[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the wake of Ferguson one thing that stands out to me is the difficulty many white Americans have empathizing with the plight of the urban poor, especially those in the black community. “That’s terrible” or “I wish something could be done” soon give way to frustrations about Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Then so much talk of “thugs” and “gang bangers.”
Blog posts at The Gospel Coalition, and tweets, by Thabiti Anyabwile were met with responses of “this isn’t helpful” or “what about the other side?” There are too many white people who somehow miss the fact that we are dominant American narrative and have been since before Manifest Destiny. Minority Americans need not “try and understand our point of view.” Our point of view dominates; it is the default filter through which American culture is interpreted.
Has everyone forgotten what color “Flesh” crayons were? Hint: they were not black, and they were not brown.
These are the same silly people who want to know why, “If we have to have Black History Month why don’t we have White History Month?” Because every month is White History Month.
As with most things sociological multiple concepts embedded in the phrase White Privilege can be debated. There is no single agreed upon definition, like there is no monolithic Black Community or White Community. It is a problematic phrase for many white people because it implies, in their minds, a lack of effort. “I worked hard to achieve what I’ve achieved. No one gave me anything.”
Below are examples I have culled from the Internet in the last few days. I have conversed with several black men since Ferguson, and all tell me the same thing: black men and black teens are viewed with suspicion by far too many police officers.
Neither I nor my son have ever been told to “lift your shirt” to see whether we were carrying a weapon. This despite that fact I have held a concealed carry permit in the past, and my adult son has carried knives—knives of extremely lethal potential—since being a young teenager.
I have never been pulled over for Driving While White, though my oldest daughter has been. Of course, she had two black men in her car when pulled over for “not wearing your seat belt.” She was confused when the officer hit his light, but one of the guys said, “It’s because you’re a white girl with two black guys in your car.” He was right.
A couple of months ago I blew past a cop who was sitting on an interstate speed trap. I was going fast enough to get a ticket. Easily. When i mentioned it to a friend in law enforcement later, he responded simply, “You didn’t fit the profile. He was looking for a specific car or a car with a Mexican driver.”
It is not necessary to accept all of the White Privilege argument to exercise empathy with black men (and sometimes women) who are unjustly treated, and deprived of basic constitutional rights simply because of the color of their skin.
From a new friend who gave me “just two examples” from his own experiences:
As I was walking out of a Starbucks with my mocha, wearing an express polo and khakis, a cop pulled up next to me and rolled down his window and said, “what the f— are you doing?” I responded, “Walking to my car.” He then said, “Well, you look a little suspicious.”
Another time happened after I left out of a Mahogany Steakhouse (if you are unfamiliar with this steakhouse, it is one of the best in Oklahoma, about $50 a steak). The girl I was with was pretty drunk, so I drove her car, a year-old BMW. A cop stopped me, and asked for my license. He said I met the description of an armed robbery suspect that occurred at a gas station five blocks away. I asked for the description: “young black man.” I told him I had been at Mahoghany’s Steakhouse for the last couple of hours having dinner. He did not believe me. He asked my date, she confirmed my story. He then separated us and asked her again. She confirmed again. He indicated that we needed to turn around and go back to the steakhouse to verify my story. I went in with one of the officers, and found our waiter. He confirmed my story. There was massive profanity said to me throughout this time. I was wearing a suit with no tie.
After the waiter cleared me, there were no apologies at all. The cop just left.
I am 6’5”. I weigh 270 pounds. I’ve been called imposing. The police have stopped me, both walking and driving, nearly once a year since I was 15 years old. Though I have been asked to leave my vehicle, thrown to the ground and against my vehicle, interrogated, frisked, and cuffed on these occasions, I’ve not been cited. Not once.
Until you feel the humiliation of this moment, particularly as a “decent, civilized, educated black,”—Yes, that’s an actual quote of how someone referred to me once, behind my back of course—then you cannot say that it is an anomaly. You cannot say that someone was “just doing his or her job.”
The most troubling of these incidents took place just a few years ago in Texas. My wife and I were driving to my childhood home of Louisiana. We were pulled over, but weren’t speeding. I wasn’t driving erratically. I wasn’t intoxicated. And it was broad daylight.
The two officers approached our vehicle, and when the lead saw me, one immediately placed his hand on his firearm. My wife was visibly nervous. We’d just been joking sarcastically about hoping we didn’t get pulled over in Texas for being an interracial couple. Then, in a flash, the joke became reality.
The officer asked me to step out of my vehicle. I refused. By this time I’d earned an M.S. in Criminal Justice, my focus in this degree was case law and judiciary process, which of course included an extensive study of policing histories and practices. So yes, I refused to get out of the car. But my wife pleaded, and the officer demanded. So, I complied.
The officer immediately grabbed me and began asking me where I was coming from, where I was going, and if I had anything in my vehicle of “concern.” Meanwhile, the other officer interrogated my wife, and asked her if she was being held against her will. Really? Riding in the front seat, with a tri-racial child in the back. The lead officer, hand still on his firearm, began to try and frisk me. Again, I refused. The law says I should comply (Pennsylvania v. Mimms) and step out of the vehicle. The law does not allow for illegal search of my person or property. I stated this to him. He became enraged, breathing threats, and calling me “boy.” It took the other officer to calm him down. Finally, with a lack of any justifiable reason to hold us, they let us go. I’ve never been so angry. My wife never so humiliated.
These experiences are not mere anecdote; this is systemic.
As a brief aside, any use of the word “boy” to a black man from a white man is a first-degree insult. This is so clearly the case that for a white law enforcement officer to say it to a black man can be interpreted as a purposeful attempt to elicit a verbal or physical response.
White adoptive father Jeremy Haskins talks about how differently his black sons are treated from his white sons:
I admit that I do not want to believe that something like ‘white privilege’ exists. My family and friends are just as offended as I am when hearing the stories of people treating my black sons differently because of their skin color. They think, “Why would anyone treat Isaac or Jonah that way?” They know them. They love them. And that is the problem. The world in which my sons live does not know their story. They do not know their siblings died of malnutrition. They don’t know they are Haskins. All they know at a glance is that they are young black males. I hate to say it, but in totally neutral situations, there is no neutrality. It breaks my heart to pieces, but the reality is that my sons with black skin are treated differently than my kids with white skin. I’ve seen it. My family lives it.
This knowledge has made me shudder as I have watched the events in Ferguson, MO. Details concerning the day Michael Brown was killed are still evolving. I’m not sure at this point anyone really knows exactly what happened. I am not sure we ever will. However, I am certain of one thing. After seeing the response to this tragedy, we are still tragically a racially divided nation. I also know that I have to prepare my black sons for situations my white sons will never have to face. They will have to work to gain respect that my other kids will naturally be given. I have learned from my African-American friends that there are certain things my black sons must do to avoid conflict and suspicion. Five years ago, when we adopted Isaac and Jonah, I naïvely had never even considered these things.
From Mordecai Cargill, 23, Cleveland, OH
As a minority student at a predominantly white prep school, I discovered what it meant to be a subject of examination. Boys who were not like me, some of whom had never really been around black people, were often intrigued by the way I talked, the way I dressed, the way my hair felt, etc.
In high school, when I started to really develop (physically, that is) into a man, is when I started to feel like a threat, and paradoxically, threatened. This was when the lectures began to take on an even more urgent and desperate tone. My father would harp on the dangers of dressing like “a thug,” or listening to loud, explicit music. He cautioned me not to give people an excuse to harass or even arrest me. I’d listen and dismiss his warnings as the stale pronouncements of old guy who was completely out of touch with what was going on. As I’ve continued to mature, I’ve gained some understanding of the real fear behind my father’s lectures.
Not too long ago I was haunted by the words of James Baldwin, in an interview, challenging the white reporter: “You try facing your son, on the day that he is first called ‘nigger,’ in land of the free and the home of the brave.” I can’t imagine what I’d say to my son, but I’m sure it’d be very similar to what my father said to me.
From Robert Stephens, 26, Kansas City, MO
It was the last day of school, and I was walking with my dad, preparing to leave. Suddenly, he paused, looked at me intently and said, “Son, you’re a black male, and that’s two strikes against you.” To the general public, anything that I did would be perceived as malicious and deserving of severe punishment and I had to govern myself accordingly.
I was seven years old.
My nephew is 13 years old, half my age. When he was 11, we were at a grocery store in Durham, N.C., and he was being goofy per usual. I pulled him to the side, looked him in the eye and explained to him that when he’s in public, especially when around white people, he had to avoid drawing attention to himself because, as a black boy, anything he did was likely to be perceived as menacing and deserving of punishment (even death). He nodded and we quietly finished shopping.
It was “the talk,” much like my father had given me—and it should not be a right of passage. I’m pretty young, and I’m already tired of having to give black kids “the talk.”
This is how my new friend summed up his thoughts on Ferguson:
Whenever things like this happen, I just think it could have happened to me as a teenager. I wore baggy clothes, smoked weed, drank, got into fights, and was prone to mouth off. Yet, I was also a straight-A student, tutored young black kids at my church, and had a 30 ACT score. All people are various contradictions. But young black men are not allowed to be.
If racial reconciliation is to be furthered in America, if the racial divide is to be narrowed, it will be because white people, and especially white men, begin to put themselves in the place of black men and teens, empathize with the injustices so many of them have endured, sit with them, listen to their stories, and then stand with them for justice.