White People vs. White Privilege

Alex Wagner, The Atlantic, May 27, 2016

On Tuesday, a judge in Pennsylvania ordered Bill Cosby to proceed to criminal trial on three counts of felony indecent assault. Cosby’s fall from grace has been precipitous, but the charges against him have been rumored for decades. The person most widely credited for the starting this latest–and most damning–round of speculation is the comedian Hannibal Burress, who is black. As part of a standup routine in 2014, Burress called Cosby a rapist, and set into motion a maelstrom that ultimately resulted in 58 women coming forward to claim they were raped, drugged, or sexually harassed by Cosby. (Cosby has denied the charges.)

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“Cosby was a black person’s problem,” the comedian W. Kamau Bell said. “We all had to answer that question: What do we do with his legacy? We haven’t all agreed on that, but you don’t see Bill Cosby anymore, just like you don’t see Ben Carson anymore. Where is he? He’s at home. If black people had rallied around Cosby and Carson, they wouldn’t have gone home.”

I suggested to Bell that the dismissal of both men from public life was something that was broadly determined by people of all races.

He countered: “Plenty of white people may have thought, That’s enough of [Cosby], but if black people had gone, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You may not accept one of our people, but we do not accept you telling our people to go home,’” the outcome would have been different.

This was an impossible thesis to prove, but Bell–who currently hosts a show on CNN exploring race in America–then made an interesting observation:

“With white people,” he said, “it’s the reverse. When Trump does crazy stuff, all my liberal white friends are like, ‘I don’t even say his name!’ like he’s the Candyman or Beetlejuice or something. I’m like, ‘No! You need to say his name and you need to come up with a plan!’ I have white family, and some of them are not Obama supporters. Who is more likely to get someone not to vote for Trump: me or my white family?”

But is Trump really white America’s problem, less than he is necessarily Mexican America’s problem, or Muslim America’s problem? Bell concluded that Trump was, in the end, probably everyone’s problem–but that those best equipped to deal with him were white Americans themselves.

This begged a larger question: Does white America bear the onus of addressing policies that marginalize minorities?

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Against this backdrop, a few weeks ago, Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman, two white, self-described Democratic activists in their mid-20s, created a stir when they announced the formation of their political action committee, the Can You Not PAC.

Started “by white men, for white men,” the group’s goal is to discourage white men from running for office–literally, “Bro, can you not?”–with the idea that the many white men flooding the political process have edged out equally worthy (and potentially worthier) female, minority and LGBTQ candidates.

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So far, Can You Not PAC has not threatened to curb white male dominance in elected office any time soon: The group has raised only three thousand dollars. But in their way, Huelsman and Teter are making Bell’s point: It is incumbent upon whites to address issues that affect people of color, whether actively (through, say, conversation or protest) or passively (by taking themselves out of the game and allowing those best positioned to do the work to perform it).

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Bell posited that this was maybe what it was all about: white Americans recognizing their power in entertainment, in politics, in the community, and using that very same power for good.

“This is not [necessarily] about denying white privilege,” he told me. “There’s power in white privilege and in white supremacy and if you don’t use it for good . . . you’re using it for bad. It’s like Clark Kent walking around, and not pretending to be Superman all the time.”

In this case, Bell thought, there was a time to be Clark Kent, but there was most assuredly a time to be Superman–as in, right now. “Put on the cape and the tights!” he urged an unseen (and presumably privileged) white audience. “You have power. And you’re not using it.”

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