The Politics of Privilege By: Joshua Chamberlain Posted: April 6, 2012
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: very few people hate Barack Obama because he is black. There are certainly people out there for whom this is the case, but my guess is that those folks hate pretty much all black people. No, what I’m writing about has very little to do with the overt, vocal racism that was much more prevalent in the past.
After all, we are an enlightened group, right? We Americans pride ourselves on the quality of our education (regardless of the fact that the quality of American education, relative to the rest of the world, has dropped significantly in the past two decades). We push the idea of the “liberal arts college” as a means of higher education, since the well-rounded education a student receives at those schools will, if you believe in this line of thinking, prepare students for success in any line of work. We attach ourselves to causes such as “KONY 2012” without really thinking about the implications of our outrage. After all, we are privileged and are told from birth that we have the responsibility to help others (regardless of whether those people actually want our help).
With this implied responsibility, however, comes the idea that we are caretakers. Sure, we want to do the right thing, but in doing the right thing we determine other nations, cultures, and civilizations as being beneath us. Our responsibility is thus not to work with them (as we do with modernized democratic countries) or fear them (as we do with modernized non-democratic countries), but pity them. This becomes an innate cultural bias.
For most of us, a little Facebook outrage is as far as it all will go. We will “share” a Facebook post, discuss our outrage with our friends, send a little money to a cause, and go on with our lives. We feel good about ourselves for hating Joseph Kony and “liking” a video, even though we won’t actually do anything of substance to change the situation and will then vote for people who promote wars of choice that kill hundreds of thousands of people. After all, Kony kills people because he is evil. We kill people because we are defending freedom. Big difference.
This same outrage and responsibility carries over to cases like that of Trayvon Martin. We are outraged at the apparent racism of someone like George Zimmerman, a man who genuinely feared the 145-lb. teenager walking through his neighborhood. Zimmerman had it in his mind that this kid was a threat. He had it in his mind that this kid was beneath him. He had it in his head that he had to take action to protect the world from such evil forces.
To debate whether Martin hit Zimmerman first is to ignore the point. Zimmerman targeted and followed Martin because he looked like a threat. For most of white America, a black kid in a hooded sweatshirt and baggy clothes looks like a threat. Martin might have hit Zimmerman, but nobody forced Zimmerman to follow and harass Martin in the first place.
Not surprisingly, a large portion of white America has had the same reaction to this case that they had when they first heard Joseph Kony’s name. They “share” Facebook posts, they discuss their outrage with their friends, and they send a little money to a cause. We, the enlightened Americans, have a responsibility, after all, to hold up our end of the bargain as the privileged few. Educated folks won’t stand for racism, just as they won’t stand for mindless violence. With great privilege comes great responsibility, right? Where can I send some money?
And, just like in the aftermath of the Kony outrage, we will continue to vote for people whose entire campaigns seem to be based on denying other people their rights and strengthening innate biases. We decry racism while promoting sexism. We are the walking ironic.
Just like most of these voters, if you asked George Zimmerman, I am sure he would say that he doesn’t hate black people. This, however, gets to the heart of the issue. You don’t have to hate black people to be biased against them. Answer two questions honestly to see this in action:
1. If you see a car of four white kids driving through your neighborhood, what do you think?
2. If you see a car of four black kids driving through your neighborhood, what do you think?
Is there a difference? If not, congratulations; you are in the minority.
So, where does Barack Obama come into all this?
The reality is that Trayvon Martin was never given a chance by George Zimmerman, just as Barack Obama was never given a chance by a large percentage of the population. If you ask the majority of Republican voters, they will tell you that they do not hate black people. It is important to note, of course, that they are probably telling the truth.
When candidates say things like “Anyone but Obama,” however, they stray from policy and tap into a gut feeling. At times, hiding behind the false argument that Obama is farther to the left than any other possible candidate seems like a complete cop-out. Would a white man with Obama’s policies receive the same vehement scorn that Obama gets? I have a tough time believing that is the case.
What we are talking about when we discuss Martin and Obama is not overt, angry racism; it is innate bias. That bias, however, can be just as dangerous as its more visible alternative.