You may recall that President George W. Bush was profoundly offended when, in the wake of death and destruction in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West went on national television and said: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Five years later, Bush was still smarting from that accusation; he called it “one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.” The president was sincerely pissed, and, you know, it’s easy to see why. Because here’s the thing: George Bush arguably cared about black people exactly as much as most white people do.

Which is to say: a little.

Based upon reports coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, police and white American society together continue to brutalize, dehumanize and marginalize people of color. Whether it is callous indifference to the obscenity of George Zimmerman’s acquittal or outright racist victim-blaming for police brutality in Missouri, it’s obvious that white Americans aren’t really interested in understanding anything more than they already think they do about the lives of people of color.

We see this malignancy continuing to grow in our feverish body politic, most notably with the way white people are talking about the goings-on in Ferguson. Despite the protests being completely justified, and despite police repeatedly violating constitutional rights of civilians, protestors and journalists, some white Americans simply do not care. For instance, bullshit talk about “looting” a McDonald’s (for what, ketchup packets and plastic forks?) has threatened to supplant the real story: Black protestors were finding shelter from tear gas and rubber bullets.

Evidence of this is well detailed. One woman, hysterically crying, begged for McDonald’s milk to be poured on her face to wash away the irritants fired at her by mostly white men in uniforms. There’s even a now-iconic photograph of this. Unfortunately, this truth does not fit into the lie white Americans would like to believe. As such, it is discarded in favor of a dehumanizing trope that reinforces their prejudiced perceptions.

Many white people, indeed, would much rather continue to reinforce their prejudices to feel better about themselves. After all, there’s a tacit, deep misery in white America. It is fed with a complete lack of empathy toward people of color and reared with subtle social bristles: from the person crossing the street as black men approach to the parent who still, in 2014, is queasy about their daughter dating a black man.

(It’s ironic that racist white people sneer that white civil-rights allies are obsessed with assuaging white guilt—when, really, it’s their own quiet, everyday racist fears that are born of that very guilt. One of the dark truths of human nature, after all, is that it’s much easier to viscerally spurn those whom we know we’ve wronged than it is to excommunicate those who’ve wronged us.)

Some of us whites make it continually worse, too. We not only rub salt on the wound, but we create fresh ones. There are white Americans in Pennsylvania today riding around with Confederate flag bumper stickers: an implied support for traitors with nothing but disdain for the United States who also enslaved, raped, murdered and tortured black Americans.

And let’s not wave that sort of thing off as “Pennsyltucky hillbillies,” either—Philadelphia’s urban history isn’t much better. Not only were the Phillies once upon a time the most racist baseball team in American history, but an outright racist, Frank Rizzo, still garners affection from many of the city’s white residents. Rizzo repeatedly brutalized Philadelphians of color because he could, masquerading his hatred behind “respect for rule of law” just as police continue to do in Missouri right now.

The specter of Rizzo continues to haunt Philadelphia, too. An African American woman told me at a rally recently that she still cannot trust police because of Rizzo’s tenure. She said this while standing in LOVE Park, within eyesight of the larger-than-life statue of Rizzo that waves happily in front of the municipal services building. There is nothing fond, funny or affectionate about this man; why he’s still memorialized in a city so populated by people of color mystifies me.

Then again, callous indifference to the suffering of minorities certainly isn’t a Philadelphia-specific thing. Writing for The New Republic, Julia Ioffe details her encounters with white residents of nearby St. Louis and their reactions to the civil unrest in Ferguson. “The kid wasn’t really innocent,” said one white person. “It’s just an excuse for people to do whatever they want to do,” said another.

Ironically, that person seemed to forget that it’s white America that gets to do whatever it damn well pleases without consequence. Those who raided the U.S. economy last decade, for instance, destroying countless American homes, lives and livelihoods, suffered no consequences. White victories and privileges in society are misleading, though. They rot us from the inside out because, deep down, we know that what we enjoy, what we have as white Americans has been, without merit, given or, with extreme prejudice, taken from others. It is avarice and greed dressed up in pretty words about the American dream.

Is it not clearly better to be spiritually sick and alive, after all, enjoying white privileges left and right, than it is to be a person of color in this country? While white people suffer no real consequence for their intransigence against American ideals of real equality, people of color suffer routinely under this system. Michael Brown, like countless others before him, lost his life—during a jaywalking stop.

Oh, local police there insinuated he’d robbed a convenience store; never mind that he was carrying no weapon and that review of the whole video tells a somewhat different story. More importantly, even the cops acknowledge that the white police officer, Darren Wilson, did not suspect Brown of the alleged robbery. Wilson encountered Brown walking down the middle of the street. And in the wake of that offense, Michael Brown was shot six times. One of the shots hit him directly in the eye; another hit him on the inside of his right palm, indicating his hands were likely up in surrender. Still, Wilson continued firing, shooting the teenager dead.

Why? Because two sets of standards exist in this country: one set for white people and one set for people of color.

See, also in Missouri, just three days after Brown was shot to death, a white man named Kevin Miner, a burglary suspect, encountered police. He allegedly broke one officer’s hand and kicked another in the encounter. Miner was not, however, shot.

Do the math.

“We’re dividing white and black again,” one white man whined on Fox News this past week, lamenting the protests in Ferguson. “America has no color,” he insisted, “it’s all one color.”

There it is: America has no color, according to white people. Our spiritual sickness as a race has, apparently, blinded us as well.

Back in the 1960s, James Baldwin observed this sickness, too. He saw its roots in white America’s need to feel “better than”; after all, it’s easier to feel better about yourself when you look at someone you perceive to be worse than you. “White people,” he said, “will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

As of today, that will still not be tomorrow.

About The Author

Contributing columnist

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His @PhillyWeekly column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” took the First Place Spotlight Award for weekly newspaper commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists in both 2014 and 2015 and the Second Place Award for weekly newspaper commentary in the U.S. and Canada from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in 2014; and, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association presented him with the Edith Hughes Emerging Journalist Award in 2015. Along with his column, Josh blogs daily for PW on various topics including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and everything else Philly.

2 Responses

  1. Ryan

    White Americans don’t even know their own riots were way worse, especially 2 groups: (1) early colonists and (2) the Irish during the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe if we taught real history rather than Abe Lincoln never lied and George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, we’d all relate to one another a little better.

    We can learn from history. It’s a shame we don’t even try.


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