Historic. That was the reaction to President Obama’s recent remarks on Trayvon Martin. That stage, that podium, that office all registered this humanizing act as particularly important and necessary to the “national conversation on race.” The reaction to those words, which some regarded as too little, too late, and too weak while others offered applause, surprise, and gratitude, pushed the conversation on blackness to another place. It invited folks to re-imagine the day to day for millions of black men and to consider and explore their stories, their whole selves, their realities. Trayvon was a boy again, 17, with dreams, a family he loved, and child-hood friends. If he had become a symbol for injustice, named a predator by the Right, and deemed an icon on the left, the president made him human again. We needed that.
I want to imagine another historic moment. One in which a white male president, in response to the same case and the same verdict, surprised the press at their afternoon briefing and spoke openly about another cancer as equally crucial to the context of the Martin case and as necessary to understanding America’s history. I imagine him saying: “I could have committed a crime and still have become president. I could have been arrested for driving drunk and still become president. I could have taken my little brother out on an underage drinking spree, lost control of a car, hit something, kept driving, been arrested and convicted, had my license suspended and still have become president. George W. Bush did exactly those things and he held the office.” The point of these imaginings is to consider the proverbial elephant in the room: whiteness, privilege, maleness. Any national conversation on race must also focus on these things . Rarely is this issue given space to be considered, discussed, or explored.
Both in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion, the details of what happened on the night of February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Fla., got re-written. Trayvon was no longer a 17-year-old boy shot dead by the gun of a vigilante wannabe cop. No. Zimmerman was narrated as simply trying to protect himself and, to be sure, the jury of majority white women and their neighborhoods from a violent black predator. It’s an old narrative central to the history of whiteness in America. It is visceral, it invokes protection, patriarchy and an emotionality that speaks volumes across America. It calls into action a history of whiteness, a narrative to justify brutality towards blackness and to find comfort in that created context.
I want to imagine, still, a different kind of conversation: one that brings about the breaking down of white privilege — a conversation that exposes the ways white privilege allows for mediocrity to masquerade as excellence and to do so with impunity. Remember when Sarah Palin invoked Obama’s exceptionalism as elitism and her averageness as patriotic and quintessentially American? Senior editor and blogger for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his essay, “Fear of a Black President,” writes that “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.” Ta-Nehisi goes on to cite Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics. Gillion examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances — proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders — and found that, in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Of course, the two times Obama has spoken about race — his “A More Perfect Union” speech and the more recent remarks on Trayvon — he has made history. Indeed, I would argue he moved the discussion on race and the nation forward in unprecedented ways.
When, in contemporary times, has a white president spoken about white male privilege either in its past or present forms? When has one explained the ways whiteness offers particular advantages – advantages that help no matter the individual’s circumstances or situations? Never. Nor has one been expected to. The absence of white male privilege as a topic in the national discourse on race is as powerful as the dehumanization of black male bodies. Undoubtedly, the Left has also failed to fully grapple with white privilege. There are some exceptions such as Tim Wise. His seven books and 600-plus speeches on college campuses call out white privilege, explain its history, and offer examples of its practice. Wise is often described as an anti-racist educator. I consider him an educator about white privilege. That difference matters. Jennifer JLove Calderon is an anti-white privilege activist. Her co-edited volume (with scholar Marcella Runell-Hall), Love, Race, Liberation – Til the White Day Is Done, offers a way to teach, think about, explore, and challenge white privilege for educators and their students.
In the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and the bombings in Boston, white privilege has emerged as a topic of conversation in some mainstream platforms. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry is one. Salon.com columnist David Sirota spoke about profiling white men on MSNBC’s “Up with Chris Hayes,” is another example. Reacting to revelations that Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza had mental health issues, Hayes posited profiling those with mental health issues as a way the politics of the Sandy Hook tragedy might play out in the “do something, don’t do something” aftermath of the tragedy. Sirota responded: “Except there’s one thing, the issue will be the profile is white men. That’s a profile in America that is essentially not allowed to be profiled.” Sirota cited the 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. That report came within the President’s first 100 days in office and was aimed at giving law enforcement what then Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called “situational awareness.” The report cited the recession, the election of a black president and disgruntled veterans as fodder for growth in extreme groups. Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh had been a decorated Gulf War veteran before killing 168 people during the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Napolitano’s report sparked widespread outrage from right wing media, veterans groups and Americans across the board. Republicans called for her to step down. Then House Minority Leader John Boehner said: “I just don’t understand how our government can look at the American people and say: ‘you’re all potential terrorist threats.'” The outcry prompted an apology by Napolitano.
Thousands of veterans are young, white males. Many suffer PTSD. They fit the profile for those who commit mass shootings. An article in Mother Jones, “A Guide to Mass Shootings,” broke down the numbers. Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Twenty-five of these mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and seven of them took place in 2012. Forty-four of the killers were white males. The average age of the killers was 35 and a majority suffered some kind of mental illness. Put differently, young, white, mentally disturbed men pose a national threat to moviegoers, faith followers, elementary school students, elected officials – the country. So, then, shouldn’t they be profiled, stopped, questioned, and frisked routinely in the name of protecting regular Americans? They may not have actually done anything, but they fit the profile. They could do something. No such outrageous suggestion has ever been made. Let’s be clear: Trayvon was not a burglar. He fit the profile, though, said so many. Indeed, many, including juror B37 in her interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, have offered this as justification for Zimmerman’s actions.
This, then, is the other part to any national conversation on race: a conversation about white privilege, about the presumed innocence afforded to whiteness regardless of action and outcome – an issue which has so far gone unremarked by any elected official. It is one that I believe the Left needs to grapple with and focus on more actively. The day a major white figure speaks to white privilege – its presence, power, when they make it personal – then we’ll be engaged in a full national conversation on race. How willing are we to engage in that conversation?