“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”. Most of them are a lot smarter than Cliven Bundy.
If a black man decided to appropriate some government land for himself, refuse to pay taxes, make racist remarks to the press, gather together a bunch of his buddies, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, and threaten government officials, he would be dead. Those officials would not tolerate him as they have Cliven Bundy.
At the other end of the spectrum, an incident in St. Paul with Chris Lollie began with him sitting on a bench, minding his own business. If he had been white, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have taken notice. Some call this White Privilege.
However, Chris Lollie was being black, given the way he wore his hair, unapologetically so. The police were called. Lollie took offense and asserted his rights. The incident escalated to the point that he was tased and arrested. Because other people witnessed what happened, the charges were later dropped. Watching the recording of the incident that Lollie posted on YouTube, I can imagine that if he were a larger man, say the size of the late Mike Brown of Ferguson, Mo., this totally unnecessary incident could have easily escalated to something much more serious, perhaps even fatal.
I am a privileged person. I am most aware of my privilege when visiting another country, one where the poor are desperate and largely without rights. I have a roof over my head. I have enough to eat. I received a first-rate education. My inalienable rights, as declared by my forefathers, are basically intact. I see my privileges not as a consequence of being white, but of being a citizen in a functioning modern democracy. I do not expect to be able to act like Cliven Bundy without consequences, but I do expect to be able to walk down the street in peace, and when I see a policeman, feel that he is there to protect and serve people like me. I know that this is not the experience of most blacks.
Neil DeGrass Tyson tells a story of exiting a store at the same time as a white man when the alarm went off, indicating that someone was walking out with merchandize he hadn’t paid for. Naturally, the security people assumed the culprit was the black man, so they stopped him while the real thief calmly walked away.
There are of course many more such incidents that I could list: people getting harassed for driving while black, for voting while black, for bleeding while black, “even going to your own home while black”. The reason that people are so upset at the killing of Mike Brown by Ferguson police is not just because of the tragic brutality of this one unnecessary death, but that it is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is the tip of an iceberg that weighs on the life of every African American in this country.
The O’Reilly Factor recently aired an episode entitled “The Truth about White Privilege”, which he “does not believe in”. In support of his point of view, he brought on a black man, Dr. Ben Carson, who said,
“We have a social problem and not so much a racial problem. If you put any group in an environment where there are no father figures, where people resolve issues with violence, and where drugs and alcohol are easily accessible, they’re going to meet up with law enforcement or with other people who are raised the same way. In either case you’re going to have a disaster. It’s not a racial thing, it’s a social thing.”
I agree that education and family cohesion are critical factors in the lack of economic success among the poor in this country, both black and white. However, O’Reilly’s analysis almost completely dismisses the stigma that the descendants of slaves still experience on a daily basis, and what role that has on their prospects in life. Neil Degrass Tyson, in the same clip I linked to above, gives a much more nuanced understanding of the obstacles he had to overcome to become a successful scientist.
I share with O’Reilly a dislike for term “White Privilege”, though for different reasons. First, because I think it misidentifies the source of the privileges that I enjoy. Secondly, it is describing something that is part of the black experience, not the white experience, in this country. Finally, the term seems to convey a sense of collective guilt that I do not think is healthy. However, the only alternative label I can suggest is Black Stigma, which is just too ugly to consider seriously.
Whatever terms we use, it is important for European Americans like myself to be aware of the indignities that African Americans still experience as a part of daily living. When we witness the remnants of racial oppression, we must actively intervene, lest we become complicit in that oppression. We cannot bear the burden that our society continues to lay on the descendants of slaves, but, through understanding, we can lighten that burden, and bring us closer to the day when society no longer finds it acceptable to treat people differently because of the color of their skin. This has already been achieved in law. Once this is accomplished in practice, we can relegate the concept of white privilege to the dust bin of history, where it belongs.
Post Script. Obama said “As a general rule, things don’t end well if the sentence starts with, ‘Let me tell you something about the Negro’..” I think this is good advice, but I couldn’t resist doing the opposite. I hope I have succeeded in violating this general rule.