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“The Privilege Of Whiteness”: Since White Is The Default Setting, There’s No Such Thing As White Crime

As a biracial child who spent part of his youth abroad, Barack Obama learned the feeling of otherness and became attuned to how he was perceived by those around him. As a politician, he knew well that many white people saw him as a vehicle for their hopes for a post-racial society. Even if those hopes were somewhat naïve, they came from a sincere and admirable desire, and he was happy to let those sentiments carry him along. Part of the bargain, though, was that he had to be extremely careful about how he talked about race, and then only on the rarest of occasions. His race had to be a source of hope and pride—for everybody—but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress. No one knew better than him that everything was fine only as long as we all could feel good about Barack Obama being black.

So when he made his unexpected remarks about Trayvon Martin on Friday, Obama was stepping into some dangerous territory. By talking about his own experience as a black man, he was trying to foster both understanding and empathy, to explain to white Americans why the Martin case has caused so much consternation and pain among black Americans. The petty (and not so petty) daily suspicion and indignities and mistreatment black people are talking about? Even I, the most powerful human being on the planet, know it well.

In doing so—and by saying “it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching”—he may have implicitly encouraged white people to think about their own privilege, the privilege of whiteness. Privilege is a dangerous word, one that raises lots of hackles, and one Obama himself would never, ever use. But it’s inescapable.

Despite the way people react when the word is introduced, acknowledging your own privilege doesn’t cost anything. I grew up in a home with lots of books, in a town with good schools, in a country with extraordinary opportunities. I benefited hugely from them all, though I created none of them. I may have earned my current job as a writer, but compared to the labors of those who wait tables or clean houses or do factory work, it’s so absurdly pleasant you can barely call it work at all. But more to the point, in all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.

I will never have to sit my children down and give them a lengthy talk about what to do and not to do when they encounter the police. That’s the talk so many black parents make sure to give their children, one filled with detailed instructions about how to not appear threatening, how to diffuse tension, what to do with your hands when you get pulled over, and how to end the encounter without being arrested or beaten. I can tell my children, “Don’t do anything stupid,” and that will probably be enough. I worry about them as much as any parent, but there are some things I don’t have to worry about.

Because of my privilege, I also don’t have to concern myself with how strangers are thinking of me when I leave the house, because their thoughts will bear on me not a whit. Amir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for The Roots and bandleader for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, wrote last week about how he is constantly made aware of the fact that, as a large black man, he makes other people uncomfortable. “My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe.” Privilege means not spending any mental energy worrying about how you make other people feel by your very presence. Privilege means never having the thought even occur to you.

My privilege as a white man is to be unnoticed if I choose, because when I step into an elevator or walk through a store or pass a cop on the street, I’m an individual. No one looks at me and says, “Hmm—white guy there,” because I’m the default setting. I’m not suspicious, I’m not a potential criminal, I ring no alarm bells in anyone’s head. And that is a gift. Even as an adult, Barack Obama, the “articulate and bright and clean” Harvard-educated lawyer, had something in common with Trayvon Martin and every other 17-year-old black kid: the presumption of suspicion with which they found themselves treated. They couldn’t just be themselves. To so many people, they were a type, and a bad one at that, or at least assumed to be of a lesser station. So a fellow guest at a posh party in 2003 could walk up to state Senator Obama and ask him to fetch the man a drink. Has that happened to you?

Privilege is also not worrying that the deeds of other people who are like you in some way will reflect poorly on you. As Jamelle Bouie wrote last week, at times like this, some conservatives will always bring up the idea of “black on black” crime as a justification for the presumption that young black men are criminals, but we never speak about “white on white” crime. The reason? When a white person robs a liquor store or beats someone up or commits insider trading, we see it as just a crime, not a crime that has anything to do with the whiteness of the perpetrator. Since white is the default setting, there’s no such thing as white crime. Each white criminal is just himself.

And retaining your individuality means you’re granted an exemption from some kinds of costs. Last week The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote a remarkable column arguing that it’s perfectly reasonable to treat all black men like criminal suspects, since there are some black men who commit crimes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, Cohen was “arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax” that black men should be forced to pay. Sure, most black men are perfectly law-abiding, but since some aren’t, you sir are just going to have to put up with getting stopped and frisked, getting followed by store security, and getting pulled over even when you haven’t been speeding. If you’re white, that’s a tax you will never have to pay, because you will be treated as an individual.

As a white person, I’ll continue to enjoy this privilege almost no matter who I am or what I do. In my heart I could be the most kind-hearted humanitarian or the most vile sociopath. I could be assiduously law-abiding or a serial killer. I can dress in a suit or in torn jeans and a hoodie, and no one will react to me with fear or suspicion, because if they don’t know me they will assume they know nothing. I am myself, nothing more or less. That’s privilege.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 22, 2013

July 23, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Trayvon Martin Could’ve Been Me”: A Difficult Journey To Becoming A More Perfect Union, Not A Perfect Union, A More Perfect Union

Last weekend, not long after the jury delivered its verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama issued a written statement, urging all Americans to “respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” Today, however, the president made an unexpected appearance at the White House press briefing room to speak to the issue in more detail.

For those who can’t watch the video, this was a rather remarkable moment for the nation’s first African-American president, who reflected on the story and race in America with an eloquence that has sometimes been lacking of late.

President Barack Obama emerged Friday to give voice to African Americans’ reaction to last weekend’s verdict in the George Zimmerman case, saying that Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.”

He also suggested that the outcome of the case could have been different if Martin were white. “If a white male teen would have been involved in this scenario,” he said, “both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

Obama went on to reflect on his own experiences as a black man, drawing scrutiny in department stores, hearing car-door clicks as he walked down sidewalks, and seeing women clutch their purses nervously with him in an elevator. “The African-American community is looking at this through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away,” he said.

Obama also broached the subject of “racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws” — including the death penalty and drug laws — which generally is left out of our public conversation.

But perhaps most provocatively, the president reflected on an imaginary scenario. “If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama asked. “If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we should examine those laws.”

It was a rather remarkable display. A transcript of the remarks is below.

The president said the following:

I wanted to come out here, first of all, to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is very much looking forward to the session. The second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks, there’s going to obviously be a whole range of issues — immigration, economics, et cetera — we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week — the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday. But watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case — I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works. But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff, so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously, law enforcement has got a very tough job.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And let’s figure out are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three — and this is a long-term project — we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program. I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as President, I’ve got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, July 19, 2013

July 20, 2013 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Racism | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning?”: A Polite Euphemism That Hides More Than It Reveals

As a racial classification, the term Caucasian has many flaws, dating as it does from a time when the study of race was based on skull measurements and travel diaries. It has long been entirely unmoored from its geographical reference point, the Caucasus region. Its equivalents from that era are obsolete — nobody refers to Asians as “Mongolian” or blacks as “Negroid.”

And yet, there it was in the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. The plaintiff, noted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in his majority opinion, was Caucasian.

To me, having covered the South for many years, the term seems like one of those polite euphemisms that hides more than it reveals. There is no legal reason to use it. It rarely appears in federal statutes, and the Census Bureau has never put a checkbox by the word Caucasian. (White is an option.)

The Supreme Court, which can be more colloquial, has used the term in only 64 cases, including a pair from the 1920s that reveal its limitations. In one, the court ruled that a Japanese man could not become a citizen because, although he may have been light-skinned, he was not Caucasian. In the other, an Indian was told that he could not become a citizen because, although he may have been technically Caucasian, he was certainly not white. (A similar debate erupted more recently when the Tsarnaev brothers, believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, were revealed to be Muslims from the Caucasus.)

The use of Caucasian to mean white was popularized in the late 18th century by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, who decreed that it encompassed Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the Obi River in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africans. He chose it because the Caucasus was home to “the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgians,” and because among his collection of 245 human skulls, the Georgian one was his favorite wrote Nell Irvin Painter, a historian who explored the term’s origins in her book “The History of White People.”

In 1889, the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary noted that the term Caucasian had been “practically discarded.” But they spoke too soon. Blumenbach’s authority had given the word a pseudoscientific sheen that preserved its appeal. Even now, the word gives discussions of race a weird technocratic gravitas, as when the police insist that you step out of your “vehicle” instead of your car.

“If you want to show that you’re being dispassionate then you use the more scientific term Caucasian,” Ms. Painter said.

Susan Glisson, who as the executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Oxford, Miss., regularly witnesses Southerners sorting through their racial vocabulary, said she rarely hears “Caucasian.” “Most of the folks who work in this field know that it’s a completely ridiculous term to assign to whites,” she said. “I think it’s a term of last resort for people who are really uncomfortable talking about race. They use the term that’s going to make them be as distant from it as possible.”

There is another reason to use it, said Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of government and African-American studies at Harvard. “The court, or some clever clerk, doesn’t really want to use the word white in part because roughly half of Hispanics consider themselves white.” She added, “White turns out to be a much more ambiguous term now than we used to think it was.”

There are a number of terms that refer to various degrees of blackness, both current and out of favor: African-American, mulatto, Negro, colored, octaroon. There are not a lot of options for whites. In Texas, they say Anglo. And there is the pejorative we were so pithily reminded of when a witness in the racially charged George Zimmerman trial said the victim, Trayvon Martin, had called Mr. Zimmerman a “creepy-ass cracker.”

In the South, I was often asked about my ethnic origins, and I had a ready answer. “My father is from India,” I would recite, phrasing it in such a way as to avoid being mistaken for an American Indian. “And my mom is white.” Almost invariably, if I was speaking to black people, they would nod with understanding. If I was speaking to white people, I would get a puzzled look. “What kind of white?” they would ask. Only when I explained the Norwegian, Scottish and German mix of my ancestry would I get the nod.

I theorized that this was because blacks understood “white” as a category, both historical and contemporary — a coherent group that wielded power and excluded others. Whites, I believed, were less comfortable with that notion.

But Matthew Pratt Guterl, the author of “The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940,” had a different take. “They’re trying to trace your genealogy and figure out what your qualities are,” he said. “They’re looking in your face, they’re looking in the slope of your nose, the shape of your brow. There’s an effort to discern the truth of the matter, because all whitenesses are not equal.” In other words, they weren’t rejecting the category, they were policing its boundaries.

Such racial boundaries have increasingly been called into question in the debate over affirmative action, once regarded as a form of restitution to descendants of slaves, but now complicated by all sorts of questions about who, exactly, is being helped. “What if some of them aren’t poor, what if some of them don’t have American parentage, what if some of them are really stupid?” Ms. Painter, the historian, asked. “There’s all kinds of characteristics that we stuff into race without looking, and then they pop out and we think, ‘I can’t deal with that.’ ”

Doubtless, this society will continue to classify people by race for some time to come. And as we lumber toward justice, some of those classifications remain useful, even separate from other factors like economic class. Caucasian, though? Not so much.

 

By: Shaila Dewan, The New York Times, July 6, 2013

July 8, 2013 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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