Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”
It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.
In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.
When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.
When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.
Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.
Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”
Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”
McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.
As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.
As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.
Mistake or Misinformation?
The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.
But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.
The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)
Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.
One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).
Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.
It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.
Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.
Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.