It’s wonderful that so many people showed up Sunday night in front of the State Office Building in Wailuku for a candlelight vigil for the three people killed at a white supremacist Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Vigils like these have become all too necessary. Two years ago we were calling for peace after a white supremacist killed nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It’s good to hold public vigils for the dead, but white people especially have to do more than that to stop the hate and killings from happening in the first place.
Being honest with ourselves, and with our friends and relatives, is a fantastic place to start. And that means confronting, openly and honestly, a basic fact about life in the United States of America: the lives of white people in the U.S. aren’t the same as those of other races. It’s documented that whites have an easier time in a host of public services–getting loans, dealing with traffic tickets, finding a good-paying job, buying a car, etc. For too many television programs, white is still considered the “default” race.
“What does white privilege mean today?” Yale law professor Ian Ayres asked in his Feb. 24, 2015 New York Times op-ed “When whites get a free pass.” “In part, it means to live in the world while being given the benefit of the doubt.”
Most appallingly, The Marshall Project reported on Aug. 14 that “killings of black men by whites are far more likely to be ruled ‘justifiable.’”
“In almost 17 percent of cases when a black man was killed by a non-Hispanic white civilian over the last three decades, the killing was categorized as justifiable, which is the term used when a police officer or a civilian kills someone committing a crime or in self-defense,” The Marshall Project reported. “Overall, the police classify fewer than 2 percent of homicides committed by civilians as justifiable.”
You know what white privilege is? It’s describing the child Tamir Rice–who was shot to death while playing with a toy guy by a Cleveland cop in November 2014–as “a 12-year-old in an adult body” while calling 39-year-old Donald Trump Jr. “a kid” and “a good boy.”
Many white people think it’s constructive to say that race is “just a construct” or that they “don’t see race.” This is all bullshit. White privilege exists. White supremacists exist. They inflict real pain on people and imperil what’s left of America’s democracy and rule of law. Denouncing racism isn’t nearly the same thing as denouncing white supremacy, or even white privilege. Saying that an organization like Black Lives Matter (formed to denounce the unjust killings of blacks by law enforcement) is racist plays the white supremacists’ game.
Right now, today, there’s no justice in the United States. There is no “meritocracy,” no “colorblind society.” White people have long held powers and privileges in this nation that no other race enjoys. As long as that’s allowed to exist–as long as whites refuse to give people of other races the same benefit of the doubt that we’ve long enjoyed–there’s no hope of stopping the violence that happens in places like Charlottesville and Charleston.
President Donald Trump feeds off white supremacist hate because he’s white supremacist trash–gilded, of course, but gutter trash nonetheless. Still, anyone who thinks Trump started all this is wildly delusional. Yes, the words the Declaration of Independence say “all men are created equal,” but the actions of America have been white supremacist since the very beginning. Slavery, the genocidal wars against Native American tribes, the conquest of Hawaii, lynching, Jim Crow–the list goes on and on.
When white people denounce white supremacy by name, and take action to combat the pernicious effects of white privilege, they starve white supremacist nazis of the oxygen they need to thrive. Yes, I know it’s difficult for white people to talk honestly about racism to friends and relatives. But it’s nothing compared to what people who aren’t white have to deal with every day.