What follows is for the benefit of one William James O’Reilly Jr. – “Bill” to his fans.
Last summer, O’Reilly, a pundit for Fox “News,” spent time talking about white privilege and his contention that no such thing exists. He debated this with colleague Megyn Kelly, and sparred about it with Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” Part of O’Reilly’s reasoning is that because Asian Americans (according to him) make more money and are better educated than whites, what we really should be talking about is “Asian privilege.”
Except, of course, that privilege is not a direct function of income or education. The inability – or, more aptly, the unwillingness – of Reilly and others of his ilk to get this, to understand what privilege is and how it works, is an ongoing source of exasperation for your humble correspondent. The good news is, O’Reilly and his ilk can now educate themselves for the price of a couple of mouse clicks.
With the first click, they should play video of Joseph Houseman, a 63-year-old white man who, back in May, stood with a rifle on a street in Kalamazoo, Mich. When police arrived, he refused to identify himself, grabbed his crotch, flipped them the bird and cursed. They talked him down in an encounter that lasted 40 minutes. Houseman was not arrested. The next day, he got his gun back.
With the second click, O’Reilly should play video of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who, last month, was playing with a realistic-looking toy gun in a Cleveland park. When police arrived, an officer jumped out of the car and shot him at point-blank range. There was no talking him down. Indeed, the entire encounter, from arrival to mortal wounds, took about two seconds.
It should be noted that anyone who waves a real – or real-looking – firearm in an encounter with police risks getting shot. We should also question who, if anyone, was irresponsible, inattentive or immature enough to allow Tamir to play – outside, yet – with that deadly toy. The resultant tragedy was all too easy to foresee.
That said, anyone looking to define white privilege would be well advised to ponder the 40 minutes police spent sorting things out with the white man and the two seconds it took them to shoot the black boy. Privilege, you see, is not about being born with a silver spoon in one hand and a scholarship in the other. One can be poorer than dirt and a sixth-grade dropout and still enjoy white privilege. Because privilege is about the instant assumptions people make about you – your worth, your honesty, your intelligence – based on color of skin.
Nor is privilege defined only by race.
Some years back, my wife took the car back to a certain national tire shop, because one of the tires we’d just bought there had developed a bulge. The guy at the counter said the bulge was her fault. He refused to put the car up on the rack, refused to call his manager. He dismissed her, curtly and rudely.
So I go up there with her to have it out with this guy. Next thing I know, we’re dealing with the manager, he’s got the car up on the rack and is apologizing for some “rare defect” in the tire, which he will replace while we wait.
What I had experienced was male privilege, the ability to be taken seriously at an auto shop because of my gender. Now, to unwittingly benefit from misogyny does not make one a misogynist. But to pretend said benefit did not exist would be profoundly boorish.
Which is, not incidentally, an excellent description of O’Reilly’s behavior here. So he and those like him who find it so difficult to understand what white privilege means should study those videos closely.
For a white man with a gun in Kalamazoo, white privilege meant the privilege of not being instantly shot. Sadly, that’s a privilege Tamir Rice did not enjoy.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.