I was very impressed with this piece on the Dissent website by the historians Alan Rothman and Barbara J. Fields. The article is titled The Death of Hannah Fizer with the deck "Black people suffer disproportionately from police violence. But white skin does not provide immunity." Hannah Fizer was an unarmed white woman in Sedalia, Missouri who was pulled over for a traffic stop, deemed "non-compliant" and wound up getting shot to death. Everything here is familiar except the color of the victim. It shouldn't be. Unjustified police violence up to and including death of a suspect doesn't just happen to blacks; it happens to whites, Latinos and those of other race as well. Sifting through any database of such incidents confirms that excessive police violence is a broad-based problem whose solution would benefit a wide range of communities.
That is the point of Rothman's and Fields' article. They remark:
"Amid widespread protests against police killings of black people, it seems a familiar story: an unarmed person smart-mouths a police officer and dies for it. But Hannah Fizer was white. That should not surprise anyone. According to a database of police shootings in the United States since 2015, half of those shot dead by police—and four of every ten who were unarmed—have been white. People in poor neighborhoods are a lot more likely to be killed by police than people in rich neighborhoods. Living for the most part in poor or working-class neighborhoods as well as subject to a racist double-standard, black people suffer disproportionately from police violence. But white skin does not provide immunity.
Nor does white skin provide immunity against police clad in riot gear and armed with military-grade weapons violating freedom of speech, assembly, and worship. Just ask Martin Gugino, the seventy-five-year-old man who spent a month in the hospital with a fractured skull after he was knocked down by police in Buffalo, and received death threats as a reward. Or ask white clergy and others beset by tear gas and military helicopters to clear space for a photo-op for President Trump during the “Battle of Lafayette Square” in early June. Militarized attacks on unarmed, peaceful protesters have taught thousands of previously uninvolved Americans that they, too, have a stake in curbing the excessive use of force by the police."
They conclude on a strategic note with some particularly sharp words for the current fashion for talking about "white privilege", a toxic approach to building an effective politics.
"[A] successful national political movement must appeal to the self-interest of white Americans. The growing number of nonwhite voters may appear to have reduced the need to appeal to white voters, but white voters remain two-thirds of the electorate. The Republicans can still win a national election without a critical mass of nonwhite voters, but the opposition cannot unseat them without a critical mass of white voters.
Therefore, those seeking genuine democracy must fight like hell to convince white Americans that what is good for black people is also good for them. Reining in murderous police, investing in schools rather than prisons, providing universal healthcare (including drug treatment and rehabilitation for addicts in the rural heartland), raising taxes on the rich, and ending foolish wars are policies that would benefit a solid majority of the American people. Such an agenda could be the basis for a successful political coalition rooted in the real conditions of American life, which were disastrous before the pandemic and are now catastrophic.
Attacking “white privilege” will never build such a coalition. In the first place, those who hope for democracy should never accept the term “privilege” to mean “not subject to a racist double standard.” That is not a privilege. It is a right that belongs to every human being. Moreover, white working people—Hannah Fizer, for example—are not privileged. In fact, they are struggling and suffering in the maw of a callous trickle-up society whose obscene levels of inequality the pandemic is likely to increase. The recent decline in life expectancy among white Americans, which the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute to “deaths of despair,” is a case in point. The rhetoric of white privilege mocks the problem, while alienating people who might be persuaded."
This is indeed common sense for our political moment. The progressive movement has an opportunity to not only defeat Trump but make serious steps toward the kind of society we would presumably all like to see. But that will only be done by uniting, not dividing, the people we wish to reach.
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