The Power of White Privilege

The Power of White Privilege

On the evening of Tuesday, November 24, a young couple from Virginia made their way into one of the most secure events in the country, President Obama’s state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh and his wife at the White House. Like the other 300-plus guests, Tareq and Michaele Salahi went through multiple layers of Secret Service security, took photos with Chief of Staff Rom Emanuel and mingled with Vice President Biden and other invited guests. The problem is that the Salahis were not invited to the dinner. Their names were not listed on the official guest list or any other list that would have allowed them entrance into the White House. They crashed the party!

The administration says they were not invited. The Salihis have said they “did not party-crash.” Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan has placed three Secret Service Agents on administrative leave and taken full responsibility for the security breach, stating, “This is our fault, and our fault alone.” Others have said it was due to the fact that it was raining that evening and the agent at the gate did not want to keep people waiting as the problem was resolved. Rep. Peter King (R-New York) is holding White House social secretary Desiree Rogers’ office responsible even though Secret Service officials said they told Ms. Rogers that a representative from her office would not be needed.

One of the factors not being discussed in most circles is skin color. After all of the other factors are taken into consideration, what this couple needed to gain entrance into a state dinner at the White House was a tuxedo, traditional Indian evening wear, attitude and white skin. When they arrived at the Secret Service check point without a printed invitation and without their names on the official guest list, they were not detained or questioned. No telephone calls were made; no further inquiries were needed; just bad weather, white skin, blond hair, the expectation of admittance, and a pretty smile. Had this occurred at an airport, the Salihis would have never made it past airport security without a ticket and proper identification.

This is the latest example of the privilege and expectations of privilege that comes with white skin. Had the Salihis been African-American or any other ethnicity with a darker skin tone, the Secret Service agent on duty would have never allowed this couple on the White House grounds simply based upon a “… what do you mean our names are not on the guest list … this is a travesty … obviously your list is not up to date … blah, blah, blah …” or some other self-righteous retort.

In most instances, these senses of expectation and privilege are not planned, they just are. They have developed over time and have become the norms of American culture. They are so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that they are now patterns of action, perception, logic, symbol formation, thought and emotional response.

Racial profiling can work a number of ways. For people of color, profiling works against them as they are targeted by those in positions of power and authority based upon a mistaken belief that they (particularly African-Americans) are more inclined to be involved in criminal behavior in non-suspect specific situations. For example, a survey by the Department of Justice in 1999 revealed that while officers disproportionately focused on African-American and Latino drivers during the “War on Drugs,” they found drugs more often when they searched whites (17 percent) than when they searched African-Americans (8 percent). A similar survey in New Jersey found that although people of color were searched more frequently, state troopers found drugs in vehicles driven by whites 25 percent of the time, by African-Americans 13 percent and by Latinos 5 percent. For people of European decent or with white skin, profiling can work to their benefit as they are stopped less often, searched less often and given favorable consideration and deference based upon the assumption that they pose no threat in a particular circumstance. White people get access; Black people get arrested.

This favorable consideration or deference has developed into a sense of entitlement as evidenced by the Salihis’ expectation that they would be admitted into the seemingly most secure event in America just by showing up. Even with an African-American president in this supposed “post racial” America, no African-American would ever expect such unfettered access to the White House.

According to Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan, President Obama was never in any danger. “It’s important to note that they went through all the security screenings – the magnetometer screening – just like all the other guests did …” Donovan’s confidence in the systems that have been designed to ensure the president’s safety are a bit misplaced. This statement assumes that peril would have come via knife or gun; magnetometers do not detect poisons and toxins such as ricin.

The Salihis did not go through all the security screenings. Obviously, the Secret Service failed to send them through the “match a person’s name and identification to those on the guest list” part of the process. In spite of the fact that their names were not on the official guest list, they were admitted into the White House and into the same room as the president and vice president. The first level of security failed. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Yes, in this instance the security measures that have been put in place to protect the president and those who visit the White House failed. They failed for a number of reasons. The written processes and procedures will be evaluated and tightened, but it’s the human aspect of this event that should cause the most concern. Simply because a couple “looked the part,” they were given deference and allowed within striking distance and within the personal space of the most threatened man in America.

White privilege is a dangerous thing on a number of levels.