Is privilege real or imagined?

Sociologist Matthew Clair explores race and class at work in the criminal court system.

In a groundbreaking 1988 article, Wellesley professor Peggy McIntosh wrote about privilege—specifically, her own White privilege—by identifying 46 real-world instances in which she had the benefit of unearned assumptions that her Black neighbors and friends did not have. She observed, for instance, that she could easily purchase greeting cards, dolls, and toys featuring people of her own race. She noted that she did not need to educate her children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection. She also stated that her race would not work against her if she needed legal help or medical care.

Privilege and Punishment digs deep into the truth behind this claim. Matthew Clair, a sociologist who teaches at Stanford University, examines how racial and class privilege work when individuals are subject to the criminal court system. In short, relationships matter, particularly the relationship between a person charged with a crime and their attorney, who may be either retained privately or appointed by the courts to ensure a criminal defendant’s constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel. Relationships also hold the key to perpetuating (or breaking down) systems of privilege.

To reach these conclusions, Clair logged hundreds of hours observing Boston-area court proceedings and attorney-client interactions and interviewing defendants and their attorneys. The defendants he observed came from different socioeconomic backgrounds—middle-class, working-class, and poor. He interviewed dozens of White and Black defendants. (Latinx and Indigenous defendants were a small minority in the study, which largely focused on distinguishing the experiences of White defendants from those of Black defendants.)