Sunday, July 23, 2017

Being dense – one form of white privilege.

The expression "white privilege" is becoming more familiar. More whites are beginning to understand that the price they pay for living in this society and benefiting where the system works well is very different from the price paid by persons of color. Here are some obvious examples: no one locks their car when they see me coming up the sidewalk. I am not very likely to be stopped by police and interrogated about who I am or what I am doing here when I walk down the street to say hello to a neighbor. For me, the police are likely to offer support and protection. A black man walking down the sidewalk will often hear of the lock click in the car occupied by whites. The police will stop them and want to know who they are and what they are doing here in their own neighborhood. If they were walking down the street in my neighborhood, which is mostly white, it is even more likely that they be stopped. A large majority of victims of police shootings are black, the majority young black men.

In these and many other ways whites are privileged in this society. They do not bear the burdens borne by persons of color. One form of white privilege that does not receive enough attention is the privilege of not knowing what it is like to live in the United States as a black person and, another large privilege, not having to think about that.

This reminder was brought home to me by a story in the Sunday paper. For 50 years an organization called METCO has bussed students, exclusively students of color, from Boston to some of these suburban schools in towns like Sudbury or Swampscott. The newspaper article detailed how some of the black students are victims of open racist attacks. What is worse for them, there are hardly any black teachers or other role models in these suburban schools. The people from whom they are to receive the exceptional education not available for them where they live are all white. It is difficult for them to learn to think of themselves as knowledgeable and exceptionally capable young black men and women when the only capable people they meet in school are largely white.

I read this and think, yes that is a real problem. Maybe the school systems in Sudbury and Swampscott and other suburban towns must make a special effort to hire African-American teachers or counselors or someone who can present an image of African-American excellence to the students.

It took me quite a while before I realized that METCO and its project raise serious questions for the white parents in the suburbs and the politicians and leaders in Boston and the surrounding towns.

Once you think of them, the questions are obvious: why is it that African-American students in Boston – and the same is of course true of many white students in the city – need to be bused to get a decent education? Is not every child entitled to a high-class education and to the opportunity to learn as much as they are capable of learning?

How is it that the children in Sudbury and Swampscott get a good education that takes them on to good colleges and jobs that provide a good income and in many cases political power, while children in Boston proper may have to go to private schools at considerable expense to receive a comparable education?

Our very different, locally financed and run school systems are an important factor in stratifying the society of adults. By giving poor education to some children we set them up to do menial or manual work that pays modestly and leaves them in the shadows politically.

By being born in the suburbs of parents affluent enough to afford housing there, suburban children are selected when they enter preschool at 3 or 4 years old to get good educations, go to good colleges and become makers and shakers.

The life trajectories we map out for children have little to do with ability and everything to do with geography. They have everything to do with inequality which we not only tolerate but support actively by putting up with unequal educational opportunities for rich and poor, for white and black.

So much for equal opportunity.

A lesson whites have to learn from this example is that we are too ready to accept the inequalities that exist. We do not question why it is that a black student has a much harder time to get a good education than a white student.

We must learn to be much more alert to the inequalities that exist and are perpetuated virtually without criticism if we ever hope to create a society that seriously struggles against inequality. In our society our leaders mouthe condemnations of inequality and, having done that, continue to support the status quo.

The willingness of whites to overlook the daily inequalities of Blacks supports the unwillingness of the powerful to make change. In other words, white behavior, as usual, continues to support and maintain white privilege.