Opinion

What white folks get wrong about white privilege

For white people, society pretty much works as advertised. Not so for others.

Tal Fortgang, a Princeton undergraduate, has become something of a hero on the right for bravely standing up for embattled whites everywhere who have been told to "check their privilege" when discussing politics. In a head-shakingly dense essay that tracks his family's own underdog roots as poor Jewish immigrants, Fortgang says, "[T]hey can’t be telling me that everything I've done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me into Princeton."

Perhaps. But Fortgang's essay doesn't even begin to scratch at the problem of white privilege. On a purely functional level, society simply works for white folks in a way that it doesn't for others.

On the extreme end, just imagine if a black family had confronted law enforcement with a heavily armed militia, a la Cliven Bundy. Would the feds have simply walked away? Would conservatives be comparing them to Mahatma Gandhi and George Washington?

On the more mundane side, just consider this brilliant and terrifying post by Tressie McMillan Cottom about being confronted by an angry cab driver, in which she has to weigh the imperative to call the police against the consequences of putting a black man in contact with the criminal justice system:

As a black woman, I am the keeper of many things. Chief among them is the hope of black men. A black man introduced into the criminal justice system for any violation, no matter how minor, becomes a son who cannot care for big momma, a brother who can't hold down his siblings, a mate who can't promise a paycheck, and a father who is a parent only when the penal system says he can be.

Black women calling the police on black men has a long, tragic history. That history isn't just about protecting black mens' futures. It's also about how that leaves black women trapped between a rock and a hard place beneath an open sky.

Last night I called the police on a black man. [Some of us are brave]

I highly encourage you to read the rest — it's bracing stuff. What jumped out for me was that I have never in my life been burdened with such an excruciating decision. I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to experience the extreme emotional stress of violent confrontation, while simultaneously calculating the risk of getting yet another black man pulled into the crushing vortex of the prison-industrial complex.

This is the kind of situation that makes Fortgang's "check your privilege" complaint even more petty. It also simplifies the issue for liberals, who often speak of their privilege with a distinct air of hair shirt self-flagellation, as something that must be constantly apologized for. In many cases, the system simply needs to work for everyone in the way that white folks take for granted.

How to achieve that is a more complex question, of course. But the end goal is obvious. Nobody should have to worry about calling the police if some strange, threatening man is banging on the door. Nobody should have to worry whether that person will be punished wildly disproportionately, by being put away for half a lifetime, or beaten to death for "resisting arrest," or shot and killed.

They should be able to call for help without a second's hesitation. This is just a case of bringing everyone up to the same basic level.

Of course, American law enforcement is by no means scrupulously fair when it comes to white folks either, especially not poor ones. In fact, as Radley Balko and others have long been documenting, cops are increasingly treating everyone with the same preposterous hyper-aggressiveness that has traditionally been reserved for minorities. Even being the white mayor of a city won't save you these days from the SWAT team doing a no-knock raid on the wrong house and shooting your dogs for no reason. Or consider Cecily McMillan, convicted of felony assault yesterday for elbowing a police officer when he allegedly violently groped her.

It's all the more reason for whites to be wary of the cruelties of the U.S. criminal system — and to understand what white privilege really means.

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