Human privilege

by Don Hartness

One of the classes I’m taking in preparation for my graduate program (and the major reason I haven’t been blogging much lately, if you were wondering), is social psychology. It has been, by far, the most entertaining subject that I have studied in a long time, the reasons for which are the subject of another post (or quite possibly a series). The recent topic is racism and prejudice. Our instructor showed us the following video by Tim Wise, an anti-racism author and speaker who also happens to be white. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Tim Wise’s political views (as some who follow me know, I could care less about politics in general) but I think he makes a very convincing case in this presentation. It is 55 minutes of your life well spent:

Our class was asked to write a paper on one thing we learned from the video. Being the overachiever I am, I didn’t write about one thing: I expounded upon the whole subject . What can I say? It touched a nerve. My essay follows below:

What did I learn from this video? Not much, just as Mr. Wise promised I wouldn’t.

The lecture did shift my attitude somewhat. I knew that racism exists. What I wasn’t aware of is just how much it still exists to this day. The statistics were eye-opening. The year 2006 as the largest number of discrimination complaints in the history of fair housing. The estimated 1 million excess African-Americans that disproportionately died from poor health care over a recent ten-year period. That African-Americans are three times more likely to experience a traffic stop, even though whites are four times more likely to have drugs on their possession.

Even if we quibble over the sources of these statistics, arguing as Twain did that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, there is always the most damning point: that only 6% of whites think racism is a problem (jokingly compared to the 12% who believe that Elvis is still alive), and that this statistic is consistent with a couple of hundred years of denial. After all, how can I see something that I never experience in all of its subtleties?

Yet, I found myself more and more irritated as I continued to listen. I felt like saying, “Okay, fine, racism is more prevalent than I initially believed, but do you know why racism exists? Do you actually think it’s about the color of skin?!” Right around the 33 minute mark, Tim Wise went there. I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Tim illustrates a key point that, although recognized superficially, is not recognized for just how invasive it is in all areas of life. Racism (and any -ism, for that matter) is not about skin color, gender, nationality, etc. It’s about economic conquest; divide-and-conquer of those in power over those without power. -Ism’s, and the constant debate over -ism’s, are the tools for those in power to contain those without power.

A classic example is the Rodney King riots in L.A in the 90’s. Amidst all the outrage over the verdict (which was merely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for a massive range of injustice, culminating in riots), most failed to see how the verdict came about in the first place. Stacey Koon published a book illustrating his legal defense. Koon first illustrated a few facts that the media endlessly playing a silent clip of the beatings failed to report: that there were three passengers with King that night that were already in custody without incident, and that the officers repeatedly (over a hundred times, by one account) told King to lay down and stop moving. At this point, most stopped reading, seeing this defense as mere rationalization for a heinous crime. However, those readers failed to see the ultimate point of Koon’s defense: that he and his fellow officers, from the first moment to the last, were doing exactly what they had been trained to do. In other words, institutional racism.

Was this fact ever brought to light throughout the trial? Was the defense of Koon, et al., ever brought out in the media? Of course not. That would have detracted from the purpose of this trial (and the federal civil trial that saw “justice done” on the behalf of one Rodney King). It would have exposed racism, coupled with the outrage over it, as the manipulative tool it is. Or, as Noam Chomsky once put it, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” Better a riot over racism than a riot over the inequality and injustice of the ruling class over the masses. Keep their focus on anything other than the shearing of the sheep.

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Tim Wise is an eloquent speaker who brilliantly illustrates much of the problem with racism and white privilege. However, I believe that he is either not willing or not capable of taking the summary of his points to the next level. Indeed, very few are willing. That next level is illustrated with a simple question: Why do we still have a problem with issues such as racism?

As Mr. Wise himself says, what he is saying is nothing new. His talking points are the collected wisdom of those who have experienced racism, prejudice, and white privilege firsthand. Indeed, we live in an era where more knowledge and wisdom than all the universities and libraries in existence, both currently and historically, is at our fingertips. Nothing in his lecture is something that has not been said many times before. Everybody knows the game.

A recent protest on the steps of Wall St. recently proves this.  Those protestors were both an inspiration to many (“you are not alone”) and equally fruitless. What did they expect? That those in power would ultimately renounce what Tim says they will never do, which is to say, “Oh! You figured us out! Here’s a raise!” Yet we, as the working class, substantially outnumber them, even dangerously so. We also have the benefit of mass communication, the likes of which have never been seen. Do you mean to tell me that the best we can do is a camp-out protest on the steps of Wall St.? If we are truly miserable in our situation, where should the finger point?

Some will point to the fact that overall, as a nation, we still have it too good, recession be damned. There is some truth to this: revolutions don’t occur over the inability to acquire an iPhone. They happen when people starve. However, even if the situation in this country disintegrates to such drastic levels, it wouldn’t be the first time in history, not by a long shot. With so many revolutions throughout history, equality should have already been achieved. Why isn’t this so?

As a society, we believe that education is the key to many of our social ills and riddles. We even erect shrines to education, in much the same way that our ancestors erected shrines to the gods. However, as a wise person once pointed out, stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. We fool ourselves into believing that the answer is to keep modifying the shape and size of the key until we find the right fit, little realizing that the problem is a door  without a keyhole.

It’s not the data we collect, nor the way we disperse the information that is the problem. The problem is our interpretation of the data. The problem is what the data says about us.

“I chose as a parent to believe that most people are good people; if you have evidence to the contrary, please keep it to yourself.” In a simple off-hand comment, Tim Wise exposed the root of the problem. The problem is not white privilege; the problem is human privilege. We live in an illusion which states that we are all basically nice people, and the proof is the sum of our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds. It’s as if there is some cosmic ledger (even for those that are not religious) which, if opened up and evaluated, would show ten times the amount of good marks vs. bad marks.

If you are a child, and your mother suddenly strikes you across the cheek, sending you flying across the room, would you care if she baked cookies for you everyday for the last month? Does not a single act of evil erase so much good?

Those in power don’t particularly care for the working class; that is, they may appreciate their work performance, but don’t care to socialize with them. What does it say when you are disliked purely because of your bank statement?

What does it say when the most successful economic system on earth is the one that disproportionately assigns wealth to a select few? What does it say when the means to acquire such a socioeconomic status is reserved for those with either pedigree, or the ability to acquire it, oftentimes with total disregard for thy neighbor? Nice guys, after all, do indeed finish dead last. Or did you think those wealthy bankers got there by acts of charity?

What does it say when the competing economic and political system the U.S wared with for approximately forty-five years (i.e., the USSR) fell apart primarily due to greed and envy even though, at least ideologically, it was based on true equality for all, both socially and economically? What does it say when the fuel for our current economic system is passionate, unrestricted greed?

And, most importantly, what does it say when popular media is utterly consumed with either the portrayal of those who have power, or for those without power, erected as a circus sideshow? If, as Mr. Wise points out, in the U.S, the rates of anxiety disorder, depression and substance abuse are twice the world rate, what does it say when, as a society, we crave what makes us sick? It’s as if the working class is screaming, “I want to be miserable, just like that rich person over there!” Why don’t we have equality? Because, as Orwell so brilliantly parodied, those that revolt do so not out of benevolence, but out of a desire to be the new ruling class, thus repeating the cycle.

Consider the lessons of social psychology. As one I spoke to said recently, social psychology is a fascinating, but ultimately depressing, subject. Much of the behavior condemned by previous generations is not only alive and studied in social psychology, but also unconscious. However, also true to the concepts taught in social psychology, in order to protect our fragile egos, we pardon ourselves of these behaviors due to their unconscious nature. After all, if it was conscious, it is based on choice, which places the responsibility on each of us. However, since it is unconscious, we can’t help it, so we are not responsible for our behavior. What is often missed is the realization that, if much of our behavior is unconscious, what does this say about our inherent nature? I can change my choices. How do I change my nature?

“How people themselves perceive what they are doing is not a question that interests me. I mean, there are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster’; instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. If you ask the CEO of some major corporation what he does he will say, in all honesty, that he is slaving 20 hours a day to provide his customers with the best goods or services he can and creating the best possible working conditions for his employees. But then you take a look at what the corporation does, the effect of its legal structure, the vast inequalities in pay and conditions, and you see the reality is something far different.” – Noam Chomsky

The problem is not the denial of white privilege. It is the denial of human privilege. If each of us would stop gratifying our narcissistic tendency to paint a rosy picture of our self, and fess up to the fact that each of us is not as good as we would like to believe, while acknowledging and pursuing a change in our self, then true change, the kind that erases ugly attitudes like racism,  would begin to happen. Indeed, if we look back upon history to those that exemplified everything that is noble, right, and good in the world, you will hear the confessions of an amazingly humble soul who would be the first to point out, “No, I’m not a good person; I have my faults.” It is a paradox, but nevertheless true, that holiness is preceded by humbleness. “Pride goeth before the fall” as the proverb goes.

If we did this as a society, then the illusionary problems of -ism’s would go away. To many (myself included) this is pure fantasy. After all, everything expressed in this essay is also not new. So should we just give up and stop trying?

No. Although the species is largely bent on self-destruction, there are those few that are not. Those of us who are englightened in regards to the darkness of the human heart are responsible for searching for those who wish to be released from bondage. And there are those that want, more than anything, to be released. If there is any hope, it will only happen one soul at a time.

If this is your pilgrimage and you are weary from the journey, then I have my own lecture for you. But that’s another topic, for another night.