An Education in Inequality

What Tim Brown has learned from the Penn State scandal about institutional racism.

In life, you never know when you will be presented with a learning opportunity.

Often one of the barriers of positive racial discourse is that the ideas of racial impact can be abstract, especially to non minorities that do not have to endure its plight. Its very real that we all struggle in this world, but our struggles are inherently different. Minorities don’t want their struggles compounded by a factor they had no control of; the color of their skin. Institutional racism is an abstraction, until it is illustrated with an example.

The Penn State scandal, with all of its atrocities, is an example of institutional racism, and a particularly vivid display of white privilege.

I’m not going out of my way to see race in the example of Penn State. It’s just hard to ignore when it slaps you in the face.

It’s been hard to ignore the prevalence of ‘cover up’ culture and how it seems to benefit primarily white men in the old boy’s club, including, but not limited to, Penn State and the financial institutions that started our recession.

These institutions that are deemed “too big to fail,” despite the outrageous risks their leaders took, are rewarded and the white men who made them remain unaccountable. At Penn State, the legacy based on years of achievement in football are proclaimed as more timeless and valuable—”too big to fail”—than the cover-up of multiple victims and years of child sexual abuse. Against this backdrop, it’s hard to take the establishment seriously when they preach personal accountability to the rest of us.

It’s hard to ignore that even though these crimes were some of the most heinous ever committed, those most responsible will probably receive a fraction of the punishment they could receive, and would, if the perpetrators were men of color. While some debate whether a statue of Paterno should be taken down, in other news, a child molester caught red-handed is killed on the spot, and the father of the victim is not charged. If an angry father had killed Sandusky, would we be having the same conversations?

Remember the gravitas with which Spanier looked down upon Curtis Enis in 1998 for taking a suit while Spanier himself was helping to cover sex crimes.

Penn State’s most public displays are of the students and fans donning complete white and shouting ‘We Are’ in a show of solidarity. The Pennsylvania State University is a moral and ideological mecca … the ‘grand experiment’ where good ol honest, “American” values churn uncorrupted. At its core are the haughty attitudes that fuel the acceptance of inequality. We are doing things right here, and that’s why we’re special and things ‘work’. If you were only to conduct yourselves like us, then you might reap those benefits, too.
WE ARE better than you.

Growing up in the South, I was often educated on how to conduct myself with authority figures in case of a conflict. The basic premise of this education was that I should take whatever steps I could to reduce the threat level perceived by others. Causality has no effect; even if I am innocent, I am to be mindful of my ‘place’ in this world and how easily my life can be altered for the worst.

I’m not a parent, but I do influence the lives of many young, black males. Every day we talk about life issues as they pursue higher education. I can only imagine how their parents feel about these young men. When talking to them, I believe I’m echoing their parents’ fears for them that in this country, they will be persecuted by the very institutions that are meant to raise their circumstances, allow them to work their way into privilege. We teach them what I learned: to keep themselves safe in a society in which minorities are targeted by institutionalized mechanisms and persecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I want us to teach them something else, too: to believe that they deserve the same level of justice that white people enjoy.

It’s hard to imagine that white children would be subjected to sexual predation for so many years, with so many important people protecting their abuser. That Sandusky was protected from justice because of the ‘greater good’. That those in power can have the benefit of a closet filled with skeletons yet still direct one of the biggest and most prestigious institutions in the United States. That they can continue, knowing what they do, and live without shame or fear of prosecution. After all has come to light, the press remains neutral to the assaults on the character of administrators and staff who kept Sandusky’s secret of criminal cruelty against innocents. Contrast this with the coverage of Michael Vick. Consider that they will have the leniency of the law in their favor, with a chance at total exoneration. That’s the power of white privilege.

There are people who will find this in bad taste and bemoan that this essay has spun the Penn State scandal into a racial issue. Consider it as a learning experience.


Read more On Penn State.

—Image of Penn State mascot courtesy of Richard Paul Kane /

About Tim Brown

TB is a single 30 something living in Atlanta, GA. He is a former collegiate athlete and now
works in academia. Mentor, brother, and friend are all titles in his list of accomplishments.


  1. Blindian says:

    “Young black boys were judged to be “men” years before white boys.”

    I guess that’s a step up from calling adult black men “boys”. No you listen to me, boy.

  2. There is an important lesson here, Tim, that hasn’t been explored. It is that neither oppression nor privilege are grounded in only race (or sex, or gender, or orientation, or class). They combine in diverse ways for different people.

    For instance, we know that young black boys are disciplined much more frequently than young white boys in school (check out Ladson Billings, G. (2011). Boyz to men? Teaching to restore Black boys’ childhood). When teachers and administrators are asked for the reasons why they discipline their 8 year old students, black boys were overwhelmingly considered “adults” in need of life lessons – and not children. Young black boys were judged to be “men” years before white boys. Stereotypes (and fears) regarding race AND masculinity are involved here. Separating the two would miss the depth of this discrimination.

    The same can be said with Penn State’s disgusting disciplinary record. You’re right, race is undoubtedly a factor contributing to how Sandusky was protected, prosecuted, sentenced, and in how his sentence has been interpreted by pundits. And we need to add it to our conversation about the case and Penn State’s aversion to reprimanding white males in their sports program. But let’s not forget the “depth” here: issues concerning class (of the victims and Penn State officials), sex (of both parties), and race (of both, yet again) must be mentioned TOGETHER if we want a more-complete picture.

  3. The demonstration of privilege is in the fact that the senior officials were white.

    There are plenty of examples of the cover up of child abuse by non-white abusers.

  4. “It’s hard to imagine that white children would be subjected to sexual predation for so many years, with so many important people protecting their abuser.”
    – Ever heard of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals, Tim? The kids were all white and it went on for DECADES before it became public, and there were MANY, MANY times more involved than the number of victims of Penn State. The whiteness of the preists’ viticims did not prevent the abuse or bring it to a quick end. Your assertion that the race of the Penn State victims perpetuated their abuse is factually wrong and morally offensive. Its just another example of a racialist attitude.

    “There are people who will find this in bad taste and bemoan that this essay has spun the Penn State scandal into a racial issue. Consider it as a learning experience.”
    – Historical ignorance is alive and well within Atlanta academia. Lesson learned.

  5. Sherman Hemsley says:

    “I think many people don’t realize or choose to recall that many if not all of the victims were young Black boys. ”

    Who are you talking about? Sandusky’s victims? All of them are white.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Where are you getting that information?

      As far as I’ve heard, every single one of the victims from the trial has been able to maintain anonymity.

  6. I think many people don’t realize or choose to recall that many if not all of the victims were young Black boys. I think that helps illustrate your point especially in contrast to the Michael Vick scandal.

    Yes Vick did something very wrong and is now “back on top” and in the NFL but he was villianized. I don’t think anyone can compare the Sandusky situation and the fact that people in positions of power were aware and did little or next to nothing.

    When you juxtapose it against State College’s moral high ground image is quite chilling.

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