I think about my white privilege often. I think about it when I intentionally run a red light, when I ride my bike on the sidewalk or the wrong way down a one-way street, when I drink alcohol in Prospect Park on my picnic blanket, and when I self-serve myself coffee at my local Pret and decide I’ll “pay later” because there’s twenty people in line.
Alongside the deep horror and painful grief of the endless events of racist police brutality and murders, I am gladdened and also surprised by, taking note of the proliferating media coverage and political commentary on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration. Racism in policing and in the criminal justice system is nothing new. All the attention on it is not a constant, to say the least.
In my twenty-plus years working in public health, in the HIV and AIDS field, it is a constant that we discuss racial disparities and inequalities, health and wealth disparities. There are wildly different stats in this country for premature birth, infant mortality, disease acquisition and life expectancy between black and white people. This can be attributed largely to poverty (racist economics) and the everyday stress of racism.
I attended a panel discussion not long ago about AIDS amongst gay black men, and yes, even as we discuss the end of the epidemic every single day at my office, it is gay black men who continue to have new infections of HIV and will bear the brunt of the epidemic as it winds down in America. This panel of gay, black professors, academics and physicians, referred regularly to white supremacy in their talk. I was startled by the phrase. It was used in place of where I would have expected “institutionalized racism” to appear.
But I liked them describing the bias in our American society as white supremacy. I live in a land where I can steal coffee, drink wine in public, and break traffic laws in front of the police, and not only am I not arrested and assaulted and accused of assaulting an officer, I don’t even suffer the heart palpitations and chemical reactions to stress of fearing these things.
Here’s one small example of how institutionalized racism or white supremacy has been established in our land. When FDR initiated Social Security for senior citizens in 1935, it excluded two groups of workers, domestic workers and agricultural workers. 95% of black Americans held one of those two jobs in 1935. This created a legacy of poverty where poverty was already abundant. Black senior citizens could not support themselves when they stopped working. Their middle-aged children could not acquire wealth so easily because they financially supported their parents. Without a single word about race in the Social Security bill, a huge system of government entitlements institutionalized the racism that prevailed throughout the country. It’s one small example of so many.
I’m convinced that part of ensuring an avalanche of attention on racist police brutality and racist mass incarceration- and hopefully a societal shift in attitudes and policies- is that we white people recognize our white privilege. Noticing how we “benefit” by being dominant can create a cosmic adjustment. There are so many out there that deny racism even exists anymore. I think most people do not deny it, but I think most people have a ways to go in seeing how racism has not hurt them, and what the cost of that has been.