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Mark Wahlberg doesn't deserve pardon

By Jeff Yang
updated 11:28 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark Wahlberg petitioned Massachusetts for pardon of his brutal assaults of two men
  • Jeff Yang: There's a double standard when we judge crimes committed by whites and blacks
  • In the cases of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, we ask accountability from the victims
  • Yang: With Wahlberg, he hasn't even show true remorse for the repulsive actions of his youth

Editor's note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and can be heard frequently on radio as a contributor to shows such as PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. The list of names of black men killed by white men who have subsequently gone unpunished -- and in the case of Brown and Garner, untried -- continues to grow. In each of these cases, an ugly theme has been raised in defense of the perpetrators: The victims should have known better.

Why did Garner resist arrest? Why was Martin wearing a hoodie? Why did Brown not meekly get out of the street when ordered to by a police officer? The reasoning goes that their deaths were triggered by their deeds; they need to be held posthumously accountable for their conduct.

When it comes to the actions of their white killers, however, the accountability hawks fall suddenly silent.

Jeff Yang
Jeff Yang

In their eyes, accountability is apparently only for the dark-skinned (for being "uppity" or vulgar), the poor (for failing to bootstrap themselves into success), the recently immigrated (for failing to "mainstream" into American society) -- and, as we've also seen, for women for failing to avoid sexual predators and LGBTs for being too blatant about their sexuality.

A flagrant new example of this "accountability for thee, but not for me" sensibility emerged last week, when New England Cable News reported that actor Mark Wahlberg -- one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men, who scored a staggering $16 million paycheck for his turn as a heroic father and inventor in the most recent "Transformers" movie -- has petitioned Massachusetts for pardon of his brutal assaults on a pair of Vietnamese men, Tranh Lam and Hoa Trinh, while a teenager in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, center, warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, December 9, in Los Angeles. The team wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts during warm-ups in support of the family of Eric Garner. Since a grand jury declined to indict a New York police officer in the death of Garner, demonstrators across the country have taken to the streets to express their outrage. Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic, died in July after he was put in a chokehold by the officer, Daniel Pantaleo. Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, center, warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, December 9, in Los Angeles. The team wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts during warm-ups in support of the family of Eric Garner. Since a grand jury declined to indict a New York police officer in the death of Garner, demonstrators across the country have taken to the streets to express their outrage. Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic, died in July after he was put in a chokehold by the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision
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Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision Protests after Eric Garner grand jury decision

The attacks were peppered with racial slurs; he called Lam a "Vietnam f*cking sh*t" before smashing him in the head with a large club and knocking him unconscious, and he punched Trinh so hard that he left him blinded in one eye. He repeatedly referred to both men as "slant-eyed gooks" while he was being arrested. Wahlberg, who was 17, was tried as an adult and served 45 days in jail for the crime.

In the application he filed to the state's Advisory Board of Pardons, Wahlberg states that he has "dedicated myself to becoming a better person and citizen so that I can be a role model to my children and others" and that "receiving a pardon would be a formal recognition that I am not the same person that I was." He claims that, despite his use of racist language, the race of the men was not a motivation for his crime, blaming instead the "influence of alcohol and narcotics." (Wahlberg committed the assaults while seeking to steal two cases of beer from Lam's convenience store.)

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In a stroke of irony, he states that a major reason for seeking a pardon is the desire to expand his own burgeoning restaurant chain, Wahlburgers, whose licensing has been hampered by his record as a felon.

So, young Mark Wahlberg, who would just half a decade later rise to fame as a rapper and a crotch-grabbing underwear model under the name "Marky Mark" before successfully transitioning to acting, was let off with a trivial 45-day sentence after battering an Asian man until he was permanently handicapped. Three gold records, $200 million in wealth and untold fame and adulation later, he's seeking absolution for his crimes, because, he writes, "troubled youths will see this as an inspiration and motivation that they, too, can turn their lives around."

The unwritten phrase that should follow Wahlberg's assertion: "That is to say, so long as they're white and their victims are not."

If a black, Hispanic or Asian youth under the influence of drugs and alcohol had put out a white man's eye while trying to rob his store, it's inconceivable that he would have been let off with such a light sentence; implausible that he'd have gone on to the kind of marquee stardom that Wahlberg has obtained; unlikely that he would have the sense of unvarnished privilege that is driving Wahlberg's desire for a whitewashing of his record, if you'll pardon the pun.

According to The Boston Globe, to this day Wahlberg has never apologized or paid restitution to the victims of his crimes. He also hasn't really acknowledged his pattern of bigoted language and racist violence, which included a separate episode in which he threw rocks at African-American schoolchildren while shouting that "black n*ggers" were unwelcome in his community.

And he has never reached out to the Vietnamese-American community or other communities of color with the kind of targeted charity and philanthropic presence befitting someone who was truly remorseful for the repulsive actions of his youth.

And that's the most gut-wrenching aspect of Wahlberg's request, coming as it does in the wake of the repeated, unpunished killings of young black men and teens at the hands of white men. The darkest reactions to the deaths of Martin, Brown and Garner described the victims as hardened, bestial and irredeemably corrupted by casual drug use or records of petty crime. They were, in the coded language of these commenters, "thugs."

Meanwhile, Wahlberg, a wealthy white man with a more extensive criminal record than any of the black men mentioned above, has been described across mainstream media as a "troubled" youth who's since made good.

In the wake of the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Garner, the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite trended on Twitter, featuring hundreds of white people sharing how their infractions were dismissed by police, while in many cases black friends were prosecuted for the same offenses. I noted at the time that the hashtag was "proof that there are two America: One that gets off with a wink. And one that just gets offed."

In that other America, white versions of Martin, Brown and Garner might well have gotten the chance to "make good" like Wahlberg; they might be the ones seeking to redeem their youthful indiscretions.

Sadly, no amount of pardoning will resurrect the dead.

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