‘………………By BRITTNEY COOPER
The response to the Twin Peaks shootout says everything you need to know about how white privilege really works
Malcolm X, the famed Civil Rights leader and minister of the Nation of Islam, would have turned 90 years old this week. While America annually marks the significance of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is only in Black communities nationally, and locally in Harlem, that we mark and celebrate the birth of King’s most formidable racial adversary. Undoubtedly this has something to do with the very forthright and unflinching manner in which Malcolm X talked about race in the 1960s. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, as Malcolm X was otherwise known, did not have any hope that white people could or would change when it came to race. Although King was far less optimistic at the end of his life about the capacity of white people to change, too, he still has the March on Washington speech, which represented the zenith of his racial optimism.
And indeed we did get a front row seat to such insanity this week, when three biker gangs in Texas, had a shootout in a parking lot that left nine people dead and 18 people injured. More than 165 people have been arrested for their participation in this thuggish, ruggish, deadly, violent, white-on-white street brawl but there has been no mass outcry from the country about this. Though these motorcycle gangs were already under surveillance because of known participation in consistent and organized criminal activity, as Darnell Moore notes at Mic, “the police didn’t don riot gear.” Moore further notes that “leather and rock music weren’t blamed,” and there hasn’t been any “hand-wringing over the problem of white-on-white crime.”
White people, even well-meaning and thoughtful ones, have the privilege of looking at deadly acts of mass violence of this sort as isolated local incidents, particular to one community. They do not look at such incidents as indicative of anything having to do with race or racism. But everything from the difference in law enforcement response to media response tells us what we need to know about how white privilege allows acts of violence by white people to be judged by entirely different standards than those of any other group. If a Black motorcycle gang had engaged in a shootout in a parking lot, any honest white person will admit that the conversation would have sounded incredibly different.
That kind of intra-racial shame is reserved primarily for Black people.
Most white citizens will insist that this was just an isolated incident, even though the gangs were already under surveillance for consistent participation in criminal activity. And this studied ignorance, this sense in which people could look at this set of incidents and simply refuse to see all the ways in which white privilege is at play — namely that no worse than arrest befell any the men who showed up hours later with weapons, looking for a fight — returns me to the words of Malcolm X. For many Americans, this is just good ole American fun, sort of like playing Cowboys-and-Indians in real life. As Malcolm reminded us, “whites idolize fighters.” So while I’m sure many Americans are appalled at the senseless loss of life, there is also the sense that this is just “those wild Texans” doing the kind of thing they do.
White Americans might also deny the attempt to “lump them in” with this unsavory element. But the point is that being seen as an individual is a privilege. Not having to interrogate the ways in which white violence is always viewed as exceptional rather than regular and quotidian is white privilege. White people can distance themselves from their violent racial counterparts because there is no sense that what these “bikers” did down in Texas is related to anything racial. White Americans routinely ask Black Americans to chastise the “lower” elements of our race, while refusing to do the same in instances like this. Yes, white people will denounce these crimes, but they won’t shake a finger at these bikers for making the race look bad. It won’t even occur to them why Black people would view such incidents as racialized.
How we talk about and understand the problem of violence is actually critical to our ability to make any progress on solving the problem of racism in this country. We have turned the word “criminal” into a social category that acts a site of cultural refuse, where we can toss all of our anger, hatred, and resentment, on a group of people, disproportionately people of color, for abhorrent acts that they commit against us and the state. We get to view them as less than human and treat them as such, while acting as though our indignation is pure, righteous, and without hypocrisy. None of this is true.
With white citizens, officers feel it is their duty to protect the unsafe and de-escalate the situation. With Black citizens, officers, acting out of their own fear, escalate conflicts, antagonize citizens, and move swiftly to the use of tanks, tear gas, and billy clubs to subdue, even lawful and peaceful protests. What Malcolm X pointed to, and what we would do well to recapture on this week, as we, if we are brave enough, choose to remember his life, is that there is something fundamentally dishonest about a society that revels in the violence of one group while demanding non-violent compliance from another. That kind of thinking is unjust, unfair, and unproductive. And for those of us who are not white, white ignorance on these matters is not bliss.
Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at@professorcrunk.