Does Mark Wahlberg want a 'white privilege' pardon?

Actor Mark Wahlberg. Image copyright Getty Images

Last month actor Mark Wahlberg filed a petition asking the US state of Massachusetts for an official pardon for a pair of decades-old criminal convictions. His timing could be worse, but not by much.

According to court records, in 1988 a 16-year-old Mr Wahlberg brutally attacked a Vietnamese man named Thanh Lam with a stick while spewing racial epithets and knocking him unconscious. Seeing police, Mr Wahlberg fled and found Hoa Trinh, another Vietnamese man. He put his hand around Mr Trinh's shoulder and asked the man to help him hide.

After the police cars had passed, Mr Wahlberg punched Mr Trinh in the face. According to the police report, during his arrest the future actor used several anti-Asian slurs. He served 45 days of a three-month sentence, all while maintaining that the crimes were not racially motivated.

Today, however, Mr Wahlberg says he's a changed man - who wants a liquor licence for his restaurant.

"I am deeply sorry for the actions that I took on the night of 8 April, 1988, as well as for any lasting damage that I may have caused the victims," he writes in the petition. "Since that time, I have dedicated myself to becoming a better person and citizen so that I can be a role model to my children and others."

A pardon would legally free Mr Wahlberg up for more than just a liquor licence for his family's Boston-based restaurant, Wahlburgers. It would also allow him to do work as a parole or probation officer in the US state of California - the other reason he cited in his petition.

Reaction to the timing and substance of Mr Wahlberg's pardon has been harsh, given the racial nature of his crimes. Put into context with the race-based unrest that's persisted since a grand jury's decision not to charge a policeman over the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, some say the petition is white privilege in action.

"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," writes CNN's Jeff Yang.

A pardon for Mr Wahlberg's two 1988 crimes would not, however, completely wash his record clean. Two years earlier he was embroiled in a civil rights action lawsuit because he, along with two friends, allegedly yelled racial slurs and threw rocks at black schoolchildren. He settled that suit without admitting guilt.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mark Wahlberg says he is now a better person and is "deeply sorry" for his actions

In 1992 he managed to dodge criminal charges by settling out of court after a 20-year-old security guard said the actor, unprovoked, had repeatedly kicked him in the face.

Yang writes that it is "gut-wrenching" that in the reactions to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner - all young black men killed despite being unarmed - the victims are often characterised as "harder, bestial and irredeemably corrupted by casual drug use or records of petty crime". But Mr Wahlberg, he says, who has a much more extensive criminal record, is seen simply as a troubled kid.

Ben Railton, writing for Talking Points Memo, says that he also sees a larger historical and cultural narrative at play.

"Many Americans might prefer to erase the histories of white crime and violence from our collective memories, just as Wahlberg now requests that his own history of violence toward people of colour be legally erased," he writes. "This ability - to write history the way we choose, regardless of the facts - is a frightening example of white privilege."

But other reactions are less focused on the wider racial conflict and more in the human one.

Writing for the Boston Globe, Adrian Walker suggests that Mr Wahlberg should personally reach out to his victims and apologise before taking the legal route. He says that he believes Mr Wahlberg's regret is genuine because the potential gains of the pardon are so small.

"But pardons are a serious process, to the point that many argue that recent governors have granted too few of them," he writes. "Wahlberg shouldn't get an E-ZPass because he's a movie star and people like his restaurants. Cleansing his record and his conscience should be hard, not as easy as writing a few checks."

Time's Daniel D'Addario says the pardon request comes across as entitled and proves that he hasn't really changed - and why should he? D'Addario writes that the actor's audience has clearly already forgiven him. His film's box office numbers are proof enough. But asking for a pardon exposes Mr Wahlberg as the same 16-year-old, for whom consequences don't matter.

"That Wahlberg has served his time and moved forward with life sends a message that anything is possible for people in dire circumstances," he says. "For the state to say he never committed a crime at all would send a message that anything is possible for a celebrity."

While neither box office numbers nor "Marky Mark and Funky Bunch" album sales are likely to influence Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's decision about Mr Wahlberg, the results will no doubt be scrutinised.

As Danielle C Belton writes for the Root, however, stifling Mr Wahlberg via a criminal record doesn't make the US justice system any better. People don't have to be perfect to get second chances.

"This shouldn't be about, 'But what if Mark Wahlberg is still a racist jerk?'" she writes. "Being a racist jerk isn't illegal. Just as wearing sagging pants isn't illegal, or listening to really loud rap music in public places. We can't keep demanding that individuals stay tarnished forever, because otherwise, what's the point?"

(By Kierran Petersen)