White Privilege and Perceptions of Danger

The always perceptive New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, observed in his recent editorial on the aftermath of the Ferguson non-indictment, “[W]hat most people who pay attention to murder statistics understand, is that murder is for the most part a crime of intimacy. People kill people close to them. Most blacks are killed by other blacks, and most whites are killed by other whites. In fact, it is so intimate that one study has found that people likely to be involved in murder cases can be predicted by their social networks.” The issue of different perspectives of black and white Americans on Ferguson have been raised in a number of contexts in recent weeks–a notable one being the Atlantic magazine article by the Public Religion Research Institute‘s Robert Jones on “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Understand Ferguson.”

The question of what produces hatred strong enough to lead to violence and murder is one that people have been asking in connection with a number of recent events–but it is really an age-old question.  I began a conference presentation on the Central African Republic crisis at this week’s American Academy of Religion annual meeting with the competing hypotheses that (a) people either come to hate each other though intimacy and closeness, as Blow proposes, or (b) that they displace their hatred to more remote causes in ways that build fear of an “Other” that remains relatively unknown.  The former is also reflected in Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” approach, which has recently been referenced in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The intimacy hypothesis has proven especially shocking in places like Bosnia and the Central African Republic, where Muslims and Christians, who have lived in recent tranquility for decades all of a sudden erupt into genocidal violence.  But the self-segregation that Jones proposes can also lead to group psychological distortions of the “Other” and differing perceptions of danger.

But the juxtaposition of the Ferguson non-indictment with another important story this week, the revelation of a systematic pattern of rape of students by fraternity members of the University of Virginia, has me asking another question, as well.  Specifically, in contrast to the all-too-realistic fear that many African Americans have of violent encounters with police forces, do white people in America have a tendency to fear things that are comparatively remote and unlikely?

I am thinking here, first and foremost, of the remarkable level of coverage that attended the abduction and murder of University of Virginia student, Hannah Graham, in the weeks preceding the recent rape revelations at UVA.  It was an abhorrent crime that fit the usual fearful stereotype of a stranger rape, trading as well in age-old fears (in the South, of course) of African American women preying on white women. But there were other crimes being committed right under the noses of the officials at UVA that traded in an equally ancient subjugation of women by men. In this case, the perpetrators were well-connected and almost certainly mostly white fraternity brothers, so the response has had to be carefully calibrated and run by risk management officials concerned with scandal more than justice.

There are other things that white people (especially white men) fear, of course.  For over a decade, we’ve been fixated on Al Qaeda. This year, it is the Islamic State. Of course, there are threats there–but how proximate, how salient?  What might we be missing in focusing on these threats that others that are closer to home, especially those that come from within? I am not sure that white people fear differently or fear different things than Americans of other races–but it’s a question that we might need to ask. African American men justifiably fear being shot by police; white people fear someone taking their choice pumpkin at the pumpkin fair. Perhaps instead of a blog on “Stuff White People Like” there should be a blog on “Stuff White People Fear.”

For in a very real way, we are what we fear. If those fears are real and fact-based, they can circumscribe lives in a sort of modern-day, perceptual slavery.  If we fear those who are near us, there are at least commonalities that connect us that can also form the basis of reconciliation and resolution.  But if we fear things that are far away, what might we be overlooking closer to home?  This may be the way that white privilege operates to displace what should be the real fears–of violations of civil rights and civil liberties at home–refracting them and refocusing on fears of the more obvious “Others” abroad.  In this way, we can focus on sex slavery in the Islamic State, rather than rape camps (a.k.a. fraternities) at leading American universities.

A sharp student of mine some years ago introduced me to terror management theory–a growing field of study in the aftermath of 9/11.  It describes the way in which “salience” of our own fragility and mortality causes us to engage in projects of “worldview defense” that involve constructing some as “Others” and especially as dangerous threats.  Does race have something to do with this?  It seems worthy of further consideration.