First off, it is hoped you are safe and healthy. If anything, one can no longer take these things as assumed when speaking with friends and family. This sentiment extends the same to you, dear reader. It was previously discussed that the mental stresses associated with a doctorate have a debilitating effect. That post spoke of the rejuvenating power of spending time with loved ones at home during the holidays. Of course, what could not have been anticipated was a global pandemic that would mandate a prolonged familial proximity. Now, spending time with your family 24/7 for 10+ weeks seems less of a healing experience and more of a relationship gauntlet testing your resolve and understanding. While I might have emerged from that gauntlet relatively unscathed, I know of many who have not been so lucky. Condolences.
“I Can’t Breathe”: A Gasp for Justice
The killing of yet another black man at the hands of law enforcement in America added to the tragic repetition of abuse of force and discrimination by state agents charged with the responsibility of public safety. How can it be that being black in America disproportionately increases the risk of a fatal outcome when interacting with the police? After all, as political scientist Prof Andrew Hacker reflects,
“America is inherently a ‘white’ country: in character, in structure, in culture. Needless to say, black Americans create lives of their own. Yet as a people, they face boundaries and constructions set by the white majority. America’s version of apartheid, while lacking overt legal sanction, comes closest to the system even now overturned in the land of its invention.”Two Nations (Scribner 1992) 4
Many of us (Canadians & Brits) like to point from the sidelines, attributing systemic failures as a uniquely American phenomenon. It is an unfortunate past time, one steeped in a sense of national moral superiority. It also may be a habit borne of self-preservation. As the saying goes, the thing you hate in other people often resembles that which you hate about yourself. As some Canadian and British folk are now realising, the killing of George Floyd could – and has – happened in our countries. There is nothing unique about the racism in America. (It also stands that there ought not to be anything American about racism, if it is to live up to it’s creed “that all men are created equal” found in the Declaration of Independence.)
A Shared Legacy of Discrimination
Racism didn’t start in America, nor will the outcome of current civil unrest ultimately ‘solve’ racism. It may help for some to consider the definition of racism:
Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Racial separatism is the belief, most of the time based on racism, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another.Anti-Defamation League, Racism (https://www.adl.org/racism)
As racism is rooted in superiority of one race over another, institutional or systemic racism is the result of expressing racism through the planning and policies of social, economic, and political institutions. Insofar as a person being racist, it is typical to see overt expressions of that attitude in the statements and actions of that person. As for systemic racism, it is perhaps more insidious. There are no clear expressions of superiority, nor is there explicit discrimination readily identifiable in individual cases. Rather, identifying systemic racism requires fastidious oversight of a system, taking note of the difference of outcomes, especially where negative outcomes for a specific group appear disproportionately to that of their representation within the composition of groups in a society. Even then, it can be difficult to attribute the representative disproportionality as conclusive evidence without considering what socio-economic or political factors contribute to the discriminatory circumstances under which discriminated people find themselves.
Typically, those factors reflect wealth inequality, lack of employment opportunities, lack of access to public health services, political disenfranchisement, substandard access to comprehensive education, and last, but certainly not least on this list (other factors may also be identified) a criminal justice system that applies the law differently based on racial identity. This last factor is where we find the current protests demanding action – as noted here, demand for equality not revenge.
It is important to understand that the legitimacy of ‘the rule of law’ in democracy is ultimately predicated upon the equality of all subject to the law. But equal protection under the law is more than aspirational – it must be measurable and adhered to if a society is to be regarded as equal. What was objectionable about the killing of George Floyd (for me) had nothing to do with the principle that laws should not be broken. It has been reported that the reason for the 911 call was the accusation he used a counterfeit $20 bill. Whether he did or didn’t has absolutely nothing to do with why his death has sparked mass protests. It has everything to do with the unequal and tragically predictable outcome of the interaction between black citizens – more so African American males – and law enforcement.
The role of police officers in any State (country) is one that represents the monopoly of violence that is afforded to the State. They are typically the first contact point between citizens and the criminal justice system, whether they are a complainant, witness, or the accused. They are responsible for evidence gathering to be used in support of charges laid against individuals. They are meant to be impartial and dispassionate in the discharge of their duties. (This is not the same as saying they must lack empathy or compassion to those in distress.) It is imperative that those charged with keeping the public safety ensure they keep faith with that very same public.
Is the concept of ‘white privilege’ itself racist?
Before diving into this, dear reader, the answer is no.
‘Privilege’ by definition is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. Its usage in sociological terms over the recent past has focussed on the group aspect – where one group benefits from perceived advantages or immunities over other groups in a given society. ‘White privilege’ by comparison considers systemic challenges faced by these other groups that are not necessarily to be found amongst their fellow caucasian citizens, resulting in disproportionate hardships on a group level.
What can be troublesome for some is twofold: (1) the term suggests that all white citizens are ‘handed’ everything without merit; and (2) the group aspect is difficult to conceptualise by an individual in their personal experience. These issues can manifest in radicalisation and violent objection to any efforts that seek to redress systemic racism and institutional bias towards other groups. We see this in news coverage of protests – the pitting of protesters and ‘counter-protesters’. (It seems rather an unfortunate dichotomy given that each may perceive their opposite as ‘countering’ their efforts when in reality both are protesters simpliciter.)
The reality here is that ‘white privilege’ is typically a blunt linguistic brush that fails to reflect a shared commonality with regards to economic, educational, and social hardships. However, in the present instance of systemic racism within the criminal justice system in certain countries, these shared hardships are inconsequential compared to the racial component of any citizen’s identity. As noted above, black and ethnic minorities face disproportionately higher risk of fatality when encountering law enforcement. This is alongside disproportionate representation when examining the likelihood of being charged, being denied bail, convictions for first offences, and lengths of custodial sentences. These disadvantages are not imagined, nor are they the fault of every person who may be considered to possess ‘privilege’. But simply because one does not feel ‘privileged’ does not mean that systemic racism does not exist. It would seem that rather than explaining the concept, many are content to throw the term ‘white privilege’ at others as a rhetorical epithet, driving some to feel personally responsible for actions they themselves would never commit.
That said, it is not a further burden on those seeking to enjoy equal treatment and protection under the law in society to delay their movement due to the misunderstandings or confusion of others. In some instances, that confusion is a product of the absence of knowledge that privilege exists, and that privilege favours those who historically have wielded power (often violently) over other groups. No, if this is the moment when the disenfranchised and discriminated finally have their voice heard, it is the responsibility of the rest of us to educate ourselves rapidly and find our common humanity with them. In my understanding, this is what is meant by using one’s ‘privilege’ positively.
Keep Hope Alive
The scale of the BLM protests in the wake of the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd has been breathtaking. Rather than remaining a local, state, or national reaction, the entire world has felt the immediacy of this matter on their own front doors. I would venture to say without suggesting a point of celebration, the coincidence between this and the global pandemic from SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 is serendipitous. Whereas many may have supported the cause but otherwise been unable to show up due to a variety of reasons, the perpetual limbo of lockdown conditions has offered a moment of alliance. The social limbo we all presently share has meant we all have our attention drawn to this moment of change. The global reach and impact is unlike any other in my lifetime.
But such is precipice of hope – seeing the opportunity for a giant step towards equal justice, tempered by the chasm below of past experience. It is not to say that which has come before was in vain. It is the human condition however to remember that expectations often exceed outcomes. Are we in the midst of a rare moment where we can reverse this – might the outcome exceed our expectations?
I leave you with this, dear reader.
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.Martin Luther King, Jr., In My Own Words (Hodder & Stoughton 2002)