Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 29, 2016

Weapons of Privilege

Hey! What gives you the right… To put up a fence to keep me out,
Or to keep Mother Nature in?
If God was here, He’d tell it to your face. “Man, you’re some kind of sinner.”
-Les Emmerson, sung by Five Man Electrical Band

 

I don’t go out much at night anymore. I did one night last week to see if any progress is being made by white folks in understanding black folks. Probably I should have stayed home.

The Unitarian church in Cherry Hill, NJ (an affluent white suburban town just over the Delaware River from Philadelphia) had placed a sign prominently on their front lawn facing a busy high-traffic street…

BLACK LIVES MATTER

DSCF0897sThree words, nothing more. They were affirming a solidarity with the emerging movement to bring equal value to the lives of black people in this country. You wouldn’t think such a simple sentiment could provoke a deeply controversial response, let alone a criminal one. Yet over the next few weeks that sign was vandalized and stolen two or three times according to church folk. Being people of persistent faith, they kept renewing the sign — that whole “turn the other cheek” sentiment I guess. And finally, they decided to do what Unitarians excel at — talk about it.

They set a time and date for a “public forum” to talk about “Why Black Lives Matter in South Jersey.” They invited a group of prominent black folks to sit on a panel, and they invited all the suburban white folk to sit in the audience and listen and learn why black lives do matter. I have long known why black lives matter, but I’ve always faced stony resistance when making the argument to white friends, family and acquaintances. Granted they never said black lives do not matter, at least not outright, but they are not open to hearing the truth of an uncomfortable reality — cognitive dissonance and all that psychological mumbo jumbo. Given my experience I decided to attend the “public forum” and see if the Unitarians were making any progress.

DSCF6148sMy expectation was that I was going to a peaceful function in a suburban church. So I was shocked by the very first thing I saw — a uniformed, armed police officer standing on the church steps. Outraged, the first thing that went through my mind was “Oh, we have some black people here in the white church so we better be ready for trouble, anything might happen with them around, you know.” And probably a little too forcefully I said to the cop, “What are you doing here?” He mumbled something about this was where he was supposed to be. I asked if he were posted there by the police department, and he said he was. I could hardly believe it and started to go in, then he suddenly thought better of what he had said, and he blurted out, “You can ask them inside, the church hired me.” That meant he was not on duty at an appointed post, rather he was doing a part-time job working for the church.

Naturally, being a church in the Protestant tradition, they had a greeter at the door. She welcomed me, and my first question was why they thought they needed a uniformed and armed police officer guarding the door. She said they had received a lot of nasty messages about the forum. She didn’t use the word “threat,” but as I thought about it I realized the attacks on their sign combined with online nastiness suggested a real possibility of violence. After all, some whackaloon in South Carolina strolled into a church meeting one evening and murdered eight people. And then I got nervous that one of those fearful types with more bullets than sense might show up. So, it’s entirely possible that cop at the door could have scared one of them off just by his presence. A sad reality, and it didn’t say much for the kind of progress the Unitarians were making in bringing white folk to their senses — or alleviating their fear. But then again, Martin Luther King took a bullet and lost his life delivering the same message to the fearful.

DSCF6143sThe “weapons of privilege” are being challenged in ways that have never happened before in this country,  and that creates significant fear. The old Catholic Worker, Ammon Hennacy, said that being white is more than simply “white privilege” — it is literally a weapon of privilege. He said white folks born in mid-20th Century America came into the world with an “arsenal of weapons,” the weapons of privilege — racial privilege, economic privilege, etc. In the face of all that privilege, so deeply ingrained in the subconscious, we are now faced with a conflicting movement that says the prisons are full of black people who don’t deserve to be there, that cops seem to kill black people with impunity while white people are treated with respect and deference. And every single day, that weapon of privilege is confronted with the image of a black man occupying the White House. And suddenly, right in the heart of pristine, safe Cherry Hill a sign appears — BLACK LIVES MATTER. What is happening to privilege? Is our weapon failing? Unfortunately, most of those who need to be seriously thinking about this were probably not in the Unitarian church that evening.

The panel answered questions said to be from the audience — a moderator read a chosen question and directed it at individual panel members. Loretta Winters is Gloucester County NAACP President, and she laid out the reality plain and simple. She suggested if we white people are honest, we do not value the lives of black people the same as white people. She said if a white person is generally seen as a 10 on a scale of one to 10, a black person is valued around a five, perhaps less. I believe given the overall population, she is correct. I don’t know any scientific study that can prove that out, but my experience of living with black folks and working with black prison inmates for many years makes it irrefutable to me — and honestly, the injustice of it enrages me to the point of being nearly ineffective in voicing it. Given the rage it inspires in me, I can’t imagine how black folk live with it every day of their lives. Every single day I am haunted by the vision of a 12-year-old black child named Tamir Rice who was playing with a toy gun in a park (the same way I played with toy guns as a child) when he was brutally murdered by a police officer who walks free today having claimed he “feared for his life.” The weapon of white privilege at its most deadly.

DSCF6152sEric Dobson is the outreach coordinator for the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill. He made the point that until not so long ago black people were pinned in certain neighborhoods because it was illegal for them to purchase homes in the suburbs where the white folks were living. Very few people know that, and when I’ve told white people that they simply don’t believe it. That’s the true weapon of white privilege that most of us do not comprehend. Our government endows us with a very particular privilege that is not bestowed on black people.

Several people stood at a microphone and asked questions. One woman talked about her having not seen black people as she was growing up and, since that was the norm, she wondered if we are not simply afraid. Loretta Winters on the panel responded by asking, “What are you afraid of?” The consensus seemed to be simply the “unknown” or the “other.” That led to a question of how we can get over our natural human fear of that “unknown.” One suggestion was simply sharing a meal, and I agree with that. I like banana pudding, but I never had a great one until one evening in the home of a black family. That’s the kind of thing you can enjoy when you give up the weapons of privilege.

A woman at the microphone suggested the fear of the unknown or other is instilled at an early age. That made me think of all the families who pass down racial hatred (really fear) through the generations. And I thought about my mother who broke that cycle in our family. She had a racist father. Perhaps as a repudiation of him as not a very good father she rejected his racism. She would not tolerate any disrespect of black folk in our family. I’m happily a product of that enlightened upbringing.

DSCF6154sOne man stood at the microphone delivering a message that was incoherent to me. I don’t think anyone knew what he was actually trying to say, but I didn’t much like him talking about the Black Panthers in California parading around with “machine guns.” I had a hard time keeping my seat and not shouting at him to stop that nonsense. While the Black Panthers did march and demonstrate while openly carrying rifles and handguns, (entirely legal at the time) they would have been arrested if seen with a machine gun. While there have been reports that Black Panthers had machine guns in their “arsenal” in those times, I believe they are unfounded — and probably propaganda planted by government to discredit an organization that was founded to be of service to the black community.

Overall I guess the forum did no harm, although I don’t know how much it helped. Realizing fully the gun-violent culture we live in, I’m happy there wasn’t a mass shooting. Change is always troubling, but I think progress is being made. I no longer see the kind of experience I had thirty-some years ago in southern Indiana. I spent a day interviewing a man I was writing a magazine story about. This man did not know me and except for my white skin had no knowledge of my racial beliefs when over lunch he said, “You should move here, there’s not a single nigger in the whole county.” The weapon of white privilege is just that presumptuous — and just that damn ugly.

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Responses

  1. Oh, another great article! How I wish it wasn’t true but unfortunately I know that it is. As my husband and I visited Memphis some years back I was mortified at the racism I saw. I want to think that we are moving forward even though it feels like a snails pace. My mother also rebelled against racist parents. Thank God for some rebellion!!!

  2. Please remove me from your list

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. I am against the outlandish incarceration of young black men for carrying personal amounts of weed, or for doing absolutely nothing for that matter. I am against the unbelievable police murder of black people that goes unchecked, even by our President and DOJ. It is evident to me that it is more than the actions of white privilege, but more of a genocide by those in power.
    They are just starting with black people.

    This issue effects everybody, not just black people. I am white, and Black Lives DO Matter every bit as much as white lives. I would like the Black Lives Matter people to allow non-blacks to support them rather than just volunteer for a guilt-trip. Aren’t the organizers just preaching to the choir? BLM has promised a concrete plan of action for some time – was a plan presented at the meeting? In news snippets and interviews, I am hearing them turn away help, wanting very much to own their pain and victimhood. Sorry, I know this is politically incorrect. But are we all going to stay in the leftover slavery mentality that assigns everyone a team based on race, which is in itself racist, or are we going to fix this thing together?


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