White Privilege in Do The Right Thing

Taking for granted what Black Americans must fight to attain

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) unfolds in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (aka “Bed-Stuy”) neighborhood of Brooklyn on a hot, summer day. The camera documents racial tensions between residents as the film’s protagonist Mookie (played by Spike Lee) delivers pizzas for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria throughout the neighborhood.

While the film commentates on various aspects of racial politics in America, this piece will focus on two instances of its portrayal of white privilege. Spike Lee uses the white characters of Sal (Daniel Aiello) and Clifton (John Savage) to define privilege as being able to take for granted that which others must fight to attain.

“Get your own place”

Within the microcosm of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria represents the white establishment. The story’s central conflict arises when Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) demands that Sal put up pictures of famous African-Americans on the restaurant’s “Wall of Fame.” Sal refuses, intent on keeping the wall plastered with the portraits of Al Pacino, Frank Sinatra, and other Italian-American celebrities.

Screen capture from "Do the Right Thing"

While Sal’s ownership of the restaurant does give him the prerogative to decorate however he wishes, this refusal also comes off insensitive toward the customer base whom he has profited from for 25 years. His customers are 100% black, yet he refuses to put a single African-American image on the wall.

To an extent, his profit has been exploitative. Sal admits to his son Pino (John Turturro) at one point that competition is too tough in their own neighborhood—he maintains his business in Bed-Stuy because he holds a monopoly here. In a more competitive business environment, Sal would have to cater to his customers’ requests in order to keep their business; however, he is unchallenged in Bed-Stuy, and local residents have no choice but to eat here and accept his rules.

Although this issue may seem trivial, it gains significance when one notes how the nature of this conflict reflects American society at large. Black Americans are disenfranchised, and the white establishment extracts profit from them while ignoring their demands. Every advancement that black Americans have made has required a degree of acceptance, permission, and cooperation from white rule-makers—whose interests always misalign and often conflict with the interests of black rule-takers. Sal setting the rules in his pizzeria represents the way in which white Americans make the laws that govern this country.

Screen capture from "Do the Right Thing"

Peer through this lens, and one can see the ridiculousness of Sal’s advice for Buggin’ Out to “get [his] own place.” If given a choice, many African-Americans may opt to establish their own country and make their own rules, but they do not have this choice. Most of them did not even come to this country by choice. Instead, they must live with the rules of the white establishment and demand for the white rule-maker to compromise.

Likewise, Buggin’ Out cannot simply start his own restaurant in order to see an African-American Wall of Fame. He does not ask for every picture to be of a prominent black figure—he merely asks for representation, a seat at the table, or some semblance of equality. When Sal refuses, it is with a callous failure to recognize the competitive edge he posseses as a white business-owner. It is in ignorance of how the mere color of his skin has afforded him an easier path to entrepreneurial success.

“A man can live wherever he wants”

Conspicuously donning a Larry Bird jersey, a white bicyclist by the name of Clifton exhibits a different facet of white privilege when he bumps into Buggin’ Out and scuffs his Air Jordans. When Buggin’ asks him why he moved into this black neighborhood, Clifton responds by citing his freedoms as an American:

Screen capture from "Do the Right Thing"

We know, however, that an accurate version of this statement requires a qualifier: a white man can live where he wants. For black people, this country is far from “free,” and various laws and practices have specifically prohibited them from taking up residence in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Take racially targeted covenants, for example. These contractual conditions are embedded within property deeds and explicitly prohibited the sale or leasing of property to African-Americans and other “undesirable” minorities. Such covenants were commonly used throughout America to keep white neighborhoods white.

Another barrier is zoning, the practice of dividing municipal land into “zones” in which different land uses are permitted or prohibited. City planners set rules like maximum density regulations in white-inhabited zones to enforce segregation: enforcing a lower population density will artificially inflate home prices, keeping home values high and black people out.

Through the practice of redlining, local governments and businesses could deny services to residents of specific neighborhoods or communities. A bank, for example, may routinely loan money to lower-income white households but refuse to loan to middle and even upper-income black households. Clifton can buy a brownstone, and Sal can start a restaurant, but even a well-off African-American with a spotless record could find it difficult or even impossible to obtain a mortgage or get a loan to start a business.

With these practices (and more), city planners, legislators, and land owners have prohibited black Americans from advancing themselves and taking up residence in various neighborhoods. Clifton’s statement cites a right to freedom that America claims to provide its citizens. What he fails to recognize is how the powers that be have systematically restricted African-Americans from enjoying this liberty.

When Sal tells Buggin’ Out to get his own restaurant, and when Clifton tells Buggin’ that America is a free country, neither man is intending any harm. These statements, however, assume an equal playing field between all Americans that simply does not reflect reality. Stating one’s access to agency and liberty without having to consider how the color of one’s skin can permit or prohibit that access—that is what it means to have privilege.