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My white privilege, my brown grandchildren 

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Those seeking to trivialize institutional racism rely on two dog whistles that are music to the ears of their followers: First, that white men are now a persecuted minority, and second, that being a victim of institutional racism is some sort of highly valued prize.

The New York Times’ Frank Bruni blows both of these dog whistles in “I’m a white man. Hear me out,” a recent op-ed. Encumbered by a sense of neither history nor irony, Bruni laments that “identity politics” excludes white men from conversations about social justice. In fact, Bruni claims that past oppression is a unique competitive advantage, creating “a silly, self-involved realm of oppression Olympics.”

Bruni’s claim that nobody listens to white men on matters of social justice is absurd on its face. Forty-four of America’s presidents have been white men, as are 78 U.S. senators, 41 governors and 70 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. These powerful white men make decisions on matters of social justice for 323 million Americans.

Bruni’s lamentation of “identity politics” is highly selective, including anecdotes involving professors at Columbia and Evergreen State College. He omits the identity politics of our president, who secured office by referring to Mexicans as rapists and promising to ban Muslim immigration.

Bruni’s blithe dismissal of the effects of institutional racism is so common that it hardly merits comment. However, on a more personal level, I cannot remain silent: My family benefits from institutional racism and it terrifies me.

As a college-educated white man, I’m not running in an “oppression Olympics.” In fact, I’m not running at all. I stroll through a society whose rules are written by and for people just like me. In 35 years of driving, I’ve been pulled over exactly once — for doing 85 mph in a 60 mph zone. The officer saw my military ID and let me off with a verbal warning — and a sharp salute. No security officer or sales person has ever followed me in a store; when I don’t need help I dismiss them and they comply. I routinely cite scholarly and classical works, and nobody remarks “how articulate” I am.

My children are fourth-generation legacies of a once all-white elite liberal arts college. They declined this privilege and attended college elsewhere, but I never wondered if they would get into a good school. Their grandparents will leave them a nice inheritance from a small business in an area practicing red line loans.
I never thought of these circumstances as racism; for most of my life I didn’t think about them at all. If I thought about racism, it was of overt discrimination: Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs, segregated buses and lunch counters. I never experienced these things myself; I saw them as part of an ugly but distant past. Segregationists’ apocalyptic predictions of integration’s consequences seemed so ridiculous as to be comical.

One of Connor’s predictions, though, proved both accurate and personal. Connor feared that if black and white kids went to school together, some of them would fall in love, get married and have children of their own. My older daughter married a wonderful young man; I love him as I love my own children. Like them, he is smart and funny, courageous and kind. My daughter is white, and my son-in-law is African-American; together they have three beautiful children. Bull Connor’s darkest fears are the brightest lights in my life.

In most respects, our family life confirms Tolstoy’s observation that all happy families are happy in the same way. We have a big dinner at Christmas and argue over who ate all the leftovers. We attempt outrageously difficult outdoor adventures near our Colorado home; no family reunion is complete without a trip to the ER. Everybody groans at my dad jokes but I know they secretly think I’m really funny.

However, the long shadow of Bull Connor darkens places I once strolled past. I see a routine traffic stop and imagine my son-in-law in Philando Castile’s place. I take my grandchildren to the playground and calculate the age difference between them and Tamir Rice. Terms like “oppression Olympics” turn to ash in my mouth.

Reflecting on the institution of slavery, Thomas Jefferson observed, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Jefferson had the luxury of contemplating the eternal. Like the grandparents of other brown-skinned children, my concerns are more immediate.

I tremble for my family when I reflect that my country is unjust.

Paul Yingling is a retired Army officer, father of four and a grandfather of three. He lives in Green Mountain Falls.

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