The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it
Amy Cooper knew exactly what she was doing. We all do. And that’s the problem.
by Bryan N. Massingale
I’ve shared two posts so far on the subject of Racism in America. The first one began with an essay that a friend of mine wrote during the early morning hours on the Fourth of July saying that as a person of color, he wanted to share a different point of view of our nation’s founding. That essay was followed by Frederic Douglas’ searing speech on the Fifth of July from a slave’s point of view.
The second post offered two articles, the first of which was about a woman, Jane Elliott, who spent 52 years teaching people about their prejudices in a famous “Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes ” experiment. The second one was about a Bishop in LittleRock, Arkansas and a priest in Atlanta both of whom had considerable experience teaching Catholics to get out of their comfort zones about racism. I promised three blogs on this subject (this is the third.) But there is more to be done and I will publish at least one more next week.
Today let’s take some time to educate ourselves about our own role as white people in perpetuating racism in our country. This is an article that appeared in The National Catholic Reporter on June 1st, 2020, just after the Labor Day tragic murder of George Floyd. It’s written by Fr. Bryan N. Massingale is a theology professor at Fordham University in New York. He is the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. So let’s dig into this. Some of this may be uncomfortable to some of you, but this is important for the good of our country and for you and all of us. So hang in there and do a bit of studying with us please!
“Every white person in this country — I do not care what he says or what she says — knows one thing. … They know that they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they may say is a lie.” — James Baldwin, “Speech at the University of California Berkeley,” 1979
It has never been easy to be black in America. Still, the past few months have pushed me to depths of outrage, pain and despondency that are unmatched in my 63 years of life. Look at what has transpired:
The COVID-19 pandemic showed that while all might be vulnerable, we are not equally vulnerable. Blacks, Latinos and Native peoples are the vast majority of those infected and killed by this virus. In some places, the levels of “disparity” (such a sanitizing word!) are catastrophic. But as tragic as this is, it was entirely predictable and even expected. The contributing factors for this vulnerability have been documented for decades: lack of insurance, less access to healthcare, negligent treatment from and by healthcare professionals, overcrowded housing, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. All of this compounded by how the least paid and protected workers are now considered “essential” and must be exposed to the virus’ hazards. As a young black grocery clerk told me, “Essential is just a nice word for sacrificial.” Sacrificed for the comfort of those who can isolate and work from home, who are disproportionately white.
Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, who was executed on Feb. 23 as three white men stalked him while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. One of the killers had ties to local law enforcement. Only after public protests and the passing of 74 days were any arrests made and charges filed over this death.
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman, who was killed by Louisville police officers on March 13 after they kicked in the door of her apartment unannounced and without identifying themselves. Fearful for their lives, her boyfriend fired his lawfully possessed gun. Breonna was killed with eight bullets fired by three officers, under circumstances that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.
Christian Cooper, a young black man — a birdwatcher — who was reported to the police May 25 by Amy Cooper (no relation), a young white woman, who called 911 to say that “an African American man” was threatening her in New York’s Central Park merely because he had the gall to ask her to comply with the park’s posted regulations to leash her dog.
George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old African American man, who was brutally killed on May 25 in Minneapolis by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite being restrained, despite the urgent requests of onlookers, despite his repeated desperate pleas: “I can’t breathe.”
Omar Jimenez, a black Latino CNN reporter, who was arrested on May 29 in the middle of doing live reports on events in Minneapolis, while a white CNN reporter doing the same thing, at the same time in the same neighborhood, was not only not arrested but was treated with “consummate politeness” by the authorities. The stark contrast was so jarring that Jimenez’s white colleagues noted that the only possible difference was the race of the reporters.
All of this weighs on my spirit. I try to pray, but inner quiet eludes me. I simply sit in silence on Pentecost weekend before a lit candle praying, “Come, Holy Spirit” as tears fall. Words fail me. I ponder the futility of speaking out, yet again, trying to think of how to say what has been said, what I have said, so often before.
Then it occurred to me. Amy Cooper holds the key.
The event in Central Park is not the most heinous listed above. The black man didn’t die — thankfully. Compared to the others, it has received little attention. But if you understand Amy Cooper, then all the rest, and much more, makes sense. And points the way forward.
Let’s recall what Amy Cooper did. After a black man tells her to obey the posted signs that require her to leash her dog in a public park, she tells him she’s going to call the police “and I’m going to tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Then she does just that, calling 911 and saying, “There’s a man, an African American, he has a bicycle helmet. He is recording me and threatening me and my dog.” She continues, in a breathless voice, “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble [a wooded area of Central Park]. Please send the cops immediately!” This despite the fact that Christian Cooper’s camera records the events and shows that he made no threatening moves toward her, spoke to her calmly and without insult, and kept his distance from her the whole time.
In short, she decided to call the police on a black man for nothing more than politely asking her to obey the park’s rules. And made up a lie to put him in danger.
She knew what she was doing. And so do we. The situation is completely “legible” as my academic colleagues would say. What did she and rest of us know? Why did she act as she did?
She assumed that her lies would be more credible than his truth.
She assumed that she would have the presumption of innocence.
She assumed that he, the black man, would have a presumption of guilt.
She assumed that the police would back her up.
She assumed that her race would be an advantage, that she would be believed because she is white. (By the way, this is what we mean by white privilege).
She assumed that she had the upper hand in this situation.
She assumed that she could use these deeply ingrained white fears to keep a black man in his place.
She assumed that if he protested his innocence against her, he would be seen as “playing the race card.”
She assumed that no one would accuse her of “playing the race card,” because no one accuses white people of playing the race card when using race to their advantage.
She assumed that he knew that any confrontation with the police would not go well for him.
She assumed that the frame of “black rapist” versus “white damsel in distress” would be clearly understood by everyone: the police, the press and the public.
She assumed that her knowledge of how white people view the world, and especially black men, would help her.
She assumed that a black man had no right to tell her what to do.
She assumed that the police officers would agree.
She assumed that even if the police made no arrest, that a lot of white people would take her side and believe her anyway.
She assumed that Christian Cooper could and would understand all of the above.
(And she was right. He clearly knew what was at stake, which is why he had the presence of mind to record what happened).
All of this was the almost instantaneous reasoning behind her actions. By her own admission, she acted out of reflex. No one taught Amy Cooper all of this. Likely, no one gave her an explicit class on how whiteness works in America. But she knew what she was doing.
And so do we. We understand her behavior. We know how our culture frames whiteness and folks of color. We know how race works in America.
The fundamental assumption behind all the others is that white people matter, or should matter, more than people of color. Certainly more than black people. That black lives don’t matter, or at least not as much as white lives. That’s the basic assumption behind Amy Cooper’s decisions, actions and words. That’s the basic assumption that links Christian Cooper with COVID-19, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Omar Jimenez.
Amy Cooper knew that. We all know that. So who taught her? Who taught us?
The Ways of Whiteness
This is where things may get uncomfortable for most of you, who I assume (and hope) will be white. Because just as no one gave her an explicit class on the ways of whiteness and how it works in society — and for her — most likely you never received a formal class or explanation either. It’s just something that you know, or better, that you realize on some distant yet real part of your brain. At some early age, you realized that no matter how bad things got for you, at least you would never be black. And it dawned on you, though you rarely consciously say it, that you would never want to be black. Because you realized, even without being explicitly told, that being white makes life easier. Even if you have to do some hard work along the way, at least you don’t have to carry the burden of blackness as a hindrance.
How did you, how did I, how did we all learn this? No one taught you. No one had to. It’s something that you absorbed just by living. Just by taking in subtle clues such as what the people in charge look like. Whose history you learned in school. What the bad guys look like on TV. The kind of jokes you heard. How your parents, grandparents and friends talked about people that didn’t look like you.
I can hear some of you protesting. You don’t want to admit this, especially your ability to make life rough for people of color. You don’t want to face it. But Amy Cooper made the truth plain and obvious. She knew deep in her soul that she lived in a country where things should work in the favor of white people. She knew the real deal. We all do.
That’s the reason for the grief, outrage, lament, anger, pain and fury that have been pouring into our nation’s streets. Because folks are tired. Not only of the individual outrages. But of the fundamental assumption that ties them all together: that black lives don’t matter and should not matter — at least not as much as white ones.
We struggle to admit that Amy Cooper reveals what W.E.B. Du Bois calls “the souls of white folks.” Because, to quote James Baldwin again, facing the truth “would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans want to know.” Or admit that they know.
What don’t we want to admit? That Amy Cooper is not simply a rogue white person or a mean-spirited white woman who did an odious thing. Yes, we should and must condemn her words and actions. But we don’t want to admit that there is a lot more to this story. That she knew, we all know, that she had the support of an unseen yet very real apparatus of collective thoughts, fears, beliefs, practices and history.
This is what we mean by systemic racism. I could call it white supremacy, although I know that white people find that term even more of a stumbling block than white privilege. Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates gives the best short description of this complex reality called white supremacy. He describes it as “an age-old system in America which holds that whites should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people.” Amy Cooper knew that. And so do we.
We don’t want to admit that Amy Cooper is not simply a bad white woman. We don’t want to face the truth about America that her words and actions betray. We don’t want to admit that present in Central Park that morning was the scaffolding of centuries-long accumulations of the benefits of whiteness. Benefits that burden people of color. Benefits that kill black and brown people.
Without facing this truth, Amy Cooper’s actions make no sense. She knew what she was doing. And so do we. Even if we do not want to admit it.