The plight of Eric Harris, who was gunned down by a pay-to-play cop during an April 2 undercover operation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is just one of the latest tragedies following a long-recurring theme within the United States. As Harris lay bleeding in the street and pleading for his life, the response to his declaration, “I’m losing my breath,” was a vicious, “Fuck your breath,” from one of the officers trying to subdue him. Harris died one hour later due to that fatal gunshot wound.
One of the more cringe-worthy realities about this situation is the fact that the shooter—seventy-three-year old Reserve Deputy Robert Bates—isn’t a police officer, he’s a wealthy insurance executive who only plays cop in his spare time by virtue of Tulsa County’s so-called “buy-a-badge” program.
Everyone, please: Watch the video. Notice the brutish disregard for human life displayed by those who subdue Harris as he bleeds to death before them. It should go without saying that one can be concerned about the foul, excessive treatment of an individual without endorsing the actions of said individual that precipitated the run-in with law enforcement. Even if one were guilty of a criminal act it doesn’t justify treating someone as a rabid, stray dog.
I bring up this particular instance not to lambast law enforcement specifically, though I hold many reservations. I mention it due to the driving force behind the continuation of racial profiling, racialized discrimination, and scapegoating tactics: the institution of white supremacy.
There may be some who reflexively take issue with this term’s usage, and that’s likely due to either ignorance or misconceptions about what is meant by white supremacy. Perhaps some think of it exclusively in terms of the Ku Klux Klan, or neo-Nazism, or like white nationalist groups. Not so.
Yes, the idea (in the form of an active ideology) is certainly present within those groups, but, broadly speaking, white supremacy refers to the belief—and promotion of systems that perpetuate said belief—that those belonging to “white” human races are somehow naturally superior to those of other racial backgrounds.
White supremacy is intertwined with racism. In her work with the Catalyst Project, renowned feminist activist Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez has elaborated on this issue, and in doing so indirectly addresses the tragedy befallen Eric Harris. In a piece titled, “What is white supremacy?” Martinez notes:
The most common mistake people make when talking about racism (white supremacy) is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. They do not see it is a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, military, educational, all our institutions. As a system, racism affects every aspect of life in a country.
By not understanding that racism is systemic, we guarantee it will continue. For example, racist police behavior is often reduced to “a few bad apples” who need to be removed, instead of seeing that it can be found in police departments everywhere. It reflects and sustains the existing power relations throughout society.
As a consequence of the more recent advent of smartphone technology, hyper-surveillance, and growing treatment of cultural issues within the sociopolitical intelligentsia, societal recognition of racial inequalities has improved. Yet, with this appreciation—which is overall sluggish, sometimes tepid, and also rebuffed—comes the onset of another impediment to progress aside from the insidious nature of privilege itself: white guilt.
The point of identifying and exposing inconsistencies within the social systems and cultural norms of the United States isn’t to make whites feel guilty, but to garner greater empathy that will inspire change. The main problem with white guilt is that it attempts to diminish the spotlight aimed at issues germane to marginalized groups and redirects the focus to a wasteful plane of apologetics and ineffective assessment.
This is why some don’t like discussing racism, as those more sensitive to these matters sometimes allow guilt to creep into their thought processes, effectively evoking pangs of discomfort. This can lead to avoidance of the primary issues altogether, as well as the manifestation of defense mechanisms, including denial, projection, intellectualization, and rationalization.
Many are acquainted with the concept of Catholic guilt. Catholic doctrine emphasizes the inherent sinfulness of all people. These accentuated notions of fault lead to varied degrees of enhanced self-loathing. I liken white guilt to Catholic guilt: both relate to a sense of inadequacy emanating from misguided notions. Though the latter is anchored in an imagined source, they both speak to feelings of remorse and internal conflict that does the individual having them no good.
Keep in mind that the call to “recognize your privilege” does not translate to “bear the blame.” Privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages and benefits associated with being part of an in-group. Said benefits exist whether or not one’s earned them or consciously vied for them. In fact, almost universally, privilege is something conferred without the recipient having any say in the matter. Thus, when announcing the existence of privilege, it isn’t about shaming someone or pointing an accusatory finger. It’s about deflating inequality—not imposing guilt.
What we as individuals, groups, and societies need is active opposition to racialized discrepancies, not idle, unproductive self-reproach. From awareness grows motivation to make a difference. White guilt tends to warp or subvert the very sympathies that spurred a yearning for change to begin with.
White supremacy is ideologically and institutionally passed down from generation to generation. It will not just magically disappear. It’s an old, well established system that won’t fold without a fight.
What can those who identify as humanists, or even those who simply consider themselves decent people do to combat systemic racism? Make a concerted effort to humanize and identify with all individuals.
It’s easy to assent to this principle in word, but it’s quite another to be continuously mindful of it and endeavor to extend egalitarianism without constraint. None of this requires a belief in a god, of course, but it does entail dedication to values central to the humanist cause. Impartiality is actually a challenge when one considers the current, severely biased state of affairs. That said, it’s a goal that is certainly achievable.
If you’re carrying guilt for being privileged, quit wasting your time. Devote your mental energy towards something worthwhile, like transmitting heightened awareness within your sphere of influence (however marginal) and seeking to destabilize the inequitable power structure that allows and excuses the bias and cruelty involved with cases like Eric Harris. Focus less on your guilt and more on being a catalyst for change.