Opinion guest column

Recognizing the privilege of white America

Integration and connection will make important contributions

The fact that a white police officer in Minnesota felt at ease asphyxiating an unarmed black man while on camera, with the implicit consent of his colleagues at the scene, and Amy Cooper in Manhattan’s Central Park felt empowered to call 911 for a “police hit” on the bird watcher Christian Cooper, are further examples of the iniquity of “white privilege” in this country. Do we simply add these recent incidents to a list that includes the executions of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Nathaniel Woods in Alabama, President Trump’s “my African American” with its paternalistic and racial overtones, and the bias that detrimentally influenced both the upbringing and sentencing of the Stanford rapist Brock Turner?

Some will argue that the death of George Floyd has nothing to do with white privilege, but until we see reports of black police officers asphyxiating white men on camera without batting an eye, I have to disagree. I continually wonder at the extent, both overt and covert, of white privilege in our nation and how to effectively combat it. How do we overcome the apathy possessing so many white Americans, an apathy favoring the oppressor rather than the oppressed?

Unfortunately, white privilege is an abstract concept, and many beneficiaries refuse to self-identify. While segregation was once the rule of the land, its offspring has been social stratification bordering on a caste system that reinforces its consequences, to the point where I suspect that many white Americans have not a single person of color that they call friend. 

A metric serves to illustrate the breadth of the problem: given 13% of the population is black in this country, it seems reasonable that the average white person would count at least one black person among his ten closest friends. Probability theory reinforces that notion: in the absence of bias, a white person has a 51% chance of having a black person among his five closest friends, a 76% chance of having a black person among his 10 closest friends and 99% chance of having a black person among his 30 closest friends. However, I suspect the average white’s “closest friend list” would approach triple digits in many cases before a black friend was included. For many that black friend doesn’t exist at all. If Donald Trump truly did have “my African American” as a friend, he likely would be in rare company indeed compared to the average white American.

How to solve the problem? We need to punish the guilty, but the solution also will require white Americans transitioning outside their albino comfort zones and deliberately seeking opportunities to socially integrate. Sports has been one source of intermixing, as it seems our will to win many times (but not always) exceeds our will to hate. Higher education is another, especially at schools like MIT that emphasize the admission of the best and brightest from all racial and ethnic groups irrespective of where their parents attended college. Religion is one more medium and I wish every white American could be a person of non-color in an AME church. If you don’t bring a gun, unlike Dylann Roof, it provides a unique and welcoming perspective. There are boundless opportunities, but if individual Americans do not broaden their exposure it may be simply a matter of time until the effects of white privilege result in other unjust deaths.

Charles Theuer is a member of the Class of 1985.