White Privilege and Black Rage

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

White Privilege and Black Rage: The Cases of Michael Slager and Dylann Roof

In late July, the columnist Charles Blow posted an article entitled “Incandescent with Rage.” As I read it, I recollected an article written by the late poet Wanda Coleman in which she recounted her youthful sojourn into the fringes of African-American radical resistance, and how she resisted that temptation and went on to become a major voice in American poetry. Of her many literary contributions, one of the foremost would be her critique of the fault line of racial identity in American social life. In registering the daily seismic twitching and convulsions of white privilege’s arrogance, Coleman challenged the complacency of much of the apolitical lyricism of mainstream verse. As a poet and cultural worker, I remain very grateful that Wanda Coleman made the choice she did, though her account of youthful desperation continues to haunt me.

The degree to which white privilege feels itself entitled to a pass for its transgressions can be seen in the reaction to First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent comment at the Democratic National Convention on the use of slave labor to build the White House. White privilege is inherently defensive about its unearned status, or rather should I say that its status derives from the appropriated earnings of others. Let it never be forgotten that the phrase “self-made man” was coined by a man who owned slaves.

One could take Michelle Obama’s reminder a bit further, though. Not only did the construction of the White House involve the use of slave labor, but one of the alcoholic beverages served over the decades in the White House has turned out to contain a pedigree of exploited human life, too. I call your attention to an exceptionally interesting account of the history of whiskey in the United States, and of the brand Jack Daniels, in particular, that appeared in the NY Times. (Unfortunately, I cannot seem to create a viable link to the article, but if you type “Nearis Green” and “Jack Daniels” and “Clay Risen” along with the date June 25, 2016, you should be able to locate the article.

The erasure of enslaved labor from the narrative of this country’s liquidity is a long-standing grievance that will always need the vigilance of annotators to redress. With enough reminders, it is possible that in a half century a more respectful history will be familiar to the grandchildren of the millennial generation. It is not enough, however, to simply acknowledge the contribution of African-American labor to American prosperity in books and academic articles. Justice will only be attained when the casual knowledge of citizens is comprehensive enough to have that knowledge at immediate recall.

Is it unjust to have to wait so long to have one’s place in a narrative properly recognized and honored? Yes, it is unjust, and to forestall that reckoning mocks the dignity that should be bestowed on all our forebears who empowered the commonwealth; but that injustice is nothing compared to the life-and-death crisis now reaching the full height of absurdity. The ever increasing degree to which African-Americans are being targeted by police is pulverizing social life in this nation, and immediate requital is urgently needed.

When Charles Blow wrote “I am at the screaming place” in his article, “Incandescent with Rage,” I marveled that he was able to keep the volume of his voice to that level. At what other level should his voice be when one considers that the police officer who was videotaped shooting Walter Scott on April 4, 2015 has still not gone to trial? Your eyes are not deceiving you: today is August 23, 2016. A videotape of police officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, as Scott ran away from Slager, was recorded over 16 months ago, and yet Mr. Slager’s trial has yet to start. (Mr. Scott is said to have been pulled over for a non-functioning brake light.) But that delay is not the screaming point. Rather, consider that Mr. Slager is now out on bail and enjoying the creature comforts of his home. How is that possible, you might ask?

And this is the point at which this pandemic has its most caustic instance of irony.

It appears to be the case that Mr. Slager’s trial has been delayed because the state has an even more egregious case to bring to trial, that of Dylann Roof for the cold-blooded slaughter of nine African-American men and women with whom he had first joined in a prayer service at a church. The reports I have read indicate that Mr. Slager’s lawyers have been able to argue that Mr. Roof’s trial has caused Mr. Slager to be unfairly detained for an unreasonable amount of time while waiting for his trial, and this appeal has been successful.

None of us can change the outcome of Mr. Slager’s appeal, but we can ask questions that provide a larger context for this case. Let us consider the reverse of this case. Let us imagine that Mr. Scott had killed the police officer after being stopped for a minor vehicle infraction, and let us also posit that another African-American had recently committed an egregious set of crimes. For the sake of argument, let us cite the infamous Richmond, Virginia spree murders of Ray Dandridge, Ricky Ray, and Ashley Baskerville. Suppose the trial of Dandridge and Ray required a prolong preparation that forestalled any other major trial? Does anyone – and I mean anyone at all – even for a second really believe that Mr. Scott would be granted bail and be allowed to savor the comforts of home because it was taking too long to bring his case to court? You can imagine the furor, and it would make the demonization of Willie Horton in 1988 look like an ad campaign for a truth and reconciliation panel. “Cop Killer Goes Home Free,” would no doubt be the mildest of the headlines. Everybody with the least knowledge of electoral politics knows that any judge who granted Mr. Scott that kind of leniency would almost certainly be subjected to a recall petition. It would be career suicide. No such outcry has fallen on the judge who granted bail to Mr. Slager.

Instead, it is the case that Mr. Slager is at home while he awaits trial, a luxury he is afforded because of the heinous attack of another white man on the African-American community. Mr. Scott’s family, on the other hand, also waits at home, instead of already having sat in court and watched the man who shot Mr. Scott in the back forced to come to terms with what was videotaped. The wait that Mr. Scott’s family must endure is nowhere mentioned in these news accounts.

The imposition of justice delayed on Mr. Scott’s family combined with Mr. Slager’s current residential status is what is meant by white privilege – smug, complacent, self-entitled privilege that does not pause to question its ideological sources – and why Charles Blow’s scream has yet to hit its most embattled timbre.