The other day the ever-wise Chauncey DeVega wrote something that articulated well an inchoate idea I've been pondering for a long time but unable to fully express:
"I offer a painful truth: indifference is worse than anger or hate. The vast majority of white folks who enjoy racial privilege--as well as men, heterosexuals, the rich and upper class, the "able bodied", and others that benefit from unearned advantages in American society--do not care or think very much about those who are in the out-group. Why? Because the luxury to be indifferent and ignorant about the life experience of the Other is the very product of privilege. "
I'd like to piggyback on that statement, especially on how we ought to question understandings of racism where whites are constantly, actively keeping hierarchy in place and perpetuating a racist society. There are certainly plenty of folks like that, of course. A man like George Zimmerman, who actively went after a black teenager for the crime of walking home from a convenience store where he "didn't belong" and killed him after provoking an altercation certainly fits that bill.
The travesty of justice in the Trayvon Martin case clearly shows that despite what people like John Roberts think, overt racism is alive and well in America today. However, in our "color blind" and "post racial" society, the most powerful means through which oppression is maintained are much less overt and much more insidious. Most racism these days is entirely unconscious, and one of the worst manifestations of it is through something I'd like to call "white racial apathy." By this I mean the luxury of white people mentioned by Chauncey DeVega to not give a damn about the problems of people of color, and to refuse to understand their perspective.
This apathy has been evident from the get go among whites who profess ignorance as to how this case could be "about race," and while not defending Zimmerman, certainly feel that too much is being made out of the whole affair. These same folks also tend not to understand all the calls to end practices like stop and frisk. They've never had to be humiliated by the police or been considered "suspicious" based on who they are, and furthermore, don't really care to understand the point of view of those affected by the policy. This apathy means that the broken judicial system that exonerated Zimmerman and has set up a school-to-jail pipeline in many communities in this country will continue to operate without reform. Millions suffer, but they are primary people of color, and the predominating attitude of apathy regarding people of other races in white America means that nothing will change.
There are a couple of examples of this apathy that hit home for me, and which are literally killing people. The first is here in my adopted state of New Jersey, where some crimes matter, and some don't. There's been a lot of hubub recently about a home invasion in the affluent suburb of Millburn, where a burglar physically assaulted a mother after breaking into her home in broad daylight. The fact that his attack was caught on video has made this case much more sensational, as has the fact that the attacker was an African American man, and the victim a white woman. This attack has received a great deal of attention here, and each development has been discussed in the bars, diners and living rooms across New Jersey.
That attention is rather interesting compared to the yawning silence outside of Newark about the rise in murders in Brick City since governor Christie cut back state aid, necessitating police lay-offs. These murders have been increasingly brazen, such as the shooting of a bodega owner in a robbery in January, a clerk at a convenience store in March, the tragic death of 19 year old (with an infant child) while working behind the counter at his family's deli last September and perhaps most shocking, the death of a mother of four this May at the hands of a stray bullet. Of course, there are many factors beyond police layoffs to blame, but the cutbacks have most certainly meant that there people who are dead today who would still be alive had there been more police on the streets. Governor Christie himself does not seem to give a damn, nor do many people outside of Newark, who see this city as a "no-go" zone best avoided and forgotten about. Instead of being outraged at the horrible deaths of people in their own state which may well have been preventable, suburban white New Jersey simply does not give a shit about the fates of black and brown people in the cities.
Back in my home state of Nebraska this white apathy is killing in a different way. A small hamlet called Whiteclay on the South Dakota border has liquor stores that sell 4.9 million cans of beer a year. That sounds impossible, but this town takes advantage of the fact that it is very close to the Pine Ridge reservation, where alcohol is banned. This has been a boon for unscrupulous merchants, who charge inflated prices while knowingly making their riches off of the misery of Native Americans, while simultaneously undercutting the tribe's attempts to solve the problem of rampant alcoholism and its horrific effects on the community. The local white population doesn't seem to have a problem with this state of affairs, though. Recently Sioux leaders went to talk with governor Dave Heineman about the issue, and he evidently told them that since the alcohol sales were legal, it was "their problem." That is the voice of white racial apathy at its most genuine, using the law as a dodge and excuse and not even bothering to understand the enormity of the situation. While governor Heineman has probably already forgotten about this meeting, the bodies will keep piling up. That's usually the consequence of white racial apathy.