Thinking about privilege

I’ve been thinking about privilege.

Anna, my cousin, who works in Chicago’s inner city school system, said that over two thousand teachers and aides were fired this year. As a specialist, her job, funded by a grant, was on the chopping block. She just learned that her principal found the money to keep her; a valued teacher devoted to the welfare of the African-American kids she serves.

A few years ago she applied for a job at a prestigious private school on the north side, which provided better pay and benefits. She was tempted, not by the money, but the relief from despair. She’s lost count of the number of kids she’s loved who’ve been killed. It was clear that their new hire would be well qualified; whether it was her or another teacher, it wouldn’t make much difference to the kids. The elitism implicit in the hiring process was distasteful. When she said no to their job offer, the principal couldn’t believe that Anna chose to stay in the ghetto.

As Chuck rose through the ranks of the criminal defense system I grew tired of hearing about how new laws made it increasingly difficult for people of color to get a fair trial. Profiling by police was and is a major problem. When the red lights flashed on I-70 he would check to see the person’s color; it was often a person of color and if it was, often the trunk was open and a search for drugs was in process. I became sensitized to prejudicial behavior and now, I too, always look.

The Trayvon Martin case sets the problem of race in full view. When President Obama shared how it felt to see women clutch their purses and hear that click of locks on cars as he walked by–that he could have been Trayvon–I felt furious and sad.
While in a master’s poetry class at the New York Summer Writer’s Institute taught by Frank Bidart, I met a black man enrolled in a nonfiction workshop. A senior in college with a triple major in philosophy, gender and African-American studies, he’s bright and driven. He’s applying to ten graduate schools. When I realized that none of the writers, which included Ann Beattie, Robert Pinsky, Phillip Lopate, Joyce Carol Oates, Jorie Graham, were African-American, I asked him how he felt about that. He said he’s used to it.

Isn’t the fact that we tacitly accept the assumptions of privilege a prime cause of racial inequality? Feeling helpless and in despair over cruel inequities doesn’t help. It will not save one of the 12-14 kids shot dead in Chicago each week. What will? What can we do to make a difference? Having Obama as our president certainly helps. We also need to elect people who share our progressive values. What else?
I hope that collectively we can make a difference, there is that.


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