I’ve been meaning to make the exhaustive, extensive and indisputable (unless you’re allergic to facts) case that black people are disproportionately killed by the police compared to their white counterparts and disproportionately impacted by policing and the criminal justice system more broadly, along with a few other slight tangents I may throw in there. And now here it is. Small note, throughout, I rely on quotes from studies and other authors that are italicized for aesthetic, but I also added my own emphasis to those italicized quotes with bold coloring.
This is it, folks. In my mind, this is my one-and-done, be-all-end-all response to all the nonsense that’s been spewed since Michael Brown’s death in August and obviously quite a while before that tragic incident. Until someone comes at me with a solid argument against all of the facts, statistics and logic below, I have no more energy to devote to knocking down the same nonsensical myths, fallacies and outright falsehoods about race, policing and the criminal justice system in the United States, along with the few tangents I address below.
Also, before I begin, it’s worth making a note on this “black lives matter,” since I can already see it being a point of consternation. Don’t all lives matter, you ask? Of course they do. So, why specifically has “black lives matter” become the mantra and the wailing cry of protesters nationwide? Listen to black people. There’s a real sense among them that that their lives do not matter; that their black skin is not as valued as their white counterparts’ skin. Historically, we know this to be the case. In recent generations and memory, we know this to be the case. In today’s world, if going by the disproportional outlook I’m going to lay bare below is any indication, which I think it is, we can see how black people hold this perception and that the perception is the truth.
Black lives matter is a reflection of the following disparity and the need to highlight how categorically different it is when an agent of the state (the police) vested with power, a badge and a gun, kills citizens, whether would-be criminals or criminals or you know, innocent. As I’ll point out below, we do not know how often something that significant happens nationwide, yearly. That’s a problem. That’s a problem for all of us.
Let’s start with this graph from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
The key word there is “most likely.” Yes, if you go by Bill O’Reilly’s understanding (re: lack of understanding) of the statistics, whites are killed more. However, that’s purely in raw numbers and of course the raw numbers would reflect that: Whites are a much greater percentage of the population than blacks, so you would expect them to be killed more. However, when adjusting for those percentages of the population, that’s where the CDC and the FBI and other studies come up with the “most likely” or “disproportionately.” Let’s continue with PolitiFact’s take down of O’Reilly’s claim. Thus, let’s start with his claim I’ve alluded to:
If you don’t want to watch a near-ten minute O’Reilly Factor video, which I don’t blame you, the gist of his argument is as follows:
“Let’s take a good look at this plague of white cops acting violently against blacks, as (professor and liberal columnist Michael Eric) Dyson puts it,” O’Reilly said on his Dec. 1, 2014, Fox News program. “In the past 50 years, the rate of black Americans killed by police has dropped 70 percent. In 2012, 123 African-Americans were shot dead by police. There are currently more than 43 million blacks living in the U.S.A. Same year, 326 whites were killed by police bullets. Those are the latest stats available.”
As PolitiFact notes, before we can unpack his claim, we have to look at the source of his claim, which is the CDC’s metric of “legal intervention,” which means “deaths caused in the course of law enforcement trying to make an arrest or quell a situation,” but those numbers are severely limiting for a number of reasons. The first of which is that there is no national database — not all police departments report those numbers nor is it entirely clear whether the fatal “legal intervention” was justified. In fact, those numbers largely derive from, “…causes of death listed in death certificates from coroners, medical examiners and physicians and demographic information provided by funeral directors.” Within that data set, the coroners and funeral directors are under no obligation to indicate the level of police involvement.
“It is not known or certain that every death certificate indicates that the death was caused by law enforcement officer in every jurisdiction,” said Samuel Walker, retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
In contrast, the FBI’s numbers derive from that self-reporting of police departments, but it’s not mandatory reporting, so it’s incomplete data. There are 17,000 law enforcement departments in the United States; the FBI’s data is gleaned from a very small percentage of that and even that percentage is not definitive as to, again, whether the shooting was justified or not.
Moreover, O’Reilly’s claim of 326 white deaths is further lessened by the inclusion of Hispanics in that count. People who identify as Hispanic are also counted in that, so if we take them out, it’s actually 227 deaths of whites from “legal intervention.”
Finally, when we look at rate, which is more indicative of the data rather than raw numbers and goes back to my point about disproportional or “more likely,” PolitiFact says:
Additionally, the per capita rate of black deaths per 100,000 residents is .28, which is twice as high as the rate for white deaths of .13, Walker points out.
So we’re talking about .28 versus .13. That should end the discussion there, but of course, it does not. PolitiFact would rate O’Reilly’s claim as “Mostly False” for not painting the whole picture, as including how faulty the numbers are and not discussing the rate of death. Let’s keep going.
Mother Jones offers a more complete look at why the statistics are faulty.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that between 2003 and 2009 there were more than 2,900 arrest-related deaths involving law enforcement. Averaged over seven years, that’s about 420 deaths a year. While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race or ethnicity, a rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.
And the accompanying chart:
Going back to O’Reilly’s claim that there are less instances of blacks being killed by police than previously, that is true. In fact, the rates of blacks or whites killed by police has gone down, but the racial disparity still is present. Check out this graph:
Remember, there’s some 17,000, according to PolitiFact or 18,000, according to Mother Jones, agencies in the United States. Only 750 of those report justified homicides by the police. So, it’s worth mentioning over and over again just how limiting this data set is and how alarming it is; i.e., it’s alarming that we have no real reliable data on just how often the police kills civilians.
Furthermore, the FBI’s data only counts “felons,” which to them means someone committing a felony criminal offense at the time of the justifiable homicide, but that definition of a felon and what constitutes a felonious criminal offense varies by jurisdiction; there’s no standardized understanding, which further impedes a comprehensive data set. As MJ notes:
“The FBI’s records ultimately rely on police departments’ word and the assumption that the victim was a criminal.”
As for the CDC’s numbers; they don’t even get into whether it was justified or not. Just that it happened. In other words, they’re looking at the medical cause, not the legal justifications, as MJ points out.
Quite clearly, as Mother Jones concludes, we need more (and better) data to paint the full picture, but the picture we have allows a window into the racial disparity between the number of blacks killed and the number of whites killed by police officers.
Maybe you’re interested in shrinking this down to something more local. I’m based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, if you’re not aware, so let’s look at Dayton’s — fairly local to me – breakdown of shootings. They, too, found a racial disparity. Dayton Daily News has a nice interactive piece here.
Dayton’s roundup of those killed by police in the past two decades came to 39 whites and 35 blacks, respectively. If you look at that raw number, like O’Reilly does the FBI stats, you think, “Oh, race? No, white people are getting killed more!” The raw data doesn’t tell the story. It’s the disproportionality that’s of significance. In other words, whites make up about 53% of Dayton’s population, blacks 43%, yet the number killed by police is almost even, i.e. disproportional to the population of whites and blacks. Same as the national numbers discussed above by PolitiFact and Mother Jones.
More from my local paper, the Journal-News on killings more broadly in Ohio:
“In Ohio, blacks made up 50 percent of the killings by police — 10 of the 20 recorded deaths — though they make up just 13 percent of the state’s population.”
Moreover, here’s a 2002 study from the American Journal of Public Health which tracked “mortality due to legal intervention in the United States fro 1979 through 1997.” In other words, the same metric from the CDC, but the data set is larger (looking at more years). They found that males account for nearly all deaths, with “the death rate for Black males several times that of White males.” Take note of the difference in rates in the following two charts from the study:
Finally, if the above doesn’t interest you, check out this nifty video from Buzzfeed, which is the best comprehensive look at officers killing black people and getting off for it I’ve seen in such a limited framework:
Now let’s start start scratching at the “why” of this: Why are blacks being disproportionately killed? Is it because blacks “commit more crime” as conservatives like to point out? Or is it because police are in their neighborhoods more, are more aggressive with them? From the aforementioned study’s conclusions:
“U.S. arrests (67% White, 31% Black) [which mirrors the death percentages, 63% White, 34% Black]. Non-Whites are more likely to report physical or other mistreatment by the police in surveys and data from the US Department of Justice suggests that in interactions between police officers and citizens, Blacks are up to 3 times more likely than Whites to experience “force or threat of force.”
To go back to local, my hometown newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, found that police were more likely to be in black neighborhoods, which echoes findings from the ACLU on SWAT team deployments. First, the ACLU’s graph, then the Enquirer’s findings.
Then the Enquirer:
Police in Cincinnati’s suburbs are about two and a half times more likely to arrest African-Americans than people of other races. That’s roughly the same disparity as in the rest of the country, a USA TODAY and Enquirer analysis has found.
The difference in some communities, though, is far more dramatic. African-Americans are almost 12 times more likely to be arrested in Sharonville, seven times more likely in Norwood, and five and a half times more likely in Reading and Blue Ash.
And their graph:
In other words, if the point isn’t clear, it’s not so much that blacks are “committing more crime,” it’s that their likelihood of being arrested is greater than their white counterparts for similar criminal offenses, largely because police are in those areas more. Also, if one wants to play the “raw data” game, blacks do not commit “more crime.” That’s factually incorrect. Whites quite obviously commit the most crime. Per the chart of “raw data.”
But what about the disproportionaity? That blacks only make up 12 or 13% of the population but commit such and such amount of crime? Are you still not convinced about “more likelihood to be arrested”? Check it from the Huffington Post:
Juvenile whites and blacks report using drugs at similar rates (11% among whites, 9.3% among blacks), to carry a weapon (whites 17.9%, 15.2% among blacks) and carrying a gun (5.5% among whites, 6.5% for blacks), and report being in a physical fight (32.5% for whites, 36.5% for blacks) and yet African Americans are arrested more than whites in each of those categories (twice the rate for drugs, twice the rate for weapons, and three times the rate for assault).
Vox came to similar conclusions with respect to the disastrous War on Drugs, particularly disastrous for minorities. Check out the following graph showing similar rates of drug use:
On the other hand, check out who was arrested:
So, not only are blacks disproportionately killed by police, but they’re disproportionately arrested by police and disproportionately jailed by the courts for longer (more on that as we go along here). Vox on that sentencing:
Drug sentences for black men were 13.1 percent longer than drug sentences for white men between 2007 and 2009, according to a 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission.
That disparity has been true for most recent history. Black men received 9.1 percent longer drug sentences between 2005 and 2007 and 9.2 percent longer drug sentences between 1998 and 2003. There was no statistically significant difference in drug sentences for black and white men in 2003 and 2004.
Still not convinced? Maybe you’re thinking this is a chicken or the egg scenario. Police are in those neighborhoods because blacks commit more murder and crime more broadly. Steve Chapman over at Reason helps clarify and focus the issue even more:
“The epidemic of unarmed blacks being killed by police comes not when black crime is high but when it is low. Homicides committed by African Americans declined by half between 1991 and 2008.
Since the early 1990s, arrests of black juveniles have plunged by more than half. In New York City, where Eric Garner was killed by police, the rate of homicides by blacks is down by 80 percent. In Chicago, where most murders are committed by African Americans, the number last year was the lowest since 1965—and this year’s could be lower yet.”
Even so, the perception is that black = criminal, but Chapman denounces this:
“What is also easy to forget in the denunciation of black crime is that the vast majority of blacks are not criminals. In any given year, less than 5 percent of African Americans are involved in violent crime as perpetrators or victims. The fact that blacks make up a large share of the violent criminal population gives many whites the impression that violent criminals make up a large share of the black population. They don’t.”
There’s also the point of white privilege — it’s not so easy as “obey the law.” Chapman again:
Now let’s slow down, backtrack and go over this. First, what about black-on-black crime? I’ve already tackled that silly, but pervasive myth on this blog here, but I’ll quickly go over it again in bullet-point form:
- How come nobody talks about white-on-white crime? Why is it just black-on-black crime? Goes back to linking blackness with a specific criminal pathology, to make black crime somehow different than just American crime. It makes it seem as if it’s a specific “failure of black people,” as the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates points out.
- Crime is a mix of opportunity and proximity and since blacks tend to live with blacks and whites tend to live with whites, the crime data reflects that. Black murder victims’ perpetrators are predominantly other blacks. But that is the case with whites, too. White murder victims’ perpetrators are predominately white: 94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders between 1976 and 2005, similarly, 86 percent of white victims were killed by white offenders. But again, where’s the pleas to other whites to talk about white-on-white crime? Language is important.
- Moreover, there’s this nefarious notion that blacks don’t care about black-on-black crime, which is preposterous on the face of it: You’re telling me people living in violence-plagued cities don’t care about that violence? But factually, it’s also bullshit.
- March to End Violence, Chicago 2010:A multi-community march was held in nine of the city’s most violent neighborhoods as well as three other communities. The march for peace was personal for some participants.It was a risk but Ceasefire marchers headed to the far South Side street where police say a high-ranking gang member was shot and killed Thursday night.“We have to justify why we’re over there. We’re trying to save your life. Your brother is dead, God Bless him. I feel for everybody. But the thing is somebody else is going to end up dead or someone is going to end up in the penitentiary. Is it worth it?” said Tio Hardiman, CeaseFire Illinois.
- Speaking of Tio Hardiman and CeaseFire in Chicago, an organization aimed at intervening between violent factions, spoke with NPR and mentioned that the CeasFire organization mentioned that in 2012, they meditated 700-some conflicts.
- New York in 2012: New York public leaders, community organizations and residents gathered Sunday to celebrate the 42nd annual African American Day Parade in Harlem. One focal point of the march was to attenuate the looming violence in neighboring and citywide communities.
- Then there’s Newark, Pittsburgh’s Stop the Violence Rally, Saginaw, Michigan, Gary, Indiana, Charleston, Montgomery and Brooklyn, as just a few examples, but if you go to YouTube and type in “march to end gun violence,” you’ll pull up a great many other rallies and protests about the violence, some quite recent and some older, obviously.
- As mentioned, there’s the CeaseFire organization working in Chicago to meditate violence. There’s also The Interrupters who do something similar to CeaseFire in terms of trying to meditate between potentially violence situations. They also put out a documentary by the same name that is a must-see.
Coates brings it home for us:
“It is not “black on black crime” that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people.”
Going back to Chapman, to get blunt on this, it would be like if back in the early 20th century, in the face of very public lynchings of black people, whites told blacks, “Why are you worried about lynchings? You (blacks) kill each other more than whites. What about black-on-black crime?” That should help us to see how silly this whole thing is. But Chapman:
In 1958—a time of lynchings, universal discrimination and legal segregation—Time magazine reported that in big cities, the “biggest and most worrisome problem is the crime rate among Negroes” and said Negro leaders and civil rights groups should start “accepting responsibility in an area where they habitually look the other way.”
The common impulse of whites, then and now, was to blame blacks for pathologies that whites played a central role in creating. Criminologist Charles Silberman wrote in 1978 that “it would be hard to imagine an environment better calculated to evoke violence than the one in which black Americans have lived.” Pretending black crime is a black-created problem is like pretending New Orleans never got hit by a hurricane.
Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker is a bit more blunt:
“The most obvious contradiction to this doctrine of behavior modification is also the one least spoken. Gun homicide has declined by forty-nine per cent since its peak, in 1993, largely because of a decline in homicides perpetrated by black offenders against black victims. This reduction in violent crime over more than two decades has done little to diminish white fear of black criminality, or the potency of “black crime” in justifying the violation of black rights. Of course, racism, being a superstition, has never been contingent upon facts.”
Indeed, the facts don’t seem to matter. The myths keep getting tossed out there and taken seriously. “Oh, Charles Barkley — a black man — said it, so it must be true!” Yawn.
So let’s unpack it further: How did whites create it? This is where those conservative types are going to groan, “Slavery was 150 years ago, Jim Crow 50 years ago and we have a black President!” but it’s nonsense, absolute nonsense, to think that the legacy of those events — the legacy of white supremacy — is dead. First, the graph to help us conceptualize it and then the facts.
Again, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “Ending white supremacy requires the ability to do math—350 years of murderous plunder are not undone by 50 years of uneasy ceasefire.”
Now the facts. I took this from my blog post on black-on-black crime. Backing up Coates’ work, Bryce Covert writing for Think Progress gives us the history of how black neighborhoods came to be, specifically of St. Louis and Ferguson:
What happened in St. Louis happened in cities across the country. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about extensively, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created in 1934 to insure private mortgages, used similar ratings, marking black neighborhoods with Ds and red coloring – hence the term redlining – and usually making those mortgages ineligible for its backing. That meant black residents missed out on the lower interest rates and down payments required for mortgages with FHA backing. Most black families were shut out of the legitimate mortgage market, their home values decreased, and even those who could afford to move were trapped in inner city communities by restrictive covenants.
The racial segregation that these policies caused lives with us today. Whites fled the city for the suburbs in St. Louis, but blacks couldn’t follow, kept out by restrictions. “Between 1950 and 1970, close to 60 percent of the white population fled the City,” Gordon writes. The black population in the city increased slightly in the same time. Ferguson, an inner suburb, was also abandoned by white residents as they left even those areas after 1970.
Across the country, while segregation peaked in the 1960s and 70s, it is still very much around today. The average city-dwelling white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white and just 8 percent black. The average black person lives in one that is 45 percent black and 35 percent white.
These racist housing policies, this redlining, trickles down to other areas, like income/wealth and education. Also from Think Progress:
Overall, the gap in wealth between white households and black ones was $84,960 in 2011. A similar gap is apparent in Ferguson, where the median household income is about $37,500 but in St. Louis County as a whole it’s $58,500.
It’s well-documented that black students and other minorities lag behind their white counterparts. Moreover, the unemployment among blacks, particularly youths, has consistently been double that of their white counterparts.
Let’s zero in on that next, the education-to-prison pipeline that Michelle Alexander, journalists and other scholars have mentioned. From PBS:
So, to focus again: Blacks from the moment they enter the education system or the foster care system, they are more likely to be punished. Once they leave school or those foster homes, they are more likely to encounter the police.
Let’s back up once again: I mentioned earlier that there is a perception of black = criminal, so I want to support that claim. There’s a lot of sociological and psychological studies that support this claim in terms of perceptions of black people. Let’s look at one from the Sentencing Project:
A national survey conducted in 2010 asked white respondents to estimate the percentage of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans. The researchers found that the respondents overestimated actual black participation in these crimes – measured by arrests – by approximately 20 to 30 percent (between 6.6 to 9.5 percentage points).
Or if you prefer it in graph form from the Washington Post:
All of this, that blacks are disproportionately arrested and killed and perceived to be criminal, plays into “the talk.” The talk that black parents give their black children. Whites are going to scoff at this, maybe say they gave similar talks to their children, but I beg t0 differ.
Let’s examine two anecdotes from parents talking to their black children. First, from Paula Fitzgibbons at the Post has twelve lessons she wants parents looking to adopt black children to know. In other words, she’s white. Her twelve lessons, all of which are supported by the Trayvon Martin case and other real-world cases from her site, if you want to see those.
The Post interviewed her and got into some of that. In particular, she says:
“I’ve talked with my son about a lot of things his white friends might do that wouldn’t be safe for him, like tearing through a park, or standing in the street and starting an impromptu race. Every time they go out without us, we have to talk about what their parameters are, and their parameters are different from their friends. Black kids don’t get to be normal kids who make normal mistakes, and teenagers make a lot of mistakes. It’s been hard. It’s been traumatizing for everybody.”
And this is also backed up by studies. When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old was killed by an officer in Cleveland, the officer said he thought Rice was a 20-year-old. Studies indicate that black kids are seen as older than their white counterparts. From the American Psychological Association:
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.
The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.
“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”
Rice was seen as an adult. He’s dead. In fact, “…every single child 13 or 14 years old sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide has been a person of color,” according to the New York Times.
Now Michelle Alexander, author of, “The New Jim Crow,” offers her own anecdote about talking to her 10-year-old black son about Ferguson from the Times:
I open my mouth to speak, look into my son’s eyes, and hear myself begin to lie: “Don’t worry, honey, you have nothing to worry about. Nothing like this could ever happen to you.” His face brightens as he tells me that he likes the police, and that he always waves at the cops in our neighborhood and they always wave back. His innocence is radiating from him now; he’s all lit up with relief and gladness that he lives in a world where he can take for granted that the police can be trusted to serve and protect him with a wave and a smile.
I begin telling him the truth and his face contorts. The glowing innocence is wiped away as his eyes flash first with fear, then anger. “No!,” he erupts. “There has to be a trial! If you kill an unarmed man, don’t you at least have a trial?”
However, are we going to do what Coates said and ignore what black people are saying? That they really “have” to give “the talk”? That they really do face harassment from the police and have to operate differently in public than their white counterparts?
There’s one last point I wanted to make earlier. What about black families? What about black fathers? I tackled that in a previous blog post and for The Miami Student, too, but I’ll rehash it quickly here:
A study published by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black fathers are not just involved in their children’s lives on a daily basis, but even more so than their white or Latino counterparts. Sure, 67 percent of black fathers don’t live with their children, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t involved in their lives.
I continued in my piece:
There are those, like black economists, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, who will argue black family structures were similar to white families from the late 19th century until the middle 20th century. Professor Steven Ruggles from the University of Minnesota, in his article, “The Origins of African-American Family Structure,” said, “The revisionists thus implied that the distinctive African-American family pattern is of recent origin, and this reinforced the now widespread view that economic disadvantages faced by blacks in the recent past are responsible.”
Ruggles concluded in contradiction to Williams and Sowell, “The finding of recent studies that the high incidence of single parenthood and children residing without parents among blacks is not new. The pattern is clearly evident as far back as 1850 among free blacks. From 1880 through 1960, the percentage of black children with at least one absent parent was fairly stable and about two-and-one-half times greater than the percentage among whites. Recently, the percentages of both black children and white children with absent parents have risen dramatically…”
In other words, despite what Williams and Sowell would contend, the so-called breakdown of the black family unit has historical roots and does not necessarily signify an absentee father. More importantly, it cannot so readily explain the violence in the black community.
Then it’s also worth looking at the new Pew Research data on the picture of the American family over the years. Let’s start with the graph:
If that chart ain’t obvious enough: It’s not just black families that have more “single mothers,” it’s all families, but just with how a certain black pathology is ascribed to black crime, so too is the “breakdown of the family.” There’s something pathologically different about black fathers and the scourge of absent black fathers that doesn’t apply to absent white fathers. The traditional familial structure seen in the 1950s and 1960s was an aberration on the overall trend of family structures and it’s especially going to look different once Pew can account for gay marriages since this is only a look at heterosexual ones.
But you see, that’s the simplicity of it: Absent black fathers are the broad brush which explains black-on-black crime and absolves any notion of white supremacy or white causation.
This is indeed an exhaustive look at many competing issues from police relations, slavery and Jim Crow’s legacy, education, crime, poverty, perceptions and so on and so forth, but I don’t see how anyone could read any of this, look at any of the charts and statistics and studies I’ve provided and not also conclude, if they’re a sensible person that cares about facts, if nothing else, that blacks are disproportionately killed by police officers, for one, and that for two, it’s not just a matter of them having disproportionately committed more of the crime.
Or you know, you could just read the best longform article of the year from Ta-Nehisis Coats, “The Case for Reparations.”
To conclude all of this, I want to do a quick primer on white privilege. Underpinning all of this is the notion of white privilege, but white people scoff at this, too, believing white privilege isn’t a “thing.” Let’s quickly unpack that with some of the best writing on it I’ve seen coming from Allan G. Johnson, “Privilege as Paradox.” If this doesn’t help clarify what is meant by privilege, I don’t know what will:
“…race privilege is more about white people than it is about white people.”
In other words, it’s not about whether White John Joe is racist; it’s about whether society views his white skin as more privileged than Black John Joe’s skin. Or as he goes on to say:
“When it comes to privilege, then, it doesn’t really matter who we really are. What matters is who other people think we are, which is to say, the social categories they put us in.”
Harry Bond helps us to understand it; it’s not an “intentional” act on behalf of an individual:
“We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be “outside” the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way which challenges or strengths the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which I therefore have the option of not taking. It it is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and egalitarian my intentions.”
All I’m out to show is that 1.) Race plays a factor in our society still, whether we’re talking in attitudes, policing or the criminal justice system. To refute that is to engage in foolishness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and 2.) We get nowhere until people acknowledge the former.
To the conservative and often times even to the liberal, as has been written elsewhere, the “primary victims of racism are white people” and the most vicious form of racism is “when a white person is false accused of racism.” It’s an incredible bit of a switch-a-roo and application of white privilege. White privilege means we get to say what’s racism, means we get to say you’re calls that something is racist can’t be true and that the system is no longer racist. Because.
Let’s end with Mr. Coates again. Privilege isn’t about condemning the outlandishly racist white people, but about attacking the status quo of ingrained and legacy racism that informs the disparities I’ve discussed in length above:
“Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.”