It’s bad enough that a sliver of a percentage of Americans – but still a large enough chunk, numbers-wise – has a pathologically obsessive love affair with guns and considers it perfectly normal to dress in public as a stand-in for Rambo. That these folks are able to do so without causing mass public panic underscores how different the reaction might be if these gun-toters were not white, but black or brown, and worsens our country’s racial divide.
Over the past few weeks in state capitals across the country, groups of citizens who are fed up with the coronavirus lockdowns exercised their First Amendment rights by protesting at the steps of their respective state governments’ headquarters. That’s fine. That’s what America is all about. Though we could have done without the gaudy gun gear.
The worldwide reaction to the virus is rare in its truly worldwide impact, let alone having affected Americans in all 50 states, some more than others. However, a problem that concerns a smaller portion of the population is that of race-based double standards. Few will deny that husky, heavily-bearded white males comparatively “get a pass” when it comes to donning an arsenal of firearms and parading around in public, whereas a bunch of young, black males doing the same might get themselves killed. Anyone not living in denial can see that such racial disparity continues to exist in America, even in the year 2020, despite the fact that the contrast in a decade-by-decade comparison continues to wane. What is unfortunate, though, is that some have chosen to label this disparity as “white privilege.” Ironically, by doing so, they are doing harm to achieving racial equality, which is what they seek.
First of all, transformational social movements succeed when there is a broad buy-in from the public as a whole. Abolition of slavery would not have happened if there wasn’t strong support from non-enslaved Americans, i.e., the vast majority of the population. (The Union soldiers who marched to war against the Confederacy were not slaves themselves.) Women wouldn’t have been guaranteed not to have their voting rights denied because of their gender, had the majority of men not supported the idea too. Same-sex marriage would not have gained national validity had not heterosexual President Obama proclaimed he was in favor of it, and the United States would not have moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had non-Jewish President Trump not championed the cause. Similarly, racial equality in America will not be realized unless there is a huge buy-in from whites, and they’re not likely to jump on board if they’re perceived as being “privileged.”
Every day, millions and millions of white Americans wake up feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, frustrated, angry, confused, and hopeless. They are scared they won’t be able to make their rent or mortgage payment. Maybe the feelings are intensified because they just lost their job. Maybe they got bad news at the doctor’s office. Maybe they’re going through a divorce, or their kids are addicted to drugs. These folks certainly don’t feel “privileged,” and do not particularly care that someone else thinks that he/she is worse off.
One of the lessons I’ve taught for years in college courses is: “we are all privileged.” For example, what white person who never has to worry about cab drivers avoiding him, or department store security guards following him around suspiciously, if he was told he only had six months to live, wouldn’t gladly trade his life for that of a young, healthy black male who can’t get a cab and is often perceived to be a thief?
What white woman who’s been afflicted by a disease that leaves her permanently confined to a wheelchair wouldn’t trade in her “privileged” life for a young, healthy Latina or Muslim woman who can walk, jog, or run to her heart’s content, despite the race-based societal challenges that come with that status?
A more appropriate term for “privileged” whites is that they have the benefit of possessing a Racial Targeting Shield (RTS). Their whiteness does not shield them from health issues, money issues, relationship issues, or other problems. But it does generally shield them from the type of profiling that persons of color have to endure. By making white Americans more aware that they ought to be grateful they have an RTS – just as they enjoy the benefits of living in the United States, as opposed to a third-world country rampant with civil unrest, ubiquitous crime, and contaminated drinking water – they will likely be more inclined to join the cause to eradicate disparate racial treatment.
Moreover, the term “white privilege” implies resentment. People who feel others are jealous of them aren’t exactly going to reciprocate with warm and fuzzy hearts and flowers. In fact, the result might be a reaction of momentary anger overriding any compassion they might otherwise feel, and they might even blurt out a response like: “oh well, it sucks to be you.” Surely, that will cause society to more farther from resolution, not closer to it.
Imagine for a moment that people with a certain blood type were biologically immune from being infected with the coronavirus. To call those people “virus privileged” wouldn’t do anyone any good, except perpetuate resentment, and counter-resentment for being resented. That might be an unlikely reaction, but there’s something particular about race in America that intensifies sensitivity. Does it really just all boil down to slavery guilt? As a nation, we need to look to common sense: throughout the history of the world, all of our ancestors at one time or another were either slaves or slaveowners (not at the same time, of course). Plato, and particularly Aristotle, endorsed slavery, and even Jesus Christ did not outright condemn it. But here in the United States, we got rid of it, over 140 years ago. It’s really time to let it go.