Recent newspaper commentaries and discussions with Black friends have focused my attention on the issue of “white privilege” and compelled me to take a fresh look at the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I am convinced that white privilege colors the way many whites view BLM. Moreover, BLM is in many ways a direct attack against white privilege by those who understand that the killing of Black people through institutional violence was not eliciting the same response as the killing of white people.
White privilege is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people. These privileges have been defined as “an invisible package of unearned assets.” Many of the advantages that white people enjoy are passive and not obvious, which is why white privilege is not necessarily overt bias or prejudice.
While there are not many examples of institutional violence against white people, the Kent State killings on May 4, 1970, is considered a major event in our nation’s history. On that date, national guardsmen fired 67 rounds into a crowd of white students, killing four and wounding nine, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.
In the aftermath of the killings, the largest student strike in American history involved two-and-a-half million students on 700 campuses. Many refused to go to classes or take final exams. Thirty ROTC buildings were firebombed. The governors from 16 states ordered the occupation of 21 campuses. Almost all the protesters were white. Their parents could not understand how organized National Guard could kill white students. Many parents reconsidered their position on the Vietnam War and turned against it.
Following Kent State on May 15, 1970, at Jackson State College, an African American school in Jackson Miss., state police, breaking up an anti-war rally, randomly shot up a college dorm, killing two and wounding 12 others. Few remember this incident, and it provoked little outcry when compared to Kent State.
In 1970, white privilege determined which killings would draw the attention of the public and shape the anti-war movement until President Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Today, white privilege minimizes police killings of African Americans and ignores the broader issue of institutional racism in the criminal justice system.
What is to be done? First, BLM deserves the vocal and financial support of all those who care about social equality and justice in America. It has morphed from its early growing pains as an idea/slogan protesting against the killing of young Black men by police and developed into a strong and vibrant movement that can make a difference in this year’s elections and beyond.
Second, it is important to understand what BLM is not. The title was never intended to degrade the lives of police officers or those who are not Black. Such an interpretation was always an easy cop-out for white people, exercising privilege, who do not take the time to understand Black activism in light of institutional racism in America.
Third, the movement has expanded and now seeks to ensure that people of color be given the same respectful tolerance as the rest of us in all stages of the criminal justice process. For those families that have lost a young man in a police shooting, a life matters. Equally, for those families that have lost a young man because of drug abuse, incarceration, or a gang shooting, a life matters. The movement encompasses all of this and more.
Fourth, BLM is not the reincarnation of the Black Panthers. Its Black liberation message is about ideas, not armed violence. One of its posters shows a young Black man with fist in the air holding a flower, not a weapon. Neither is it about Black Nationalism, supporting “Blackness” for its own sake and encouraging isolation from society. It is about: “…broadening the conversation around state violence to include all the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.” This is a powerful and worthy call to action to unite Black America.
Fifth, if BLM can motivate young African Americans to get politically involved in urban areas, college campuses and local politics across the country, they can become a motivated interest group with real power to facilitate change.
In a recent address at Howard University, President Obama’s remarks included his impressions on BLM: “It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from ‘Black Twitter’ to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened – white, Black, Democrat, Republican – to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system. But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom.”
Much more needs to be done regarding racism, and BLM will be a potent, positive force going forward. It has earned the support of white Americans who care about social justice and equality.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.