The Privilege to Riot

 American history, current events  Comments Off on The Privilege to Riot
May 312020

Rage, grief, and frustration at yet another death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police – over a petty allegation involving a measly $20.00 – lit fires, lit consciences, lit businesses, lit the streets all over the country. In what can only be an escalation of the problem of inequitable policing of black communities, police departments have fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and judgment on the people protesting state-sanctioned violence against them. White leaders in these communities demand order, and that is just the thing that has led us to this place.

Blinded or lacking vision, white folks lecture protestors on the “right way” to respond, and it only brings the echoes of Nina Simone to mind:

“They told me to wash and clean my ears
talk real fine just like a lady
and they’d stop calling me Sister Sadie…
I don’t trust you anymore
you keep on saying go slow”

White communities have had ample opportunities to demonstrate that they will respond and correct the problem of violence against black citizens, but they have failed to do so. The chance for appeals to reason together have passed.

But, whites in positions of power over communities across our country care less for justice than they do for property. Perhaps, they cannot understand why anyone would destroy what they cherish over all else. Store fronts inspire them to affronts, and then they deny blacks violence as an expression of grief and outrage – making public violence a white privilege. Police departments comprised mostly of white men have the power and authority to do violence while society denies it of the others who are only given the receipt of that violence.

Pushing back against mostly-white voices demanding “peaceful” protests, there are those who rightly note that our country was founded on a history of protests and violence. They equate today’s opponents of government oppression with those who fostered the American Revolution. They cover Black Lives Matter with the mantle of Washington, which must rankle conservatives who do not see democracy in the U.S. in the same vein as colonial oppression. This defense – while well-intentioned – misses the history of violence as a privilege in our country.

Until the 1960’s race riots in the United States were mostly eruptions of white communities. In New Orleans, Tulsa, Rosewood, Mobile, Beaumont, New York City, and a host of other places, white people attacked black citizens and their neighborhoods. Today – with our short memories – we associate race riots with black anger, which is yet other way racism pervades our culture and thinking. Negative violent behavior is associated with black communities, though our history demonstrates a horrifying number of mob actions by whites against black citizens.

For the most part, those white citizens have not been held accountable for the murders, arsons, and community devastation achieved at their hands. As Tulsa nears the 100-year anniversary of the destruction of North Tulsa by whites, many of those responsible for that violence remain in histories as prominent leaders (and whose descendants inherited their socioeconomic legacies). Only recently did the almost entirely white City Council finally strip the name of one of the same from a city street. Even that was a five-year effort; the first attempt blocked by a farcical argument that removal would obscure the history involved – as if the honor would magically become ironic if allowed to remain.

None of these white communities suffered for the violence they committed against their black neighbors. Their brutality did not prompt a shared cultural view of whites as savage, violent criminals. It did not lead to economic loss, and instead that burden lay on the black victims who survived the whites’ attacks. Devastated black communities have struggled to rebuild from assaults against them, while the fortunes of their white neighbors continued to blossom – often thanks to the destruction. White privilege is a product of the violence that remains, itself, the prerogative of white supremacy in our society.