This article first appeared in the Finger Lakes Times, New York, 7/20/16
Denim Spirit: White Power and Privilege
From January 1, 2015 through July 11, 2016 police shot one thousand, five hundred and two people. Slice and dice the facts and figures however you want – and right and left of the political spectrum have been doing just that – if you are African-American you are 2.5 times as likely to be shot by the police if you are White. Likewise, if you are African-American you are five times as likely to be an unarmed victim of a police shooting than if you are White. (Source: The Washington Post, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no.” by Wesley Lowery).
Reverse those numbers and hold it for a moment: What would be happening right now if White Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be shot by the police, and 5 times more likely to be shot while unarmed? Those of us who are White would call it what it is: the targeting of racial violence by those tasked with protecting and serving all people without distinction. We would be shouting with a vengeance that “White Lives Matter!”
The assassination of White officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge does not diminish what is happening, and has always been happening in the larger society, to ordinary citizens. We need an open and candid conversation about racial and class privilege in America.
Power is the ability to influence change, and the resources at our disposal with which to influence change measures the scale of our power. White middle and upper middle class Americans have more power as a result of our privilege than other Americans. How will we use our power?
People with privilege hate to hear it made explicit, and we often go to great lengths to deny our privilege. To acknowledge our power feels like accepting blame for things we haven’t done or imagine are beyond our power to change. One of the ways those of us with privilege deny it is to list our own pain, injuries, and grief on the way to pointing out that privilege didn’t indemnify us from bad things that happened. But the fact is tragedy, disability, abuse, addictions, and loss can visit anyone up and down the socio-economic scale. What privilege does is to often reduce the total impact of the random hazards of life, and speed recovery.
We love to hear stories about people who made it out of poverty against all odds because it makes us feel better, as if to say, “see, they just have to apply themselves more and they can be like us.” But that is a lie we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge the benefit of starting out on the fifty or even seventy-five yard line when others begin way back in the end zone on the field of social resources.
Those of us with a significant ability to influence change because we are White and middle or upper class, need to be applying that power to change the hearts and minds of other people of privilege. That is where our power is rooted, in our ability to influence our peers and get them to use their power in solidarity with other progressive social forces to force a broader and more equitable distribution of resources – and that includes an especially urgent harnessing of police power.