The Power of White Privilege

ImageThis article originally appeared in The Washington Informer.

A young couple from Virginia sauntered into one of the most secure social events of the season, Tue., Nov. 24, during President Barack Obama’s state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh and his wife at the White House. Along with more than 300 invited guests, Tareq and Michaele Salahi were subjected to multiple Secret Service security clearances. The chic couple posed for photographs with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and mingled with Vice President Joe Biden and other guests at the soiree. The breach in security surfaced when it was revealed that the Salahi’s were not invited to the dinner. Their names were not listed on the official White House guest list. In essence, the couple crashed the party.

All the self-confident duo needed to gain entrance into a state dinner at the White House was a tuxedo, a traditional Indian cocktail dress, attitude and white skin. When they arrived at the Secret Service checkpoint without a printed invitation, they were not detained nor were they scrutinized. No telephone calls were necessary; no further inquiries were needed; just white skin, blonde hair and a Pepsodent smile. Had this occurred at any airport in the country, the Salahi’s would have never made it past the first security checkpoint.

This is the most recent example of White privilege. Had the Salahi’s been African American, or any other ethnicity with a darker skin tone, the Secret Service agent or Marine on duty would have never allowed the couple on the White House grounds simply based upon a “…what do you mean our names are not on the guest list…this is a travesty…obviously your list is not up to date…blah, blah, blah…” or some other self-righteous retort.

In the majority of instances, White privilege is taken for granted. This entitlement has developed over time and has become the norm in American culture. It is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it has become an emotional response. In other words, it’s a given.

Washington Informer - Op/Ed
Racial profiling can work a number of ways. For people of color, profiling works against them because they are targeted by those in positions of power based upon a mistaken belief that they -- particularly African Americans -- are more inclined to be involved in criminal behavior in non-suspect situations. For people of European descent or with white skin, profiling can work to their benefit because they are afforded favorable consideration and deference based upon the assumption that they pose no threat in a particular situation. White people get access; Black people get arrested.

This favorable consideration or deference has developed into a sense of entitlement as evidenced by the Salahi’s expectation that they would be admitted into one of the most secure event in America just by showing up. Even with an African American President in this supposed “post racial” America, no African American would ever expect such unfettered access to the White House. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said, President Obama was never in any danger.

Donovan’s confidence in systems that have been designed to ensure presidents safety are a bit misplaced. The Salahi’s did not go through all the security screenings. Obviously, there was a breach in safety. The Secret Service failed to send them through the “match a person’s name and identification to those on the guest list” part of the process. In spite of the fact that their names were not on the official guest list, they were admitted into the White House and into the same room as the President and Vice President. The first level of security failed. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Yes, in this instance the security measures that have been put in place to protect the President and those who visit the White House failed. Simply because a couple “looked the part” they were given deference and allowed within striking distance and within the personal space of the most threatened man in America.

White privilege is a dangerous thing on a number of levels.

  • Wilmer J. Leon III, Ph.D. is a Political Scientist whose primary areas of expertise are Black Politics, American Government, and Public Policy.  He is a Teaching Associate in the Political Science Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., nationally broadcast radio talk show host, columnist, commentator, political consultant, lecturer, and much sought after motivational speaker.