In one of the most famous passages of the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth, employing a complicated series of metaphors on the theme of transformation: from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to knowledge, from sinfulness to a state of grace. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child,” the epistle runs, in the memorable rhythms of the King James Version. “But when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
I’m not a believer, in the ordinary sense of that word, and I’m aware that Paul is a problematic figure in theological history, to put it mildly. But those words have resonated with me over the last two weeks. Painful recent events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri — and the strongly divided national response to those events — offer us a chance to become aware of the ways we see race in America “through a glass, darkly,” and perhaps also the beginnings of a chance to see each other face to face, to know as we are known. Let me be clear that when I say “we” I am primarily addressing America’s white majority, to which I belong. We are the ones whose vision is occluded by the darkened glass of white privilege, and it’s up to us to do something about it. Black people can see white privilege pretty clearly, but from a different perspective, and it’s beyond their power to change it.
White privilege is a term that sometimes gets thrown around too cavalierly, especially when people are having a fight on the Internet and want to shut each other up. (I find myself echoing here many of the things I wrote about masculinity and male privilege in the wake of the Elliot Rodger case in May. It’s been a tough summer in America.) Recognizing white privilege does not mean that white people don’t get to express our views on controversial racial topics, or that we have to defer to whatever a person of color may say. It does mean, however, that we have a responsibility to be alert to advantages we may possess, whether as ordinary citizens on the street, economic agents or wielders of rhetoric that appears neutral rather than “racial.” By definition, it means that some of those advantages are things we don’t notice, or take entirely for granted.
My former Salon colleague Matt Zoller Seitz (now the editor of Roger Ebert’s website) wrote a memorable personal essay on this topic last week. It generated some heated discussion among my colleagues, because it’s arguably only half on-topic. It was partly a confession about a period of extreme disorder in Matt’s own life, when he did some foolish and destructive things, and partly a reckoning with the fact that the consequences of those actions could have been a whole lot worse if he hadn’t had white skin. I have no anecdotes anywhere near that dramatic in my past, but like many other white people who read Matt’s story, I was compelled to think about encounters with cops where I was treated courteously and given the benefit of the doubt, and where it never even occurred to me that the outcome might have been different for someone who didn’t look like me. (A traffic stop in suburban California at age 18: underage, probably over the limit and carrying both alcohol and marijuana. “Drive yourself straight home, son, and don’t let me see you out here again.”)
But the most insidious power of white privilege, the albatross effect that makes it so oppressive to white people themselves, is the way it renders itself invisible and clouds the collective mind. It’s like a virus that adapts in order to ensure its own survival and perpetuation, in this case by convincing its host it isn’t there. So we see polls suggesting that large percentages of white Americans believe that racism is not a significant factor in Ferguson or law enforcement in general, that cops are just doing their jobs, and that whatever bad things may have happened once upon a time in our beloved country, they’ve been locked away in the dusty cabinet of history and don’t matter anymore. We passed the Voting Rights Act and exiled the Ku Klux Klan to the margins of society (or at least to websites with really bad graphics). Ergo, white privilege obviously doesn’t exist anymore.
Among the “childish things” we need to put aside, white people, is the idea that America’s tormented racial legacy belongs to the past. You know exactly the attitude I mean: We have twice elected a biracial president and LeBron James and Jay Z are zillionaires, so no more talk of racism, please. In the more paranoid formulation prevalent in the Fox News demographic (but not limited to it), this becomes the idea that the federal government has spent the last 50 years giving away money, housing, education and other “free stuff” to black people who don’t work or pay taxes, while vigorously grinding down the white man. So either the vision of healing and reconciliation conjured up so eloquently by Martin Luther King, Jr. more than 50 years ago has now been fulfilled (and black people need to stop complaining), or America is being not so slowly turned into a gay-Muslim-socialist totalitarian state where every day is Kwanzaa. Both scenarios come up against the nettlesome fact that African-Americans stubbornly persist in being poor, living in disadvantaged circumstances, getting shot by the police for no particular reason and going to prison in large numbers.
This kind of white privilege is a willful blindness, along with a passionate embrace of exactly the kind of aggrievement and victimhood that white people often claim to resent in others. It’s found in Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, of course, but also among people like hipster über-troll Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, who wrote a piece not long ago explaining that racism, sexism and homophobia do not actually exist. But I’m not principally talking about Republican ideologues and their hardcore supporters, who have built their power and influence on thinly veiled racism over the past 40 years and barely even bother denying it. There is a much larger population of white Americans, I believe, who feel troubled by what they saw in Ferguson but are unable or unwilling to face the fact that it reflects a recurring historical pattern that has obviously not been exorcised, a pattern of power, privilege and domination in which they are complicit.
Any white person who is being honest can understand this reluctance, and probably any other kind of person too. It’s a lot more comfortable to believe that equal opportunity has been pretty much afforded to all, allowing for some bumps in the road – or to believe that you yourself belong to the unfairly downtrodden and stigmatized group – than to consider the alternatives. It is not comfortable at all for any white American to read the case assembled by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his magisterial reported essay “The Case for Reparations” that American society has not done nearly enough to erase the cultural and historical debt left behind by 250 years of slavery followed by another century-plus of economic discrimination, political suppression, institutionalized theft and straight-up terrorism. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear,” Coates writes. “The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
William Faulkner’s famous remark that the past is not dead, and isn’t even past, could not be more vividly illustrated than by the images from Ferguson: A black man shot dead in the street; angry African-American protesters facing impassive and heavily armed white police officers; tear gas, broken glass and the National Guard. But how to deal with these events that seem like nightmarish echoes of too many previous events? One way, the path of survival pursued by the virus of white privilege, is to detach each of these cases from history. Each of these inexplicably dead black men becomes an isolated phenomenon, with no reference to any discernible pattern. History is bunk, as Henry Ford and then the Gang of Four told us; there are no lessons in the past.
This urgent agenda of historical decoupling offers one reason why the specific details of each case become so fraught with meaning, and why the elaborate character assassination of every victim is so important to TV talking heads and Internet trolls. If Michael Brown was a thieving thug who made Darren Wilson fear for his life, if Trayvon Martin was a drug-dealing ne’er-do-well who was casing out potential burglaries (and probably high on “Purple Drank”), if Eric Garner was a bruising gangster who resisted arrest and stopped breathing because of asthma and cardiac arrest rather than an illegal chokehold, then their deaths were regrettable (or maybe non-regrettable) consequences of the system working as it should. Race was not a factor, the police and/or random armed citizens acted reasonably, the protesters are mobs of looters and law-breakers, and the liberal pantywaists crying about it on TV are the real racists.
That pathway remains highly seductive for white America, because it avoids any notion of collective or social responsibility and accesses the Calvinist myth of individualism that lies at the core of white American identity. A man makes his own fate or is elected by Providence – it comes to the same thing in the end – and if those young men and a distressing number of others met death in the street under unsettling circumstances, that can only have been their just deserts. Considering the possibility that they died because of a system of justice and law enforcement that skews heavily toward arresting, imprisoning and otherwise suppressing black and brown people, and that that system is itself embedded within much larger cultural and historical patterns, raises a lot of painful questions. What are we supposed to do about it, for one thing?
For starters, we can be honest with ourselves about white privilege, when we’re able to see it. That means being honest about how it benefits us and also how it imprisons us, which for me was the great public service of Matt Seitz’s article. Coates’ credit-card metaphor is particularly apposite, directed at the largely white readership of the Atlantic; what middle-class family these days does not understand the crippling effects of long-term debt? Resisting white privilege is not about “liberal guilt,” or donning sackcloth and ashes, or whatever Bill O’Reilly thinks happens in graduate seminars at elite universities. It’s about finding material ways to pay down that debt, and also about recognizing how much the debt has weighed us down – all of us, white and black and brown and all other shades.
As I said earlier, the virus of white privilege survives by convincing its host organism that it does not exist. That’s because the more clearly we see it the more likely we are to notice that its purported benefits have faded almost to nothing. Whites of the working and middle classes correctly perceive that their economic fortunes have deteriorated over the past half-century, even if the average white household is still 20 times wealthier than the average black household (an especially deleterious consequence of white privilege). An entire right-wing ideological empire remains devoted to convincing white people that benefit-sucking African-Americans and job-stealing Latino immigrants are somehow to blame for their downward trajectory. White privilege is the solvent used, throughout American history, to dissolve multiracial coalitions of working people, and the drug used to brainwash whites into making common cause with the class of CEOs, financiers and landlords. Kicking that drug habit is the only way white America can ever set itself free from the past.