains to persons convicted of crimes generally. But the argument that Black Shon Hopwood is abnormal and aberrational is inconsistent with the argument that White Shon Hopwood is illustrative and representative. The latter argument is alluring because such cases stick in the public eye. But the former argument is the right one.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander speaks of the propensity to take the life stories of exceptional Black men and women -- the Barack Obamas and Oprah Winfreys -- and use them as baselines for the typical Black experience. These are not typical stories, and so they have little to tell us about what equality or fair opportunity means for the typical Black man or woman. The problem with our prison system, or our educational system, or our political system, is not that it makes it impossible for the ludicrously talented to succeed. As Bella Abzug famously put it, "Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor; it is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel." So too, we might say, the struggle for racial justice for the incarcerated is not to get a Black Shon Hopwood hired as a paralegal. It's to ensure that the typical Black inmate has the same opportunities on release as the typical White inmate* -- neither of whom is likely to resemble Shon Hopwood in any meaningful respect.
That White privilege interacts with our prison system is undeniable. And in particular, it is clear that White ex-felons have a far better chance of being hired or given other opportunities than the Black colleagues upon release (indeed, the former's chance is equivalent to that of a Black man with no criminal record at all). That's White privilege not in an exceptional case, but in an appallingly ordinary form -- not tied to an extraordinary, nearly sui generis case like Hopwood, but as applied to regular people who are not going and should not be expected to write multiple successful Supreme Court cert petitions. Focusing on Hopwood's case is not just wrong analytically, it perpetuates the destructive frame whereby we focus anti-racism discourse on exceptional cases and then blame everyday people for not living up to near-unattainable ideal.
Most people -- Black or White -- aren't exceptional. They're normal. And for anti-racist politics to help them, it must break the habit of relying on the high-profile and high-octane cases to establish the circumstances faced by the normal, the unremarkable, the banal, and the everyday.
* And that both have opportunities that substantively offer them a real chance to integrate back into society as equal members.