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When I was a seminarian in the 60′s studying at St Louis University I was blessed to live in a house in a low income African-American neighborhood close to the infamous Pruitt Igoe housing project. I traveled nearly daily between the white university and the black neighborhood. One day I was going to an artsy film in a white suburb with my white friends. As we approached the movie theater a strange feeling overcame me. It was a surreal feeling. At the time I did know what it was but now I understand. It was a feeling of white privilege. The contrast between where I lived and where I was got to me.
Much later our family lived in Madison, Wisconsin a fairly white middle class city, we became members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at our Church. As members,our mission was to visit homes of people in need, treat them with dignity and try to help them, if we could, with a voucher for basics like food or clothing. Most of the people we visited were black. I remember working into apartments that had nothing but a T.V. Set. However, I felt comfortable with the people we visited and instantly made friends with the little children. It was like I was walking into another world where everyone was equal. After I left the home I would join the white world.
After I retired some 10 years or more ago I made some friends with people in the African-American community, sometimes driving friends to a doctor’s appointment, working in a community garden or meeting around a community issue. It was then I noticed what I now call white privilege. Many did not have computers at home, most did not have cars and the neighborhoods and in a segregated community that often did not have street signs on the corners’. I started to notice that at certain events, a la cart food day at the Milwaukee Zoo, at sports and music events at my grandchildren’s rural town and a play or musical events the overwhelming majority of people in attendance were white. There is a scattering of Blacks or Hispanics at these events but nowhere in proportion to their numbers. Economics as well as race were in play. Milwaukee is not only the most segregated city by race in the USA but it is the second poorest.
This year I attended a series of workshops sponsored by the African-American Holocaust center in Milwaukee and I found a tag for this feeling of living in two worlds: white privilege. Being aware of ‘white privilege’ has influenced my view of life and brought attention to the racism in myself and our city.
White Privilege in Milwaukee is a major reason, I believe, why Milwaukee is the Worst City for Black Americans. The latest crisis, toxic lead in the drinking water in 70,000 homes in mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods is the latest one ignored or downplayed by city officials. For example in the 95% Black zip code f 53206 19.9 of children, 6 years old or younger have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. The city has committed no money to date to replace the lead lateral water pipes that leach lead into the water yet is spending over $130 million of taxpayers money in just two developments serving the 95% white residents of downtown Milwaukee, a downtown streetcar and sports arena and entertainment district.
If a white privilege area of Milwaukee or suburb had 19.9% of its children 6 and under with dangerous toxic lead levels there is no doubt there would be urgency toward resolving the problem.
White privilege can be a blessing for whites but a curse for blacks. Be careful what you know. You cannot return to ‘normal’ once you are afflicted by White Privilege Awareness (WPA).
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