What Tim Brown has learned from the Penn State scandal about institutional racism.
In life, you never know when you will be presented with a learning opportunity.
Often one of the barriers of positive racial discourse is that the ideas of racial impact can be abstract, especially to non minorities that do not have to endure its plight. Its very real that we all struggle in this world, but our struggles are inherently different. Minorities don’t want their struggles compounded by a factor they had no control of; the color of their skin. Institutional racism is an abstraction, until it is illustrated with an example.
The Penn State scandal, with all of its atrocities, is an example of institutional racism, and a particularly vivid display of white privilege.
I’m not going out of my way to see race in the example of Penn State. It’s just hard to ignore when it slaps you in the face.
It’s been hard to ignore the prevalence of ‘cover up’ culture and how it seems to benefit primarily white men in the old boy’s club, including, but not limited to, Penn State and the financial institutions that started our recession.
These institutions that are deemed “too big to fail,” despite the outrageous risks their leaders took, are rewarded and the white men who made them remain unaccountable. At Penn State, the legacy based on years of achievement in football are proclaimed as more timeless and valuable—”too big to fail”—than the cover-up of multiple victims and years of child sexual abuse. Against this backdrop, it’s hard to take the establishment seriously when they preach personal accountability to the rest of us.
It’s hard to ignore that even though these crimes were some of the most heinous ever committed, those most responsible will probably receive a fraction of the punishment they could receive, and would, if the perpetrators were men of color. While some debate whether a statue of Paterno should be taken down, in other news, a child molester caught red-handed is killed on the spot, and the father of the victim is not charged. If an angry father had killed Sandusky, would we be having the same conversations?
Remember the gravitas with which Spanier looked down upon Curtis Enis in 1998 for taking a suit while Spanier himself was helping to cover sex crimes.
Penn State’s most public displays are of the students and fans donning complete white and shouting ‘We Are’ in a show of solidarity. The Pennsylvania State University is a moral and ideological mecca … the ‘grand experiment’ where good ol honest, “American” values churn uncorrupted. At its core are the haughty attitudes that fuel the acceptance of inequality. We are doing things right here, and that’s why we’re special and things ‘work’. If you were only to conduct yourselves like us, then you might reap those benefits, too.
WE ARE better than you.
Growing up in the South, I was often educated on how to conduct myself with authority figures in case of a conflict. The basic premise of this education was that I should take whatever steps I could to reduce the threat level perceived by others. Causality has no effect; even if I am innocent, I am to be mindful of my ‘place’ in this world and how easily my life can be altered for the worst.
I’m not a parent, but I do influence the lives of many young, black males. Every day we talk about life issues as they pursue higher education. I can only imagine how their parents feel about these young men. When talking to them, I believe I’m echoing their parents’ fears for them that in this country, they will be persecuted by the very institutions that are meant to raise their circumstances, allow them to work their way into privilege. We teach them what I learned: to keep themselves safe in a society in which minorities are targeted by institutionalized mechanisms and persecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I want us to teach them something else, too: to believe that they deserve the same level of justice that white people enjoy.
It’s hard to imagine that white children would be subjected to sexual predation for so many years, with so many important people protecting their abuser. That Sandusky was protected from justice because of the ‘greater good’. That those in power can have the benefit of a closet filled with skeletons yet still direct one of the biggest and most prestigious institutions in the United States. That they can continue, knowing what they do, and live without shame or fear of prosecution. After all has come to light, the press remains neutral to the assaults on the character of administrators and staff who kept Sandusky’s secret of criminal cruelty against innocents. Contrast this with the coverage of Michael Vick. Consider that they will have the leniency of the law in their favor, with a chance at total exoneration. That’s the power of white privilege.
There are people who will find this in bad taste and bemoan that this essay has spun the Penn State scandal into a racial issue. Consider it as a learning experience.
Read more On Penn State.