My memories of riding to Florida in the back of my grandfather’s Buick included the shock of seeing unpainted houses overflowing with poorly-dressed children, their bare feet painted red with Georgia clay. Growing up white in a segregated neighborhood and church, I stared at the foreign landscape and people outside the car window that seemed more National Geographic than LIFE Magazine. Black men, women, and children picked cotton under the unforgiving sun while white men sat in the shade of their pickup trucks.
But most troubling were the signs. When we stopped at one of the many Stuckey’s gas stations and souvenir shops, I was shocked by the “Whites Only” drinking fountains. Around back was a rusty spigot labeled “Colored Only” next to restrooms designate with the same labels. Even as a second-grader, something deep inside me revolted at the idea of “us” and “them.” Me with my Keds sneakers heading to a Florida beach; them barefoot, slaving in a cotton field. Me, drinking from a sparkling fountain; them, their mouths under a dirty faucet. I feared what lurked behind the “Colored Only” restroom sign.
Fortunately, the civil rights laws removed those overt indignities, but racial differences and disparities still make the top news stories every day! “Woke” blacks label “privileged” whites as “racists” and “oppressors.”
I sincerely don’t view myself as a racist. I’ve had good friends of color my whole adult life. When I directed a conference for eleven years, I made sure I had racial diversity on the faculty. I have spoken out against racism in my writing. And I’m happy to have a black family as next-door neighbors in my suburb.
Those values go back to the denomination in which I’m an ordained minister that was born out of its opposition to slavery. And my five-times great grandfather fought for the North in the Civil War.
But living as a white person in the United States in 2020 does afford me certain advantages that others don’t enjoy. And that is the premise of “white privilege.” People of color are often treated differently than me.
A thoughtful online post notes:
Privilege refers to the idea that different people experience life in our society differently. When the variation in those experiences presents consistent disadvantages for certain groups of people compared to the “norm,” we call this disadvantage systemic. When these disadvantages occur along racial lines, we call this systemic racism. And when we speak of race privilege, we are referring to the experience of not having to deal with those disadvantages.
While our culture will continue to argue about the causes of “white privilege,” these bare, unbiased statistics reveal that it does exist:
• According to the Economic Policy Institute, black individuals are twice as likely to be unemployed than white individuals. Once employed, black individuals earn nearly 25% less than their white counterparts. And black workers are less likely than white workers to be employed in a job that is consistent with their level of education.
• National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report documented that “white patients in the US received better quality health care than 40% of black patients.”
• According to the United States Department of Education, black students represented only 15% of the student enrollment, but made up 35% of students suspended. This disparity, however, was “not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.”
• The Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, reported that “Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.”
• The NAACP’s “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet” reported black Americans and white Americans use drugs at similar rates, but black Americans are six times more likely to be arrested for it. And on average, The United States Sentencing Commission reports, black men in the country receive sentences that are 19.1% longer than those of white men convicted for the same crimes.
• The United States Department of Justice reported that while only 13% of the population is black, over half of all homicide victims were black; the vast majority killed by other blacks. And while 52% of men shot and killed by police were white and 31% black, that’s 21 times more blacks than whites based on percentage of population.
• Finally, the abortion rate for black women is five times higher than that of white women.
So, while I may not view myself as a racist, there is something seriously wrong that white privilege still exists. The challenge is to honestly diagnose and address the root causes. This is a “global pandemic” that needs to be confronted with the same intensity as finding a vaccine for the Corona virus.
I don’t have Covid-19, but I am going to wear my mask, social distance, wash my hands and pray for a vaccine.
I’m not a racist, but I am doing my small part of writing about racial inequities, posting and emailing this editorial, and demanding that the church, government, and culture as a whole fight this deadly plague as well.
Copyright © 2020 James N. Watkins
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