I have a confession to make: The moment I hear the words “white male privilege” I tune out. Being told that my views need readjustment on account of my race makes about as much sense as kneeling to ask forgiveness of a person of color for the history of American racism.
Yet we’re in the midst of a racial paroxysm just now. George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer has sparked outrage across the land. Despite COVID-19 and lockdowns, folks have taken to the streets, some engaging in violence, to protest the deeper structure of American racism, a system that has, for 400 years, kept people of color down. Indeed, some white folks kneel, in bizarre public ceremonies.
What has become of this country?
You would think that slavery hadn’t been abolished, as it was in 1865. You’d think Jim Crow was still the law of the land. You’d think that federal and state civil rights legislation wasn’t enacted in the 1960s. Or that affirmative action doesn’t exist. Or that diversity training is not required at institutions large and small.
We’re told that there is an epidemic of police violence against people of color.
In the most recent year for which statistics are available, 9 unarmed persons of color were killed in encounters with police; double that number of unarmed whites were killed by officers. Every death at police hands requires review, but that hardly sounds, or feels, like an epidemic.
The fact is that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Police officers are the arm of the state we are most likely to encounter in our day-to-day lives. Whenever the police act violently, it raises profound questions of legitimacy. Did the police officer use excessive force?
I’ve litigated scores of these cases over the years, and I’ve learned a thing or two about policing. Their world is dangerous, tense, evolving and uncertain. They are not required to read the minds of those with whom they interact. Officers do make mistakes, but, more often than not, their use of force is justified.
That is not to say that the killing of George Floyd was justified. Based on the videos I have seen it appears not to have been. A full trial and a full record will show the entire context. My hunch is that a jury will conclude the force used was excessive.
But I will await a trial before making a final judgment. If I’ve learned one thing as a trial lawyer it is that facts are hard to prove, and context is everything. I’ve both sued police officers for use of excessive force, and defended officers against the use of force claims. As a general rule, I now believe that until you’ve ridden with a cop in a patrol car for an evening, you have no idea what they face each and every day on the beat.
For many Americans, however, police officers are suspect. That’s because we are in the midst of a full-scale crisis of legitimacy in the United States just now. Many people can’t distinguish a police officer from a gang member. I am reminded of St. Augustine’s account of Alexander the Great’s interrogation of a pirate captured on the Mediterranean:
"How dare you molest the seas?" Alexander said to the pirate. The pirate replied, "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor."
I’d like to think we will overcome this crisis, but I have my doubts. Our institutions are fragile, and, increasingly, we behave less like a people united by a common vision of justice and the common good, than like members of separate tribes.
In the narrative of intersectionality, race, gender and sexuality, difference is everything. We celebrate diversity for diversity’s sake, a bizarre form of pluralism that treats human excellence as secondary.
Because every good narrative requires a culprit, white males are enlisted. We embody privilege. We must be challenged, re-educated, taught to see the world anew. It’s a tedious form of pandering, really, being told you can’t characterize others while enduring the caricature of others.
Somehow it all feels like a shakedown.
Consider the spring we’ve just endured.
First, a pandemic. During the pandemic, voices rise to claim we’re not just assaulted by a virus, but that the virus lays bare the racial divide in the nation. Racism pervades; a more just order is necessary.
Then the video of the Floyd homicide, followed quickly by outrage.
“See, see,” this is proof of America’s original sin. Atone, and quickly.
From the wings comes the call for reparations. Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, didn’t miss a beat, called for $14 trillion in immediate reparations payments to people of color, as damages for a legacy of slavery and discrimination. No one dared giggle at the suggestion. That would be indelicate.
Just add that to the stimulus payments, I suppose.
Johnson’s call for reparations looks like fanciful nonsense to me, but I suppose I’m just blinded by my white privilege.
The other night, a young lawyer of color offered to counsel me on the errors of my race-based ways. In her eyes, I suspect I am a racist. To me, she is a race-pandering nitwit. I won’t pay a race-based tax. Ever. I don’t owe; you’re not entitled. I’m not going to waste my time listening to explanations of why you think I should give you this, that, or the other thing.
Thomas Jefferson feared that a just God would one day exact vengeance for slavery. Maybe that day has come. I suspect what Jefferson feared was less a moral judgment from the heavens than terrestrial mayhem. Were the slave masters cruel? Yes, and they sought justification of their cruelty by means fair and foul, claiming an entitlement to their spoils.
A new group now claims entitlement. Forgive me if I am not listening. I am a die-hard misanthrope, and I believe that if you give someone rope, they just might lynch you, white or black. The rhetoric of white male privilege is a dishonest way of trying to persuade me to give you something on account of your status. It’s a discussion that leads to nowhere I care to go. Indeed, I won't go there. Ever.
Beware the self-righteous mob, I say. White or black.