clock menu more-arrow no yes

The verdict for those armed militants who took over a federal building is white privilege in action

They armed themselves and took over a wildlife refuge in Oregon. They were found not guilty.

Ammon Bundy, leader of an anti-government militia, at the Oregon wildlife refuge. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The verdict is completely absurd.

Eight months after the nation watched an armed militia take over a wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest federal land ownership, a jury has come back and said that the militia members are “not guilty.” This includes not guilty of a charge that describes what everyone knows these militants did, considering that they live-streamed themselves doing it: conspiracy to prevent Bureau of Land Management and US Fish and Wildlife employees from doing their jobs at the wildlife refuge.

Again, this is literally what they did. They armed themselves and took over a wildlife refuge, preventing federal workers from going into the facility and doing their jobs. Ammon Bundy, the militants’ leader, even participated in interviews in which he called for more people to join him in his cause.

In fact, the militants staged their protest because they want to get federal employees out of these lands. The Bundys and other militants would like to see the federal government give up federal lands to locals. This, they argue, would free the territory of environmental regulations that they see as burdensome — but are meant to preserve endangered animals and nature — and enable more exploitation of the lands’ resources by allowing, for example, more unfettered farming, mining, and hunting.

The defense argued there was no intent to keep federal employees off the refuge. But come on. An armed group occupied a federal building. Your imagination doesn’t have to stretch very far to realize what was happening.

Yet a jury found them not guilty.

It is impossible to ignore race here. This was a group of armed white people, mostly men, taking over a facility. Just imagine: What would happen if a group of armed black men, protesting police brutality, tried to take over a police facility and hold it hostage for more than a month? Would they even come out alive and get to trial? Would a jury find them and their cause relatable, making it easier to send them back home with no prison time?

One doesn’t have to do much imagining here, either. The social science is pretty clear: People are much more likely to look at black people and see criminals and wrongdoers. They don’t get the privilege of innocence in the same way that white people — including these militants in Oregon — do.

The public is much more likely to associate black people with criminality

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Time and time again, studies have found that the public is more likely to associate black people with criminality and violence.

As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, an author of the study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Another study found that people tend to associate what the authors call “black-sounding names,” like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do “white-sounding names,” like Connor and Garrett.

“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”

These are the biases that people harbor when judging black people. It means that from the start, a black person on trial is far more likely to be seen as someone who could have done wrong.

As one example of how this shows up in the US legal system, a 2012 report by the US Sentencing Commission found that black men received sentences for drug trafficking that were 13.1 percent longer than the sentences white men received — more time for the same crime.

In contrast, Americans by and large don’t have automatic negative biases against white people. In fact, some white people might find the militants relatable — the militants look like them, and they’re protesting a cause that might seem agreeable to a lot of people struggling to make ends meet in rural areas.

The defense in the Oregon trial exploited this. Matt Schindler, one of the attorneys for the defense, said in his closing statement, “How did any of these people benefit from protesting the death of rural America?” Translation: These guys were trying to speak out against problems that afflict you. How could you turn against them?

Just imagine trying a similar argument for an armed group of a different race.


Watch: The Oregon standoff, explained in 3 minutes

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.