Anti-racist activist Tim Wise

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Colorblind author weighs in on the ongoing debates over the ideas of a post-racial America and solving racial tension by not talking so much about it.

Tim Wise is one of the most prominent anti-racist activists in the U.S. One of several people featured in the book White Men Challenging Racism, he's trained teachers, physicians, government, entertainment, military and law enforcement personnel on the how-to's of dismantling racism in their industries/institutions and journalists on eliminating racial bias in reporting. He also co-taught a master's class on racism in the U.S. A Nashville, TN native, Wise earned his undergrad degree from Tulane. His books include White Like Me and Colorblind.


Tavis: Tim Wise is a noted author and activist whose previous books include “White Like Me.” His latest is called “Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.” Tim, good to have you on the program.
Tim Wise: Good to be here, thank you.
Tavis: I want to start our conversation by reading a paragraph from this book that I think will set us off to a pretty fascinating start to this conversation, but I also think it does justice to what this book really is and what your work is about. Let me just read from page 20.
“By endorsing colorblind universalism as a solution to persistent inequities, President Obama implies, intentionally or not, that there are no institutional obstacles faced by people of color that could not be weakened or abolished by colorblind policies and programs alone.
“He also implies that whites and people of color face the same set of obstacles and do so on a relatively even playing field. But these notions are so utterly saturated with falsehood that a man as intelligent as he simply cannot believe them, which then leaves only political calculation as the basis for his position.
“Sadly, if President Obama is willing to ignore the pain of race-based discrimination and injustice so as to make whites comfortable, and this after he has already been elected and the campaign is long over, then the likelihood he will ever speak the truth about these matters, let alone address them, shrinks to nearly zero.
“In which case there is no option left but for us to correct the record, and pointedly, before his approach does real damage to the cause of civil rights and racial equity.”
You’ve got to come out of your shell.
Wise: Well (laughs) I need to have you do the audio version of this book, apparently. That was great.
Tavis: You’ve got to stop being so shy.
Wise: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you picked the most deliberate and direct paragraph in the book, but I’m glad because it really is sort of the thesis of the book. It’s not just President Obama. Really, this whole notion of post-racial liberalism, this idea that we can solve racial disparity without talking about race or racism, has a 45-year history at least, going back really to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, adviser to President Johnson, who helped craft some of the war on poverty programs.
He said that we needed to deal with these issues with “benign neglect,” not talk about race so much. William Julius Wilson, sociologist, now at Harvard, formerly at the University of Chicago, said the same thing in the ’70s.
So it’s a longstanding tradition, and what I’m trying to say in this book is that although those programs of universal uplift are good – I don’t know anyone who’s liberal or on the left that doesn’t think we need universal healthcare or more money for schools – but unless we deal with the specific racial and racist reasons for some of the disparities, we’re not going to solve the disparity.
You can’t solve a race-specific injury without talking about the thing that’s causing that injury.
Tavis: But there are a lot of folk watching right now who say, “Tim, you must be on crack if you believe that we live in a racist America. We just elected a Black president.”
Wise: Well, the thing about that – and I understand why people say it – but it would make no more sense to say that than to say that in Pakistan, after Benazir Bhutto was elected in 1988, that girls and women no longer face sexism. No one would be so silly as to have said that there or in Israel or India, Great Britain, all of which have had female heads of state, that somehow their success meant that institutional sexism was gone.
So why are we so quick to assume here that institutional racism is gone simply because of the success of Barack Obama or other individuals of color? That doesn’t speak to the larger systemic reality, which is what I try to talk about in healthcare, housing, employment, education, in the book, with data, with research, most of which has not been talked about in the mainstream press and I think a lot of folks will find surprising.
Tavis: To your point, Tim, about the mainstream press, let me walk through some individuals and some institutions and give you the standard line that I know you’ve heard a thousand times coming from these individuals and institutions, and get your take on them.
Since you mention the mainstream media, it’s the mainstream media more than anybody, to my mind, to my read every day, who has embraced, who embraced so quickly, I might add, this notion of a post-racial America. If I’m right about the fact that the mainstream media couldn’t wait to embrace this notion of a post-racial America, if I’m right about that, why did they jump so quickly to do that?
Wise: Well, they did it for the same reason that a lot of white America – and I say this as a white person, been white a long time, been around white folks a long time, so I’m sort of an insider in that club – and what we have done as a group, collectively, for decades, for generations, is a large number of whites, I would say the majority, have denied the problem, even when it was blatant.
You can go back and look at polling in the early ’60s, when looking back in time retrospectively we all know how profoundly unequal the country was. But in 1962, in 1963, when Gallup asked white Americans, “Do you think Blacks have equal opportunity,” most white folks said yes – 67 percent said yes.
When they were asked about Black kids having equal educational opportunity, 87 percent of whites in 1962 said, “Sure, Black folks have fully equal schooling.” So really, it’s not new. The denial isn’t new. A lot of folks have been ready to proclaim post-raciality for 100 years or more, but the problem is when you have a Black president it becomes easier for folks not just on the right, like “The Wall Street Journal,” which said it the day after the election, but fairly liberal columnists like Richard Cohen or Frank Rich, nominally liberal, to say the same thing.
I think that’s the problem, whether it’s on the nominal left of the spectrum, the center, or the right. There is a widespread rush to proclaim the country post-racial when all of the evidence says that we’re anything but.
Tavis: The country might not be post-racial, but would you agree that it is less racist?
Wise: Well, look, it would be, I think, an insult to the memory of the folks who fought and died in the civil rights struggle to suggest that things have not changed at all. When I look at someone like Representative John Lewis, the day of the election, crying, and someone like Reverend Jackson crying, when folks who have been through and have been in the struggle so long say that it’s a meaningful moment, I’m in no position as a 42-year-old white man to say they’re wrong.
But I think we have to be able to suggest what it does and doesn’t mean, so the fact that we’ve had progress in certain areas doesn’t change the fact that in other areas we’ve had regress. The criminal justice system, for instance – in 1964, when then Civil Rights Act was passed, two out of three folks locked up in this country were white and about a third were people of color.
By ’94, and still today, about two-thirds are people of color and a third are white. That’s not because people of color went on a crime spree and white folks, as my mama might have said, shaped up and flew right. It was because the resources of the justice system were deployed in a disparate way, and so some things have gotten better, some things have stayed similar, and some things have even gotten worse.
Tavis: Professor Michelle Alexander out of the law school at Ohio State has written a wonderful book that – she was on this program not long ago – and she calls our criminal justice system “the new Jim Crow.” Is she right about that?
Wise: I think she is right, and I think the way that the justice system has, in the last 35 to 40 years, operated – and I’ve read her book, it’s fantastic – she really talks about the way that after these formal mechanisms of social control like Jim Crow were technically eradicated, here comes a new mechanism, an informal, perhaps, mechanism, not embedded in law as saying no Blacks need apply or we’re going to lock people up simply because of race.
But the way it is operated, the way the war on drugs is operated obviously has had that consequence. As I talk about in the book, the same thing has happened in the housing market. Housing discrimination has been technically illegal since 1968, the year of my birth, but it was only in the 1980s that any enforcement mechanisms were put into that law, and even today the data says two, three, 4 million cases of race-based housing discrimination against people of color every single year.
Yet when President Obama was running for office, talking about the housing crisis in this country, what was the one aspect he couldn’t or wouldn’t discuss? The race-based discrimination. That is the evidence, I think, that we’re not post-racial. If we were, we could talk about it and we could move on, but we don’t talk about it and so we can’t.
Tavis: To your point about President Obama, whose name has come up a few times already in this conversation that you – it’s hard to avoid when you talk about colorblindness in the age of Obama – let’s just walk through some of these issues right quick.
When the president is asked specifically about Black unemployment, his answer, you know, famously or infamously, is, “A rising tide will lift all boats.” Same answer, by the way, Ronald Reagan gave, that a rising tide will lift all boats. That’s his answer on Black unemployment.
You ask him about education in Black America, he says education reform will benefit everybody in America. We know the disparity between the education – the achievement cap, but his answer is that education reform will benefit everybody. You’re asking about Black folk who are clearly on the wrong end of the healthcare debate; his answer is that healthcare reform will benefit all African-American.
You could walk down the list. You ask him about anything specific, no matter how far and how wide the gap is between Black and white; his answer is that a universal approach will benefit everybody. Why won’t that dog hunt, as you see it?
Wise: Right. Well, the reason it won’t – let’s take healthcare, for instance. A lot of people believe that the reason there are disparities between white and Black folks in terms of health outcomes is just money. Black folks don’t have access, they don’t have insurance. If they did, things would be better. Now, there’s truth in that, but there’s also falsehood.
The fact is even when people of color have health insurance, have good jobs, have decent incomes, they have worse health outcomes. Black women, for example, with college degrees, good jobs and healthcare who had prenatal care all throughout the time of the gestation of their children still have worse outcomes for their newborn children, higher infant mortality, than white women who dropped out of school after eighth grade, don’t have insurance and didn’t have any prenatal care at all.
That’s not about money. What is that about? I talk about it in the book – two things. Number one, the research is clear – unequal treatment by doctors. Doctors are not bigots, but they have implicit, subconscious biases just like everyone and they don’t treat patients equally. Secondly, the research, now 15 or 20 studies in the last decade, find that the cumulative effect of discrimination on black and brown bodies is having a health consequence. It’s called a “weathering effect,” and over time the stress, the anxiety that is caused by racism and discrimination has actual physiological impact.
Universal care is good, but it can’t deal with that. Unless we proclaim racism a public health crisis and start to look at discrimination as a health issue, we can’t solve that problem.
Tavis: So white folks say that this isn’t a racist country, we just elected a Black man president, but then there are Black folk who say, and I love – obviously, you’ve been white a long time, I’ve been Black a long time. I’m a part of this club, so I hear this all the time – “He ain’t the president of Black America, he’s the president of all of America. He didn’t cause the oil spill, he didn’t tank the economy, he didn’t start the wars.”
You get the sense that no matter what the challenges are, that’s why we elect a president, to manage these crises, but Black folk are so, on the one hand, happy about him being president and on the other hand so protective of him being maltreated – let’s be honest about this. There are so many threats on this guy’s life every day.
We saw how the Tea Party and other activists have acted, we saw these Black members of Congress being spat upon and called nigger. We’ve seen the evidence, it’s clear. The Secret Service budget has increased since Obama’s been president.
So what do you say to these Black people who don’t want to push back too hard on him because he didn’t cause all these problems, he’s just doing the best he can?
Wise: Well, the protectionism makes perfect sense, and look, there’s no question that this is a president who inherited an awful lot of problems. But I tend to take the position that our mutual friend, Michael Eric Dyson, has taken and I believe you’ve taken it as well, which is it’s not that we’re asking President Obama to do more than any white president would around the issue of civil rights and racism, but he also shouldn’t be allowed to do less.
The reality is if those of us in the public, and not just him – it really isn’t just his job – if we continue to raise this issue – you’ve done it, I try to do it, lots of folks are doing it – we can continue to push forward an understanding of the way race operates in this country, which leaves him then very little wiggle room to get out of that problem.
I don’t expect him to raise the issue. I don’t expect him to stand up and even do what Bill Clinton did, which was say we’re going to have a national conversation on race, which of course didn’t go very far. But I do expect that when the question is put to him, just like any president, that he will lead on it.
What I talk about in the book that I think is critical for folks to know, white, Black or otherwise, is that the politics of this, this idea that well, the president can’t talk about race because the backlash will be so great, the research actually suggests, and I was surprised by it when I uncovered it, the research says that in fact racism is more effective when it operates subliminally, when you don’t call it out, when you don’t mention it.
Because if white Americans, for example, are able to hide behind a veil of innocence and say, “Oh, my opposition to healthcare reform isn’t about race, no, it’s not that at all,” then they’re able to content themselves with the idea that they’re not doing anything wrong.
The research has found, however, that when people are made to understand the role that race is having on them subconsciously, when you drag it out into the light, when you make it part of the conversation, most people – good news – are good folks. Most people don’t want to hurt other people.
So when you allow them very little opportunity to hide behind that veil of innocence and ignorance, then they will be more likely to act in an equitable fashion. So in fact, the politics of this, based on the research, actually suggested if he would talk about it more, if we would talk about it more, it might have a positive effect on racial amity and racial attitudes and racial progress as opposed to a backlash effect.
The more we don’t talk about it, the easier it is for folks to say, “Oh, it’s not about that – no, it’s not.”
Tavis: Well, if I were part of the Obama machine – I’m not, but if I were, my response, my retort to that would be, “Come on, Tim. If your argument is that we’re not stepping up enough talking about race, we are,” the administration, “we are accused already by certain people of being tribal and we ain’t talking about race in the way you want us to.
Wise: Well, and that’s all the more reason to go ahead and have the conversation. If you’re going to be accused anyway of only pushing healthcare as a reparations for slavery scheme, which is what Glenn Beck has said and what Rush Limbaugh has said, if they’re going to go there anyway, when you don’t fight back, when you don’t respond and take on the issue of race directly, it actually, I think, makes you look weak, and I think it allows the opposition to draw first blood and never have to worry about being pushed back.
Tavis: But it’s one thing for Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to preach that. I don’t think the White House is concerned about that. What happens, though, when moderates, when independents who supported this president start to buy into the notion that he’s behaving in a tribal way, looking out for the brothers and sisters?
Wise: Well, I think that that’s why I’m not suggesting, and I don’t in the book, that President Obama needs to be putting this out in the front of his agenda. I think it’s about what you said. When he’s asked the question about the uniquely Depression-level unemployment in Black America, he needs to say more than rising tide.
He needs to talk about the specific things that are going to be done, not because he’s only going to help Black folks. Obviously, the universal stuff – I don’t know anyone on the left of the spectrum who doesn’t believe in universal healthcare, who doesn’t believe in more money for jobs and more money for schools.
But you also have to deal with the specificity. A lot of the stuff I talk about in the book, the good news is isn’t even about what government has to do. I’d like to see him do more; I’d like to see congressional Democrats do more. But the truth is a lot of the stuff that we in this country can do to move forward the agenda for racial equity we can do in our own lives, we can do with our children.
I’m a father of two little girls. A lot of this is about the conversations we do or don’t have in the home, a lot of it is about what we do and don’t require our teachers to do in their schools, a lot of it has to do with what employers can do, whether or not the government says they have to, to step up and to realize the role that racism continues to play and the role that subtle bias that we all have internalized, according to the research, plays in affecting how we evaluate job applicants, how we evaluate college applicants.
If I am more aware of that, which is one of the things I’m trying to make people more aware of with the book, then I’m going to try harder to make sure that I don’t act on the basis of those internalized biases. The problem is if we don’t talk about those internalized biases, we cannot check them. You can’t check the behavior that you’re not aware of.
Tavis: Assess for me, given your research and the way you study this, assess for me how well or not so well Black leaders are doing the dance with the president.
It’s one thing for the president to not want to touch these issues for whatever reason or to approach it in the way that you and others thing you ought to approach it. He’s the president, but he’s not a member of Congress, he’s not the head of a Black national organization, he’s not running the NAACP, he’s not running the Urban League, he’s not running the National Action Network, he’s not running the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. We could do this all day long.
Assess for me how Black leaders are stepping up to or abrogating their responsibility in the tradition of the freedom struggle to raise these issues no matter who’s in the White House.
Wise: Right. Well, I think they’re in a tough spot and I know some of those leaders. I know Marc Morial, I’ve known him for many years; I know Reverend Sharpton. I know some of the folks who are obviously involved in this conversation, and they’re in between sort of these two polls of on the one hand wanting to have influence, and understandably so, and believing that they will have an audience in a way that they wouldn’t have had with previous presidents.
But at the same time I think the role of the activist – and this is just good history – the role of the activist, whether it’s a Black activist or a white ally acting in solidarity with people of color, is to always push from the outside those on the inside and to remind them of the role of the movement in making progress.
We are right now in this year looking at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and what SNCC proved beyond any question is you couldn’t just sit around and wait for John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson to, quote, unquote, “do the right thing.”
It took people on the outside pushing. Even though those were people relative to Nixon or Reagan who were more favorable to civil rights, they still had to be pushed. I think the same thing is true here.
I also just want to say, though, that it’s not only the role of the Black leaders. It’s important for those of us who are white and who say that we are about something when it comes to civil rights and racial equity to step up as well.
If we take more of the burden on our shoulders to raise these issues, then it becomes easier for Black and brown folks who have always carried the weight, who have always done the heavy lifting, to be able to do that without seeming as if they’re acting only in a tribal way.
Tavis: The flip side of that is, to your point, on the one hand it could be, theoretically, easier for them to do that. On the other hand, the cynic in me says, “If y’all Negroes ain’t gonna step up and say nothing, why should I?” I’m amazed that as white as you are you are as bold and courageous as you are.
You are more courageous, Tim Wise, on this topic than most Negroes I know in the era of Obama.
Wise: That’s very kind of you. I think also –
Tavis: I’m not being kind, I’m –
Wise: Well, you are, whether you know it or not. But I think the thing is it’s also true that I have the luxury of being able to say this without the same repercussion. When I say the things that I say, whether it’s in this book or my other books, obviously I have the luxury of having the privilege and the advantage of being taken more seriously, and –
Tavis: But if truth – not to cut you off, but if truth is not going to be told because you’re afraid of the repercussions, what’s the value of truth?
Wise: Clearly, and that is why I think it’s important for folks to step up. It’s important, I think, for President Obama to tell the truth that he must know is real, because truth is what leaders tell.
That’s what real leaders tell, and one of the stories I start the book with is the first time that most of us became familiar with Barack Obama was ’04, Democratic National Convention in Boston, gives that keynote speech and the line, the biggest applause line, as you’ll recall, was “We’re just not a Black America and a white America and a Latino and Asian America. It’s just the United States of America.”
That’s a great applause line, but that’s the same year that research came out from MIT and the University of Chicago which found that job applicants with white names, 50 percent more likely to get called back than applicants with Black names, even when the qualifications are the same.
I’m sure he’d read the study. He used to teach law at the University of Chicago. I’m sure he’s on the listserv. But yet he still, in spite of that evidence and others, maintained this notion that not that we were aspiring to be post-racial but that we had in fact achieved that.
He obviously knows better, and I think over time, the more you say that kind of thing the more you allow white Americans, who have already been in denial, and some folks of color who are in denial about racism as well, you allow that denial to get deeper, and I think that’s dangerous if we’re going to move forward on injustice.
Tavis: How do you convince other white Americans to speak out progressively about these issues? Because the data’s pretty clear, to your point. You’ve been citing it all night here. How do you convince white Americans to address these issues when they feel that they did their part by pulling the lever for Barack Obama? “I did my part. I voted for this Black man.”
Wise: Yeah, that’s the new “Some of my best friends are Black,” is “I voted for Barack Obama,” right? (Laughter) That’s the new get out of jail (unintelligible).
Tavis: I voted for him, it ain’t my fault.
Wise: Leave me alone, I’m done. (Laughter) I think the thing is, and really there’s some practical interest here for all of us – the truth is, look right now at the housing meltdown. Now, here’s what happens when you don’t deal with racial inequity and racism. Fifteen years ago was the first time that I started reading material about subprime lending, about the predatory loans in Black and brown neighborhoods.
Nobody wanted to talk about that 15 years ago. Mainstream press didn’t talk about it, politicians didn’t talk about it. Why? Because their attitude was, “It’s not my neighborhood, not my part of town, I’m not worried, it doesn’t affect me.”
Fifteen years later, what do we find out? When you allow racial disparity and institutional inequity to affect one part of the country, eventually it’s coming back to get everyone. So now we’re sitting here looking at an economic meltdown that in part was caused not just by deregulation of the financial industry and housing markets and mortgage markets, but also because we did not pay attention to the warning signs because the warning signs a decade and a half ago were only in other folks’ neighborhoods.
So I think the evidence says that if we don’t deal with racial disparity, if we don’t deal with 40 percent Black teen unemployment rates, eventually that’s going to affect white teens too. If we don’t deal with crumbling educational facilities, inadequate healthcare, it’s going to affect everyone.
So the evidence on this says that racial disparity really isn’t just an issue that Black and brown folks have to worry about; it’s an issue that everyone eventually is going to be affected by.
Tavis: As I sit here listening to you spew out the data, which is voluminous, about these disparities that exist even in the era of Obama, with all due respect, I think of the words of Dr. King. King, as you know, often said that you can’t legislate morality.
The point I’m getting at here is you can cite the studies all day long. The data’s there, the studies are there, the evidence is there. So my point is if it were just about evidence, we’d be moving on this stuff.
Wise: That’s it.
Tavis: Obviously, it’s about more than evidence, it’s about more than processing it in our head. It’s about making a heart connection. Since you can’t legislate morality, how do you get traction on this?
Wise: Well, here’s one of the really positive things that I learned doing this research, it actually surprised me, was the evidence from the field of psychology says that most folks clearly don’t think of themselves as racist, even though they have these implicit biases, and when you force people to confront the gap between their aspirations of who they want to be and who they actually are, most people, when confronted with that disparity between their aspiration and their reality, will move in the direction of their aspirations.
So I tell the story in the book, it’s actually an old story, from 1926, the trial of Ossian Sweet in Detroit. African-American physician who bought a house for his family in a white neighborhood, and of course, 1920s in Detroit, the Klan ran that city.
A white mob gathered outside the home, threw rocks at the house. Eventually, someone in the Sweet home fired a gun and there were two white folks hit. One was injured, one was killed. They were all brought up on murder charges.
When Clarence Darrow defended that Black family, went up in front of a white jury in the ’20s in Detroit, looked at them, and said, “I’m going to tell you right now – all of you are prejudiced. You know it and I know it. Don’t try to pretend.” So he called them out.
Now, you’ve got to think, that’s counterintuitive in the ’20s, reminding these white people that they don’t like Black people and your client is Black. But then what he said, he looked at them and he said, “But in spite of that, I expect you to do the right thing and I know you will.”
In other words, he was calling them to rise to the better angels of their nature, and it worked. The Sweets and all those defendants were acquitted. I think if that could happen in the ’20s, if we are bold enough to challenge white America to rise to the better angels of our nature as human beings, then we can also see similar progress.
Tavis: His name is Tim Wise. His book is called, “Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.” I highly, highly, highly recommend the text. Tim, good to have you on the program, and thank you for your work, brother.
Wise: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm