The Privilege of Second Chances

I’d just gotten back from a walk in the woods. My sister met me in the yard and said a deputy sheriff had come to the house looking for me. It was spring 1977, near my twenty-first birthday, and I was home from college for the weekend. “Something about hit and run adjacent to a highway,” my sister said.

The night before, in a town thirty miles way, I’d gone with friends to a party after the bars closed. In a beery haze, I’d parked in the wrong driveway. When the host told me I needed to move my car, I gave her the keys and asked her to do it.

She was back in a few minutes and said the brakes were out on my car, a salt-eaten 1963 Pontiac Tempest. I was skeptical; the brakes had been working fine when I parked. “I’m not going to try to drive it,” she said, “but you need to get it out of there before my neighbor calls the cops.”

I put the car in drive and rolled forward slowly to test the brakes. The pedal sank to the floor. Before I could get my left foot on the parking brake, the car had bumped the garage. Just a tap, it seemed. I couldn’t see any damage.

Lights came on in the house as I backed out of the driveway. A face appeared in a window and I offered an abashed please-don’t-mind-me wave. Then I drove at a crawl back to my apartment, and felt lucky not to get stopped.

The next morning I found the broken brake line and crimped it off with a pair of Vise-Grips. A real repair would have to wait until I could get the car into my uncle’s shop. After refilling the brake fluid and testing to see if the crimp would hold, I drove to my parents’ house, hoping that three brakes out of four would be enough.

As the deputy had instructed, I called the college-town police and was told that my vehicle had been reported leaving the scene of an accident. I needed to come in and answer questions. If I didn’t appear in twenty-four hours, a warrant could be issued for my arrest.

Instead of going straight to the police department, I returned to the neighbor’s house, parking a block away on the street. A tired woman of about 40 answered the door. She wasn’t unfriendly or wary—this was small-town Wisconsin. But she wasn’t expecting guests, either.

I explained who I was and apologized profusely. “If you’ll let me take a look at your garage, I’m sure I can figure out how to make everything right.” I expected her to say no, that her husband or her insurance company would handle it. But she seemed to recognize something familiar in my pleading, and she let me look.

The impact was more than a bump. One of the barn-style wooden doors was punched in. The wall that framed the door was six inches off its foundation. Glass panels in both doors were cracked. “I can fix this,” I told her. I said that I wanted to do that, no matter what happened with the police.

At the police station, I was not directed to a cop, as I’d expected, but to the assistant district attorney, who told me he was considering what kind of charges to file. He had the incident report in front of him, but he let me tell my story.

Leaving the scene was the serious offense, so I emphasized not realizing that I’d caused any damage. Of course I said nothing about being impaired, though the ADA probably filled that in for himself. When I finished, he said he would review the incident report with the officer, talk to the homeowner, and get back to me.

My uncle let me scour his scrap pile for wood. He also let me borrow his hydraulic jack, a pair of saw horses, a circular saw, and his pick-up truck. Between his shop and my dad’s, I had all the tools and most of the materials I’d need to fix the garage. It would cost me about twenty bucks for hinges, paint, and glass.

I spent most of the next Saturday working on the garage. I jacked up the wall and reset it on its foundation. I rebuilt and repainted both doors on the side that I’d hit. I replaced the broken glass. I also replaced a broken window on the untouched side of the garage.

When I asked the woman to review my work, she stood in the driveway with her hands on her hips and scanned the garage. She moved closer and inspected the doors and the new glass. Is it okay? “I can’t remember when it last looked this good,” she said. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

There was, I learned, no husband. She had three kids: two pre-teen daughters and a 17-year-old son who had dropped out of high school. I don’t recall if she told me about her job, but the house and her manner said working class. I was glad that I’d been able to put the garage right for her, but felt deeper regret for adding to her troubles.

A week later the assistant DA called. He’d talked to the homeowner. It turned out that he knew her because of dealings with her son. “Mrs. _____ told me the damage to her garage wasn’t as bad as the officer reported, and that you repaired everything to her satisfaction,” he said. With that, the matter was closed. No ticket, no fine, no record.

That wasn’t my only break. There were other times when more zealous cops could have made me walk a line or count backwards, and I would have failed. As a young man, I took foolish risks and screwed up plenty, and not just behind the wheel. Yet I always managed to elicit forgiveness and avoid serious trouble.

Far more famous careers have been saved by second chances. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reports that Robert Oppenheimer, physicist and head of the Manhattan Project, once tried to fatally poison his tutor at Cambridge. For this, Oppenheimer was put on probation and required to meet with a psychiatrist but otherwise allowed to continue his studies.

Oppenheimer’s upper-middle-class background gave him the “social savvy” (as Gladwell calls it) to get himself off the hook. What I had, as a male from a working-class family, were construction skills. My status as a college student marked me as redeemable. It also helped that I was white. Had I been black, the homeowner might have shooed me away, and the assistant district attorney might have seen me as in need of harsher punishment.

It seems fair to suppose that the distribution of second chances is patterned, paralleling the unequal distribution of other social resources and privileges. This can have profound consequences for social mobility.

A recent study by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues finds that black men face far worse mobility prospects than white men. This is true, it appears, even when controlling for class background and educational achievement. Black men simply aren’t getting ahead at the same rates and to the same degree as comparably equipped white men. Black children also have much higher rates of downward mobility than other groups.

Multiple forms of discrimination combine to produce these results. But I suspect that the unequal distribution of second chances is more important than we realize. We know that the chance to avoid a criminal record matters greatly for employment. We also know that the effects of a criminal record vary by race. As sociologist Devah Pager has shown, white men with a felony conviction have better employment outcomes than equally qualified black men without a criminal record.

Second chances are unequally distributed in other realms of life as well. As kids, we make mistakes in school. As adults, we make mistakes on the job. Some of us get to learn from these mistakes; we get do-overs and our missteps are forgotten. Others make the same mistakes and are seen as innately flawed. When racism fuels such perceptions, when lopsided penalties are levied, when no second chances are given, careers can be truncated or derailed.

Sometimes the breaks we get are gifts from the gods. But second chances are granted by those in power—people whose judgments are skewed by unexamined assumptions, stereotypes, and self-interest. Members of privileged groups benefit from these biases while others are hurt. If we hope to more fairly distribute opportunities to get ahead, we need to root out these biases and more fairly distribute second chances. For those who get them, lucky breaks are good. For the benefit of all, justice is better.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at