White privilege and black indignities

Published June 18, 2020

By Thomas Mills

The News & Observer’s conservative columnist  Peder Zane makes an argument that I’ve heard frequently since the unrest over George Floyd’s death. “It is no longer enough to be non-racist,” he writes. “Now we must be anti-racist – that is, we must devote our lives to the struggle by taking strong, purposeful actions every day to dismantle the racism that pervades every aspect of American life…I, for one, reject that logic. I don’t believe that America has been broken from its birth. I don’t think we’re defined by slavery and oppression, but by imperfect freedom and opportunity.”

Zane makes the white man’s argument. He is right that racism does not pervade every aspect of his life and probably rarely enters his world unless he reads it in the newspaper. He writes from the comfort that African Americans have only recently known and still don’t share completely. It’s the narrow view that individual perspective is more significant that societal attitudes. 

Most African Americans, especially those who grew up in the South before the end of Jim Crow, have a different world view. For them, racism has been defining and pervasive. They grew up without access to public pools or public restrooms. If they wanted to attend the universities that educated the white elite, they often found themselves in lonely circumstances, only tacitly accepted and welcomed by newly integrated institutions. 

 As they entered the work force, they ran up against less obvious barriers. The networks of successful business leaders, lawyers, doctors, and politicians that opened doors for their white peers were not available to them. When they were hired, promoted, or appointed, no matter their qualifications, they faced skepticism among whites who whispered that they got the job because they were Black, not because of their ability. I doubt anybody ever suggested that Peder Zane succeeded in school or work because he was white. 

As the rising African American middle class sent their children out in the world, they had “the talk” with their children, especially their sons. They let them know that mischievous behavior or pranks common among teenagers and young people could have different results for African Americans than for their white counterparts. Few African Americans get rides home in cop cars or calls to their parents to come to the station to pick up their kids, something fairly common among the children of white elites. 

 African Americans know in school that they are disciplined more harshly than their white peers. If they end up in a courtroom, the consequences will likely be more severe than if they were white. They are over-policed and over-disciplined. To avoid confrontations with authorities, they tread more carefully with a heightened sense of awareness of their actions and how they might be perceived. 

This spring, African Americans watched a young man out for a job chased down and shot by white vigilantes. They saw a black man die on camera while a white policeman kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. Between the two incidents, they read about a Black woman shot to death in the “safety” of her own home when cops with a “no-knock” warrant kicked in the wrong door. Almost everybody watching knew those incidents would not have happened if the victims had been white.

Zane criticizes Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein for not doing more to push attitudes forward. He has a point. They probably could have done more because we all could. However, they have also spent the last decade combatting efforts to roll back the clock instead of breaking down additional barriers. The people Zane prefers in office sided with Confederate monuments instead Black North Carolinians. They tried to restrict access to the ballot for older African Americans instead of expanding the franchise. They were determined to roll back the Racial Justice Act, despite clear incidents of racial bias by juries and prosecutors. They want to re-segregate schools through voucher schemes and charters. In short, people like Cooper and Stein have had their hands full trying to keep those pandering to neo-Confederates from moving North Carolina back to the 1950s. 

African Americans in this country, and especially the South, live with minor indignities that would leave people like Peder Zane screaming about their freedom and their rights if the situation were reversed. He’s the epitome of white privilege, a man who cannot imagine the lives of others because he cannot see past his own advantages. What Zane is really saying is, “If I don’t experience it, it must not be happening.” He makes the same arguments about race that I’ve been hearing my whole life. There’s no such thing as a racist society, he posits, only racist individuals, while ignoring that society is driven by the collective attitudes of the dominant group of individuals in an area. 

That’s just so wrong.