White America’s Privilege: Historically and in the Current Crisis
By Zainab Abbasi
Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino, was gunned down, murdered while standing with his hands in the air, by Chicago police on the night of April 15th 2021. Daunte Wright was slaughtered by the gunshot of a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer on April 11th and the policewoman’s supervising captain said “it was an accident.” An African American army veteran, wearing his army fatigues, was pepper sprayed last week, maced in the face, beaten, handcuffed and then taken into custody, only to be released when it was discovered that there were no charges filed against him.
Each of these incidences, happening on consecutive days, are the incidences that were videoed, and are therefore merely a fraction of the opus of police violence against African Americans and People of Color in the past few days. These acts of violence are the sustained, systematic response of police across the United States to the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, who spent over three minutes suffocating … a dead body, that of George Floyd, who had already been killed by Chauvin after this killer cop had suffocated him for five minutes and 45 seconds. This is the face of the system of white supremacy that dominates the United States of America.
We are examining in this essay the privilege that White America holds — economically, politically and culturally over the rest of the nations and peoples of the world. We will use the example of White police murders of African Americans as a prism through which to view the panoply of social illness represented by this privilege. It is the thesis of this researched argument essay that the White American nation is the most dominant nation in the history of humankind, a dominance which generates privilege to the members of this nationality over the rest of the world’s people.
Historical Roots of Privilege
White American dominance and the privilege of White Americans is not a biological phenomenon. It is not part of the DNA of White Americans to oppress the rest of the world’s people (Rodney). Individual babies of European ancestry born in the U.S. are not born racists. It is a social phenomenon; the white supremacist system teaches white supremacist ideology, which serves to justify the privilege of White America.
First, White America has existed as a nation for only a few hundred years. Its birth, childhood and maturity have each come in the context of genocide against the Indigenous population of North America (Dunbar-Ortiz). The birth and childhood of the White American nation began and gained its identity in the crucible of the prosecution of the chattel slavery system (Rodney). Prosecuted cooperatively by six or seven European colonialist powers, the kidnapping of, slaughter of, and imprisonment of tens of millions of Africans was left by this coop to the White American nation to forge into the system of chattel slavery. This system, whereby White American capitalists produced commodities for the market, led to an accumulation of capital that ultimately no European or any other capitalist power in the world could compete with (Baptist).
This accumulation of capital was put to use to create a permanent war economy which was paralleled by a political system of permanent war against the peoples of the world. The United States has been at war with some hapless nation from Asia, Africa or Latin America every year since the ending of World War II (Gerson).
This permanent war economy and this permanent war against the peoples has resulted in White Americans accruing to themselves — “winning” in the course of war — 27% of the world’s material wealth (Targ). It has witnessed White America consuming 24% of the world’s natural resources (Domhoff). This dominance has afforded the vast majority of White Americans the privilege of food, clothing and shelter — basic human needs — well beyond their actual need, and in the face of the deprivation of hundreds of millions of people in the world who, directly because of this accumulation of economic wealth and political and military power, these majority of humankind find themselves bereft of such (Rodney). This is the face of the privilege of the White American nation, the most dominant nation in the history of humankind.
White American Privilege in the Current Crisis
Apropos of the specific issue we are using as a prism: A White American man, we’ll call him Joe White Man (JWM), had a traffic confrontation with White American police officers which was videoed, send onto Facebook, and went viral. The audio/video went like this:
White American Police (WAP), while pointing his service revolver in the direction of the driver of the car: “Put your hands on your steering wheel.”
Joe White Man (JWM): “No.”
WAP: “I will sick this police dog on you.”
JWM: “And I will shoot your dog if it comes near me…”
WAP puts one arm through the driver’s side window and grabs JWM by his left arm: “Get out of the car now. You need to get out of the car. You have a concealed weapon.”
JWM, while trying to yank his arm free from the officer’s grip: “The weapon is not concealed. It’s right out here in front of you. I’m hiding nothing. I have a constitutional right to carry a firearm. I know my constitutional rights.”
WAP: “You need to relax.”
JWM: “I will shoot you in response to you violating my rights.”
WAP turning to converse with three or four other officers who are on the scene: “Put the gun down and get out of the car.” While still in a tug-of-war with JWM’s arm: “You need to put down your gun and come out of your car. You cannot pull a gun on a police officer.”
WAP manages to get driver’s side door open. JWM in response to this provocation points his gun at WAP.
JWM still trying to yank his arm free: “I am pulling my gun on you in response to you violating my constitutional rights by pointing your gun at me…”
JWM then manages to get his arm free. He slams his door shut while WAP’s are yelling that he must get out of the car and calm down.
JWM then puts his car in drive and drives away.
This exchange is from an April 10 Facebook video. The first note in the “comments” section sums up the video: “So, he threatens to shoot the police, then drives away.”
This Facebook entry has been viewed 3.2 million times since it was released 5 days ago. Why? Because it is a most salient image of White privilege.
Every elementary school child in the United States knows how many times the Black man in this car is shot dead long before he decides to drive away. The African American is shot before she says anything. The African American man is shot in the head before he thinks about why he is being pulled over. No African American ever gets to the testimony about “I have constitutional rights.” They are shot in the head for thinking about such a trifle.
White American privilege is being able to drive down the street without being randomly shot in the head. This is a basic privilege which the average White man has as against any African American on any day of the week. Today police all across the country are gunning down totally innocent Black people in retaliation for the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. “How dare they try to charge our brother-in-blue with a crime. He was merely ridding the country of one more 3/5-of-a-human. He did us all a favor. We want to return the favor. So, we’ll shoot a few more niggers today.”
Say Their Names
George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. According to a report by Renee Ater, in response to the murder trial of Derek Chauvin WAP’s have murdered, since that time,
Daunte Demetrius Wright, Marvin David Scott III, Patrick Lynn Warren Sr., Vincent “Vinny” M. Belmonte, Angelo Quinto, Andre Maurice Hill, Casey Christopher Goodson, Angelo “AJ” Crooms, Sincere Pierce, Marcellis Stinnette, Jonathan Dwayne Price, Dijon Durand Kizzee, Rayshard Brooks, Carlos Carson, David McAtee, Tony “Tony the Tiger” McDade. (Ater, April 15, 2021).
According to a report by the New York Times (Eligon and Hubler, April 17, 2021), 64 people have been gunned down dead by police since the opening of the trial. Well over half of the victims were People of Color. This amounts to over three people shot dead by police every day since testimony began in the murder trial.
White American privilege is defined by the ability to walk or drive the street without being executed on sight. White American privilege is being able to shoot down People of Color on sight for no reason but that they are People of Color.
Roots of the Current Crisis
Chattel slavery was a form of war, and a system of organized violence/policing developed by the European colonizers of North America against African peoples. The purpose of this war, and the purpose of this new system of policing was to secure the dominant position of White America over those who produced wealth for White America. The logic used to justify this perpetration was that Africans were sub-human and their purpose on the planet was to serve White Americans. This is a philosophy of privilege (BBC, 2014). White American privilege consists of being regarded not as criminals, but as citizens who need to be protected from the criminals.
“When the United States was formed, the most important defining characteristic of the new government was what it inherited from the old government — the system of chattel slavery” (Lynn). This system’s use of organized violence formed the basis for policing in the new government. Most people under police supervision in the US for subhuman behavior were these kidnapped Africans (Kappeler, 2014). White American privilege resides in the circumstance of not being under surveillance. In this regard, these people (enslaved Africans) represented the baseline for the policing of anti-social behavior and the example for everyone else (Kaba).
Counterargument: WAP’s Need Diversity Training
While there still exist pro-slavery arguments among White Americans, the most entrenched fallacy regarding resolution of the circumstance of White American privilege is the “Diversity Training” argument (Ceceilan Miller Institute). According to this argument, privilege is not born of a social system or of an era in history (Carino). White Americans ability to murder Black people with impunity has not been derived organically from the chattel slavery system. No, it is merely the fact of not knowing Black people which causes White Americans to want to murder them on site.
This argument has led to a virtual industry of diversity training for police throughout the country (Carino). One of the most famous is that conducted by psychotherapist Resmaa Manakem (2017). His diversity training for police is wildly popular and widespread throughout police departments in the country. Indeed, fully three weeks after he conducted this training for Minneapolis police, a training in which Derek Chauvin participated, Chauvin felt inspired to … murder George Floyd.
The fallacy of this “resolution” explains itself.
The most recent episode of Law and Order: SVU (April 16, 2021) featured a scene in which Chief of Detectives Olivia Benson is interrogating a White male suspect, when he intuits that she is trying to intimidate him. “I know you aren’t going to shoot me. You’re the police. You can’t shoot me,” the suspect responded confidently. That is White American privilege — the certainty that an encounter with police will not result in one of them or more abusing him. White privilege does not take place in a vacuum. It is alive and well face-to-face with the experience of the everyday Black person that they certainly will be abused: this certainty is the birthchild of centuries of abuse, starting with chattel slavery and going on up uninterrupted to today — White privilege is the cemented experience of the Black person who knows the likelihood is that he will be abused up to and including being shot and killed.
In his statement supporting the uprising of African Americans against racist repression in the 1960’s, Mao Tse-tung, then Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, pointed out:
The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people (Mao).
By referencing the social system of colonialism and imperialism as the source of the oppression of African Americans, Mao was establishing that the privilege which White America has — that of oppressing these people — was not because of bad ideas on the part of White people or because White people did not have enough diversity training. It was part of a social system. Only by overcoming the system will its birthchild — White American privilege — be abolished.
Alexander, Michelle. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
Ater, Renee. (2021). “In Memorium: I can’t breathe.” https://www.reneeater.com/on-monuments-blog/tag/list+of+unarmed+black+people+killed+by+police
Baptiste, Edward. (2016). The half has never been told: Slavery and the making of American Capitalism. Basic Books.
BBC. (2014). “Attempts to justify slavery.” BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/slavery/ethics/justifications.shtml
Blackmon, Douglass. (200). Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Doubleday.
Carino, Meghan McCarty. (2020). “Implicit bias training for police officers is big business.” Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/06/02/police-officers-implicit-bias-training/
Ceceilan Miller Institute. (2021). “Diversity Training for law enforcement and police.” http://themillerinstitute.com/diversity-training-law-enforcement-police/
Domhoff, William. (2013). Who rules America? The triumph of the corporate rich. McGraw-Hill Education.
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, (2015). An Indigenous People’s history of the United States. Beacon Press.
Eligon, John and Shawn Hubler. (2021). “Throughout trial over George Floyd’s death, killings by police mount.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/17/us/police-shootings-killings.html
Gerson, Joseph. (1991). The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign US Military Bases. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee.
Kaba, Mariame. (2020). “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police, Because reform won’t happen. New York Times.
Kappeler, Victor. (2014). “A brief history of slavery and the origins of American policing.” Eastern Kentucky University. https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing
Lynn, Alexander. (2021). “Abolish the police and policing.” Social Justice Education. https://alexandersjeunity.medium.com/abolish-the-police-and-policing-459bcf5588ff
Manakem, Resmaa. (2017). My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Central Recovery Press.
Mao Zedong. (1963). “Statement supporting the Afro-Americans in their just struggle against racial discrimination by U.S. imperialism.” Peking Review. Foreign Languages Press.
Rodney, Walter. (1981). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Howard University Press.
Targ, Harry. (2009). The Permanent War Economy. http://heartlandradical.blogspot.com/2009/01/permanent-war-economy.html
Viewpoint Magazine. (2021). “Beyond guilt and privilege: Abolishing the white race.” https://viewpointmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Beyond-Guilt-and-PrivilegeAbolishing-the-White-Race_Viewpoint-Mag_digital.pd