White Privilege

Controversial Nevada Rancher Sparks Backlash From Previous Supporters After Racist Comments Cristopher Lollie

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.

NeilTysonOriginsA-Crop_400x400 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.

Ben Carson 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.

Wake Up, America


Ferguson, MO. 08/13

Imagine a country where almost all of the wealth is inherited by a small elite; where most people are living in abject poverty, powerless, desperate, willing to work in almost any conditions for a pittance and be grateful for the opportunity; where decent health care and education are available only to the rich; where people brandish firearms in public; where corporations dump waste wherever it is most convenient without regard to the effects on the environment or the surrounding community; where the roads and bridges are crumbling; where police brutality against the underclass is rampant; and where the government is corrupt, primarily focused on protecting the privileges of the well connected elite, and willing to use military force against its own people to suppress dissent. I have seen places like this.  I enjoyed my visits, but I was acutely aware of my position of privilege and glad that I had a much better place to come home to.

As unbelievable as it seems, there appears to be a well funded campaign to transform the United States of America into such a country.  Globalization has already vastly increased the wealth of the privileged few while undermining the position of the middle class.  This  the effect of this is compounded by reducing taxes on the wealthy.  They are even attempting to eliminate inheritance taxes, as if hoping to reestablish an aristocracy.  For the very poor, they show little concern.  They want to gut the safety net entirely, and seem particularly galled by any attempt to provide universal health insurance.  They want to keep the minimum wage as low as possible and undermine collective bargaining rights. They want to turn education into a profit making enterprise, where, inevitably, quality will be guaranteed only to those who can afford it.  They advocate “open carry” laws, and, when these are passed, they brandish weapons in restaurants and toy stores.  They try to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and undermine environmental regulation at every turn.  They object to spending money on the public infrastructure.  They create pretended social welfare organizations whose real purpose is to provide cover for massive funding of political campaigns, corrupting politicians and drowning out honest dialogue with deceitful misrepresentations.  And now in Ferguson, Missouri, after a young man died at the hands of the police, we have the specter of the modern military weaponry being used against our own citizens.  In Guatemala, all of this could be considered conservative.  In the United States, in the twenty first century, it is at best misguided; it cannot be said to be conserving anything.

Wake up, America!  Do not abandon the gains we have made in the past century.  Let the tragedy in Ferguson be a turning point, not just in race relations in a Missouri suburb, but in the direction of the nation.  Let us devote ourselves to making sure that the long arc of history truly bends toward equality, liberty and justice for all.

Science and Faith: An Encounter with A Brief History of Time

BriefHistoryTime  I have just finished rereading A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. What a marvelous book! Hawking explains ideas beautifully, almost convincing me that I understand what he is saying.

Actually, there is a lot in this little book that I don’t really understand.  For example, I don’t get quantum mechanics at all, but since Feynman said “nobody understands quantum mechanics”, I don’t feel too bad about it.  Though I can follow along with Hawking’s clearly written presentation, I know that behind the curtain is a whole bunch of mysterious math, which I am grateful that he left that out. He could say pretty much anything, I would accept it. And he says some pretty outlandish stuff:

There are a number of different varieties of quarks: there are thought to be at least six “flavors”, which we call up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, and top. Each flavor comes in the three “colors”, red, green, and blue. [pg. 65]

Real [as opposed to virtual] gravitons make up what classical physicists would call gravitational waves, which are very weak — and so difficult to detect that they have never yet been observed. [pg. 70]

The fact that confinement prevents one from observing an isolated quark or gluon might seem to make the whole notion of quarks and gluons as particles somewhat metaphysical. [pg. 73]

The suggestion is that the other dimensions are curved up into a space of very small size, something like a million million million million millionth of an inch. [pg. 163]

This is science? I can imagine a Monty Python skit giving a better explanation of some of this than I could. To those of us who have not made the observations for ourselves and do not understand the underlying mathematics, this stuff is pretty close to revealed Truth. We accept it on faith, faith in the high priests of the scientific establishment, faith that if there are flaws in any of this, the experts will find them and come up with something closer to the truth.

Adam01   I read Hawking’s book in part as an antidote to the Answers in Genesis website, where I had been spending far too much time since I had started this blog. For the most part, I understand what these young earth creationists are saying all too well, usually well enough to refute it. Needless to say, I am not prepared to challenge much of anything Hawking says.

My point is this: A Brief History of Time, I believe, even though I don’t really comprehend it, while Answers in Genesis, I fully understand but reject out of hand. I think the young earth creationists are ridiculous. But, is my own position not equally so? Accepting Hawking as I do, can I not understand how someone could accept Ken Ham and his reading of the Bible in the same way?

To the layman, or to the young student, science is handed down from on high. Yes, I did experiments in science lab, sometimes even getting them to work. However, if the experiment didn’t work out as it was supposed to, I assumed that I did something wrong and accepted the bad grade. Scientific theory remained intact, unaffected by my actual results.

Especially when it comes to scientific work on the fundamental properties of the universe, there is much that we who are not experts accept on trust. Fundamentalist Christians put their trust in the Bible. They have devised Young Earth Creationism in an attempt to hold fast to the religion of their forefathers and reconcile a particular reading of the Bible with the observations of modern science. Despite its sometimes tortured logic, this pseudo science is easier for some people to buy into than the abstruse concepts that Hawking describes, no matter how clear his prose.  To the fundamentalist, Young Earth Creationism simply has more truthiness.

Orion Nebula, from Hubble

Orion Nebula, from Hubble

Part of what has made Hawking’s book so popular is that he deals explicitly with the theological implications of his work. Although he mentions that the Catholic Church has declared the Big Bang compatible with the Bible, he is acutely aware of that he leaves little room for the creator God of traditional Christianity.

One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. … There ought to be some principle that picks out one initial state, and hence one model, to represent our universe.
[pg. 122-123]

There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time ….. The universe would be self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE. [pg. 136]

Though Hawking carefully avoids ever denying the existence of a Creator, any explanation of the world that relies on the existence of such a God seems, for him, to be a failure of human understanding. It is here that I begin to be able to challenge what he says. Take, especially the final paragraph:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God. [pg. 175]

This is a beautiful sentiment and a powerful conclusion to this marvelous little book, but it is pure hubris. I believe the scientific method to be a powerful tool. With this tool, we are perhaps even capable of discovering a complete theory of the physics underlying our universe. As marvelous as that triumph would be, I do not think it will help us much with the day to day problems of life. Human reason has it’s limits, limits that fall well short of knowing whatever it is that we refer to as the Mind of God. For mere mortals like ourselves, that will remain a mystery.

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein