Noticing White Privilege: Making the Invisible More Visible

Examples of white privilege appear daily in all forms of media. It is useful to practice publicly naming and analyzing some of these manifestations of white privilege.

Here is one example on which to practice. The April 15, 2015 edition of USA Today carries two stories. One story (p.3A), describes the “notorious Chicago police commander who ran a torture ring against suspects for decades…As a result of the torture, the men confessed to crimes that resulted in some spending years in prison or on Illinois’ death row. In 2003, Gov. George Ryan pardoned four….death row victims…” According to the USA Today article, Police Commander Jon Burge served less than four years in prison, was then released to a halfway house, and released from the halfway house less than six months after that.

Jon Burge is white. He has continued to receive a pension from the state.

Contrast this story with a second story (p. 2A) describing the sentencing of “former Atlanta Public School educators convicted of conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests…” Despite the lawyer’s contentions that two of the educators were innocent, Judge Jerry Baxter of the Fulton County Superior Court said that each was being sentenced to 20 years in prison, to be incarcerated for a minimum of seven years, with the balance as probation. In addition, they must perform 2,000 hours of community service.

The Atlanta educators are Black. In addition to their mandatory seven year prison time, pus 2000 hours of community service, they must pay a $25,000 fine.

Burge “ran a torture ring against suspects for decades. Police officers under Chicago Commander Jon Burge used electrical shock, burning and mock executions to elicit confessions from suspects, mostly African Americans.” The Atlanta educators “conspired to cheat on state exams.”

The man who ran a torture ring for decades, and put possibly innocent people on death row, served less than four years in prison. The people who conspired to cheat on state exams, are mandated by the Fulton County judge to serve a minimum of seven years in prison. The convicted torturer receives a pension from the state. The test cheaters are required to pay $25,000 to the state.

I am guessing that few white people would read the story about Burges as an example of white privilege. Few would read the story about the Atlanta educators as a story about the absence of white privilege.  I am guessing that almost every Black person who reads the story about Burges would immediately conclude that if he had been Black, he would have received harsher treatment and stiffer penalties. His sentencing for torture certainly does not parallel the sentencing of the test cheaters. Many Black people would assume that only white privilege would render test cheating in the education department as warranting almost twice the prison time as running a torture ring in the police department.

Another way to practice noticing white privilege:  who would assume that a white educator would be sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiring to cheat on a test?

While it seems to make some white people uncomfortable to talk about white privilege, increased awareness and consciousness about white privilege has the potential to change the tone and tenor, and perhaps the content,  of some of our public dialogue.


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