It’s time for white America to get real about white privilege.
Last night, Bill O’Reilly came from back vacation early to host a special edition of “The Factor”, one that he said would “tell the truth” about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri.
Right off the bat, it was obvious that Bill was really, really mad about how he people he calls “race agitators” are using events in Ferguson to drive their “agenda.”
But he really lost his cool after playing a clip from Monday of MSNBC contributor Michelle Bernard saying there is a “war on black boys” in this country.
With the help of his video editors, Bill made Michelle Bernard’s comments look pretty damning. Obviously, black people aren’t only getting killed by the cops. They’re also not the only race of people who experience police violence, so it’d be ridiculous for Bernard to make it seem like they are.
But the thing is, Michelle Bernard wasn’t just talking about cops killing young black men. If you watch the full, unedited clip of her remarks, you’ll see that she was talking about the shooting of Michael Brown in the larger context of a social system that devalues the lives of black people.
What Bill O’Reilly doesn’t get, and what, frankly, most white people don’t get, is that the shooting of Michael Brown, and the killing by law enforcement of other young black men like him, didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in a country with a huge white privilege problem.
There are many ways of defining white privilege, but at its core it’s a system of social relations that gives white people an inborn advantage over people of other races simply because of the color of their skin.
White privilege is like white supremacy and apartheid because it puts white people at the top of society, but it’s more subtle than both of those systems, which use explicit racism like Jim Crow laws to oppress people who aren’t white.
What really makes white privilege so problematic – and what makes it so difficult for most white people to understand – is that the single biggest part of white privilege is that it gives white people the luxury of never having to worry about the fact that they are white.
As feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh puts it, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
Because white people are born carrying that invisible knapsack, they usually don’t even know they have it. White people don’t worry about getting pulled over on the highway because of the color of their skin – it doesn’t even occur to them. We don’t worry about getting denied a mortgage just because of the color of our skin, and, for the most part, we don’t ever think about people crossing the street to avoid us.
The great comedian Richard Pryor said he finally understood what it was like to be white in America when he visited Zimbabwe, where most people are black. He said, “I know how white people feel in America now, relaxed. Because when I hear the police siren, I knew they wasn’t comin’ after me.”
That presumption of criminality that Richard Pryor talked about is the ugly flip-side of white privilege. While white people almost never have to worry about being treated like the bad guys, black people always have to worry about being treated like the bad guys.
This is why the killing of Michael Brown has struck such a nerve with people of color all across the country. It’s brought home in a very brutal and very personal way the fears that non-white people in this country live with every day, the most powerful of those fears being that the cops won’t hesitate to kill you if they get the chance.
And yes, that fear is justified. White people get killed by the police too, but the FBI’s own statistics show that black people are disproportionately victims of police shootings.
Despite making up only 12 percent of the population, black Americans make up 31 percent of all victims of police shootings. They also make up 39 percent of those police shooting victims who are not attacking when they’re killed.
In a society like ours, where white privilege infects every single relationship, every single institution, and every single decision we make, the shooting of an unarmed young black man by a white police officer doesn’t “just happen.”
It’s always going to be tied up into the bigger issue of a racial power structure that continues to control this country 149 years after the abolition of slavery.
Instead of blithering about “racial agitators” and lecturing black Americans about smoking pot, Bill O’Reilly and other white Americans like him should take a good long look at this racial power structure and understand how they benefit from it.
An equal society is not going to happen overnight, but the only way we can move forward is for white Americans to realize how much they continue to profit from racism both past and present.
If there’s one lesson that everyone should take away from the killing of Michael Brown and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, it’s that it’s time for white Americans to get real about white privilege.