White Privilege

A picture containing cop pullover at night

It wasn’t luck that allowed me to become a judge after meth addiction. It was white privilege.

Federal Judge, author, and LifeRing Board Member Mary Beth O'Connor contributed this op-ed to the LA Times printed on November 26, 2022. This insightful piece about the racial disparities at every stage of the criminal legal system reveals how the color of her skin factored into her ability to rise from junkie to judge.

This is reprinted in its entirety with the permission of the author.

 It wasn’t luck that allowed me to become a judge after meth addiction. It was white privilege.

I first shot methamphetamine when I was 17. As an abused child seeking relief from trauma and stress, I’d turned to alcohol at age 12 and had used numerous drugs to excess before sticking that needle in my arm. In 1979, at age 18, I was arrested for possession of meth and syringes.

Knowing I was a good student headed to college, without a prior criminal record, the judge reduced the charges to disorderly person, which was below a misdemeanor. As a result, I was not incarcerated. And when he sentenced me, the judge ordered that my record be expunged if I did not get convicted for the next few years. I also was allowed to leave New Jersey to attend college in California, after a one-year delay, even though I still was on probation. The criminal justice system showed me mercy and allowed me to build a life.

I regained a bit of control over my drug use in college, until I succumbed to a severe meth addiction that lasted from my senior year until I was 32. During that decade, I carried meth with me every day. I was pulled over for tickets multiple times and was in car accidents that involved police response. But the police never searched me. Not even when I had been awake for days and looked like a tweaker, with a scabby face and twitchy hands.

While I had to work hard to build a robust recovery foundation, as everyone does, my UC Berkeley education allowed me to reenter the workforce with relative ease.

I then graduated from Berkeley Law at nine years sober, at the age of 42. When I applied to obtain my law license, due to the expungement, I had a clean criminal record. It was the same years later when I had to pass a security screening to become a federal administrative law judge. Had I had an extensive arrest record, I likely would not have been appointed a judge, despite my 20 years of sobriety at that point.

My drug addiction story has been a humbling series of breaks, granting me second and third chances.

That wasn’t luck. Based on the data, I am confident I benefited from the white color of my skin.

People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal legal system. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.

The Public Policy Institute of California has found that Black drivers are stopped at night at twice the rate of white drivers. In addition, police search Black and Latino drivers at a much higher frequency even though the discovery rates of contraband are lower than for white people. Similarly, Black and Latino drivers are overrepresented in being detained and handcuffed.

Black men in California are 42% more likely, and Latino men 32.5% more likely, to be sentenced to prison than white men with similar criminal records and convictions.

I do not mean to suggest that the most significant impact from these racial disparities is that I was able to become a judge and those with notable criminal records cannot. The consequences of racial discrimination and white privilege in my life are trivial compared with the effects for victims, which include limited job opportunities, the break-up of families, lost years spent in jail or prison, and the trauma associated with knowing your community does not receive equal or fair treatment.

I am proud of my accomplishments and appreciate that my hard work, on my recovery and professionally, was a prerequisite to my judicial appointment. Still, I also am aware that this success almost certainly would not have been possible had I been a different color.

Mary Beth O'Connor, a retired federal administrative law judge, LifeRing Board Member and LifeRing Speakers Bureau Supervisor is the author of the acclaimed “From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction.


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  1. kathleen g on February 21, 2023 at 2:56 pm

    thank-you mary beth for this thoughtful articulate piece!

  2. Kathy on February 1, 2023 at 5:24 pm

    I am so disappointed that life ring published this story.
    Supporting white privilege as the reason all whites rose above and were given special rights despite their addictions is nonsense. Whites need to stop feeling so guilty that they are white.
    In addiction we are all the same.
    There are no cultural or racial divides. We succeed by beating our addiction.
    This nonsense needs to stop.

    • Bees on February 2, 2023 at 4:21 pm

      Hi Kathy — Thank you for your feedback.

      Yes, in addiction we are the same. In the eyes of the law, not so much.

      This insightful and thought-provoking op-ed provides an opportunity to look beyond our own skin and consider the flagrant disparity in the criminal “justice” system. Even those who prefer a secular recovery network like LifeRing are met with prejudice. The dominance of 12-step programs in court-ordered recovery meeting attendance reflects the legal court system’s prejudice against secular recovery.

      I invite you to re-read this op-ed. In no way did Mary Beth claim that she “only succeeded because I am white.” She concludes her piece with this:

      I am proud of my accomplishments and appreciate that my hard work, on my recovery and professionally, was a prerequisite to my judicial appointment. Still, I also am aware that this success almost certainly would not have been possible had I been a different color.

      Perhaps you would prefer to keep this News Blog strictly about recovery. While recovery-news is one purpose of this platform, it is not the only purpose. Blog posts also offer an opportunity to go beyond focus on just our own challenges. On the first day of Black History Month, we chose to reflect on the challenges of those most impacted by discrimination in the criminal judicial system from the perspective of a person in recovery who “beat the odds.”

    • Njon on February 26, 2023 at 1:01 pm

      It must be very comforting to believe that you deserve all of the privileges you enjoy. Some people will never understand these concepts or even take steps to maintain their privileged status. Recovery usually helps us become more empathetic but not always.

      Mary Beth, as someone who has experienced what you have and seen how these systems work from the inside, your POV is appreciated. Thank you for highlighting this.

  3. Robert on February 1, 2023 at 12:38 pm

    Who moderated MB post?

    • Bees on February 2, 2023 at 4:35 pm

      Hi Bob O! No one “moderated” this post. I asked Mary Beth if I could run this op-ed on the first day of Black History Month. This is my own sad attempt to raise my hand and say, “I see what’s going on and I’m trying to do something about it.” Editorial independence, I suppose.

      If you’d like to lodge a formal complaint, I invite you to complete our Feedback Form. How we handle complaints is detailed in our LifeRing Conflict Resolution & Complaints Policy.

      All the best to all y’all.
      Sue Betts | sue@lifering.org
      LifeRing Community member, in-person and online convenor, LifeRing advocate and committee collaborator.