The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace isn’t just about Robert Peace. It’s also an examination of the effects of racial and socioeconomic privilege. Jeff and Robert, the two principle characters in the book, are very different people. Jeff comes from a wealthy, white, and highly privileged family of Yale alumni, lives with his two loving, supporting parents, and grows up never having to worry about food or money. During Robert’s underprivileged childhood, however, food and money are constant concerns. Robert’s father, Skeet, spends most of Robert’s adolescence in jail, and Robert is the first person in his family to attend any college, much less an elite college like Yale. By focusing on the friendship between Robert and Jeff, the book studies the concept of privilege, and the ways that it colors interactions between people.
From the beginning, Hobbs discusses privilege mostly in terms of the effect it has on his interactions with other people. For the most part, differences in privilege act as a barrier to friendship. Growing up, Jeff is surrounded by other wealthy white children. Living with Robert Peace is one of his first experiences spending so much time with a person whose life and level of privilege are so different from his own. Immediately upon meeting Robert, Jeff becomes conscious of having more privilege than his roommate. In part, this is because Jeff is white and therefore exempt from the kind of racial prejudice that African Americans face. (By his own account, Jeff goes into college already aware of these realities, and has them confirmed many times over the next four years—most often when Robert tells him that he’s experienced prejudice or discrimination from fellow students.)
Jeff is also highly aware of his socioeconomic privilege. He can tell that Robert is from a working-class family (based on small but telling signifiers like the fact that Robert doesn’t have much luggage), whereas he, Jeff, is the son of a wealthy surgeon. It’s for this reason that Jeff initially gets along better with Ty Cantey, another black roommate who comes from a much wealthier family. Differences in privilege seem to interfere with Jeff and Robert becoming friends. They’ve had such different experiences in life that they’re not sure what to talk about, and therefore can’t “bond” in the way that many college freshmen do. When making polite conversation, for example, Jeff asks Robert what his father does, to which Robert replies that his father is in jail. Jeff has no idea what to say—a recurring theme of his conversations with Robert for the rest of freshman year. Even after Jeff and Robert become friends, their backgrounds often keep them from becoming closer. Robert’s complaints about his spoiled, privileged white classmates sometimes alienate him from Jeff, and Jeff for his part isn’t sure how to interact with Robert’s friends from back in Newark. At every step of the way, the basic components of college friendship—talking about one’s feelings, sharing one’s ambitions, complaining about school, getting to know a friend’s friends—are thwarted by differences in privilege.
None of this should suggest that Robert and Jeff don’t become friends—in fact, Robert later becomes a groomsman at Jeff’s wedding. And yet, even after they become friends, Jeff and Robert find it difficult to see eye-to-eye. Four years of somewhat similar experiences at Yale aren’t enough to make up for the eighteen years of vastly different experiences, and vastly different amounts of privilege. After Robert’s murder, Jeff comes to realize just how different Robert’s life was from his: Jeff had no idea what Robert’s life in Newark was like, and the kinds of things Robert worried about on a daily basis never even occurred to Jeff. In many ways, Jeff didn’t really know Robert. It’s remarkable how much of the basic information about Robert in Jeff’s book is information that Jeff only learned after Robert’s death. Privilege doesn’t necessarily keep people apart, but it certainly keeps them from seeing the world in the same way.
By writing a biography of his old friend and roommate—and, in the process, getting to know all about him, in a way he never did while Robert was alive—Hobbs seems to come to terms with the harsh realities of privilege. He recognizes that the privileged atmosphere at Yale alienated Robert from his peers and in some ways drove him back to Newark. Furthermore, Hobbs seems to acknowledge that he, his other Yale friends, and Yale University itself didn’t do enough to reach out to Robert. In its sheer thoroughness, Hobbs’s book shows how privilege keeps people from knowing each other—but perhaps it also encourages people to move past the boundaries of privilege by exercising curiosity, respect, and open-mindedness.
Privilege Quotes in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
'Wait, wait, wait, hold up," Rob said. 'You're getting served steak and lobster, getting to sleep in your own bedroom with your own bathroom and a maid—and you're starting shit over some words about shoes?" Rob made psha sound. "Don't be such a bitch, T."
After Rob called a faculty coordinator back in Newark to let him know they were okay, the homeowner asked if the boys wanted to stay in his garage until the storm let up. Rob declined; now that no one was going to be struck by lightning or washed down a mountainside, he wanted his group to get through this on their own.
Now, in the spring of 1997, they were young men, leaders who had earned the right to strut the way they did. And three, ten, twenty years from now? On that night, they were confident, even arrogant, that they would rule the city of Newark.
Mr. Cawley took a dinner napkin with a phone number scrawled on it from his pocket, and he pressed it into Rob's hand. He said, “You can go to college wherever you want.”
I learned over the course of our conversation that Rob had gone to a prep school, he "played a little water polo," and his favorite pastime was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Nothing he said shaded him as anything other than well-off and overeducated: a typical rarefied Yale applicant.
I told him I'd grown up “near Philly,” when in fact I had grown up in an eighteenth-century farmhouse on fifteen acres of rolling rural hills in Chester County, thirty miles from the city. I consciously failed to mention that I'd attended private school beginning in prekindergarten, and that my parents, who had been married for almost thirty years, had invested their entire lives (not to mention their finances) into taking care of their four children, removing all uncertainty from our formative years.
White students went to frat houses, one of five popular bars, outdoor quad parties; black students did something else, of which we knew little except that rap music was most likely playing very loud.
This word "fronting" was important to Rob. A coward who acted tough was fronting. A nerd who acted dumb was fronting. A rich kid who acted poor was fronting. Rob found the instinct very offensive, and in college he saw it all around. He felt as though people were in a constant state of role-play before teachers, before each other […]
So what if it's annoying as hell? Instead of sitting around here bitching about it, maybe we just accept that it is what it is, and know that we have the capacity to get way more from them than they’ll ever get from us.
I was still struggling to equate the irritating but unremarkable encounter he'd described (I had doubtlessly forgotten to bus my own tray once or twice, though I didn't admit that now) with the profound anger still coursing through him, a few hours and a few joints later. I felt guilty for being unable to do so, for lacking the empathy required to connect a careless prep school slight to a fundamental flaw in the social construct in which we lived. All I said was, "That sucks, dude."
Though he hid that anger well behind the grin and the laughter and the marijuana, Arthur felt it in the jokes Rob made to Laurel and others about their privileged upbringings, in his heavy quietude whenever socioeconomic topics came up in conversation, and in his general disdain of Yale and Yalies. Arthur saw a closed-mindedness that was, he felt, self-propagating and innately limiting. More broadly, he believed these qualities explained precisely how an intelligent guy like Rob would always make life harder on himself than it needed to be.
Whenever that word, “Yale,” was uttered, even in the lightest way possible, Rob did what he could to undermine its connotation. An exchange might begin with someone saying, "I still don't believe a punkass like you went to no Yale; you're just lying" and Rob would shake his head with a doleful smile and say, “Yeah. I did that shit.”
Oswaldo's advice was the same that, a few years ago, he himself had refused to hear from others: "Get the fuck out of Newark. Get the fuck away from people who won't get the fuck out of Newark."
As a financial master, Mr. Cawley looked at the world in terms of investments, of risk and reward. In 1998, the "investment" in Rob had struck him on paper as one of the lowest-risk and the highest-return; he saw no possible downside in giving this rare boy the slight push (Yale's four-year tuition of $140,000 being slight for a bank CEO worth nine figures) he needed to reach the pinnacle for which he was already headed. Almost a decade later, as Rob broke off eye contact to gaze down at the floor as if there were a pit between them, Mr. Cawley understood that a life wasn't lived on paper.
"I don't need you to," she replied. "I never have. Don't you go worrying about me. Take care of yourself. I just want you happy foremost, and I want you around if it works that way. I want you settled."
And Rob left, rolling his eyes like this scene was just part of a comedy in which he was the focal point of the farcical behavior of those around him. And Oswaldo understood now with a clarity he'd never had before that all of Rob's troubles were self-inflicted—that on Yale graduation day Rob had stood within reach of everything he now didn't have.
Her son made sense with numbers. He always had. And now he was thirty years old, taking her through the tiers of retirement benefits. She wished that these calculations hadn't always been so challenging, not in terms of the math but its implications. She knew that he wished the same thing. But she didn't fix any anger, as her son did, to that wish. She'd entertained many such wishes during the course of her life and had long since accepted the reality that very few of them would come true. She'd wished that Skeet had been innocent. She'd wished for jackpots with each crank of an Atlantic City slot machine.
She parked and placed one foot in front of the other until she stood in the cold, metallic room that smelled of chemicals, and watched the coroner fold the white sheet down from her son's face. She nodded and said, “Yeah, that's Shawn, that's my son.” From there, she drove straight to work.
And yet they still rendered the predictable media spin of potential squandered, the gift of education sacrificed to the allure of thug life, etc., not only simplistic but offensively so.
At a certain point, the lights disappeared from view beyond the trees and eaves of the neighboring homes, leaving the Burger Boyz to sit down once again in the plastic fold-out chairs and wonder how long it would be before the flames flickered out and the lanterns began their descent. And once that happened, they wondered where each would fall.