Not even white criminals are exempt from white privilege.
We can no longer deny that whiteness in America affords individuals preferential treatment in virtually all aspects of life, even when they’ve committed grave wrongdoing.
For proof, look no further than how police arrested and, eventually, charged Charleston, South Carolina shooter Dylann Roof with the murder of nine black congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When Roof was found, the result of an intense manhunt, he wasn’t thrown against his car. He wasn’t tackled or slammed to the ground. He wasn’t tased mercilessly, nor was he thrown in a chokehold. He wasn’t shot at preemptively, even though he was described as “armed and dangerous” by officials who searched for him. He wasn’t killed.
Instead, officers put Roof—a white supremacist who killed nine black people in a historically black church—in a pair of handcuffs and gently escorted him to a police vehicle, even providing him with the protection of a bulletproof vest. If only unarmed black and brown people could get such treatment, regardless of whether or not they’re being apprehended for criminal activity.
White privilege runs much deeper than whites people being overrepresented in every aspect of public life—from politics and the business sector to the media—while their culture is established as the default, with little to no equity for people of color. That cultural predisposition, one built on the notion that those benefits are natural or “earned,” also gives way to how American law enforcement regards white criminals, suspects, or bystanders during an arrest or an attempt to control a situation, as opposed to how they treat black and brown people.
As it’s been highlighted on social media, the calm detainment of the “armed and dangerous” Roof runs in stark contrast to the horrific brutality that unarmed black and brown people routinely suffer at the hands of officers. Their situations and their stories pale in comparison to Roof’s heinous terrorist act, but they still bore the brunt of police violence.
In McKinney, the anxiety of local whites about blacks allegedly getting rowdy at a public pool escalated to police involvement. Once on the scene, officer Eric Casebolt grabbed a 14-year-old bikini-clad black girl by her hair after ordering her to leave the area. Casebolt slung her to the ground by way of a bended knee to the back, while restraining her by her wrists. And when her concerned friends came to check on her, he pulled out his gun to chase the two young men away.
In Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner was taken down by a chokehold for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on a local street, an act for which a routine arrest sounds unnecessary. Even though Garner repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe,” which has now become a rallying cry at #BlackLivesMatter protests, officer Daniel Pantaleo, aided by his colleagues, restrained and choked Garner to death.
And while patrolling a housing project in Brooklyn, rookie officer Peter Liang and his partner approached a dark stairwell, one in which 28-year-old Akai Gurley happened to be walking. Liang, with his finger on the trigger, was startled by the movement in the darkness. He fired, killing Gurley, whose girlfriend was leading the way down the flights of stairs. She turned around after no longer hearing Gurley behind her and saw that he’d been hit.
In an instant, a two-year-old girl lost her father, a young dad making a valiant effort to create a better life and provide for his child, as the New York Times reported. Even an officer of Asian descent can devalue black lives; whiteness isn’t a prerequisite to participation in anti-black systems of oppression.
These incidents, and the many others like them, can’t be reduced to mere happenstance or accidents. Unarmed black people continue getting brutalized and killed when police officers work within a culture that learns to view black people as the enemy. From law enforcement profiling to the media, we’re taught that blackness is something to be feared, a cultural negrophobia. “Phobias are extreme aversions,” Time’s Brandon Hill writes. “They are embedded deep in our psyches, activated when we come face-to-face with the thing we fear. For me, spiders trigger overreactions. For others, it can be people.”
While white officers might learn to fear a man who looks like Eric Garner, this fails to recognize how black communities in America have continued contributing to the country’s fabric, one which they built in the first place, even while enduring generations of systemic racism. At Mother Emanuel in Charleston, Roof communed and prayed among black congregants, whose church doors were warmly opened to a white man who eventually decided that their skin color merited punishment by death, an act to which he’s now confessed.
When black and brown folks are involved in police situations, we already know how the story goes. They’re usually presumed dangerous, criminal and guilty, even before the situation has been fully assessed. Or, if they just happen to be in close proximity to police activity, even as innocent bystanders, black and brown people get written off as collateral damage, a sad reality exemplified by the case of Rekia Boyd in Chicago. She did nothing wrong; she was near a scene being patrolled by an overzealous, off-duty officer, who shot into a crowd and killed her.
Officers don’t have easy jobs and constantly face life risks that translate into difficult decisions. The police won’t be perfect and they never will be. Nobody is. But it doesn’t excuse the behavior of officers who use excessive or lethal force, especially against black and brown people, who they’ve been also sworn to protect and serve with honor and respect. Although arrests like Roof’s and the brutality against non-white folks are indicative of different cultural realities, the mandate to dutifully serve all citizens isn’t a mandate exclusively reserved for white people.
Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice. Clifton is a graduate of Northwestern University.
Photo via perspective/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)
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