This post is a reflection on the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and the Rodney King beating. As a white person my views changed with time and I came to realize how the Rodney King beating was racially unjust. Also with me being the first can we have a discussion on white privilege? From being in evangelical churches to moving and living in different parts of the country. This post is how I came to realize that white privilege exists.
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Martin Luther King
But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
1 John 2:11 ESV
Rodney King being beaten by the Los Angeles Police on March 3, 1991. Screenshot from YouTube.
At the beginning of March in 1991 I was in the U.C.L.A Medical Center for some surgery. I have a history of asthma and allergies and along with that came sinus problems. My parents wanted my to have sinus surgery to clean up my sinus issues, my doctor in Fresno was also recommending it. While I was in Los Angeles on the first weekend of March something happened that would change the city’s history. A black motorist by the name of Rodney King was pulled over the Los Angeles Police and while he was on the ground he was beaten by four police officers. If I remember correctly it was on the bottom left hand page of the front page of the Los Angeles Times. And the issue of police brutality and racial injustice became very hot in California. I’m white and when this incident happened my thinking was that if Rodney King obeyed the laws then he would not have gotten beaten. I also interacted with some minorities through sports that I played and they had a very different take. They claimed that an African-American was targeted by the police, and this this happens regularly with the police. This was just caught because it was video-taped. I disagreed and had sympathy for the police officers thinking they have a hard job and that they should be respected. As a white person I sympathized with the Los Angeles Police. In time I would realize I was wrong and I am embarrassed to say this, but it needs to be discussed.
By now you know the story of what happened. On April 29, 1992 a jury in Simi Valley, California acquitted four Los Angeles Police Officers of the charges of assault and three out of the four of excessive use of force. The jury was mostly white and sympathized with the Los Angeles Police Department with their action. That afternoon after the verdicts were announced the riots began in South Central Los Angeles at the corner of 71st and Normandie. At the time I lived in Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley of California and I had some family that lived in the Claremont-Pomona area outside Los Angeles. Most of the violence was centered in the Los Angeles area. I recall being in my home in Fresno and watching the violence on television. There was the beating of a white truck driver Reginald Denny, the city coming to a halt and fires being lit. There were images of Korean-Americans armed with weapons shooting as they tried to protect their businesses. There was the image of California Governor Pete Wilson declaring a state of emergency and signing it on the hood of a police car if I remember correctly. One of my friends from high school attended the University of Southern California and was on the campus when the riots took place. He told me that you could see the smoke from the fires. My reaction to the violence at the time was influenced by the people who I listened to who spoke about the lawlessness, how it was right for the jury to acquit the officers and more. The Los Angeles Police Officers were eventually retried under federal charges and two were convicted out of the four.
As time passed on I have slowly come to realize the injustice that took place in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a sudden a-ha, but a slow, gradual process of realizing the issues when it came to racial injustice. In time I realized that I was wrong and Rodney King was wronged and treated too rough. I hate to say this but there are times that some stray animals can be treated better at times. They can be treated more humanely. This change in my thinking came as my life changed. It occurred as I had different experiences. It came as I realized that life is not as black and white as I once thought. It came as I watched people I know have different experiences in life. Moving and living in different parts of the United States also expanded my thinking. And I also worked to expand my friendships. We have a lot of issues in the United States and we have a large problem with racial injustice which we need to acknowledge and have a frank discussion about. In this writer’s view the first area that we can discuss is that of white privilege,
How My Thinking on White Privilege Changed
White privilege is hard to define. Here is a definition I like which I think captures it well. White privilege is the reality that a white person’s whiteness has come—and continues to come—with an array of benefits and advantages not shared by many people of color. It doesn’t mean that I, as a white person, don’t work hard (I do) or that I haven’t suffered (well, I have known struggle), but simply that I receive help, often unacknowledged assistance, because I am white. Before I continue make sure you read the previously linked article on white privilege. What has taught me that white privilege exists? The following is what brought the issue to the forefront.
- Realizing that many evangelical churches that I was involved in are overwhelmingly white and in affluent suburbs – usually the newer parts of the city. Realizing that many evangelical churches lack diversity even among their staff. Also many evangelical churches do not discuss social justice issues as much. Conservatives scream heresy and many people don’t touch or acknowledge these issues. I recall once my pastor from Wooded Hills Bible Church outside Milwaukee making a startling admission. He said they needed to talk more about poverty and injustice but he knew if he did that some whites would be up in arms and push back hard.
- Moving around the United States and seeing different areas. Growing up in Fresno, California and then attending college in Montana and then living the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. Then finally ending up in the Washington, D.C. area. I have also had the privilege of seeing Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and seeing the inner city and seeing the difference between what I had versus those in the inner city. Some of the inner parts of Baltimore and Philadelphia are horrific. The poverty and drugs you can clearly see. They don’t try and hide it, its in the open.
- Traveling to India and being a minority while in SE Asia was challenging. I remember when I was flying on Indian Airlines once and I was one of the only white persons on the flight. When I was in New Delhi International Airport I had some Afghans and Pakistanis take pictures of me. I was their first white man that they had seen in their life. Being on the other side of the spectrum was eye-opening.
- Becoming a minority at the Smithsonian of the African-American. Its sad that whites avoid this museum. It documents a lot of black history that is also American history. When I attended the Smithsonian of the African-American there was a sea of black people and I was one of the few whites in attendance. For the first time in my life I experienced what it felt like to be a minority. I could see things differently.
- Having a black friend. I befriended a couple of black friends and there were a couple of times I heard some honest talk about the challenges of being black. I appreciated the relationship.
- Realizing that some of the history I was taught was through a white centered lens. It was too narrow and left me asking questions and I spent time reading up on history by myself. Some history books and education programs paint whites as not making mistakes and doing the right things. Some events in history from the Indian Plain Wars and Indian-American Government issues and also slavery has not been told in forthcoming and honest ways. One of the best conversations I had in life happened in a grad school classroom at Marquette University. A history professor who studied and published on Thomas Jefferson spent time talking about how hard it was for him to accept that Thomas Jefferson had a child through a slave. He challenged us to have an open mind about history and facts. He taught us to be skeptical and always inquire. That was some of the best advice I was given in life.
- Distancing myself through toxic echo chambers. I pushed back from people like Michael Reagan and Rush Limbaugh years ago. Meanwhile I still listen to and admire people like Charlie Sykes because they ask questions about truth and information and detest tribalism. To think for yourself is freeing.
- Going through a false accusation years ago that taught me why rape and sexual assault is a problem in the military also affected me. That turned my world upside down and showed what happens when the system does not work as it is designed. Its made me sympathetic to people who experience injustice.
- Becoming embarrassed by those who think they have suffered equally. Watching some people I once knew who are white who claim they have had it just as difficult as blacks. The entitlement that some people have is troubling to see. It leaves me scratching my head.
- Realizing that sometimes blacks or other minorities can get ensnared for something that white people can at times get away with. For example being asked for proof of car insurance and forgetting to place it in the car, and being given a warning. Meanwhile hearing a similar story with a minority and realizing that they were treated rougher.
- Seeing different perspectives on the Civil War. When I lived in California re-enactments were fun and exhilarating. When I moved to Virginia it took a whole different meaning. I remember attending a parade outside Fredericksburg, Virginia and seeing the Daughters of the American Confederacy pass out Confederate flags and posters of Confederate military leadership. It first dawned on me that there were some people who refused to accept the fact that they lost the Civil War. It was 2007 or 2008 and they were still fighting the war and trying to carry it forward. How that segment of whites reacted deeply troubled me. Had I not lived in Virginia my views on Civil War re-enactments would not have changed the way that they did.
- Seeing other double standards apply. For example last month white militia people stormed the capitol in Lansing, Michigan fully armed and loaded with weapons. It was a troubling sight. I remember hearing about it and asking myself what would happen if a black man armed stormed the capitol in a similar manner. He would no doubt be arrested or shot.
Let’s Start a Discussion on Race By Acknowledging White Privilege
So here is my request. As we watch many cities experience racial unrest can we begin to discuss white privilege? This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Its not a Christian or atheist issues. Its not about redistributing wealth or more. Its about acknowledging that some of us – myself included – have benefited from white privilege. Can we change the conversation and start to discuss this and allow African-Americans the ability to speak up and speak their mind. You will hear different perspectives on racism or slavery and economic injustice. This is a conversation that we can not afford to delay. Its long overdue. I know this post may be hard for some to read. Others will dismiss it. But this post is not about nagging or playing down anyone’s importance. But in our culture, and in religion this is a topic that needs to happen. Can we start? In reflecting on this topic I will step forward with this post and bring forward my thoughts on white privilege.