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Guest View: The freedom to be young, white and stupid

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013 5:33 a.m. CST

George Zimmerman’s acquittal triggered a serious discussion about the challenges of growing up as a young black male in this country. A friend (a single mom from Las Vegas whose son is 21) told me that her constant message is to “get home safely,” whatever the circumstances and despite any indignities suffered along the way. This warning is unnecessary in most white homes, except with respect to drinking and driving.

Our national conversation must contrast this sense of constant fear and alertness one experiences growing up black or brown in America with the total absence of those concerns among whites (like me). We face something similar only when we venture into nonwhite environments, which is rare – and, even then, we know that we can always return to “our” America.

I was recently reminded of what “freedom” means for far too many young whites when I took my kids to the U.S.-Panama soccer match at Soldier Field – it’s unfortunately the liberty to be obnoxious in public without concern for consequences. Secure in their majority status, young whites have carte blanche to be, well, young and stupid in a way that minority kids don’t.

We were seated near many young, financially secure white guys, among whom the beer – and colorful language – flowed freely. Misogyny, homophobia and racism (one patriotic young fan told the Panamanians behind him they should be deported, while an aspiring Jon Bolton reminded his enemies that “we built your canal!” and “we own you!”) are still acceptable in these social circles, and full-volume profanity is so common it’s unremarkable.   

Meanwhile, my kids (two are white; one is black) are looking at me with these questioning eyes – why are these guys acting this way? I’ll eventually have the joy of explaining that they’ll encounter similar imbeciles throughout their lives, especially if they choose colleges with an extensive Greek system.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the Latino fans at the game interacted with whites in a way that was almost deferential, as if acknowledging their status as outsiders or “others.”

It would be untrue to argue that this relative freedom leads all white youths to become miscreants, or that its absence dissuades all black and brown youths from misbehavior. But black and brown kids know that certain behaviors (even Trayvon Martin’s clothing) can engender suspicion and hostility, which can quickly lead to tragedy, whereas white youths will be seen as merely young, stupid and harmless –  they won’t be profiled or stopped and frisked.

This is but one dimension of “white privilege,” which most white folks can’t see and won’t acknowledge. They (we) lack the empathy necessary to even question, much less understand, the circumstances in which others have been raised, as evidenced by the hostility showered upon Rachel Jeantel during the Zimmerman trial.

Those who believe that racism is in the past and that opportunities are not shaped by skin color are living in a fantasy world. The reality is that my black child is not as free as my white children when it comes to being young and stupid. As long as that is true, this country will be a weak imitation of what it claims to be.

• John Mehrtens holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and teaches political science at Aurora University. He’s originally from Irvine, Calif., and now lives in Geneva. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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