(c) by Mary Griggs
I watched Soundtrack For a Revolution on WYES last night and had a déjà vu moment. It took me back to the first time I watched Eyes on the Prize and my being grateful for the darkness in the classroom to hide the shame I felt when confronted by my family’s racist past. See, my Godfather is in both of these documentaries and not in a good way.
As one of the leaders of the White Citizens Councils in Alabama, he was definitely on the wrong side of history. Citizens Councils weren’t overtly violent or secret like the KKK; instead they cloaked their opposition to desegregation in the guise of respectability. The members were business and religious leaders who used primarily economic tactics to defend segregation and undermine the civil rights movement. Some of their efforts included calling in mortgages, denying loans and credit and retaliating against integration supporters by publishing their names in the paper resulting in them losing their jobs and being physically harassed. They also worked to discourage and thwart black voter registration.
Returning to my grandparents’ home in Montgomery, Alabama on break from college, I mentioned the film and asked them about their memories of the Civil Rights Movement. My B-ma leaned over and whispered to me, “I don’t know why they gave that man a peace prize after all the trouble he caused.”
I asked my grandparents what was different from what they had done by making African Americans use separate restrooms and drinking fountains with what the Nazi’s started out by doing to the Jews – before the mass murders, they wrote laws to dehumanize them, stole their businesses, forced them into separate schools, burned their temples and took away their right to vote. My grandparents were highly offended at the comparison.
To them, racism meant someone who takes action to harm people of another race, for no reason other than race. The beatings and shootings of Freedom Riders, the bombings of Black churches, and lynching’s were all done by racists. They, on the other hand, never pulled a trigger or threw a brick and they weren’t members of the Klan. In fact, they went and picked up their maid each day of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In short, like most white Americans, they didn’t think they were racists at all.
This is a disconnect that I see more and more, especially among members of the Teapublican Party. It isn’t so much an age thing as it is a white privilege thing.
White privilege is being paranoid that the government is going to deny you your constitutional rights, come after you in black helicopters, arrest you for thought crimes, and even kill you for your beliefs while ignoring the actual denial of rights people of color are facing daily like driving-while-black traffic stops, being shot for being a black teenager in a white neighborhood, being disenfranchised by voter ID laws and gerrymandering of districts to keep white majorities and dilute black votes.
White privilege is the luxury of being considered a “lone gunman” and not having your entire culture blamed as the reason for going to a movie premier and shooting 71 people, killing 12 of them and rigging an apartment building with explosives. Despite the fact that acts of domestic terrorism by white males have happened on more than one occasion – the Columbine school attack, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta bombing, the shooting of a US Representative and 18 others at a constituents gathering in Tucson, shooting at the Oak Creek Sikh temple, etc, etc—there is no call for the profiling of young, white males and tightening laws against their access to weaponry.
White privilege is the perpetuation of racist stereotypes of people of color consuming the majority of social welfare benefits when, according to the US Census Bureau, only 22 percent of food stamps recipients are African American whereas nearly 70 percent of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Social Security and Medicare benefit recipients are white.
White privilege is no one questioning Mitt Romney about his birth certificate and Romney gloating about that: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
It is him going on to give a speech to wealthy donors decrying the 47% “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they’re entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. These are people who pay no income tax,” when he has done every trick in the book to reduce his income tax to a rate of 14% (which is lower than most middle income families pay) including hiding money in offshore accounts, manipulating IRA rules, and writing off a $77,000 loss for care of his dressage horse.
Plenty of other examples of white privilege exist. Recognizing it is only the first step, though. Seeking racial justice is the next. We must challenge how white privilege and racism operate in society and inside of us.
Some studies say we were born racist but that doesn’t mean we have to stay that way. Research into the “intergroup-contact hypotheses” shows contact with the Other and a shared goal can rewire our brains to be inclusive and compassionate in the face of difference. The more we work together, the less prejudiced we become.
We can fight racism and it is a fight we can win.