Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It Is A Privilege To Ignore The Race Thing; A Duty To Engage With It

There is a brilliant scene towards the end of an old Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry David (having earlier in the show mistaken a well-dressed black man for a valet) parks his car, walks away and after a black man happens to pass him, turns back towards his car and clicks on his car alarm, causing a beep.  The black man turns around and asks, "think I'm gonna steal your car?"  Larry protests:  "No, no, I just forgot to, to put the alarm on. It's not you.  It's no race thing! No, no race thing."

Of course, the bit would have made no sense if it had been a white man passing by.  A white man would be unlikely to even notice the alarm going on and even if he did, would never assume that the actions of locking a car could be a knee-jerk response to seeing him. 

And there's your white privilege.

As Sally Kohn wrote in a piece for the Washington Post:
Privilege is like oxygen: You don’t realize it’s there until it’s gone. As white folks, we can’t know what it’s like to go through life without racial privilege because we literally haven’t. You may have heard stories about black friends being monitored in department stores or seen the research that black names on resumes get half as many job interviews as white names on the same resumes. Maybe you know that a black man or boy is killed every 28 hours in America by police or vigilantes. Maybe you’ve read the studies on implicit “shooter bias” — how we’re all more likely to pull a simulated trigger on unarmed black men than unarmed white men — and maybe you know that even the most egalitarian Americans harbor unconscious negative attitudes about black people. The studies and the stories are overwhelming. Just this week, police shot and killed a black 12-year-old for holding a BB gun.
To believe that this country has moved beyond race is to be wedded to denial and a romanticized view of America that never existed -- that while we might have sanctioned slavery long ago, it had little to do with our growing power and economic wealth; that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and thereby removed our Nation's moral taint; that any residual racism was quashed during the Civil Rights Era; and that the election of Barack Obama provided the ultimate proof that we are a post-racial society.

To find resonance in the views of a vicious hack like Rudy Giuliani, who responded to the outrage over police killings of unarmed black men by decrying the lack of an equivalent reaction to black-on-black violence, is, as Jamelle Bouie wrote, a failure to see this "an attempt to avoid the fundamental difference between being killed by a citizen and being killed by an agent of law."  Of course, as Michael Eric Dyson put it, "black people are[] weary of death ravaging [their] communities." The difference is that black murderers "often go to jail, unlike the white cops who kill blacks with the backing of the government."

To discount the thousands of nonviolent protesters while focusing on the small minority of more destructive ones that get all the media attention is to ignore the justifiable anger and despair engendered by putting hope, energy and time into government institutions ostensibly established to ensure justice for all that invariably prove to be arbitrary, biased and unfair.  As Michelle Alexander wrote, explaining the "pain, sadness and rage" underlying the setting of fires and breaking of windows is not condoning it.  At the same time, it is important to understand that "when people have been hurt over and over, and rather than compassion or understanding you’re given lectures about how it’s really all your fault, and that no one needs to make amends, you can lose your mind." 

An unassailable rebuttal that we are now a colorblind society comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who detailed in The Atlantic Magazine the relentlessly destructive impact of institutional racism that persists to this day:  "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole."  As Coates summarized in an interview with NPR, "the legacy of slavery extends in the policy of the American government, in the policy of the states in the deep South, in the policies even of cities and states in the north long past slavery, for 100 years after. And the effects are there. And the people who suffered those effects are the people who were redlined, the people who suffered job discrimination, the people who suffered from educational discrimination are very much alive and still with us."

Another one comes from Michelle Alexander, who wrote so powerfully in The New Jim Crow about the mass incarceration of black men in the so-called war on drugs:  "Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives."

We don't need to feel guilty for being white or from benefitting from a culture that makes it a whole lot easier to be safe and successful if you're white.  But, as Sally Kohn pointed out, "responsibility isn’t the same as culpability." 
Being a constructive part of America’s necessary discussion on race and racial bias means acknowledging how bias and privilege may shape your own life even if you don’t want it to. It is not your personal fault that Michael Brown was shot and killed or that we have deep and structural racial bias in America. But that bias is nonetheless a reality, and so you do have a responsibility as to whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Just like you’re mistaken if you don’t think white is a race, you’re mistaken if you think you can remain neutral.
Thus, we ignore race at our own peril.  Michael Eric Dyson is absolutely right:
More than 45 years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded that we still lived in two societies, one white, one black, separate and still unequal. President Lyndon B. Johnson convened that commission while the flames that engulfed my native Detroit in the riot of 1967 still burned. If our president and our nation now don’t show the will and courage to speak the truth and remake the destinies of millions of beleaguered citizens, then we are doomed to watch the same sparks reignite, whenever and wherever injustice meets desperation. 


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