Sunday, August 24, 2014

My White Privilege

My White Privilege

Maria T. Groschup-Black

October 24, 2014. I am nearing the age of 50, and the Civil Rights Movement is “in” its 60s. I used to think of the Civil Rights Movement as modern history. An event significant enough to be history while having occurred during my lifetime but outside of my memory. While millimeters of progress were made during the 1950s, it seems the bulk of change occurred from 1960 – 1968. This is the white bread (or should it be “white bred”?) history I was taught and have believed for decades. But the truth is that the Civil Rights Movement is an ongoing struggle for just about anyone not of white America.

The past couple weeks have been fraught with renewed debates – no, renewed wars – on racial equality and the inherent mistrust of anyone not of Caucasian descent. The most commonly heard phrase of today’s war on ethnic inequality is “white privilege.” Although I’d heard these words before, I had little understanding of them until this week. Sure, I get it. I know I’ve had it easier than most; in part because I am white and in part because I was raised middle-class. You see, until now I thought I could use the words “white” and “middle-class” interchangeably.

I initially went to school where most of us were from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Our school was integrated. Really it was – we had exactly two black families with children in the school. Hispanics were there, but they weren’t culturally Hispanic. They were as white middle-class as my own family.

In 5th and 6th grades I changed schools and found myself on the lower end of privilege because my new school was in an upper-middle class neighborhood. In my new school, status and acceptance was less about ethnicity and more about socioeconomics. I lived on the “poor” end of the district. The rich white kids were sure to make it known that those of us from the poor side didn’t fit in. They were also sure to point out in the structure of power that the non-white kids were from poorer families who serve theirs as housekeepers and other servant classes. Ah, white privilege; at least my mother wasn’t a servant.

There was a young black boy who had a crush on me. I hated him; not because he was black but because he was fat, nerdy and somewhat effeminate – and of course because his mom was only a housekeeper. In fact, I had a crush on another black boy. We even “went steady” for a bit. But when he brought me a piece of jewelry I just knew that he’d stolen the necklace from someone. Then there was the day I used the “N” word against a boy I was arguing with. He hit me. I tattled. He got in trouble. Ah, white privilege; I knew I was wrong, but that didn’t matter. He hit me.

So what is white privilege? I saw it in my youth, but never recognized it. It was the knowledge that I could get a boy in trouble for instinctively slapping me, even though I’d hurt him deeply with a word I didn’t really understand. It was the privilege of coming home to a mother who’d cleaned my room and cooked my dinner instead of some stranger’s. In my adulthood, 50 years after I came to be, I see little or no change.

In April 1963 Martin Luther King argued that “individuals have the moral duty to disobey unjust laws.” In May, protesters were dispersed with the use of fire hoses and police dogs. News images of the violence added fuel to the rising Civil Rights Movement. In June, Medgar Evans was murdered for his work with the NAACP. His white murderer was not convicted until 30yrs later.

On July 2, 1964 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. In June three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. They had been arrested for speeding and released several hours later to members of the KKK. Their bodies were discovered two months later. The murderer was convicted on June 21st 2005, 41 years later.

On March 7, 1965 protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voting reform were stopped by police at the Pettus Bridge.  Police used tear gas, whips, and batons to disperse the group. Five months later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In doing so, they made it illegal to require literacy tests and poll taxes that made it difficult for poor blacks to register their votes.

On March 22, 1988 Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act to enforce civil rights laws in private institutions that receive federal funds.

On November 22, 1991 President Bush signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to strengthen existing civil rights laws.

On April 29, 1992 four white police officers were acquitted of brutally beating Rodney King.

On May 10, 2007 a former state trooper was indicted for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, 40yrs earlier.

In January, 2008 Senator Ed Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act of 2008, to improve accountability for violations of civil rights and workers’ rights.

Wait a minute! The first question that comes to mind is “why over a period of 50 years have we had to revisit this over and again?” Why have we had to enact 5 Civil Rights Acts? Why the hell does it take 30 – 40 years to convict white murderers of black people? I found some answers in Ferguson, MO.  The parallels are not lost on me.

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown, age 18 was killed by a white police officer. Differing accounts of the incident range from an unprovoked attack, to “he reached for the officer’s gun.” (The truth may never be known but white privilege assumes that when two or more are gathered, there is criminal intent, therefor he acted with malice when confronted by the white officer.)

On August 10, 2014, angered over yet another “incident” between white police and black youth; residents protested. The protest became violent and looting occurred. (White privilege calls it an incident rather than what it is – a death.)

On August 11, peaceful protests held during the daytime erupted to disorderly and riotous conduct at night. Police used tear gas and less lethal methods to restore order. 

On August 12, police, wearing riot gear and heavily armed with military grade weapons dispersed a crowd of peaceful protesters. (White privilege calls this preventative enforcement.)

On August 14, local Ferguson police were replaced by Missouri State Highway Patrol. (White privilege says… look, MSHP has a black chief. Surely now they will calm down.)

On August 15, police released the name of the officer who shot Brown, but at the same time released versions of the incident that seem to vindicate him.  Riots and looting began anew, regardless of the fact a “black chief of police” was in command.

On August 17, autopsy results were released that show Brown was shot six times. More rioting ensued.

The surface issues are fairly easily explained without ethnic identity. Two young men supposedly match the description of armed robbers in the area. A police officer sees them and stops them. A struggle happens and one of the boys is shot six times (twice in the head). These are the bare facts.

Using my own 19 years of experience as a police officer, let’s work backwards:

Six shots are not unusual. Neither are head shots.

Police are trained to shoot more than once. Once may not be enough to stop the aggressor. Police are trained in failure drills - two to the chest, one to the head – because it is a fact that even the most highly trained person can miss at point blank range during a struggle or during stress.  

During a scuffle or struggle a police officer is allowed to defend himself with the amount of force required to subdue the assailant.

A 6’, 300lb man behaving aggressively could be considered an imminent threat to a 6’ 180lb police officer. Or for that matter, in reference to a shooting death a few days earlier in nearby St. Louis, an incoherent man with a knife aggressively charging towards an officer could be considered an imminent threat.

Stopping two people who match descriptions of robbery suspects is proper police work.

Being stopped is not always a matter of police profiling or harassment. I have had the following discussion during a traffic stop.  “Hi, can I see your license please?” “You only stopped me because I’m black!” “No, I stopped you because you ran that red light back there.” In another version… “You’re only talking to me because I’m black” “No, but what color is that weed you are smoking?”

I will concede though that due to white privilege or lack thereof, it is not unusual nor unexpected to be accused of racial profiling.

Unfortunately the issues boiling at the surface in Ferguson and other areas of our country are not based in the bare bones facts. They are based in systemic institution of White Privilege. For example, these are just a few of the hidden pleasures we white folk enjoy.

  • Going to work knowing that on payday, no one will call immigration in order to cheat you out of your fair wages.

  • Walking into any store and not have staff or surveillance automatically tuned to you.

  • Standing in a group of two or more and not being labeled as a gang.

  • Using SNAP or food stamps without being judged as lazy or unwilling to work.

  • Having more than one child in tow without being looked at as a baby making welfare machine.

  • Speaking in slang terms and not being called uneducated

  • Speaking clearly and properly without being told “you don’t sound black.”
Is discrimination real in this day and age? Of course it is. When we see it we know it and can make efforts to change ourselves or the system. But we refuse recognize that the system inherently supports discrimination. We too must acknowledge that our tacit acceptance of the norm is as much to blame. We all should be angry; not at the officers or the dead, but at ourselves and the system that allowed this to happen.