Monday, February 1, 2016

The Last White Male Privilege?

Some announced the arrival of a "post-racial" society after the election of Barack Obama. Clearly these voices were mistaken. I strongly suspect we'll be much closer to that day when armed white men are violently dispatched by the law with as much ruthless efficiency as are unarmed black males.

Since the advent of miniaturized video technology decent people have looked on with horror at a seemingly unending stream of digitized recordings of white lawmen gunning down black men, teenagers, and even children with extreme prejudice. The victims have been shot while surrendering or otherwise complying with police instructions, while walking away or retreating from police, while sitting in a car or laying on the ground in submission, and so on. In many instances the victims are either unarmed or armed with far less lethal weapons (a knife, a toy gun, etc.), and oftentimes they had been identified to police beforehand as being drunk or mentally disturbed.

No matter. Being black-when-crazy, black-when-driving, black-when-walking, black-when-complying, black-when-a-child, black-when-breathing: all are apparently seen by many officers as sufficient grounds for the immediate and overwhelming application of lethal force. No one knows how bad this problem is, because there is no reliable national database of how many citizens are shot by police each year. So we are forced to speculate. One oft-cited study claims that young black men are more than 21 times more likely to be shot by police.*

By way of contrast, the very same video technology records the extreme deference with which officers approach white men with guns, up to and including assault rifles. In tape after tape, police approach with extreme courtesy, weapons holstered, hands contritely folded, and politely inquire as to why the white man is carrying a long gun in public. Almost invariably, the reason given, clumsily delivered in the argot of a street corner lawyer, boils down to this: "Second Amendment." After a few more desultory questions the officers then typically withdraw quietly, usually wishing the citizen a "nice day."

It almost doesn't bear mentioning that such an exchange is literally impossible to picture if we imagine the citizen a black male identically armed. Anything less than almost impossibly instantaneous compliance with the hoarsely shouted orders of the lawmen would quickly result in his death or grave injury. Black males, it seems, don't have the same recourse to the Second Amendment; in fact, one could be forgiven if it is not mistaken as a license for white men to shoot unarmed black men for sport.

Even in instances when an armed white citizen is manifestly menacing the public with his constitutionally-protected weapon in an unquestionably illegal fashion, the police response is, shall we say, restrained. The armed white man, sometimes drunk or otherwise mentally incapacitated, is surrounded, but instead of force patient negotiation is applied. Officers try to "establish a dialogue" with the man; he is cajoled and gently persuaded to lay down his weapon; it's stressed how important it is to "avoid bloodshed" and work towards a "reasonable and peaceful" way out of the crisis. Again, it almost doesn't bear mentioning that such a circumstance would be lethal for a black man. To state the fact bluntly: it's pretty damn hard for an armed white man to get shot by the law in this country.

Bring in Exhibit A--the Bundy "militia." The background is well known to those paying attention. In April 2014 the Nevadan Cliven Bundy faced down the federal government in a dispute over grazing rights with the assistance of several armed white men aiming sniper rifles directly at federal employees until they withdrew; to date, none of the participants have been charged with a crime, much less seen the inside of a courtroom or a jail cell. Now, almost two years later, Bundy's son Ammon, along with a group of armed white men preaching violent insurrection, has illegally occupied a patch of federal land in Oregon since the beginning of last month. For almost a month the occupiers were allowed to travel freely through the loose perimeter law enforcement had set up around their encampment. They were allowed to go into town to purchase needed supplies, to attend meetings to rally support for their cause, and to run other errands. For almost a month, the law indulged the occupiers imagined grievances and repeatedly attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender--to no avail.

Finally, last week several of the occupiers were arrested during one of their periodic outings. However, one vehicle fled the scene with police in hot pursuit. After their truck tried to run a roadblock of state troopers, one of the occupiers, one Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, exited the vehicle. On my viewing of the FBI's video, Finicum initially raises his hands in surrender but by my count his hands appear to move toward his waistband three times, where he kept his trusty Colt .45. Only then was he shot dead by officers.

I want to repeat that for affect: Finicum appeared to reach for his gun three times before lethal force was applied.

Compare this to the many black men who often never even got one chance at their empty waistbands, if their hands even moved in that direction at all.

Again: it's pretty damn hard for armed white men to get shot by the law in this country, but frightfully easy for unarmed black men.

Also of note is the restrained response of law enforcement to a clearly illegal armed takeover of federal land, as compared to the highly militarized and aggressive response to unarmed citizens protesting the suspicious deaths of black men at the hands of police in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, MO.

Apparently, white men with guns have serious grievances that must be taken seriously; protesting black people without guns are an intolerable threat to public order, regardless of their claimed grievances.

And did I mention that as of this writing the land in Oregon is still being illegally occupied?

Extreme prejudice versus extreme deference.

Of course the point of all this is not that police should treat white men as violently as they do black men. The point is that they should treat black men with as much deference as they do white men, all other things being equal. This would be more in keeping with the idea that the law should be enforced with as much consistency as possible, and with their traditional role as peace officers--as opposed to escalating violence and arbitrarily dealing death.

This would be the reasonable response to the situation. But as I suggested at the start, perhaps the best we can hope for, given the vicious vortex that forms where violence, racism, and the unholy cult of the gun meet in American culture, is that a day will come when white men will be summarily executed as frequently and with as much regularity as black men. The wanton slaughter of black men might be the last white male privilege, and once it is gone we'll have achieved a perverse sort of parity. This would count as progress in race relations in this demented nation of ours.

*However, there is no doubt that most grand juries refuse to indict officers who have shot black males in questionable circumstances.


  1. Perhaps I'm not seeing the whole point here, but there are lots of white male privileges and, given how many there still are, I'm not sure we might want to start speculating on which will be the last.

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