On Black Death and White Privilege in America, by Jordan Walsh

I had originally started writing a post about GOP nominee Donald Trump’s history of alleged sexual assault. Then I saw the news from Minnesota, on the heels of Louisiana, across the nation, and only a day earlier and I deleted it. Why? Because Donald Trump is merely a manifestation of the white supremacist culture this nation still suffers from. His ascendancy is a talisman; a canary in the coalmine; a warning to Americans that we must now directly address racism—and I do mean structurally—or the great dream of America will in fact perish.

The horror that occurred in Dallas last night does not mitigate this, nor is it a counterpoint. It is yet another canary in the coal mine moment. We must begin to treat ALL Americans with the respect that we’d treat those we care for. If we care for America, we must care for each other.

The great dream of America is the noble idea that we each possess natural born rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that such rights are inalienable, a.k.a. imbued in each and every one of us by virtue simply of our humanity. Human. Rights. The full expression of the concept didn’t even come totally into the global lexicon until after World War II, but the beginnings of it, so-called natural rights as discussed by Locke—among them the right to self-determination—are the Foundation upon which this nation was indeed founded.

The great dream of America is not of course the “American dream” of a house in the suburbs, married parents, and 2.5 children. That is a capitalist dream rooted in Manifest Destiny, which mind you, was also racist. It was never European Immigrants’ God-given destiny to subjugate and pillage Native peoples and take possession of their land and resources via force. That “American dream” is nothing more than standard imperialism watered down by centuries of self-serving rationalization.

Yes, of course, our Founding Fathers suffered from the same myopia that still plagues many white and cis-gendered male Americans today: they did not originally extend these rights to all humans born within this great nation, merely to white male property owners over the age of 21. However, just as they were aware of emerging philosophy and able to apply it to the law then, the men who founded the government of this nation were aware of the continuing advancement of such concepts too, and thus they created for this nation a flexible, living document in our Constitution. We have the oldest written Constitution in the world, and it may be precisely because it is vague and flexible. It allows for both express amendments and judicial interpretation of the scope of the rights contained within it in accordance with modern understanding. Yes, that’s correct—judicial review was always at least some part of the plan for our Constitution, even before Marbury v. Madison. The Supreme Court of the United States is indeed supposed to help keep our constitutional interpretations current and relevant. Don’t believe me? Read this. The legislative history of the Constitutional Convention (which of course produced a document that is distinct from the failed and defunct Articles of Confederation which preceded it) is fairly plain. These were, by-and-large, men of science, men of invention, and men of progress. To claim that they had no intention to leave space in their grand document for more of all three as time passed and this nation grew is incongruous.

As with many movements, including feminism and the gay rights movement, our Founding Fathers’ movement for a democratic republic, with liberty and justice available for all, suffered from an inclusion issue, but not generally a framework issue…with one glaring exception. Certain rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable; yet, we have simply failed to ever truly extend that principle equally to black Americans. Yes, we have enacted an Equal Protection Amendment and yes we have enacted Civil Rights Acts and created private rights of action, but we have not as a nation done the collective work necessary to understand how the original designation by our Founders of black Americans as OTHER than human has hampered our ability to correct these ills for centuries since.

Before anyone gets carried away with a discussion of discrimination against [white] women, or other immigrant groups, or those with special needs, or chemical imbalances, who also did not always meet the societally defined standards of equal citizenry at times throughout our history, I would like to draw a distinction. While women and those with special needs or mental illness generally were viewed as weaker or lesser humans, akin to children under our legal structure, they were not solely property for all purposes under the eyes of the law. Even the much discussed “femme covert” status forced upon white married women was more of a legal tool designed to advance misogynistic goals in property and procreation than it was a complete and total dehumanization. To wit, the non-marital rape of a white woman has always been a crime in this nation; the rape of a black woman has not. White women may have been semi-indentured servants to their husbands or to their fathers, but society as a whole did still concern itself with our care and protection—however misguided, cruel and regressive those attempts were or still are to this day. The same simply cannot be said of black women, or of black men, for that matter. They were once structurally and legally categorized as property in this nation, for all purposes, at all stages of life. Property. And our law enforcement was at one time both openly trained, and legally bound, to treat them as such. This fact cannot be ignored, nor should it be erased from our national conversation.

Trying to sweep this fact, and thus its many implications, under the rug, or to pretend as though mere words on paper could automatically undo centuries of systematic and formal dehumanization of an entire group of people based on an immutable characteristic is both naïve and counter-productive. The truth is we live in two Americas. I, as a white child, was raised to see the police as my friend, and to assume they would respect and defend my rights, at least until proven otherwise. It is time for white Americans to realize and accept that black parents in this nation are not afforded that luxury. This statement should not be controversial, and a white person in 2016 has no logical reason to feel defensive upon reading it. It is a statistical fact. Denying it is a form of white privilege. Yes, white privilege in this nation extends far beyond money or class. Every single white person in this nation, no matter how financially disadvantaged, still has the benefit of white privilege. And in this case, I am referring to the privilege it is to live in a society where you fundamentally believe that law enforcement is actually there to enforce the law and protect the citizenry. And what a white privilege it is.

It is also time for white Americans to be honest about the difference between a racist person and [structural] racism. Yes, of course a black person can be a racist, as can a person of any race, or creed for that matter. What black Americans cannot do, and have never done, is direct the power of the United States government to effectuate and perpetuate that racism into our national culture and governmental institutions. We must stop permitting this false equivalency to occur unchallenged.

And when I say we, yes, I do mean we white people too. Shrugging off, rationalizing, or minimizing our fellow white folks’ casual or unexamined racial biases has to stop. As for the blatant hateful unapologetic racists, they should be ostracized and publicly shunned. We owe our fellow American citizens our voices, and if needed, our bodies as well. They are trying to save their children’s lives. It is our civic duty to help them.

It is also time to stop pretending that race and class are inextricably tied in both directions when it comes to these issues. Of course intergenerational black poverty is often tied to systematic racism, but upper middle class and wealthy black Americans also suffer disproportionately at the hands of our racist system. Sandra Bland was college educated and middle class and she is still quite dead as a result of a traffic stop gone wrong. Dylann Roof came from a working class background, killed nine black people in a mass shooting hate crime in a Church, and after being on the run, was taken to Burger King by police before he was booked. He is still alive and awaiting trial. These are of course only two examples but they are sadly in line with statistical escalation or de-escalation responses of our law enforcement in correlation to white and black citizens, respectively. Does this mean all individual police are racist? No, of course not. It means our system is racist. Even black law enforcement officers treat black citizens worse than white ones. They are trained to, and this training starts long before they ever enter the Academy. It starts in childhood when we label assertive black girls “sassy” or ”angry,” or when we begin to see black boys as several years older than they truly are, and begin to apply adult motivations to them as children because of it. Again, these biases are often unconscious but they are ingrained in us since childhood, and their long-term consequences are massive.

The idea behind Black Lives Matter is not to say that Police lives or any other lives do not matter. Of course they do. And we as a society treat them as such—it is why killing or assaulting a police officer (or police dog for that matter) is automatically an aggravated crime. Again, Black Lives Matter does not need to trigger a defensive response in white America, nor in our law enforcement. Comparing a police officer’s death on the job to a black child’s shooting by police is a false equivalency. What happened last night in Dallas is a horror and a national tragedy. Injustice does not meet injustice. Police dying in the line of duty is the highest sacrifice a person can make for their country. But our adult policemen and women sign up for a very dangerous and very necessary job, and we as a society are grateful—it is why we as a society provide them with pensions, and death benefits. Black children are…children.

Black Lives Matter is not claiming that black lives somehow matter more than any other lives. Quite the contrary, it is a plea to finally have societal acknowledgement that, in very real ways, we still effectively and systematically treat black lives as if they matter less. It is a righteous demand by black parents, husbands, wives, and children across this nation that we begin to finally unpack the unconscious biases underlying our society today, and then retrain our law enforcement, our legislatures, our Courts, our schools, and yes, even our citizens to see black bodies as inherently containing the same humanity as white ones. And until we admit we have yet to actually do this, as Americans we are doomed to fail in our quest for a more perfect union.

I can only hope we don’t doom ourselves to a racist nativist misogynist charlatan demagogue like Donald Trump in the interim.


Picture Credit: http://www.clipartpanda.com/clipart_images/shared-by-sarah-moe-4537924