The presidential election campaign is drawing attention to white privilege. Many whites deny they are privileged because of their skin tone. When their privilege is pointed out, some reply that affirmative action is designed to give people of color an advantage.
A billboard in Tennessee sported the message, “Make America White Again!” — echoing current political rhetoric.
A recent cartoon shows a black person and a white person discussing oppression. The white woman exclaims, “I struggle too! And it’s even worse because I’m white and shouldn’t have to struggle!” Whiteness assumes freedom from deprivation.
White privilege is often experienced through the acts of a white “silent majority” that wants to negotiate the terms of justice. This majority doesn’t have one political affiliation or one ideology, either liberal or conservative.
When it’s expedient to let a privilege go, it slips into the shadows, only to rear its head in other forms.
White privilege has a significant effect on the marginalized and communities of color. Here are three examples:
– Failure to address the needs of marginalized people in impoverished urban communities when an area becomes gentrified. As suburbia becomes more racially diverse, white people return to urban centers. Neighborhoods are economically and physically stabilized, but the social networks of people of color are disrupted. This creates psychological issues as people are dispersed without support.
– Parental fear of a child being killed by a police officer. African-American parents often fear for their child’s safety when he or she encounters a police officer. This is seldom the case for white parents. According to a July 7, 2015, article by Vox writer Dara Lind, African-American teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white teens.
– Inequality in the administration of justice. Justice is supposed to be unbiased and fair, but that is not always the case. Race-neutral policies have been implemented in many communities. These are supposed to be unbiased, but they have had a negative racial impact. According The Sentencing Project’s 2015 publication, Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System: “Prosecutorial policies such as plea-bargain guidelines that disadvantage blacks and Latinos compound disparities, as do sentencing and laws that dictate harsher punishment for crimes for which people of color are disproportionately arrested.”
White privilege creates disease for both victims and perpetrators. However, it’s not terminal and can be cured. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis says whiteness is a myth and an ideology. It requires taking a stand in the face of resistance to access the cure. Some churches are doing that. Good Samaritan Church in Pinellas Park, Fla., recently posted on its kiosk, “If you are white, use your privilege to fight for justice.” Pastor Jan Daysa said, “Those who are white in our communities have to recognize the history in our country and the privilege we do receive. We have to actively work against the system that unjustly privileges us.”
The privilege that goes with whiteness separates us from God and each other. Many of my white brothers and sisters accept their white identity but understand and reject its effects on marginalized people. Do you? If you do, join other like-minded folks to rid society of the privilege it brings.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.