Went to see The Butler tonight. The movie is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served for some 34 years in the White House. Lest the cranky shut down and not listen, it is only loosely based on Allen's life.
Allen didn't grow up in Macon. His father wasn't killed as a child. He didn't have a son who was an activist, although he did have a son. He retired because it was time, not because he came to see his job as racially patronizing. Yes, yes, Reagan may have had geopolitical rather than racial reasons not to sanction South Africa over Apartheid.
What the movie does portray well is both the situation of black Americans in the middle part of the twentieth century and, implicitly, the benefits of white privilege in America. It portrays the powerlessness of blacks in the early part of the twentieth century in the face of injustice. It shows the ridiculous prejudice of the South and its stubborn insistence on segregation. It shows the obliviousness of whites who were in position not to worry about such things or who even got righteously indignant at "law breakers" like the activists who worked to make it impossible to be oblivious.
"White privilege" can be a difficult idea for a white person like me to grasp because it is not about something that seems "extra" to me as a white person. I may still struggle to pay my bills. I may still have all sorts of challenges of my own. White privilege has to do with how much harder it would be for me if I were black or of some other race in my same shoes.
When I walk into a store or down your average rural American street, I blend in. A Hispanic or a black might get a suspicious look in a similar store. I might be watched, second guessed, profiled. Privilege is not so much about benefits I perceive as extra but about benefits I would definitely perceive if I were black or some other minority.
It is an amazing thing that even Christians can somehow convince themselves that they are standing up for right when "putting others in their place." No doubt many of those in the South thought they were justified in their anger toward troublemakers who refused to follow the rules and get to the back of the bus or use the right seats. It's not unlike the attitude today of some toward illegal immigrants who have broken the law in how they've entered this country. "We're right to tear their families apart because they're lawbreakers," as if Jesus and Paul were big on keeping the law.
The issues change, the attitudes don't. A lot of state's rights talk today is the same old attitudes hiding behind different issues. Don't worry, our grandchildren will wag their heads at us too. The more localized the decision making, the more likely the exclusion and injustice. The more people represented in the discussion, the more likely the fairness and evenhandedness.
I would have hoped that race would have disappeared as an issue by now. In the year 2000 I might have said it was happening. But 9-11 and economic crisis have set us back. People pull back into their cocoons when times are tough. Race seems as charged to me today as it has been since the 70s. I'm hoping it is just the last gasp before whites themselves become a racial minority.
I struggled not to cry as the movie ended. It made me feel the pain of a good man in that era, in those situations. The specific characters in the movie were fictitious, but the people they represented were all too real.