The reality of white privilege

Black Lives Matter. Montecruz Foto/Flickr

JVL Introduction

Bryan N. Massingale of the National Catholic Reporter looks at recent incidents in the US, particularly that involving Amy Cooper in Central Park.

He shows that her behaviour is only comprehensible by teasing out the assumptions of white privilege on which it rests.

“The fundamental assumption behind all the others,” he affirms, “is that white people matter, or should matter, more than people of color. Certainly more than black people.”

This article was originally published by National Catholic Reporter on Mon 1 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it

Amy Cooper knew exactly what she was doing. We all do. And that’s the problem.

“Every white person in this country — I do not care what he says or what she says — knows one thing. … They know that they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they may say is a lie.” — James Baldwin, “Speech at the University of California Berkeley,” 1979

It has never been easy to be black in America. Still, the past few months have pushed me to depths of outrage, pain and despondency that are unmatched in my 63 years of life. Look at what has transpired:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic showed that while all might be vulnerable, we are not equally vulnerable. Blacks, Latinos and Native peoples are the vast majority of those infected and killed by this virus. In some places, the levels of “disparity” (such a sanitizing word!) are catastrophic. But as tragic as this is, it was entirely predictable and even expected. The contributing factors for this vulnerability have been documented for decades: lack of insurance, less access to healthcare, negligent treatment from and by healthcare professionals, overcrowded housing, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. All of this compounded by how the least paid and protected workers are now considered “essential” and must be exposed to the virus’ hazards. As a young black grocery clerk told me, “Essential is just a nice word for sacrificial.” Sacrificed for the comfort of those who can isolate and work from home, who are disproportionately white.
  • Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, who was executed on Feb. 23 as three white men stalked him while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. One of the killers had ties to local law enforcement. Only after public protests and the passing of 74 days were any arrests made and charges filed over this death.
  • Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman, who was killed by Louisville police officers on March 13 after they kicked in the door of her apartment unannounced and without identifying themselves. Fearful for their lives, her boyfriend fired his lawfully possessed gun. Breonna was killed with eight bullets fired by three officers, under circumstances that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.
  • Christian Cooper, a young black man — a birdwatcher — who was reported to the police May 25 by Amy Cooper (no relation), a young white woman, who called 911 to say that “an African American man” was threatening her in New York’s Central Park merely because he had the gall to ask her to comply with the park’s posted regulations to leash her dog.
  • George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old African American man, who was brutally killed on May 25 in Minneapolis by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite being restrained, despite the urgent requests of onlookers, despite his repeated desperate pleas: “I can’t breathe.”
  • Omar Jimenez, a black Latino CNN reporter, who was arrested on May 29 in the middle of doing live reports on events in Minneapolis, while a white CNN reporter doing the same thing, at the same time in the same neighborhood, was not only not arrested but was treated with “consummate politeness” by the authorities. The stark contrast was so jarring that Jimenez’s white colleagues noted that the only possible difference was the race of the reporters.

All of this weighs on my spirit. I try to pray, but inner quiet eludes me. I simply sit in silence on Pentecost weekend before a lit candle praying, “Come, Holy Spirit” as tears fall. Words fail me. I ponder the futility of speaking out, yet again, trying to think of how to say what has been said, what I have said, so often before.

Then it occurred to me. Amy Cooper holds the key.

The event in Central Park is not the most heinous listed above. The black man didn’t die — thankfully. Compared to the others, it has received little attention. But if you understand Amy Cooper, then all the rest, and much more, makes sense. And points the way forward.

White privilege                                                                                 

Let’s recall what Amy Cooper did. After a black man tells her to obey the posted signs that require her to leash her dog in a public park, she tells him she’s going to call the police “and I’m going to tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Then she does just that, calling 911 and saying, “There’s a man, an African American, he has a bicycle helmet. He is recording me and threatening me and my dog.” She continues, in a breathless voice, “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble [a wooded area of Central Park]. Please send the cops immediately!” This despite the fact that Christian Cooper’s camera records the events and shows that he made no threatening moves toward her, spoke to her calmly and without insult, and kept his distance from her the whole time.

In short, she decided to call the police on a black man for nothing more than politely asking her to obey the park’s rules. And made up a lie to put him in danger.

She knew what she was doing. And so do we. The situation is completely “legible” as my academic colleagues would say. What did she and rest of us know? Why did she act as she did?

  • She assumed that her lies would be more credible than his truth.
  • She assumed that she would have the presumption of innocence.
  • She assumed that he, the black man, would have a presumption of guilt.
  • She assumed that the police would back her up.
  • She assumed that her race would be an advantage, that she would be believed because she is white. (By the way, this is what we mean by white privilege).
  • She assumed that his race would be a burden, even an insurmountable one.
  • She assumed that the world should work for her and against him.
  • She assumed that she had the upper hand in this situation.
  • She assumed that she could exploit deeply ingrained white fears of black men.
  • She assumed that she could use these deeply ingrained white fears to keep a black man in his place.
  • She assumed that if he protested his innocence against her, he would be seen as “playing the race card.”
  • She assumed that no one would accuse her of “playing the race card,” because no one accuses white people of playing the race card when using race to their advantage.
  • She assumed that he knew that any confrontation with the police would not go well for him.
  • She assumed that the frame of “black rapist” versus “white damsel in distress” would be clearly understood by everyone: the police, the press and the public.
  • She assumed that the racial formation of white people would work in her favor.
  • She assumed that her knowledge of how white people view the world, and especially black men, would help her.
  • She assumed that a black man had no right to tell her what to do.
  • She assumed that the police officers would agree.
  • She assumed that even if the police made no arrest, that a lot of white people would take her side and believe her anyway.
  • She assumed that Christian Cooper could and would understand all of the above.

(And she was right. He clearly knew what was at stake, which is why he had the presence of mind to record what happened).

I am not a mind reader. I have no access to Amy Cooper’s inner thoughts. But I know, and we all know, that without these assumptions, her words and actions — her lies — make no sense. We also have to admit that her assumptions are not unreasonable. In fact, we have to admit that they are well-founded. They match what we know to be true about how the country works and about how too many white people think.

All of this was the almost instantaneous reasoning behind her actions. By her own admission, she acted out of reflex. No one taught Amy Cooper all of this. Likely, no one gave her an explicit class on how whiteness works in America. But she knew what she was doing.

And so do we. We understand her behavior. We know how our culture frames whiteness and folks of color. We know how race works in America.

The fundamental assumption behind all the others is that white people matter, or should matter, more than people of color. Certainly more than black people. That black lives don’t matter, or at least not as much as white lives. That’s the basic assumption behind Amy Cooper’s decisions, actions and words. That’s the basic assumption that links Christian Cooper with COVID-19, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Omar Jimenez.

Amy Cooper knew that. We all know that. So who taught her? Who taught us?


Comments (2)

  • Jessica Leschnikoff says:

    A small side comment: Amy Cooper did all of this while throttling her dog. I’ve noticed that bigots often use their prejudice to shield and justify other forms of cruelty and bigotry.

  • RC says:

    Mr Massingale has one fact wrong, I believe. Mr Christian Cooper is widely reported as being middle-aged, and in the N.Y.Times biographical piece on him he is described as being 57 years of age. I am well aware of the grand old American tradition of assuming that young black men are always on the verge of raping white women. Over half a century ago I read of the Scottsborough Boys (young men, in fact – I and the author and the CPUSA, who defended them in very dangerous circumstances, are well aware of the pejorative charge in addressing or even describing any black male as ‘boy’) and of Emmett Till, tortured to death for complimenting a white woman on her looks.
    Whatever the relevance, Christian Cooper was not a young man. On one reading, this very fact deepens the vileness of the woman Cooper, as, arguably, does Mr Cooper’s graciousness if deploring the tidal wage of righteous indignation unleashed at her. (There are of course newspapers who will attack Mr Cooper’s demeanour, imputing racist motives on his behalf, just as there are chauvinists who will impute antisemitism to anyone who looks sideways at the murderous acts of the Israeli government).
    American working class black people in their overwhelming majority have excellent reasons for regarding the 18,000 police forces with their qualified immunity from civil or criminal suit as resembling the Sturmabteilungen of Nazi Germany. (Qualified immunity is nullifiable only by a successful recent prosecution of an identical crime within the same local jurisdiction – this vicious system is therefore indefinitely self-extending, rather like Hitler’s Enabling Act) . Democratic controls are of little use, since the US law and administrative system makes it almost impossible for a third party to develop, and US ‘parties’ are more like franchises of Wall Street (Hillary Clinton… ) or the likes of Sheldon Adelson (Trump) and have barely any policy making powers outside the commercially driven presidential selections. This is a dreadful warning of the dangers ahead for our LP, where a commercial lobbyist – David Evans with his ‘Campaign Company’ (!!!!) is now general secretary.` He compares the headquarters that brought us years of bureaucratic neoliberalism (with the occasional dollop of charity to plaster over the wounds of ever-more supercharged capitalism), with Marks and Spencer (!), and CLPs, the basis of party democracy, with Delboy.
    Of course, these undemocratic constitutions do not compare with the situation in Israel, where Palestinian parties are in effect banned from participating in government, and increasingly, even supporting a governmental coalition from the outside – let alone the outright brutal tyranny in the West Bank and in the Gaza ghetto. Palestinian resistance is repressed only by outright systematic murder (Gaza) or by a massive Israeli sponsored quisling police apparatus (the West Bank).

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