It's a rainy Thursday afternoon in springtime South Carolina. Today, school's cut short for a hoard of local teenagers. It's that detestable time of the semester when parents meet teachers for short discussions on just how awesome, or how terrible, the parent's child has been.
For one group of juniors, parents won't show at the allotted conference time. They have work, they don't care, or perhaps they're sure their kids have been doing everything right. But this group doesn't take school seriously. They're much more concerned with other things - girls, games, and most importantly, sports. On this particular Thursday, the group loads up in an old van - four guys and one girl - to patronize the local chicken restaurant across town. And like young people are prone to do, they're out looking for trouble.
If you read the criminal code, you might find that the described group qualifies as a gang. It's a few guys, all organized under a very unoriginal name - The Weekend Warriors. They go out or stay in, sometimes causing trouble and other times just playing a few rounds of Tiger Woods PGA Golf, 2003. Today the gang is looking to raise a bit of hell.
After lunch, they're on their way back to school for baseball practice. They pull up at a red light, idling a few feet away from another driver. That driver is an older lady, and she's driving some incarnation of a mail carrier's vehicle. Her steering wheel is on the right side, and that odd fact is what sets our gang off.
"Look at this woman, driving on the wrong side of the car. What does she think this is, England?"Just behind the driver's seat sits a guy who'd at one time or another been referred to by his football coach as the the Special Teams Master. He pulls from under the seat something that resembles a semi-automatic weapon. In broad daylight, with dozens of cars in sight, he sticks the gun out of the window. He fires three shots. Red splashes of color splatter the driver's window. Though this man pulled the trigger, the weapon wasn't his. It belonged to another of our gangbangers. The car belonged to yet another. They were all complicit in the crime, even if they hadn't pulled the trigger.
A few hours later, our gun owner is sitting at the home of the shooter. The vehicle owner gets a call on his cell phone:
Come home now. The police just called.The gun owner and the shooter plead with the car owner not to snitch. But that will never work. They always eat lunch together. They're The Weekend Warriors. Our gun owner leaves the home, and he heads to his regularly scheduled haircut. He makes it clear that he'll deny it all. On the way, he dumps the gun in the trashcan of a local convenience store.
He's sitting in the hair chair, a stench of nervousness stretched all across his face. His mother's there, and she's blissfully unaware of the hell that's about to reign down. Her phone rings. The police wants to see them all, and the hairjob's cut short. They head to the local courthouse, their fate hanging in the balance.
In the state of Texas, it's a felony to point a gun at another person. It's also a felony to point an item that reasonably looks like a deadly weapon. This is aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and it carries a penalty range into the decades.
In South Carolina, where the crime took place, a number of laws might apply. Point a firearm at a person is a felony carrying as many as five years. Attempted aggravated assault and battery might also be charged. All told, the act could have netted our gang serious jail time.
When they arrived at the court house, the investigating officer took a hard line. He explained to the suspects that he was a recreational paintball player, and that their actions had threatened the reputation of paintballers everywhere. He then left the young men to wait, as their parents talked through the options. The gang went upstairs, where they even wrote a parody song about the event. A true tribute to how little risk they felt of getting in trouble, their comfort level was measurably high.
The officer called the gang down and gave them quite a scolding. Their parents, dressed in shirts, ties, and dresses, had convinced the officer that, at least for the four males, this was simply a case of boys being boys. They walked without so much as an arrest record. Their punishment included a weekend of restriction during Spring Break, and without my redacted telling of this story, it'd have never reached the public record.
You might have guessed this, but I was one of those gang members. A lily-white, Southern-fried owner of a Wal-Mart paintball gun. My friends were also white. They were all solidly upper middle class though also upper levels of stupid. And the terror we caused that poor old woman was real.
But we walked clean without taking so much as a deferred probation. Our records unencumbered, we were legally able to tell colleges that year that we were much more like choir boys than anything else. Our moment of indiscretion cost us nothing, but that isn't the case for many. For many, that incident would have ended in an arrest at the very least. In most cases, it would have ended in some form of zealous prosecution.
Last week, I had a conversation with a conservative friend about the dynamics of white privilege. He fancies himself a libertarian, but that's convenient cover for a person who receives in his mailbox the Rush Limbaugh magazine. We discussed the ways in which white people have been advantaged in the past and the ways they're advantaged today. My primary contentions to him revolved more around the economics of the matter, because the racial disparities in the criminal justice system make too easy a target.
I have a message for white people - it's alright to admit we've had a leg up. Many of the problems on this planet can be traced to human egoism and the unrelenting need for self-justification. People spend thousands of dollars on toys to make themselves feel worthy, but they do it in other ways, too. And those mental tricks inform many of the political leanings these people hold.
In a society like this one, where a person's perceived worth is at least partly correlated with his net worth, there exists no shortage of individuals looking to defend the origins of their financial success. It makes sense, too. If you believed that the only thing making you worthy was the number on your bank statement, then you might take great pains to prove to others that the money was earned through smarts, or hard work, or something.
You'd want people to know that you have money because you are some form of awesome. There's an insidious flip side to that idea that must be investigated. In order to support the proposition that financial success says something inherently positive about you, you must also believe that some outcome other than financial success says something negative about the other person. When you introduce the idea that factors outside of your own control have influenced your financial outcome, you run the risk of undermining the very thing upon which you've built a personal identity.
From this comes the unwillingness of many white people to recognize the many perks of being white. We tend to forget the most important part of the word capitalism, which is the first seven letters. CAPITAL. That's the chunk of money that you'd need to start a business, buy a home, or pay for school. Those with capital get to lend it out for a fee. Those without it have to do the borrowing, a privilege for which they will pay the fee. It's a system that, at its core, rewards those with money. We provide foundational support for this proposition with a tax structure that rewards wealth holders.
It'd be easy to just note the effects of slavery, whereby "white" America gained piles of capital on the backs of unpaid black workers, providing white Americans with an inherent advantage. But it's continued with policies since then. Most notably, the discrimination in government housing loans and private housing loans up until the 1960s afforded white Americans an opportunity to build equity while black Americans were closed out. A period of inflation in the 1970s caused many assets - including real property - to run up real gains in value. This period of real estate boom benefited those who owned homes, and they were largely able to extend their gains in capital accumulation.
Simply put - we have, in the past and to a lesser extent the present - put into place road blocks that have made it incredibly for black people to acquire the currency by which our economic system runs. As such, we'd established a system of white advantage, where the simple color of one's skin has provided what amounts to around a 20 lap head start in a 100 lap race.
In discussions with my friend, he raised points that I've heard before. What he perceived to be his strongest point rested upon the idea that if we were to provide for affirmative action and other advantages designed to level the playing field, we would be perpetuating racism by angering an entire new class of white people. He supported his theory with a notably obtuse reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s purpose. My friend quoted Dr. King and offered that true equality only happens when we don't see a person's skin at all.
Unfortunately, his view smacks of the white-centric world view that clouds his thinking. In one thought, he had reduced the Civil Rights movement into an effort designed to appease white people, to change the hearts and minds of us whites because we're just that important.
That wasn't Dr. King's purpose at all, and that must be understood. Dr. King and others understood that prejudice will probably exist in some form as long as the earth is around. And he must have understood that if programs like affirmative action weren't around, at least some white people would find other convenient reasons to be racist. Instead, Dr. King fought to change structures. He and others fought to reconstruct the very fabric of America's opportunity system. He was largely unconcerned with the feelings of individual racists. That is implicated in his very goals. If he believed that individual racism could be eradicated, he might have spent his time lobbying for that. What he understood was the government must be changed precisely because people, left to their own devices, are prone to exploit the exploitable.
My friend is somewhere in the middle class though he considers himself to be a "poor" white person. And his concern, of course, was that some people like himself might get screwed if we institute policies that seek to provide equal opportunity by taking into account the inherent advantages that our racist history has gifted white Americans.
I have a message for him and for other white Americans concerned about that own bit of self-interest: two or more centuries of economic advantage for white people was not gained without much pain and gnashing of teeth. And structural inequality won't be fixed without some pain, either. A broken finger has to be re-broken before it can grow back. And to think that equal opportunity will be achieved without someone getting a short stick is insurmountably naive.
More than that, it's evidence of the very white privilege I wrote about above. His attitude is one of - "sure, it's fine if black people get back a little of that head start we gained, as long as it doesn't hurt any white people."
Being white has its privileges. We have inequitable outcomes for similar acts. We have an entire economic system designed to disadvantage people without capital, knowing well that our history has precluded entire races from accumulating money. And if we're going to do something about it, white people will need to suck it up. When people like my friend bemoan the perils of affirmative action, he should remember the value of white privilege, where lily white thugs can cause wholesale terror and walk away without a scratch.