I’m so tired of hearing commentators talk about how this is a country that gives people second chances. “What? Really? Are you insane?,” I think when I hear such drivel from people like Tony Kornheiser and Joe Scarborough. Do these talking heads even think about who they’re talking about or what they mean when they say the words “second chances?”
Seriously, true second chances in this country are reserved for folks who are among the elite — rich, famous, public officials, entertainers, athletes (sometimes), usually (but not always) White, almost always male and heterosexual. For these folk, America is a land of second chances. For most of us, this isn’t even a land of first chances, much less second ones. As Bruce Springsteen would say, “born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground” is an apt description for a majority of Americans.
The working-poor and living-from-paycheck-to-paycheck sub-middle class, while doing all they can to improve the life chances of their kids, ultimately are dependent on breaks provided within our society for their kids to have a chance. It comes down to a decent, if not happy family life, with no major financial or job disruptions. And living in a decent neighborhood, along with being able to attend an above-average public school or having parents willing to scrape together the money for private or parochial school. Not to mention finding opportunities for outside opportunities for their kids to explore themselves, like through art classes, soccer teams, travel, and so many other things that make growing up more than just a biological process that occurs in chaos.
If anything goes wrong, if a kid makes even a relatively minor mistake, that first chance will go away. Homelessness, bankruptcy, poor grades, even minor criminal activity or rebellion against authority figures will short-circuit chance number one. For kids of color, especially males, a robbery, playing around with marijuana, a fight at school or repeating a grade puts them in jeopardy long before they may realize that life doesn’t grant them a whole lot of first chances to begin with.
If these kids are lucky or disciplined enough to make it to adulthood with a high-school education, that may open a door, but it still won’t grant even the first chance. As comedian Chris Rock would say, many of these kids have to “make miracles happen” — force open doors — for that first real chance for their lives.
Not so for the likes of Eliot Spitzer, Ben Roethlisberger, even (to a lesser extent) Michael Vick. These folks aren’t struggling to find themselves while living in obscurity, and have more opportunities to work with in any given day than the average American person will likely have in their lifetime. But for White males with money and/or the public spotlight, second chances are almost automatic. Spitzer has his own show on CNN. Roethlisberger would’ve only lost his job if he’d been convicted of rape. Former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle is still a respected journalist in many circles, even though he’s a proven a plagiarist and fiction writer. Vick, meanwhile, only got a second chance after he served two years hard time for dogfighting.
Even for the famous and financially fortunate — yet of color — the second chance remains elusive. Tiger Woods didn’t break any laws, didn’t commit a crime, but has spent the past year as a pariah (no need to go into the psychosis that comes with race and males of color, Black ones in particular). Jayson Blair will probably never have another shot at hardcore journalism. Maybe Blair shouldn’t have a second chance, but then, neither should Barnicle.
To be sure, John Edwards, Larry Craig and Jim McGreevey won’t be running for office again. But they are exceptions to the rule. Edwards could’ve jeopardized the Democratic Party’s ’08 election with his scandal, while Craig and McGreevey were outed as closeted gays involved in down-low activities. We don’t give politicians like these second chances.
So, we are a land of second chances. At least for those with the keys to the kingdom of the public arena. You just have to be straight, White, male, affluent, committed a crime before the age of twenty-one — and one that didn’t involve murder or Black-on-White crime — to have them.
As for Ray Rice, because many assume that his one act of domestic violence toward his now wife Janay Palmer Rice is the only one he’s committed, and because of all his charitable contributions, the NFL will grant him a second chance. The question isn’t whether Rice deserves a second chance. The question is why Janay Palmer Rice never had a first chance at a violence-free relationship. The answer is patriarchy, misogyny, racial animus, and increasing class inequality. What second chances, and for whom indeed!