The armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has been one of those stories.
One of the reasons this story had such a powerful impact on me is because I grew up in the western United States, where battles over public land were far from rare. Although not exclusively, arguments were often between conservationists who sought to protect public lands to preserve wildlife and individuals who wanted land to be privately owned and open for unrestricted recreation (think ATVs) and/or financial gains (e.g. logging and ranching).
It probably comes as no surprise that I often fall on the side of the conservationists. I consider myself lucky to have hiked and camped in some of the most beautiful places in the world--in my home state. Why would anyone want to destroy such spaces which inspire awe and remind us of the more important things in life?
But, my interest in this story has not just been about the politics of land use.
Like many others, I was immediately disturbed by the implications this situation has for the state of racial affairs within the United States. And on this MLK day as I reflect back on a year filled with yet more shootings of unarmed black youth, I find it impossible not to see the unfolding (or perhaps more accurately stalled) situation in Oregon as an example of the way white privilege functions within the United States.
No, I am not saying that the police should barge into the wildlife refuge with guns blazing. I hope that the authorities find a way to end the standoff without any lives being lost. I am saying that police should stop shooting at unarmed black men who are running away. And they should stop shooting black 12-year-old boys playing with toys.
Questioning the terrible racial double-standard on display in Oregon is not about wanting more force to be used there--it is about wanting less force to be used elsewhere.
When I teach about white privilege in my classes, occasionally white students get upset and argue that they do not have any privileges. That they have only been treated in the ways that they deserve to be treated.
What they sometimes fail to understand is that is exactly how privilege works. Yes, some privilege functions like a zero sum game-- a tiny fraction of the population controlling most of the wealth is a type of privilege that means some people are benefiting from the disadvantages facing others. But some forms of privilege are about the ways that everyone deserves to be treated.
In order for women to feel safe walking alone at night, men don't need to feel unsafe.
There is not a limited amount of safety available in the world.
In order for LGB couples to hold hands with their same-sex partner without fear of ridicule or physical threats, heterosexual couples don't need to be threatened.
There is not a limited amount of respect available in the world.
And for the police to stop shooting unarmed black women, men, and children, they don't suddenly need to shoot white men.
The fact that the protesters in Oregon feel confident that they have the right to protest and fight for (their interpretation of ) democracy, that they feel entitled to enter a federal building armed to the teeth is absolutely about white privilege. They trust that the system they live in --the very system they proclaim to hate-- will respect the dignity of their lives.
(And don't even get me started on the entitlement that these white men feel about the land. Land that was home to Native Americans long before white people showed up to claim it.)
EVERY SINGLE PERSON deserves to trust that people in power believe that their lives matter.
It is a privilege in this country to assume that the authorities will do all they can to resolve a conflict peacefully. It is a privilege that should be available to everyone, not denied to some based on the color of their skin.
We must stop treating the dignity of human life as a scarce commodity. Let us instead move closer to The Dream.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.