The issue of white privilege and black disadvantage has lately gained much-needed attention in American and international media due especially to:
- The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, and
- The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
Two more incidents have also cropped up recently in the news and on social media:
- The fatal shooting of John Crawford III by police officers in a Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, on August 5, 2014, and
- The non-fatal shooting of Levar Edward Jones by police officer Sean Groubert in Columbia, South Carolina, on September 4, 2014 (more on this story below).
In each case, a black man was shot by a white man (or Hispanic, in the case of George Zimmerman).
Obviously, these cases involve racial politics—and they have evoked strong responses from the black community. Whites in America are often blissfully unaware of the double-standard, and often simply assume that race has nothing to do with stories such as these. Meanwhile, black Americans live every day with the knowledge and the fear that they or someone in their family could be unfairly and even lethally targeted simply because they are black.
Though some of the individual cases are complicated, the general picture is clear enough: blacks—especially black men—are often subject to harsher responses from police and other authority figures than whites who are engaging in the same actions.
This pattern of harsher treatment of blacks than of whites is an example of abuse of power. Of course, it is only one of many examples of abuse of power. But since it’s been prominent in the news, it offers an opportunity to look at the bigger picture of why we humans mistreat one another when we get into positions of power over one another.
Hold on. That’s not quite accurate.
Yes, I know, Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But as catchy and oft-repeated as this aphorism is, it’s based on a mistaken idea. Power does not corrupt people as Acton thought. Rather, it is people who corrupt the power. Fortunately, not all people.
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s take a look at the most recent incident-gone-viral of a man getting shot for “driving while black.”