Black Victims and White Privilege

by Emrys Westacott

On June 22, in Los Angeles, five police officers responded to a complaint about music being played too loud in the middle of the night. A pit bull attacked one of the officers. Armando Garcia-Muro, a 17-year-old high school senior, restrained the dog, but it got free and charged at the police. Two of the officers fired six to eight rounds at the charging dog. One of the bullets hit and killed Garcia-Muro. Images

In May of this year, Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant woman, at home with three young children, reported a burglary. Two officers went to her apartment, aware of the fact that she suffered from mental illness and that there was a good chance they might encounter threatening or dangerous behavior. According to the officers' account, when Lyles threatened one of them with a knife, they both fired shots at her, killing her immediately.

In July 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken taillight. He was driving with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter. He informed the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, that he had a firearm (for which he had a license). Yanez, apparently concerned that Castile was pulling the firearm out, shot him seven times. The incident was recorded on the police car's dashcam. Yanez was charged with manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm. Earlier this month, Yanez was acquitted of all charges.

The list of such incidents could be multiplied indefinitely. Trayvon Martin; Alton Sterling; Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Danroy Henry, Tashii Brown; Sam DuBose; Charles Kinsey; Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner…… It sometimes seems that hardly a day goes by without a news report of a black person (usually unarmed) being killed by police offers (often, but not always, white) in circumstances where the use of deadly force seems wildly excessive.

To be sure, police officers have a difficult and at times dangerous job. They are called on to make split-second decisions in stressful circumstances; and, being human, they are bound to occasionally make mistakes. All the same, the pattern seems undeniable. Black people in the US, and especially young black males, have more reason than most white people to fear that they will be the victims of excessive force on the part of police officers, even in situations that are seemingly innocuous.

Why is this? The problem cannot be reduced to prejudices harboured by individual police officers. This may play a part on occasion, but it is reasonable to assume that most officers seek to abide by professional norms; and in some instances the policemen involved are themselves black.

Someone viewing the situation from a country like the UK, where ordinary police officers don't carry guns, might argue that part of the problem lies with having a heavily armed police force. But Canadian police are armed too, and Canada does not suffer from the same lamentable pattern of excessive police violence against an ethnic minority.

More relevant, surely, is the number of guns possessed by Americans, along with weak-going-on-absurd gun laws (or, rather, the lack of gun laws) that in some states allow even mentally ill people to buy and carry guns. Awareness of this, and of the huge number of guns in circulation, is bound to make police officers more nervous when handling fraught situations. But this can't begin to explain cases like that of Garcia-Muro (above), or of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who in April 2015 was shot and killed by a South Carolina police officer. Scott, who had been pulled over for a defective brake light, was running away. The officer fired eight rounds at him from behind, hitting him five times. (A graphic video of the incident can be seen here.) No attempt was made to disable Scott by shooting at his legs. And it is hard to avoid concluding that the officer fired so many shots in order to make certain that Scott would not survive to testify at any enquiry or trial. This, too, seems to be a common pattern.

You would think that by now, after so many of these shocking incidents have hit the headlines, often with video footage of the incidents going viral, after widespread protests and in some instances riots, that police officers everywhere would be especially careful about using what is likely to be perceived as excessive force. You would think that Commissioners and Chiefs of Police, concerned about the public image of their organization and the damage done to relations between police and community, would pull out all the stops to try to prevent such incidents recurring. And yet they recur.

To understand the persistent use of excessive force by police against African Americans, it is helpful to view it as one aspect of what has been called institutional or systemic racism. As described by sociologist Joe Feagin, systemic racism

"encompasses a broad range of white-racist dimensions: racist ideology, attitudes, emotions, habits, actions, and institutions of whites in this society. Systemic racism is far more than a matter of racial prejudice and individual bigotry. It is a material, social and ideological reality that is well-embedded in major U.S. institutions."[1]

Individual police officers are certainly not above criticism for being prejudiced, or reckless, or exercising poor judgement. But the pattern described above is part of a pervasive and ongoing form of injustice in American society. The slogan "Black Lives Matter" emerged in response to police killings of black citizens, but its meaning can be readily extended to cover inequality and injustice in other spheres such as health care, housing, education, employment, income, and public amenities in which black communities are systematically shortchanged.

A corollary of systemic racism is white privilege. This is described by scholar-activist Peggy McIntosh as "an invisible package of unearned assets." These privileges are invisible in the sense that white people do not usually have to think about them, and therefore don't. The relative equanimity with which most Caucasians can interact with the police is a striking example of this sort of privilege. Fear that a mundane encounter with the police may suddenly result in violence and death is a feeling that most white people do not suffer from. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates vividly recounts in Between the World and Me, this is an anxiety that many African-Americans have to live with every day.

An exceptionally readable and insightful discussion of white privilege can be found in Robert Amico's recently published book, Exploring White Privilege.[2] (Full disclosure: I am good friends with the author.) In this work Amico explains what white privilege is, why white people often have difficulty accepting the idea, and what we all might do to combat it. The book is theoretically informed but makes many points vividly through the use of personal anecdotes (which is one of the reasons the book is so engaging). The remorseless honesty of these stories gives them a confessional quality.

In one anecdote, Amico, who was a successful chef in California before he became a philosophy professor, tells how he worked for a time in a restaurant alongside an African American man named Jim. Jim was the better cook, and Amico learned a lot from him. Seven years later, Amico, now the executive chef at a Beverley Hills restaurant, entered a greasy spoon and saw his old mate Jim making omelets and French toast. Instead of greeting him, he quickly left the café, embarrassed by the discrepancy in their relative fortunes. But alongside that embarrassment, he eventually came to realize, was a barely articulate moral discomfort over the way in which he had been the beneficiary of systemic privilege.

One very interesting chapter of Amico's book examines the costs of white privilege to white people. This is an aspect of injustice that is often overlooked, but the costs of privilege to its primary beneficiaries are many: social, psychological, intellectual, and emotional. Again, these are illustrated concretely through a series of anecdotes followed by reflections. Amico tells, for instance, how, when he was growing up in an all-white Irish neighborhood in Boston, he was instructed by his father to identify himself as Italian, even though the family ethnicity was Sicilian. Why? Because Sicily is close to Africa, and some Italians therefore view Sicilians as close to being Africans.

"'Italian,' in my father's eyes, was safer and white than "Sicilian." So, I was encouraged to distort my ethnicity so I could reap the benefits of whiteness and distance myself from anything non-white. I was being taught to be ashamed of my ethnicity; this is an emotional cost of my identifying as white. It is a betrayal of my identity, of my authenticity."[3]

In this case, the deleterious effects of white privilege on white people are fairly subtle. By comparison, there is nothing subtle about the deaths, the grief, and the fear suffered by black people as a result of the systemic racism which produces the sort of excessive police violence described above. Yet they are linked, rather as major and minor symptoms of a disease are linked. As Amico's book makes clear, the disease is deeply embedded in American society, so the cure will not be simple. But if we can work towards it, we all stand to benefit.

[1] Joe Feagin, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 2. (Cited in Robert Amico, Exploring White Privilege, p. 16.)

[2] Robert Amico, Exploring White Privilege (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[3] Exploring White Privilege, pp. 49-50.