Our Past, Our Privilege, Our Transgressions

Erica-MajumderErica Wunderlich Majumder, Olin Fellow, Washington University Graduate Student, Chemistry

Today there is great pain in my city. A long-simmering pain that has boiled over in recent weeks.

St. Louis is a very segregated city; not legally enforced, of course, but very segregated. We’ve had a sad, long history of racism and segregation. The very founding of Missouri was based on a compromise to extend slavery. St. Louis is also home to the Dred Scott case, which denied a freed slave freedom, and, well, things haven’t changed much in terms of race relations since then. There were race riots around 1910, and the post-WWII “white flight” to the suburbs left St. Louis, along with several other cities in America, devastated. Unofficial lines were drawn along economic status, which tends to follow racial status. The cycle of poverty is hard to escape, even with prosperity, integration and peace a couple miles away. In St. Louis, a few blocks can feel like a whole new planet, and it is immediately obvious when you’re the alien.

I’m a white girl from an upper-middle class white suburb of St. Louis. I went to public school and thanks to the “Voluntary Transfer Program,” a.k.a. desegregation measures still in effect from the 1950s, I had many classmates who were black and from the inner city or North County. I never really noticed or was aware of it until high school. Suddenly, there weren’t any VTP kids in my honors classes like there had been before and the 11-girl brawl in the English Hallway didn’t have one white girl in there. Anyway, I could tell stories of visiting schools in the inner city or driving my friend Fred home from the PSAT to a neighborhood where he warned me not to stop at the stop signs so I wouldn’t get shot, but I think you get the point.

My life was a lot different than the VTP kids’. I can’t control the fact that I was born to a white family with money, but I can acknowledge something rather taboo around here: white privilege. It is not legislated privilege, but it is real, it exists and it has helped me get to where I am today. Race relations in the U.S. would take a huge positive step if white people acknowledged our privilege and thought about what life would be like without it. Personally, I’ve done some reflecting on this after experiencing racism myself. I married a man from India and quickly learned that even in the 2010s, not everyone is okay with interracial couples. Getting to know him and his life experiences, I began to see how and where white privilege was in my life. I now live in a middle class, well-integrated suburb very close to the city. It’s better here, but white privilege still exists.

One aspect of white privilege is believing and having it actually be true that the police are your friends and that they are there to protect you. Police brutality, profiling or racially charged police shootings are sources of pain in my city today. Yet another unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by police in an ambiguous or seemingly innocent situation. Gangs and gun violence and violent crime are big problems in my city. Racial unrest from decades of enforced and unenforced segregation is a problem. The FBI is investigating this shooting so I can’t say exactly what happened, but enough is enough. We need to end the war on the young black male. They are being shot in our streets and rotting in our prisons. They are abandoned by our education system and ignored by opportunity. Peace and justice are needed here.

After a peaceful protest calling for justice, violent and selfish riots broke out – looting stores and leading to more shootings. I by no means condone these violent acts. They are no better than the first act of violence and do not redeem the community. This behavior, in fact, sets back efforts to achieve justice in the situation because people have retaliated with violence.

My city needs to acknowledge our past, our privilege and our transgressions. We only have success when there is victory for the least of us. Let’s put down our weapons and really make justice for Michael Brown by healing the racial wounds in this city and living in an integrated and peaceful tomorrow.

  • John Reynolds

    The most amazing thing about this whole situation is how seemingly intelligent and rational people have lost their ability to think objectively. Even one of the most esteemed universities in America has set aside rationalism and objectivity in favor of emotionalism. Why are we talking about “white privilege” here? We don’t even know what happened yet! Either Michael Brown was unjustifiably murdered, or, had he survived his wounds, would likely be tried, convicted, and sent to prison for committing robbery, assaulting the store clerk, and aggravated battery of a police officer. We simply don’t know which it is. As for Officer Wilson, either he needs to be criminally prosecuted, or he needs to be honored for risking his life protecting the people of Ferguson. We simply don’t know yet which it is. Is there a downside to allowing the Constitutional process to work through this?

    • Erica Majumder

      Hi John,
      Thank you for taking time to read my essay, however, I feel you have missed the major point of my discussion. My essay is not about white privilege in the Michael Brown case, but my own experience of race in America and the city I grew up in. The FBI and the county and others are rightfully investigating the case. I have no qualms about the ability of our justice system to work dutifully and diligently in this case, as any other.

      White privilege and America’s deep issues with race are long standing society wide problems that have existed for centuries. My essay is my own personal reflection and beginnings of a grappling with what white privilege means to me personally and how it has affected my life. I hope that by publicly sharing my reflection it can be a very small step in unwinding the complicated issue of racial inequality in America and an invitation for others to reflect on what it might mean in their lives. I look forward to an American society where all people have equal opportunity.

      • John Reynolds

        I’m sorry Erica, but I didn’t miss your point. You are attempting to use Michael Brown as a gateway into a discussion of your “white-guilt,” not your “white privilege.” Michael Brown likely has nothing to do with racism. Discussions of white-privilege feel good, but as is typically the case, I don’t see a single solution in your essay. Those who are privileged in this country are those who get an education, work hard, and get back up each time they are knocked down, regardless of their color. The minute they call themselves a victim they have lost the ability to become part of the privileged class. Slavery is not the greatest transgression of white America. Affirmative action is!

        • Joshua Ott

          Solutions are not necessary elements of criticism. The point of the essay is to reflect on how she viewed stark differences between the educational performance of herself, a rich white-girl, and that of her peers in what appears to be high school. She also suggests that this could come from things like in-school fights and after-school home environment.

          To say that getting shot at after school or physically attacked during school can be so easily set aside seems either pitifully naive or hopelessly callous. These things do affect individuals, even strong-minded individuals, ability to avail themselves of educational opportunities whether we like it or not.

          Since race can be kind of distorting, let’s remove it from the equation for a second, and instead focus on the fear of physical violence. Compare a student, like Erica, who probably had a stable home-life and (mostly) safe school environment with a hypothetical student, Sarah, who is both bullied at school and abused at home. Sarah is going to have a much harder time focusing on class in school and doing her homework. This will greatly affect her ability to get an education. Even if Sarah is pretty tough and manages to graduate high-school despite the odds, she will probably have worse grades then someone like Erica who didn’t have to deal with junk like that. It’s not really Sarah’s fault, and no one blames her for it (or should), but Sarah will probably go to a worse college (if she goes at all) and might end up with a worse trajectory in life because of the challenges she faced as kid.

          All Erica seems to be saying in this article is that people who face Sarah’s challenges have a really hard time, and that Erica’s life was comparatively much easier. So, I don’t understand where your fear of acknowledging that simple thesis seems to come in. Until, of course, we add race back into the equation and realize that, somehow, because Sarah isn’t black we should care more.

          • John Reynolds

            Who’s Sarah?? And what is there to acknowledge about some people having harder lives than others?? There are affluent black neighborhoods in Chicago and Atlanta where kids go to private schools. Compare those to the poor white rural areas of Illinois and Georgia. So what? That’s called reality. What does Michael Brown have to do with that reality?? Those blacks are affluent because they refused to succumb to the “I am Ferguson” mentality. They instead went to places like Wash U and embraced American culture and opportunity, rather than condemn it as “white privilege.” If Erica feels guilty about being white upper-class, she should take a drive up the north shore of Chicago.

          • Tracy Collins

            The problem you don’t seem to want to understand is that some people have harder lives because other people have rigged the system against them. If everyone’s bootstraps were the same length to begin with, then you might make sense. But they aren’t, and you don’t. The analogy would be that there’s no hunger in the world because you just ate lunch.

            It is remotely possible that your background does not give you the ability to see things or understand things that you have not experienced? The fact that you seem to believe that with enough hard work anyone can become affluent is proof of a very limited (and very privileged) worldview.

          • John Reynolds

            Black America’s worst enemy are people such as yourself who endeavor to keep them victims of white privilege.

          • That_Mikifiki

            John, I would love to hear your thoughts on this article: https://voices.wustl.edu/why-i-fear-for-my-sons/

            I’ll see you over there.

        • Frank Wheeler

          “Slavery is not the greatest transgression of white America. Affirmative action is!”

          Oh, dear. Reads like something off of Stormfront or worse. Who is approving this guy’s comments?

  • Michelle

    I can tell you that if I, being a white, middle-class female, were to rob a store, assault a store clerk, assault an officer and try to take his gun, I wouldn’t expect to live through it. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. That’s not racism. I think idolizing Michael Brown is the soft bigotry of low expectations – we can’t expect any better behavior because they are not capable of it. I, for one, am not buying it. That’s not because I’m a racist. That’s because I’m not a racist.