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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Great Moments in White Privilege

Was driving through Pennsylvania on the way back from hiking a small part of the Appalachian trail in New Jersey a few days ago when I blew past a cop doing 83 in a 65. Pulled over for the first time in 10 years.

The entire interaction with the cop could be classified as a Great Moment in White Privilege, something I've been more acutely aware of after three or four years of watching mostly African Americans get beaten and murdered by overzealous police on Youtube. The officer was stern but polite and nearly apologetic in her tone, despite the fact that my license address was not current or even for my state of residence. After the obligatory search period she returned with my ID and told me "I tried to cut you a break. I listed the infraction as a 'failure to obey speed limit' rather than a specific speed." I understood this to keep the fine down. It was only $150, so I figured I got off ok. Upon departing she noted "Just be careful. It's a holiday weekend, there's a lot of us out here."

All in all, not bad for a traffic stop. It was remarkable in its unremarkableness. I was acutely aware of my privilege and how it contrasted to the cold sweat that comes over so many African Americans when they see the lights flashing in their rear view.

This naturally made me think of the "white privilege" narrative getting traction around the web for the last few years. Without a doubt, white people are treated differently from black people on balance, even if white people are often grossly mistreated by police as well.

This does not mean, however, that the white privilege narrative is this generation's satyagraha. Every movement for change needs a narrative, because people adapt so well to easily-digestible stories. Every black man murdered by police becomes an accidental martyr for the movement. But as much as I'd like to see the "Black Lives Matter" movement succeed in getting regular, fair treatment from the police, the fact remains that change requires legislation. African Americans just don't have the votes to get major changes through, whether we're talking about at the national or state level, even if they got every single black person to vote. Most Americans just don't care about race-related issues. They need allies among other races, including Caucasians. But the "white privilege" narrative is blunting their momentum every time they use it.

I get it, we're a cynical generation. The "peace and love" narrative of the mid-20th century has taken a back seat to a more egocentric populism along several fronts. After the 2008 crash exposed the rot within the system, the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded more money. The Tea Party arose in response to the election of president Obama and demanded lower taxes. Now Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have seized on the widespread discontent in both parties. The optimistic socialist platitudes of the 60's are gone. Instead, the prevailing narratives have morphed into something strongly confrontational, us versus them, the rich versus the poor, the government versus the governed. Dualities dominate.

Black Lives Matter exists in this environment. And many of its leaders have made the mistake of creating a "black versus white" narrative. The new political mythos doesn't explicitly blame white people for the problems of African Americans for the most part. But it presents Caucasians as the beneficiaries of a system that is set up to cater to their habits, interests and norms that leaves African Americans out in the cold. There is a lot of truth to it, of course, as there is to many narratives. The problem lies in the effectiveness of the narrative to facilitate political goals.

Black militant movements existed in the early 20th century and grew into formidable organizations like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Their rhetoric, like that of similar Marxist movements rooted in exploitation theory, was frustrated and hostile to groups perceived as lording power over the powerless. All such movements ended in violence and burned out without having achieved larger goals.

"White Privilege", as a corollary of critical race theory, isn't exactly the militant separatism of the 60's, but something more academic in nature. What remains is the confrontational racial attitude. "White privilege" theorists posit racial differences as categorical and immutable in nature, even as they abhor being lumped into racial categories. As with most political storytelling, consistency is tossed aside; anything that sharpens the knife dominates the narrative.

The theory's own dynamics indicate it's strategic flaws. If people only act in their own categorical racial or class interest and will fight to preserve their privilege, why would bludgeoning them with their own privilege ever change their minds? The fact that at one count 59% of whites recognize their own privilege, but problems are still endemic suggests that merely forcing Caucasians to recognize the advantages their political and social norms have created for them won't accomplish much.

Yes, even Martin Luther King acknowledged a number of facts respecting white privilege, such as the lack of government resources set aside for blacks. This is all history. But that isn't the same thing as punishing allies and potential allies with their own success. "I have a dream" didn't include stuff like "the real problem with America is the straight, cis-gendered white male patriarchy." The movement would have been over quick and no one would have remembered that speech.

I don't know. I could be wrong. Activists may indeed convince white folk that their privilege means they should vote for changes that are allegedly against their racial interests. I think its more likely that change will occur incidentally over many decades. But the fact remains that significant political changes require mass-empathy. How a confrontational attitude is supposed to engender mass empathy is beyond me. When activists are more concerned with being effective than being right, they may see real progress.

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