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Damn privileged people

Someone that I know recently made the comment "damn black people" in reference to problems with crime.  When I voiced my concern about the blatant racism in this comment to a mutual friend, the friend said "Well he's right because most of the crime in this area is committed by black people."

So I wanted to take some time to explain why this is upsetting to me.  I work at a historically black college.  All of my students are black.  My employer is black.  Most of my coworkers are black.  The people I associate with on a daily basis at work are almost all black.  And they are good people.  I see my students work hard and accomplish great things.  They learn what I teach and do well on my tests.  I also listen to them and try to understand what it's like being black in the USA.

I am white.  For that reason, I am privileged.  I belong to the privileged class simply because the melanin count in my skin cells is a certain level.  Many people who belong to a privileged class are unaware of their privilege, even when it is brought to their attention.  This is really no fault of their own--it's just human nature.  We like to think that life is no harder for other people than it is for ourselves personally.  But I have been made aware of my privilege.  I don't know what it's like to be black, but my students do.  My department chair does.  The president of my college does.  And I can listen to them and try to understand their struggles.  I can do my best to understand the issues involving race in this country--contemporarily and historically.

To say that "most crime in this area is committed by black people, so it is justified to blame black people for crime" is wrong on multiple counts.  The first is that it places blame on the entire class--all black people--for something which is clearly only an issue with a minority of the class.  Consider the claim "90% of crime in Atlanta is committed by black people".  I'm not saying that's the case, let's just examine that claim.  It doesn't mean that 90% of black people in Atlanta commit crime.  In fact, it could be as low as 5% or 1%.

Another problem is that our criminal justice system is very heavily stacked in favor of white people and against people of color.  In other words, it may be the case that 50% of crime is committed by white people, but white people are never caught, arrested, or convicted, so 90% of the arrests or convictions are black people but the reality is simply that white people got off the hook (white privilege).

Yet another problem is that it ignores the complexity involved in the matter.  To say that 90% of crime is committed by black people and therefore black people are bad is to ignore any other factors that come into play.  People who grow up in areas where education has low funding are more likely to engage in criminal activity.  People who grow up in broken homes or poor homes or otherwise unfavorable conditions are more likely to engage in criminal activity.  People who are desperate--who can't get a job, who feel like the system has failed them despite their own earnest, sincere endeavors to participate legitimately and constructively--often turn to crime.

Why is it that black people are overrepresented in poor areas, where the schools are underfunded?  Why is it that black children are more likely to be raised in single-parent homes?  Why is it that black people are less likely to find employment and more likely to be poor?  These are all questions that we should ask.  It is ignorant to conclude that it is due to skin color.  It is bigoted to assert that they deserve their problems because their melanin count is too high.  And it is easy for a privileged person to reduce the entire problem down to "damn black people".

This is upsetting to me because it's something I'm passionate about.  It's something I face on a regular basis--not personally, but indirectly through the black people that I interact with.  I know that a person named "Jelani" is less likely to be called for an interview not because he is less qualified, but because his name isn't Anglo-Saxon enough.  I know that some people believe it is acceptable to yell out profanity at a stranger simply because their skin is darker.  I know that there are talented, intelligent, hard-working black people who are overlooked, passed-over, and oppressed because of their genetic differences.  I know that my life has been more pleasant and easier than it might have been if I were born to parents of a different race.  And so I try to be sensitive about issues concerning race.  And it hurts when I hear people say the kinds of things that they say out of ignorance and privilege.

I'm so passionate about it because I know that many black people will think "oh he just said 'damn black people'?  That's nothing.  Let me tell you what someone said to me the other day."  I know that I am privileged and I have the option of thinking about or caring about race issues.  If I don't want to think about racism, I can simply just not think about it and go about my life as usual.  But black people can't do that.  They're constantly reminded that their skin is dark.  When they go to the convenience store wearing a hoodie and never make it back home alive because their black skin intimidated someone.  When they sell cigars and get choked to death by overzealous police officers.  When they work for less pay doing the same job as a white person.  When they never get any calls for interviews despite having an impressive resum√©.  At all of these times, they are reminded that they're black.  They can't escape it.  They can't simply choose not to think about it.

Nobody likes being called "racist", that's been considered a bad thing and socially unacceptable for decades now.  Even KKK members often claim they are not racist.  And sometimes it may be the case that people go on a witch hunt trying to label people as racist.  However, it is my opinion that when privileged people choose to remain ignorant of their privilege despite being surrounded by the evidence of it, that is implicit racism.  In order to address concerns of inequality we must be aware of them.  We should be sensitive to issues of oppression.  We have a duty to acknowledge that life is just easier for some people than for others, and that's no fault of their own, it's simply a broken system.  Let us look for and strive to resolve those flaws in the system.

It's very easy to blame skin color as the issue because it's simple.  It requires no thought. Just like Trump saying "Mexicans took your jobs and Muslims want to bomb you."  It doesn't require any thought on the part of the person believing such a naive and ignorant statement.  Acknowledging the issues involved takes a lot of thought, research, and humility.  It requires looking at more than just skin color or religion.  It requires understanding history and economics.

A while back, when I was discussing the concept of privilege, I had one (white) friend who insisted that he would not apologize for his privilege.  I thought his statement was ridiculous.  I do not apologize for my privilege, but I don't need to in order to acknowledge that my privilege exists.  I do not need to apologize for being white in order to try to build a society where people are treated equally despite skin color.  I can acknowledge my privilege, be grateful that my life was easier because of the circumstances of my birth, and then try to improve conditions for future generations so people of color can also enjoy the same childhood and education I had.  Equality means providing equal opportunities for all, which can be accomplished by improving conditions for those who are oppressed, rather than oppressing those who are privileged.  

I know I have talked about these issues before, and I know I'll talk about them again.  I just want everyone to know that I am passionate about building an egalitarian society.  I believe what Jefferson wrote that all men are equal--not just some (and not just males).  I believe all humans deserve equality.  And I believe those of us who are privileged should try to understand that privilege and work to even the playing field so future generations can enjoy a more perfect society than the one we now have.

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