I’m not sure how long the term “white privilege” has been in use. It seems fairly new to me (but I’ve been around for nearly two centuries now, of course, so my perspective might be a little askew), but it’s already become one of those clichés that’s so charged with emotion that people don’t even stop to think of what it entails. Unless I’m mistaken, upon hearing the phrase “white privilege,” most people, or certainly white people versus people of color, think about overcoming prejudice and inequality—things like job opportunities and education—and thus dismiss it as “whining” on the part of those who don’t want to work for success. They just don’t get it. White privilege is the end result—the icing on the cake, if you will—of four hundred years of a culture built on systemic racism.
White privilege is omnipresent throughout American culture, but nowhere is it more painfully evident than in our criminal justice system. I’m not just talking about the fact that African Americans represent about a third of prisoners but only 12% of the general population; I’m talking about the incredible leniency our society grants those who commit what is all too coincidentally known as “white” collar crime, which should more aptly be labeled crimes committed by people who are clearly NOT the “other.” The lack of successful prosecutions and the lenient sentences, not to mention the cushy facilities in which offenders are often imprisoned, are all too commonly accepted as the way of things.
As an example you might recall, nothing raises my ire more than incidents such as when Eric Garner, a Black man whose only crime was selling cigarettes, is killed by the police, while across the bay in Manhattan (Wall Street to be exact!) no one has gone to jail—let alone died on the ground in a chokehold!—for actions contributing to the financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed, even though it cost Americans billions of dollars and destroyed countless lives and families. Beyond the obvious, overwhelming injustice, am I the only one who is enraged that taxpayers pay law enforcement to take down a Black man for a minor infraction, while (mostly) white white-colar criminals often remain above the law?
To my way of thinking, more often than not, law enforcement is merely a pawn, the scapegoat for society’s injustice, not the real source of the problem, which is a deep and pervasive structural racism. Maybe it goes back to my empathizing with Confederate soldiers who got stuck fighting a rich man’s war on behalf of the Cotton Kingdom and mistakenly adopted that terrible cause as their own, but at the risk of angering some of you, I’ve tended to give individual officers the benefit of the doubt whenever I can. But lately, having witnessed the inexcusable killings of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and others at the hands of law enforcement, my tolerance is wearing thin. Along with spending more on education and less on incarceration, it goes without saying that our police need to be transformed into a positive force in the communities they serve, requiring some major adjustments.
While I’m on the subject, I wish more people understood that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean that white people’s lives don’t matter, or that you necessarily side against law enforcement, but simply acknowledges the all too frequent lack of regard for Black people’s lives in our society.
Personally, I believe that what euphemistically might be termed “moneyed interests” still use racism as a means to distract many Americans from the true source of their grievances. (Yes, I’m talking about things like the good ol’ Republican Southern Strategy started in the 1960s and has been helping Republicans win elections ever since, most especially their beloved Ronald Reagan!) The greedy slaveholders who sent me off to war to fight for their cotton empire may be long gone, but their descendants, both literally and figuratively, are still exploiting working class whites for their own advantage, and one of the ways they do it is by directing their anger and resentment at Blacks. And politicians, instead of tackling the fundamental economic and structural reform that would really benefit working class whites, are still working to keep Blacks in their place.