The war on police brutality hides a much bigger threat to all Americans
Let’s get something straight: white privilege is real.
I know because I’ve lived in its shadow my entire life. I've felt it even when I’ve tried to forget or pretend it wasn’t there.
White privilege wasn’t earned; it was gifted to people who brought others, shackled in the bowels of ships, to serve them. Living in a country where your ancestors were once stuff that other people “owned” leaves wounds so deep they can’t be erased from the collective memory. And when your ancestors were the ones allowed to “own” other people, it creates something equally indelible: an advantage that’s hard-wired into all levels of society. It’s like getting a head start in every race that always puts you a few yards from the finish line. It’s an entitlement that lingers, unspoken, in the back of all minds, silently playing out in everything we say, think, or do.
This is why white privilege endures.
Most white people don’t consciously exploit their privilege; they take it for granted, like someone born with a healthy pair of eyes or lungs. And no matter how hard they try to educate themselves, how sympathetic they are to the cause, or how many sensitivity seminars they attend, white people will never truly understand what it means to be born in black skin.
This isn’t their fault; it’s just reality. Now, let’s talk about another reality: white privilege is changing.
Like almost everything else in this country, it’s no longer what it used to be. Although white Americans still dominate the cultural and political landscape, Blacks have made inroads our ancestors could scarcely have imagined decades ago. Beyonce and LeBron James have become cultural icons. A Black woman was appointed as U.S. national security adviser and a Black man served as Secretary of State. And another Black man snagged the biggest prize of all: he was elected leader of the “free” world not once, but twice.
The economic landscape has also changed. There was once a time when being white guaranteed a minimum standard of living, and being Black guaranteed a maximum. Those guarantees are gone. While white Americans still hold an advantage, they’re losing their edge. Born under the “wrong” circumstances, many are falling victim to poverty, chronic disease, and drug use. By contrast, 47% of Black Americans have forged a path to the middle, and a few — like Oprah Winfrey and Robert F. Smith — have even erected multi-billion dollar empires.
The reality is that White Americans are falling behind at a faster pace.Yet we’re not paying attention to their accelerating economic deterioration. We’re fixated on the social and cultural advantage they still enjoy and ignoring a privilege that poses a far greater danger to people of all colors.
The unspoken power of the top 1/10th of 1% who have quietly amassed as much wealth as the bottom 90% of Americans and control the country on almost every level. Unlike white privilege, elite privilege isn’t shrinking; it’s growing exponentially. And unless we wake up and take action, it will enslave us all.
But first we need to understand how elites have managed to accomplish what they have. We need to understand the tool they’ve used to gain enormous power without our conscious awareness.
George Floyd’s murder has shaken the U.S. to its core and forced us to reckon with just how little Black lives seem to matter to white America. Almost overnight, we’ve become laser-focused on race and desperate to atone for centuries of oppression.
But while we rage against the men who watched the life drain from Floyd’s body for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, we’re glossing over an inconvenient truth: only two of the police officers responsible for his death were white; the other two were men of color (one Asian-American and the other of mixed race).
The media has ignored this factoid in its 24/7 racial hand-wringing, but it matters a lot. Because if people of color were accomplices to his murder, then Floyd wasn’t the victim of white privilege or racism. It means he was a casualty of a toxic economic System that preys on poor people of all hues — and enlists those who look like them to do it. A System that virtually guaranteed his untimely death the moment he was born.
If we pull focus and distance ourselves from the race peddling, we see that the real reason police kill Black people in disproportionate numbers goes beyond race. But we don’t spend a lot of time discussing the reason, and this isn’t by chance. Because talking about the root cause of these deaths would call attention to a subject that those with elite privilege will do everything in their power to keep us from thinking about.
By now, most people have heard that Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be killed by police. It’s a statistic that sends whites into apology/guilt/shame mode and triggers PTSD in Blacks. I think we have this reaction because when we hear this statistic, we’re likely to think white cops are primarily responsible for taking Black lives. When we hear about police brutality, we see Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck. We think of high-profile cases like Eric Garner (killed by Daniel Pantaleo, a white offer in New York) or Michael Brown (killed by a white officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri).
These are the incidents the media focus on and that capture our attention: the smug faces of white cops dispassionately executing Black men or glaring into the camera in mug shots. The images stick in our mind and convince us that Black men are dying in heart-breaking numbers due to systemic police racism.
But this is a distortion of our reality.
In 2019, the U.S. Academy of Sciences took a deep dive into homicide statistics and found something unexpected: contrary to popular belief, white officers are no more likely than Black or Latino officers to shoot Black civilians. In fact, a 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were actually less likely than Black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed Black suspects.
How is this possible?
According to a 2018 study by the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, it likely happens because police officers of color tend to be assigned to minority neighborhoods and have more contact with suspects of color. This is why Floyd was pinned to the ground by an officer of mixed-race while another, an Asian-American, stood by and watched. This is why another Black man in Minneapolis, Philando Castille, was killed by a Hispanic police officer. This is why Freddie Gray died at the hands of six Baltimore police officers — three of whom were Black, and one of whom was a bBack woman.
And yet the media doesn’t draw our attention to this. Instead, they fixate on white perpetrators.
There are other clues that our perception of the role that race plays in police brutality is being distorted. According to Washington Post data, the states with the highest rates of police homicide per million of population are also among the whitest in the country: New Mexico, Alaska, South Dakota, Arizona, and Wyoming. This is hardly surprising, since the median family income in neighborhoods where police killed civilians was $52,907. The effects of poverty go beyond police brutality. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans in households at or below the federal poverty level have more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households.
In other words, the poorer a person is, the greater the chance they will be killed by another person.
So why aren’t we hearing about this?
Why are we more likely to see images of white people wielding guns when the media puts the spotlight on police brutality?
Why don’t we see footage of the incidents that occur much more often: police of color killing other people of color?
Why aren’t we hearing that poor people of all colors are more likely to be killed by police?
I think I know why.
Because bringing awareness to the epic poverty that’s engulfing Black and white communities doesn’t benefit elites who are systematically siphoning wealth from us. Seeing an un-distorted reality would make us question why increasing numbers of Americans of all colors are waging a desperate struggle for survival — a struggle that all too often leads to crime and violent encounters with police.
“Long, I pray, may foreign nations persist in hating one another …. and fortune can bestow on us no better gift than discord among our foes.”
When enough people without power come together, something amazing happens: they become powerful. Elites all over the world have used one simple method throughout history to keep this from happening.
In Book VI of his 1521 masterpiece, L’arte della guerra (The Art of War), Niccolò Machiavelli identified a military strategy based on the concept of divide et impera (divide and rule), a tactic attributed to Macedonian king Philip II. The goal was to maintain or secure dominance by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that were individually less threatening. Machiavelli, a masterful political mind, refined this strategy to a form of art. He believed it could be used to divide the forces of an enemy either by making him suspicious of those he trusted or causing him to separate his forces, which would ultimately make him weaker.
Julius Caesar employed the divide and rule strategy during the Gallic Wars to defeat the militarily superior Gauls. The British used the tactic to sow discord in India, turning the lower classes against one another to prevent a rebellion. The U.S. government pitted Native American tribes against each another in the push for westward expansion.
This is what a real conspiracy looks like. It’s not fake news; it’s what people do to keep power. I believe that divide and rule is playing out in the U.S. now, and I’m not the only one who sees this.
In a 2016 article in the Washington Post, Courtland Milloy argued that an oligarchy is using race to divide the masses in America. Moreover, this isn’t the first time the ruling class has used this race-baiting tactic. Before the Civil War, wealthy landowners “thwart(ed) the efforts of enslaved Africans and European indentured servants to join forces in a common struggle for economic justice” by dividing them and making “white servants feel superior to black slaves by virtue of skin color.”
Human nature hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. Money has always determined our class and affected nearly every aspect of our lives, regardless of the color of our skin. With enough money, we sit on a higher rung; we stay sheltered, well-fed, healthy, and safe. Without enough of it, we sit on a lower rung, and our world becomes precarious.
Those with wealth and power have always been focused on keeping these advantages, by any means necessary — and when a country teeters on the edge of the financial abyss, the quest for wealth and power intensifies. This is why in America in 2020, one thing matters more than almost anything else: money that will soon separate those with unfathomable privilege and power from those who have none.
We’re all trapped in a predatory economic System that’s exploiting the masses, squeezing larger numbers of Americans into a rapidly ballooning lower class that primarily serves those at the top. But the privileged elite have enlisted the media they control to convince us that systemic racism is the greatest threat we face. They will do everything in their power to keep us from seeing what’s really happening.
We can pretend we’re saving Black lives by making an example of racist white cops, defunding police, or abolishing them. But these “solutions” won’t address the true roots of the problem. They won’t provide more jobs for Black people, create more wealth for Black families, help more Black children graduate from high school or go to college, lower the rate of incarceration for Black men, or keep 2,600 of them from killing each other every year.
These “solutions” will continue to keep us from seeing the greatest threat we all face.
The System may not be killing you or anyone you know now, but it’s only a matter of time before we all become its victims. I believe we have the power to keep this from happening. But we have to stop looking for quick fixes to symptoms of a much bigger problem and start seeing each other as allies instead of enemies. We have to join hands and work to dismantle a toxic economic System and rebuild it in a way that serves all Americans — before it’s too late.