When liberal white Americans talk about doing “anti-racism work,” it probably doesn’t mean that they are taking part in #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations or acting as testers to document racial discrimination in hiring and lending or working to change voting laws aimed as discouraging black voters.
Rather it means that they are examining their hearts and minds to uncover unconscious racial prejudice and to make themselves aware of “white privilege.”
I think that this rests on a false assumption—namely, that racial injustice consists solely or mainly of the prejudices of individual white people against individual black people, and that the way to fix it is to change the attitudes of white people.
One problem with this is that “anti-racism work” works only on a relatively small number of white people, those who are already predisposed to sympathize with black people. Another is that it ignores the degree to which the majority of black people have a common interest with the majority of white people.
The civil rights protestors of the 1960s weren’t especially concerned about how prejudiced people felt in their hearts. They aimed at changing laws and institutions so as to bring about equal justice, so that African-Americans had the right to vote, the right to equal access to public facilities, the right to equal educational opportunity and the right to equal employment opportunity.
That fight is not over. Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, has shown how enforcement of the drug laws is targets African-Americans, who then become legitimate targets for voting disenfranchisement and employment discrimination.
The unconcern by many police departments, North and South, about the shootings of unarmed black people is not all that different from the Jim Crow South. And testers show that black job applicants and mortgage applicants are treated differently from white applicants; in one case, it was found that a white job applicant with a criminal record had a better chance of getting hired than an otherwise-equal black applicant with a clean record.
Racial injustice is not the only form of injustice. Black working people and white working people are both affected by the stagnant, financialized U.S. economy and the redistribution of income upward to the wealthiest 1 percent and 0.1 percent.
True, it is worse for black people than for white people, but this does not mean the problem would be solved if white working people and black working people were equally bad off.
Of course self-awareness of one’s unconscious prejudices is a good thing, not a bad thing. But I think the best way for white people to overcome their prejudices is to work together with black people in a common cause in which they have a common interest.
I have a problem with the expression “white privilege”.
I am aware that I am better off being white—especially being a straight white elderly male American—than I would be if I were gay, black, young, female or an immigrant.
I don’t think that the advantages I have are privileges. I think they are what everybody should have. I don’t think I gain anything by the harassment to which black people are routinely subjected by police, and in fact the fact that police in many places can abuse black people with impunity makes it more likely that white people also will be abused.
Black people may well think that if more white people had to suffer what they do, something would be done about it. I think that’s only partly true. Poor white people and white working people are ignored almost as much as black people are.
I don’t think white people in general have ill will toward black people. I think many of us lack the ability or desire to imagine ourselves in the place of black people.
An example is the way in which, every time an unarmed black person is killed by police, white commentators point out that many more black people suffer from “black-on-black” crime. Or whenever something terrible is done to a black person, they’ll point to horrible crimes committed by black criminals against white people.
The difference is that crimes by black people, especially crimes against white people, are treated as crimes. There is no impunity. I think the sense of most black people is that the police can commit crimes against black people with impunity, and white people can commit crimes against black people and get the benefit of the doubt. Whether or not you agree, I think you would have to admit this is certainly understandable.
Then, too, our attitudes are not governed by statistics. More Americans are killed by Christian-on-Christian crime in any year than are ever killed by Muslim terrorists, yet we don’t regard this as a reason to ignore terrorist killings.
So, yes, there is benefit in being aware of your prejudices. Unfortunately those who would benefit the most from seeking this awareness do it the least, and vice versa.
Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion by John McWorter for The Daily Beast.
Black People Should Stop Expecting White People to ‘Wake Up’ to Racism by John McWorter for The Daily Beast.
Why Anti-Racism Will Fail by Thandeka, Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, in 1999. [Added 8/6/2015]