These actions will not end white privilege but will make us aware of it in our lives, and in the long run give us the more just and humane world we seek.
At Seattle University, we challenge our students to engage in the difficult issues of the day with an open mind, respect differing viewpoints, discern the moral choices involved and act for the greater good.
I took this Jesuit approach to heart after being asked to keynote Seattle’s annual Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast in January. My instructions were as a white person to speak to white people about the system and culture of white privilege in our country, which oppresses blacks.
I have come to view white privilege as the unconscious mindset and behavior of white people in America that favors our well-being, gives us the benefit of the doubt, and supports us disproportionately by education, economic opportunity, legal help and through our view of American history. As Michael Eric Dyson writes in the book “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,” it is as if whites always enjoy a home-court advantage in all aspects of living. White privilege hurts blacks, but also hurts whites in our humanity.
What should whites do to counteract this privilege? I proposed to breakfast attendees not “Ten Commandments” but “Ten Commitments for White America”:
• Reread the true American history, including all the black heroes who built our country and suffered terribly; read that history, not the selective history that we have read, which shores up our privilege.
• Make compensation or reparation in practical ways by providing young black people strong mentors in school, extra financial assistance to attend college and better advice to know how to succeed within education.
• Every white person needs to visit a prison or a jail to know firsthand the black persons who undeservedly and disproportionately are there, and the conditions they live in. And we must lobby to change lengthy sentences and inadequate legal defense for blacks.
• There is a new segregation of blacks in redistricting, which pens blacks within one voting district so that their votes — if not challenged in the first place — do not expand beyond that district to elect many more representative officials. Whites must join the efforts, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to counteract this unjust segregational redistricting.
• More than half of all Americans who apply for jobs get them not only because of their qualifications but also because of who they know and their networks. Whites must go out of their way not just for non-discriminating hiring practices, but to be those persons in companies and part of that network that give blacks in practice equal access to jobs.
• The most segregated morning in America is Sunday morning, when whites and blacks are more apart in their church communities than at any other time of the week. Whites must welcome blacks to their pulpits and go to the places of worship of blacks in order to overcome segregation by religious congregation.
• Whites must show up and be present and protest with blacks in demonstrations such as “Black Lives Matter” — because black lives have not mattered to whites as much as have white lives. Whites should accept black athletes taking the occasion of the national anthem to make visible the injustices they face often daily even as those players honor those who have fought for our freedom.
• Perhaps most of white privilege is for the sake of economic benefit. Whites must look far more clearly and justly at black poverty, its causes and consequences and must put housing, tax and spending measures to the test of whether or not it helps blacks to raise themselves from poverty.
• Whites must counteract always having the benefit of the doubt by giving the benefit to blacks in our daily relations, in listening to their experiences of discrimination, in attending to their voice in American public life and in legal, economic and educational practices.
• Finally, no measure will dent white privilege until whites are changed by real, ongoing, open and fully enjoyed friendships with blacks. All whites must ask themselves how many black friends do I have? How many times have I been in their homes, enjoyed and relaxed with their families and lives, included them in my life? Friendship is the most essential fulcrum for prying loose white privilege.
These 10 Commitments will not end white privilege but will make us aware of it in our lives and lead us to measures that over the long run will give us all the benefit of the doubt we deserve and the more just and humane world we seek.