As with those of gender, J. Ron Crawford writes that we must recognize the privileges in accordance to race before we can tackle its problems.
You see, I’m aware that even when driving well above the speed limit, which I normally do, I’m relatively safe from a ticket. There’s usually another driver nearby doing the same, and his chances of being pulled over are usually much higher. It’s not that his car is red and mine is gray. It’s not that he’s in the left lane and I’m in the right. I feel this safety simply because he’s black or Hispanic. I am aware that only one of us is likely to be pulled over at a time, and the odds are that it will be him, and not me.
I am a privileged white American male. My privilege, from being white, allows me to think I can do as I please. I don’t feel guilty about it, because I didn’t create the situation. I know it isn’t fair, but I take advantage of it anyway. I just drive on, in a manner of speaking, relaxed.
At first I was unconscious of this driving behavior of mine. Now, however, I realize it’s deliberate. I am placed in a situation with people I do not know, where the social rules were already established. I can sit here and tell you those rules are wrong, but I will, and I do, take advantage of them. I may only by soothe my mind a bit with the knowledge that I’m less likely to pay a fine, but it affects my behavior: I don’t slow down or worry.
Now, if that were to suddenly change, if the police were to no longer stop black drivers more than whites, it would have a minimal effect on my driving. I would be more aware of when I’m breaking the law and I would be more nervous about doing so. I would probably drive just a little slower.
If, on the other hand, it changed by stopping whites exponentially more often (at the same rate or higher than blacks or Hispanics), having my car searched, and resulting in me justifiably fearing an arrest for talking back, now that would be entirely different. It would have a huge effect, not only on my driving, but in how I view the police. I would feel targeted, and I would be angry about it. I imagine that my entire understanding of how I am treated by our society and especially our government would be impacted.
The former sort of equal treatment is progress, and I would welcome it. The latter is what conservative groups such as the Tea Party have feared and picketed about for the past three and a half years, and while it may not be comfortable for me, it still could have a positive effect. If it were to occur, it may at least lead to everyday abuses of power finally being addressed. While this began as a small example, it is easy to see how closely it relates to major problems.
This is one of the reasons it was important to broadcast the recent images of Occupy protesters being pepper-sprayed at point blank, or being stabbed and beaten by batons. While many black Americans may not see anything new in that treatment, and some people may have found the hand-wringing annoying for that reason, it was needed. Those images help a privileged majority understand what is already happening to a substantial number of people, and do so by addressing their uncritical acceptance of privilege.
Facing the facts of one’s own privileged status is not a simple thing, because it can suggest that we have had things given to us, when we think we’ve worked hard for them. That’s the wrong suggestion, frankly, since we are not talking about an upper-class minority in this case (that’s a separate discussion), but the privilege that a large majority of the country holds as they compete with everyone else. Because we are speaking about the privilege of the majority, we should be able to address how others lack such privilege to help pull our society forward.
This doesn’t mean I have suddenly worked less hard in my life, but it does mean that I should be aware that many of my fellow Americans have challenges that are difficult for me to imagine. We shouldn’t need to see white kids at UC Davis being brutalized by police to think about those challenges, but many of us do, because it directly confronts our internalized expectations of how we should be treated, and it forces these thoughts into the conscious mind. This awareness often truly does have to be forced, even among thoughtful and informed people. Ignorance is bliss, after all, and that’s why.
Many poorer whites are having real difficulty in making ends meet, and their benefits of privilege consist primarily of what does not happen to them, as opposed to all the great, imagined things that might. They are not as likely to be arrested or wrongly convicted, but when they hear they have “privilege” they look at themselves and literally can’t see it. It’s unlikely they would say, “Yes, I am so lucky that I’m not in jail because I happened to be near a crime scene.” It is more likely they would be offended by the suggestion, because they are working as hard as they can and don’t feel especially lucky.
All they will hear by “privilege” is what needs to be taken away. And that’s going to sound frightening. Giving the same treatment to minority groups should suggest that they will also have the chance to struggle along without additional unreasonable barriers, not that struggling white families will suddenly encounter those same ones.
But an underlying American fear of vengeance leads to the suggestion that turnabout is fair (or unavoidable) play, and even comfortable middle-class men and women have joined in the denials of their own privilege or good fortune, and shout their fears that liberals want to enslave white Americans.
Interestingly, those that shout the loudest about their lack of privilege often demagogue the most about their fears of vengeance should it be lost. Consider this recent Republican campaign ad from Florida, depicting President Obama as a slave ship captain.
As noted by Chauncey Devega:
It is important to emphasize the choices made by the producers of Oxner’s video. They decided to use a colonial-era vessel driven by wind and powered by slaves, as opposed to a modern cruise liner, a steamship, or even an airplane. They chose to cast the children as slaves who are monitored by a whip-carrying overseer. And Oxner’s ad was designed to feature one image above all others—that of children, most of them white, being abused by a gleeful and indifferent black man. The inversion of the expected image, one where a person of color enslaves whites in their own version of the Middle Passage, reinforces the idea that something is unnatural (and inherently wrong) about this relationship of domination and subordination.
Despite the fact that white people control almost every major social, financial, economic, and political institution in the United States, the theme of white oppression by minorities is popular in the age of Obama. And while reasonable conservatives may not believe they will literally be made slaves like the children on the ship, there does appear to be a sense on the Right that whiteness and white people are somehow under siege.
Fear of racial equality leading to vengeance has been a part of American discourse since its founding. In my view, this persists so strongly even today because of this phenomenon: that those fearing equality believe the most strongly that vengeance is justified.
In the past few years, during the Obama Administration, we have heard cries of “slavery,” “communism,” and so forth from the far right. These aren’t intended as descriptions of political systems, either. These Glenn Beck-inspired delusions are honest expressions of fear of vengeance if their societal privilege is lost.
Here are people who are truly terrified that an equal society will hold them responsible for benefiting from their societal privilege. They were clear to demonstrate that in their signs about “white slavery” and other phrases that were popular in 2010. But that privilege will clearly persist, and change is slow: there is no indication that there will be a more abrupt move toward an equal society, let alone a reversal of racial roles in this country.
Fear of loss can start to explain the paranoia: a loss of status, of the existing order of this nation. After all, the racial hierarchy here was established centuries ago, by force. While we have dismantled its legal framework, its social framework has been slower to disintegrate. If one already believes that their place in this country is extremely tenuous, that they are slipping through the cracks, they will often cling to whatever hierarchy that they can—it’s much more solid than hope. If that means supporting the racial profiling of their neighbors, then they are likely to do so.
Ultimately, I hope we can reframe this argument from one of giving up privilege to one of extending it, by removing unnecessary barriers. The goals are the same, but the meaning is different for someone who cannot accept or understand the privilege that they have. Roadblocks in front of a few don’t help the majority move any faster.
As men get older, we tend to cooperate more and lose the need for “one-upmanship” that defines many younger men. Taking stock of our own privilege should be part of our maturing, and part of our learning to cooperate. If we want to make this world a better place, then we have to look squarely at where we stand, what challenges others face, and do our best to address them. We can’t do that by clinging to a denial of our own advantages over our fellow Americans, whatever they may be.
–Photo John Steven Fernandez/Flickr