Alice Marie Johnson, who was pardoned by President Trump this week after relentless activism by Kim Kardashian, should not have been in prison. Like millions of disenfranchised Americans who committed low-level drug crimes, Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced unfairly as part of a generation-long failed effort to discourage drug use. Kim Kardashian leveraged her wealth and power to achieve justice for Alice—a worthy cause, no doubt. But there are millions of people of color in the same boat (and by boat, I mean prison). Alice is free. They are not.
Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people behind bars for low-level drug crimes don't become the subject of viral videos. One of every 115 Americans is in prison right now, and 40 percent of imprisoned Americans are considered no threat to public safety, according to a TIME investigation. Kim Kardashian made Alice the face of this issue, but unless Kim uses her own privilege to help everybody else in Alice's position, she has made little credible change.
Don't get me wrong: Kim Kardashian was courageous and persistent in her efforts to free Alice. Not only did she rescue Alice from the clutches of a flawed criminal justice system, she also brought awareness to an issue not well-understood by many Americans. Alice deserved to be released long ago, and Kim deserves credit for making that happen.
But this is a victory for Alice alone, not the cause as a whole. Kim's official statement on Alice's release only gave a passing nod to the hundreds of thousands in her position:
So grateful to @realDonaldTrump, Jared Kushner & to everyone who has showed compassion & contributed countless hours to this important moment for Ms. Alice Marie Johnson. Her commutation is inspirational & gives hope to so many others who are also deserving of a second chance.June 6, 2018
The risk is that Kim, and the rest of us, will consider this a victory and move on. Kim understands that her own privilege enables her to right wrongs—but if she hand-picks the subjects of her privilege without investing her considerable resources in the people whose stories she will never hear about, then Kim IS part of the problem.
It's worth mentioning the Donda's House debacle here. When Kanye West's mother, Donda West, passed away unexpectedly in 2007, Kanye co-founded a charity designed to mentor underprivileged young people (the very population, in fact, at risk of finding themselves in Alice's situation). Last week, after Kanye was accused by his ex-friend Rhymefest of no longer being involved in Donda's House, Kim leapt to her husband's defense. "You better believe I will make it my mission to take Donda’s House from you and let my children run it the way it should be run!" she wrote on Twitter.
Kim probably meant that the charity in Donda's name should be run by Donda's grandchildren, but the degree of her privilege is striking. When Kim threatens to "take from you" a charity, you better believe that Kim is able to—the woman is worth $175 million. When Kim swears she'll hand her children the reins of an organization, it stings of nepotism: Kim's kids, after all, have grown up with privilege and can't understand what Rhymefest and Kanye experienced in Chicago that led them to start Donda's House. If Kim uses her power to gain ownership of a charity and ultimately put it in the hands of people who have limited understanding of the community it intends to serve, she'll have once again become part of the problem: Ensuring our structures and institutions continue to be managed by the powerful and privileged.
But also of note is Kim's follow-up tweet about Alice's release, which suggests she has some understanding of this.
I hope to continue this important work by working together with organizations who have been fighting this fight for much longer than I have and deserve the recognition.June 6, 2018
It's anyone's guess what's next for Kim. This much is clear: Whether your privilege comes down to whiteness, wealth, influence, being able-bodied, or something else entirely, there are responsible and irresponsible ways to use it. You shouldn't cherry-pick one person to save if the issue is systemic. You cannot advocate for certain victims and bypass others.
If you don't do that, you're doing nothing to change the power structures that you purport to fight.
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Jenny is the Digital Director at Marie Claire. Originally from London, she moved to New York in 2012 to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and never left. Prior to Marie Claire, she spent five years at Bustle building out its news and politics coverage. She loves, in order: her dog, goldfish crackers, and arguing about why umbrellas are fundamentally useless. Her first novel, EVERYONE WHO CAN FORGIVE ME IS DEAD, will be published by Minotaur Books on February 6, 2024.
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