On the evening of Tuesday, November 24, a young couple from Virginia made their way into one of the most secure events in the country, President Obama’s state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh and his wife at the White House. Like the other 300 plus invited guests, Tareq and Michaele Salahi went through multiple layers of Secret Service security, took photos with Chief of Staff Rom Emanuel and mingled with Vice President Biden and other invited guests. The problem is that the Salahi’s were not invited to the dinner. Their names were not listed on the official guest list or any other list that would have allowed them entrance into the White House. They crashed the party!
All that this couple needed to gain entrance into a state dinner at the White House was a tuxedo, traditional Indian evening wear, attitude, and white skin. When they arrived at the Secret Service checkpoint without a printed invitation and without their names on the official guest list, they were not detained nor questioned. No telephone calls were made; no further inquiries were needed; just white skin, blond hair, the expectation of admittance, and a pretty smile. Had this occurred at an airport the Salahi’s would have never made it past airport security.
This is the latest example of the privilege and expectations of privilege that comes with white skin. 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 this 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 most instances, these senses of expectation and privilege are not planned, they just are. They have developed over time and have become the norms of American culture. They are so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that they are now patterns of action, perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, and emotional response.
Racial profiling can work a number of ways. For people of color, profiling works against them as they are targeted by those in positions of power and authority based upon a mistaken belief that they (particularly African-Americans) are more inclined to be involved in criminal behavior in non-suspect specific situations. For people of European decent or with white skin, profiling can work to their benefit as they are given favorable consideration and deference based upon the assumption that they pose no threat in a particular circumstance. 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 the seemingly 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.
According to Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan, President Obama was never in any danger. “It’s important to note that they went through all the security screenings — the magnetometer screening — just like all the other guests did…” Donovan’s confidence in the systems that have been designed to ensure the presidents safety are a bit misplaced. The Salahi’s did not go through all the security screenings. Obviously the Secret Service failed to send them through the “match a persons 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. They failed for a number of reasons. The written processes and procedures will be evaluated and tightened but it’s the human aspect of this event that should cause the most concern. 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.