Ferguson offers white people a chance to understand the price of our privilege
By Andrew O'Hehir
Among the “childish things” we need to put aside, white people, is the idea that America’s tormented racial legacy belongs to the past. You know exactly the attitude I mean: We have twice elected a biracial president and LeBron James and Jay Z are zillionaires, so no more talk of racism, please. In the more paranoid formulation prevalent in the Fox News demographic (but not limited to it), this becomes the idea that the federal government has spent the last 50 years giving away money, housing, education and other “free stuff” to black people who don’t work or pay taxes, while vigorously grinding down the white man. So either the vision of healing and reconciliation conjured up so eloquently by Martin Luther King, Jr. more than 50 years ago has now been fulfilled (and black people need to stop complaining), or America is being not so slowly turned into a gay-Muslim-socialist totalitarian state where every day is Kwanzaa. Both scenarios come up against the nettlesome fact that African-Americans stubbornly persist in being poor, living in disadvantaged circumstances, getting shot by the police for no particular reason and going to prison in large numbers.
This kind of white privilege is a willful blindness, along with a passionate embrace of exactly the kind of aggrievement and victimhood that white people often claim to resent in others. It’s found in Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, of course, but also among people like hipster über-troll Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, who wrote a piece not long ago explaining that racism, sexism and homophobia do not actually exist. But I’m not principally talking about Republican ideologues and their hardcore supporters, who have built their power and influence on thinly veiled racism over the past 40 years and barely even bother denying it. There is a much larger population of white Americans, I believe, who feel troubled by what they saw in Ferguson but are unable or unwilling to face the fact that it reflects a recurring historical pattern that has obviously not been exorcised, a pattern of power, privilege and domination in which they are complicit.
Any white person who is being honest can understand this reluctance, and probably any other kind of person too. It’s a lot more comfortable to believe that equal opportunity has been pretty much afforded to all, allowing for some bumps in the road–or to believe that you yourself belong to the unfairly downtrodden and stigmatized group–than to consider the alternatives. It is not comfortable at all for any white American to read the case assembled by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his magisterial reported essay “The Case for Reparations” that American society has not done nearly enough to erase the cultural and historical debt left behind by 250 years of slavery followed by another century-plus of economic discrimination, political suppression, institutionalized theft and straight-up terrorism. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear,” Coates writes. “The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
Recognizing the historic burden of whiteness is not self-abasement or lame apology. It's the pathway to freedom
By Andrew O'Hehir
If you believe that no one utters those kinds of overtly racist statements in public anymore, I can show you some things in my inbox and my Twitter feed that will convince you otherwise. But for those who want to resist the white privilege conversation but also want to avoid coming off like Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, who pronounced that “subordination to the superior race” was the “natural and normal condition” of black people, there is another path. Dysfunction in the black community is understood as the inevitable result of five decades of failed liberal social engineering, and white privilege as an ass-covering term of art cooked up for political advantage by race-baiters and libtard journalists. (Like me, I suppose, although I strenuously object to the “lib” part.)
That commenter I mentioned at the outset agreed that the Michael Brown shooting appeared to reflect a historical pattern of police violence against African-Americans, but rejected the term “white privilege” as unhelpful. If the problem is that cops treat whites fairly and blacks unfairly, shouldn’t we be talking about “black disprivilege” and how to amend it, instead of implying that white people should be subjected to police brutality too? Discussions of white privilege, this person went on, never pointed toward practical solutions and only served “to make white people feel weird.”
You get an A for effort, my friend, but I have some news for you: White people already feel weird. There could be no better word for the bitter, angry and divisive internal politics of America’s white majority. Isn’t it weird for a group that has long been the wealthiest sector of society and its dominant cultural force to embrace the status of victimhood it claims to find so offensive in others? Isn’t it weird for white people, despite all their economic, social, cultural and educational advantages, to increasingly see themselves as persecuted and oppressed? The intense and exaggerated response from many whites to my article and others like it was weird too, and perhaps revealing; it went way beyond disagreement into what therapists call abreaction, a release of repressed emotion. Discussions of white privilege have touched an exceptionally sensitive nerve.
By Joseph Heathcott
For those of us born with white skin, white privilege is the air we breathe; we don’t even have to think about it. It is a glorious gift we have given to ourselves through the social order we have constructed, from top to bottom and bottom to top. It is the pillage of continents, the enslavement of people, the hatred of dark-skinned “others,” all somehow magically laundered by our commitments to democracy, self-reliance, individualism and the “post-racial, colorblind society.” It is our abject unwillingness to confront our history, to correct the deficits of our memory, to lean against the amnesia of a white story told.
Meanwhile, white privilege is a grand protection racket. It has always paid substantial dividends, both in the short term and over generations, by restricting access to a valuable commodity: white skin. The wage we extract from racial difference keeps us committed to its perpetuation, even if we don’t know (or refuse to believe) that we are so committed. White privilege is a legacy, an inheritance, an account on which we can draw over and over and over again for any advantage, however small. It is the accumulation of racially protected, white-defended land, property, education, goods, institutions, mobility, rights and freedom. It is the ultimate headstart. Rarely do we even know we are drawing on these protected accounts, so ubiquitous and profound is the fund. Wave after wave of immigrants has had to learn this lesson, adopting white privilege and anti-black racism to fit properly into their new country.
But take away the air, and we gasp—we don’t know how to breathe in any other medium. In a paroxysm of fear and pain, we hyperventilate, clutching for a lifeline. Put millions of white people into the same scenario, and you get a great moral panic. In earlier times, the moral panic over race flowed from the raiments of a slave-based republic: the Democratic Party, the Confederacy, the Klan, sundown towns, lynchings and chain gangs. Today this moral panic is exemplified by the Tea Party, the GOP, right-wing media, gun toters at Walmart and “patriots” like Cliven Bundy. And chain gangs. Race itself may have no basis in science, no purchase in differentiating humans genetically, but it is nevertheless a powerful cultural force. Race is the house of many rooms, built by white people for “the world and all those who dwell therein” (Psalms 24:1).
White privilege requires constant vigilance at the borders of identity, constant policing of difference. The frantic call among right-wing pundits to “secure the borders” by erecting walls has its psychic corollary in the maintenance of white supremacy. How could we possibly have a black president? Who are these strange people crossing our borders? How could anyone profess any other belief besides Christianity? Why do my tax dollars go to support those people (meaning dark-skinned residents of inner cities, not corporations and lobbyists and the military)? Meanwhile, we cling to the myth of the post-racial society, where suddenly, somehow we will be judged solely on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. In this way, “not seeing race” becomes the peculiar privilege of white people who, perhaps unknown to them, see race everywhere always.