Presenter: Tim Wise
Tim Wise is among the most prominent antiracist writers and educators in the U.S., having spoken in 49 states, and on over 500 college campuses. He has trained teachers as well as government, corporate, media, entertainment, military and law enforcement officials on methods for dismantling racism in their institutions.
MICHAEL TINO: Good afternoon everyone. It is so good to see you all here. It is so good to see the people who will still be coming in, because it's now 2:45. And I want to start on time so we can have as much time as we can to hear what Tim has to say.
My name is Michael Tino. I'm the minister of the Youth Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco, New York. And I'm also the president of Allies for Racial Equity. And in that role it is my great honor and privilege to be here to introduce Tim Wise today.
Before I do that I want to tell you—just 10 seconds—about what Allies for Racial Equity is. ARE as we are known, was formed six years ago in response to a request by DRUUMM, our UU organization for people of color, Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries.
And DRUUMM said, we need a group of white, anti-racist allies working with us as partners. And from that charge, Allies for Racial Equity was born. We do a lot of things and we just have a newly elected steering committee. We're having our annual membership meeting this Saturday at 1:45-2:30, in Room 103 downstairs.
And all of you are welcome whether you're members or not. And we encourage you to stop by our booth in the exhibit hall—it's next to DRUUMM's booth—and pick up information on membership and on how you might get involved. And leave us your names if you might like to get more involved in Allies for Racial Equity.
ARE is also the primary sponsor of this major program, with generous assistance from the GA planning committee, who gave us a grant to help bring Tim Wise here today. If you're here waiting to hear Tim speak you probably know who he is, and he needs very little introduction to you. He's probably one of your heroes in this world. Tim Wise is a noted anti-racist activist, speaker, author, and educator. He tells us things that we need to hear. And for those of us who are white or of European descent, there are things that the privileged—that we are—given in this society, often makes it hard for us to hear.
And even harder for us to hear from people of color who try again and again and again to tell us these things. But part of the work of being white, anti-racist allies, is educating one another in what it means to be white, to live with privilege in this world, and what it means to dismantle privilege in this world. And that is the work that Tim does in his own unique style.
And so without further ado, Tim Wise.
TIM WISE: Thank you very much. It is an honor, really, to be here. And I know there have been a lot of folks who have been trying to make this happen for several years. And finally it has. And so I hope that when we're done with today, that will be seen as a positive rather than a negative thing. And something that has contributed to the overall event here at your general assembly.
It is nice to be here. I am actually fresh off the beach. That's why I'm not as vampire white as I usually am in terms of my skin tone. I have more melanin activated in my skin than is normally the case because I've been on the beach.
Actually sort of glad to get off the beach—I'm not a beach person really—I'm really much more of come and speak to you in a nice room like this kind of person. And leave the beach for my kids, and my wife, and extended family. So as much as I want to be with them, I'm really actually, really good with being here with you. And I'll get back to the 95 degree heat, and the sand, and all that good stuff tomorrow.
In the meantime, I want to take an opportunity to speak with you about this moment. And I don't mean this moment right now, obviously. But I mean this larger, political and social, cultural moment in which we find ourselves. And every time I go down this path, I am reminded of a video clip that you can find, if you're so inclined, on YouTube.
It is a clip from I believe 1963. And it was a clip in which Kenneth Clark, the famous psychologist, interviews James Baldwin. Who is to my way of thinking, and it may only be my opinion—but if so, I would ask you to think harder because it should be yours—the finest writer ever to put pen to paper in any language, let alone English.
And in 1963 when Clark was interviewing James Baldwin right around the time that the Fire next time was published, he asked him this question—asked James Baldwin—are you an optimist or pessimist? How do you size up the nation's racial predicament in terms of hope or the lack thereof?
And Baldwin answered as only he could. Of course first he took a drag off a cigarette. Because you could still do that in a television studio. So both he and Kenneth Clark were smoking. It was just a constant fog of cigarette smoke.
And Baldwin took this long drag off his cigarette, looked into Kenneth Clark's eyes, and by extension into the camera. And he said, well, I guess if you ask me that question, I'm an optimist because to be a pessimist is to conclude that life is but an academic matter.
I'm an optimist because I am alive. And on the one hand it seems utterly simplistic far beyond and really beneath the level of amazing intellect that Baldwin was so famous for. And yet at the same time, it's quite profound when you think about it.
Life is not an academic matter. It is the thing—and he was trying to tell us this—as were so many of his compatriots at the time, life is the thing that allows us to struggle for justice, that allows us to seek out for ourselves and for others, a measure of our own humanity. A humanity that is actively in the process of being crushed every day within a social order that has long relied on the oppression of others and long relied on inequality. There is redemption in the struggle that is made possible by life.
And that is what Baldwin was speaking to. We know, or at least we should, know that life is not an academic matter when we are reminded of its fragility as we were 47 years ago on yesterday. When James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, went missing outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, to be found several weeks later in an earthen dam outside of the city. Killed by Klan members who happen to moonlight as local law enforcement, and saw them as a threat as indeed they were, to the established order of white supremacy.
They, meaning Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and all the other folks—mostly folks of color—who died not only in Mississippi, but across this country and across the nation, in the struggle for racial equity, remind us of the dangers of going down this road, but also of the hopefulness of going down it.
Hopefulness of the fight for racial equity and social justice. And although very much has changed for the better, in that 47 years, a lot has not. And even that which has changed for the better, poses for us now significant challenges which have brought us to a sort of fork in the road down which path it is not all at all clear which we will choose.
We are at a time of transition. It is both dangerous and incredibly portentous for us, for you as a denomination. But more importantly I suppose for those of us in this country and around the world, as human beings, trying to eke out a measure of humanity and decency amidst quite a bit of inhumanity and indecency.
This time of transition particularly in this country with regard to race, is dangerous because there are as I see it four pillars of white anxiety if you will. Sort of a perfect storm for white anxiety, fear, resentment, and if we're not careful, white racism, that are brewing all at once. Any one of them alone would be sufficient to give us a challenge. But all four together make it a very dangerous moment.
The first and maybe the least important of the four, is the election of a man of color as president. Now for those of us in this room, perhaps that's not all so difficult to get our heads around. But let us not deceive ourselves. There are millions of people for whom that is a difficult pill to swallow.
The notion of leadership which for decades has been exercised almost exclusively, if not exclusively, by white men has been challenged by the election of one who is not only of color but whose name is somewhat exotic. And who spent part of his childhood outside of the United States. My goodness what kind of person does that?
He grew up in Kenya. No, no, no, not Kenya. Indonesia. No, no, no, not Indonesia. Hawaii. Is that even a state? I mean you and I may know that it's a state, but let us not forget it is seen as exotic not only to those on the right but even those who were on the nominally liberal left.
Remember it was Cokie Roberts, a lifelong Democrat, daughter of a former congresswoman, and before her mother had that seat, her father had that seat in Louisiana. Who during the election of 2008 said what, when Barack Obama, then a candidate, decided to go to Hawaii to surprise, surprise, visit his grandmother who was on her deathbed?
And she said into the cameras on one Sunday morning with no sense of irony or misgiving, that that was the wrong signal for him to send to the American public. Going to visit his dying grandmother was the wrong signal, because that amounted to a vacation in Hawaii which is not really American.
He should instead go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where real Americans go for vacation. Which is to say that even this nominally liberal spokesperson within the chattering class, within the American media cognitariat, if you will. That is a word that I created. Feel free to use it.
Even she is capable of going down that road of white normativity, which assumes that her experience is a normative, universal one, because the real Americans go to Myrtle Beach. I know which Americans go to Myrtle Beach for vacation. They are not by and large black, they are not by and large brown, they are not by and large people of color, but they are the white folks whose Americanness has always been taken for granted.
And so we have a president whose Americanness has not been taken for granted. Who's been questioned consistently because of his name and his background. He had a African father, not even an African American father, I mean one straight off the continent. Oh my goodness. Must have been involved with the Mau Mau Revolution. Actually the wrong side of Kenya, but that's OK, we don't know anything about Africa.
My guess is if you quizzed most Americans when the Egyptian uprising happened a couple of months ago, and told them that Egypt was in Africa, they wouldn't have known that. That's how little we know. We think Egypt is in that subcontinent, or that new continent we created call the Middle East, which is conveniently not recognized as Northern Africa. Which is really what it is if we're talking about topography, and geography, and climate, and all of that.
But we can't make the Middle East Africa and I think you know why. If you don't, think about it, help your friends. It's got a little something to do with race and divinity. I'll leave it at that.
So here we are with a president of color challenging white normalcy in terms of who is capable of exercising leadership. But honestly that's the least important of the four. The second one is the economic meltdown with which millions of people are facing. For 75 years, three generations, white America as a collective unit, has not witnessed this kind of insecurity for ourselves. I'm not saying individual white folks. Individual white folks, of course, in every generation find themselves unemployed, or find themselves struggling, to find themselves poor, but I'm talking about white America as a collective entity in the data, has not looked at double digit unemployment since the Great Depression.
On the other hand, that ain't new for everybody. Double digit unemployment is not new for black folk, it is not new for Latino folk, it is not new for southeast Asian or indigenous Native North American folk. It is absolutely normative day in and day out ever since they started keeping data. But now that white folks are facing it, people are freaking out. We got to have a commission, we got to have a congressional hearing, we might need to have a stimulus bill.
When double digit unemployment was common in black and brown space, we didn't have a stimulus bill. When black teenage unemployment hit 42% nine years ago, we didn't have a stimulus bill. But now white folks are freaking out because our notions of economic security and normalcy are being shaken. So on the one hand you've got the black president shaking certain concepts of political normalcy.
Now you've got that economic meltdown shaking concepts of economic normalcy. People of color are always knew hard work wasn't enough. See but millions of white folks really believed that. All you got to do is work hard. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Come in early. Leave late. Work hard. Work 50, 60 hours a week. Do more than the boss tells you. Do everything right. Play by the rules. Stay in school. And everything will be fine.
White America, by and large, have the luxury of believing that lie. People of color never had that luxury. So now white folks are freaking out because our whole concept of our country, of our culture, of our nation, is being challenged by the reality of what we're seeing. We have no context within which to place this. Black and brown folk do. It's not new for them. It's just a more extreme version of everyday life.
But for white America, it challenges our sense of normalcy. The third factor, the popular culture utterly transformed even from 15 or 20 years ago. Growing up most white Americans, particularly if they're my age or older—I'm 42, will be 43 in October—they're my age or older, grew up in a culture that pretty much reflected us with a few smatterings of other people. Sammy Davis, Jr. Handful of folk of color.
But for the most part, white folks grew up in a culture where the popular culture icons, the actors, the musicians, the icons of popular culture, looked like them. Reflected their background. And now we got this multicultural, popular culture so interwoven you can't even pull one strand out of it without making the whole garment come apart.
Hip Hop for instance has influenced all of American culture—not just black and brown culture, white culture, all the youth culture—we have an entire generation of young people regardless of race, growing up in a culture where that kind of interrelationship and multiculturalism is taken as a given. And for some folk, they don't know how to get their head around that. What? You mean Cee Lo is on a television show with Blake Shelton? What? How does that work?
I live in Nashville and the news a couple months ago, Rhianna was coming to town to cut some record in a recording studio in Nashville with some country music producers. What? That dude from Hootie and the Blowfish is now a country music star. What? That's crazy. People don't even know how to make this make sense. So you now have a cultural normalcy that was taken for granted by the dominant group and no longer can be. Sort of freaks people out, particularly when you add it on top of the economic shifts, and the presidential shift.
But now the fourth one of course is the biggest of all, the demographic shift. So within about 30 years we know if we've been paying attention at all for the last 10 or 15, that in about 30 years, maybe less, half of the country's population will be folk of color, half will be white roughly. Already in five or six states that's already the case.
And I know there's some folks who don't much like that, but there's not much they can do about it. I know there's some white folk in Arizona not too happy. You all get to talk to them next year, that's my understanding. [APPLAUSE] There's some white folk in Arizona not very happy about that. Not much they can do because one thing I know about white folk in Arizona, now I don't mean this to be ageist, it's just a matter of fact, the average age is about a 137. So all we have to do is be patient and do some decent organizing and it'll all work out.
And by the way, please do not tweet for those of you who do, do not tweet that Tim Wise advocated the genocide of old white people. Because every time I say this, that's what some fool says. He advocated killing off old white people. He is his own death panel. No I did not say that. I don't advocate killing anybody. I just know that people die. Some sooner than others.
So I understand the way generational flow happens. I'm just making a statement of fact. I'm not adding any kind of judgment to it, I'm just telling you sort of what is. And so the reality is that in 30 years or so, half the country will be white folk, half will be people of color. And there are some folks not ready for that because it means what? That they're very sense of what an American is, is being challenged.
Because for all of these years those of us who were white had the luxury, the privilege if you will, of being able to look at ourselves and see the prototype of the American. So much so that if I said, hey let's do word association—All-American boy, All-American girl. What do you see? If you're being honest with me, you're going to tell me historically, that you saw a white person. And by the way, not just white folks would say this, people of color would say this, too.
Now all of a sudden that's being challenged a little bit. Now like the All-American boy or girl in 20 or 30 years might be a Latina, might be someone who is Muslim from that place we call the so called Middle East, might be an Asian American, might be Lao, might be H'mong, and all of a sudden these people who got to assume that they were the definition of an American, have to share that designation with folk that pray different, look different, have different cultural heritages, and customs, and values, and traditions, and wow, for some people that is scary.
Because what it does, all of these four things combined—the presidential leadership shift, demographic shift, economic collapse, pop culture shift—all of those things combined, challenge white normalcy and challenge the dominant narrative about race and nation that we've grown accustomed to in this country. They all challenge the notion that we know what this country is. You see folks, white folks have had the luxury of believing the United States was a white country. James Baldwin told us almost 50 years ago that it never had been. And it certainly wasn't now.
People of color had been here before white folk ever got off the boat, that's for certain. So we'd always been a diverse place. Diversity never created equity that's why I don't talk about diversity much. I'm not interested in that. Diversity is fine, but unless we have equity, it doesn't really amount to much. We've always been a diverse nation, we always had people of color here, had several hundred indigenous nations of all types of different customs and color shades on the continent before we ever got off the boat.
Hell we had Africans on the continent before most of us got off the boat. Because the Spanish brought and dumped a group of Africans off the coast of what is now South Carolina in the late 1500s—well before Jamestown, long before the Mayflower. So even African people were here before English folk and Scottish folk like my family were. And certainly long before that Russian Jewish side of my family got here in the early 1900s. But they've always had to fight and scrape and claw and lobby and demand inclusion in that definition of that thing called an American while other folk got to take it for granted.
And so now, when all of that is being challenged, that white normativity, that narrative of who we are as a country being challenged, folks are not always ready. And in response, they become anxious. Signs of that anxiety are all around us. We have a political movement that has decided to elevate nostalgia to the level of religious sacrament. That it elevated nostalgia as a political organizing tool to the sort of pinnacle of their own ideology, this tea party, which is funny, right, that they choose this imagery. Really it is hilarious because these are the very same folk that tell people of color to get over the past.
If you don't see the irony in that, look up the definition of the word, irony. I know we as a nation don't really know what that word means. I know this because that's why that Alanis Morissette song could be a big hit like 15 years ago. That "Isn't it Ironic" song. Some of you all don't remember that. Some of you all do. It was a song about irony. And not a damn thing in the song was ironic. It was just a bunch of really crappy things that happen from time to time. And she says, isn't it ironic? And no, it wasn't. But it was a big hit.
So I know we don't know the definition of the term. But trust me when I tell you, when you have people running around in Revolutionary War costumes, tri-corner hats, powdered wigs, carrying muskets, and telling black folk, you all need to get past the past. That's irony. That's like the walking, talking, working definition of the term, man. Get past the past. Meanwhile, I'm going to put in my wooden teeth and walk around with a Don't Tread On Me flag. And I'm not going to notice any of the inconsistency with that.
Now I have to say, though, on the one hand we don't want to be simplistic about this movement. And every now and then when I am fortunate enough to be on CNN and they ask—Media is real desirous of simplifying things to the least common denominator level where everybody can live with like a 45 second attention span, can understand what's being said. And that's sort of, the unfortunate, least common denominator to which they sort of program.
And so when I go on to talk about this stuff, they'll ask me—I mean even the host that I really like and respect. Those people will be like, Tim is the Tea Party racist? And I mean, you're giving me how long to answer this? Like 17 seconds. Wow. OK. I can't answer it in that time, because it's a much more nuanced answer. It's not nearly as simple as that. It isn't about, is the Tea Party racist. Is the Right racist? Is conservatism inherently racist? None of those things are very interesting questions to me. Because not only do I not believe that the Right and everyone on the Right is racist. I don't give folk on the Left a pass for being racist.
And I know better than to give folks on the Left, or the nominally liberal Left, a pass. Because I know that even right before the election of 2008 there was a survey that was done in October, the month before the election, that found that something like 60% of white Democrats acknowledged that they continued to hold racial biases about black folk as a group. But the vast majority of that 60% said they were still going to vote for this one black dude.
So they carved out an exception for him. He became the political equivalent of a Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show. That doesn't say anything about the larger issue of racism. If you're carving out an exception for one black man because you think he's different than the larger black community that you avoid on a good day, then that's not the end of racism. Man, that's just racism 2.0.
So let's be clear. We're not talking about the Right being inherently racist, or liberal Left folks being inherently somehow delivered from it. It's this thing that works through and in all of us. But I will say this about the Tea Party. I know that when they say—look, I've been white a long time, OK. Long time. And in 42 and 1/2 years of being white, I know that when white folks, particularly older than myself, say they want their country back, it makes me nervous. Because I know what their country was and more to the point so do they.
Rick Santorum, a couple weeks ago—Right. See the joke. That's the whole joke. Like I'm done. OK so next. I don't even have to go on. That's wonderful, it saves me time. Rick Santorum a couple weeks ago stands up and he's criticizing the president for—the president had made some comment about the Voting Rights Act, or I don't know something.
Just about post-1965 sort of how the country, in wake of civil rights reforms, et cetera, had become a better place. Like a pretty non controversial statement among remotely rational people. But like I said, Rick Santorum stands up, not falling into the latter category of remotely rational people, and he says, you know the president said this thing and he sort of paraphrases what the president had said. And he says, but I think that America was pretty great before 1965. No it wasn't, Rick. It wasn't even remotely decent before 1965.
Does that mean there weren't decent people? No, of course not. There were decent people. There've always been decent people. There have been moments of wonderful things that have happened before the Civil Rights revolution. But to say that this nation was great when we were still a formal system of white supremacy and apartheid, is inherently a white supremacist thing to say whether he realizes it or whether he doesn't.
We were not remotely great. We were not remotely decent. We were a work-in-progress. We had the potential to be great, but we were not there. And for him to say that, is again part of this white narrative, this notion of white normalcy, that people say when they want to go back. They're remembering this fictive moment, this totally fictitious moment that never existed, for the vast majority of people. And to be honest with you, didn't exist for most white people either. That's what's so crazy about this.
Most white folks didn't live like the white folks on television in 1957. June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. Barbara Billingsley doing housework in heels and pearls. Man. Not only did people of color not live like that, most white folks didn't live like that. Father Knows Best, Andy Griffith, all of this. This was not realistic. This wasn't reality TV. It was fiction. That's why people liked it.
They wouldn't have wanted to watch something that was just like their actual life. This wasn't real. But it allowed us to escape into this fantasy. Now you have a whole political movement that is based on escaping into that fantasy. We want our country back. And of course, they'll tell you it isn't about race. Oh,they'll tell you that. Here's why I know they're lying.
So I get in this argument. Imagine. I didn't pick the fight actually. But I'd written something about the Tea Party thing and about the, we want our country back, narrative. And then Rush Limbaugh decided to attack me, which was a wonderful moment in my life. It was great. I mean he didn't attack me physically. I'm not fast, but I can outrun him. It would be like the only one I probably could. I'm out of shape, but anyway. So he attacks me on air. Calls me a dunder head, which I don't know what that means actually. But I looked it up, and it's apparently a nonsense word that OxyContin addicts use to describe their political adversaries.
So once I figured that out, it was all good. So I write this piece. And he goes off on me. And one of his listeners, one of the 20 million people who listen to him, or whatever, five billion people who listen to him, writes me the next day and she says, how dare you suggest that this mantra is about race. When we say, we want our country back, it has nothing to do with race. OK, I'm just going to indulge this. It's a weekend. I got nothing to do. We're just going play this out.
So I said, OK. So you tell me it's not about race. You tell me what it is then. I just want to know. I'm going to play your game. You tell me it's not about that. What is it about? And she said, well it's very simple. We just want to go back to a time when government was small and taxes were low.
All right. I said, cool. I'm going to play this game. Next step. Pick a date. She said, what do you mean? I said no, no, no, no. You don't give me this vague, bumper sticker, nonsense about I want small government and low taxes. That's just some kind of mantra. It means nothing. If you say you want to take your country back, that's a directional phrase. I want to know what date are you thinking of? Pick a year. I'm not asking for like a month, or a week. Just like pick a year that you think it was cool, that you want to go back to. Because you're making a directional argument.
And see, it was a total setup. I was totally setting her up, because I knew exactly what she was going to say. Not exactly. Let me take that back. It's sort of like, do you remember the game, The Price is Right, when they had that game with the yodeller and he's going up the mountain? And you didn't actually have to guess the exact price of the soap. You just had to be within like $0.23 in either direction and then you'd win the car. Or if you didn't, you'd fall off the edge of the cliff and die and be embarrassed in front of millions of people who were watching that show.
So if this had been a game of the Price is Right, oh hell, I would have won. Because I knew exactly what she was going to say within a range, in fact, I got it dead on the money. Now she could have said 1897. Could have. She wasn't going to. Come on everybody knows 1897, unless you were like one of six rich, white dudes where their kids pretty much sucked. So nobody was going to say—they're not going to say 1897 is where I want to go back to. Come on, she's not going to do that.
She could have said 1909. I mean I guess technically, government was sort of small. It was before the income tax was created and all that. She could have said that. But come on. She's not going to say 1909. Children were still working in factories and mines in 1909. Like nobody ever says, those were the good old days.
In fact, I knew she wasn't even going to say 1924. Come on, really? Yeah, let's go back to the early '20s. Those were great times. Come on. No, they weren't. They were horrible. Right? So I knew she wasn't going to say any of that. Even though technically, that's relatively small government, low taxes, all that.
I knew exactly what she was going to say. My guess is, so do you. She said 1957. Of course she did. That's when Leave It to Beaver debuted, man. 1957. And now I had her. She didn't know I had her, but I had her. Because I said to her, I said, you see it's fascinating. This is all by email by the way. This is fascinating to me that you say 1957 is a moment that you'd like to go back to because it was small government and low taxes.
I said, do you have any idea what the top marginal tax rate was in 1957? Just out of curiosity, have you brushed up against this minor statistical detail in the course of your intense political study of the country that you want to take back? Do you have any clue what the hell you are talking about? She did not. She said, no, I don't know.
I said, good I will tell you. The top marginal tax rate in 1957 was 91%. Which is more than double the top rate now even if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire completely. More than double the current rate, meaning that every dollar you made above a certain amount, which in those days was $300,000 equal to a million today. Every dollar you made above $300,000 the government took $0.91 of it.
Interestingly, that was not a moment then of low taxation. In fact there were three or four different tax brackets all above anything that we have now. It was a much more steeply graduated system back then. Oddly enough though, she remembers it as a low tax era, and so do a lot of folks. I will leave it to your imagination as to why that is. Why do we remember the '50s or maybe, just to give you a little hint, the pre-'60s, maybe is a better way to put it.
Why do we remember the pre-1960s as a moment of low taxation when it was exactly the opposite? Oh I think there's a reason. And I think it's about color. But I'm going to leave that to you for a second. I'm going to come back to it. Then I asked her, I said, tell me about the size of government. Do you think government was small in 1957? You apparently do. You said that's why you want to go back to it.
But was government small in 1957? Well not if you were white, it wasn't. Government had never been small for white people. Ever. In this country's history going back to the colonies before we even were a country when my 17th degree great-grandfather first came here in the 1620s, he was able to take advantage of one of the first affirmative action programs on this continent. Though we didn't call it that it.
It was called The Headright System. It allowed male heads of household from England to take ownership of up to 50 acres of land for free. It's government intervention. And I do not recall white folks gathering en masse having discovered their inner libertarian and complaining about it.
And then in the 1860s when the government creates The Homestead Act, and gives out 245 million acres of basically free land to white families. Most though, not all of it, West of the Mississippi. 245 million acres of free land, man, redistributed to white people. The market can't do that. Only big government with guns can do that.
And nobody is giving that land back. There are 35 to 40 million white folks today living on that land still. Or who have benefited directly from the intergenerational transfer of that wealth via the sale of that property. Not one of them has shown up in Washington, DC, in this era of, I want to take my country back and get the government out of everything, and offered to give that land back because they feel bad. If I keep this property, that's like Socialism. You got to take this ranch back, man. All this acreage, this house, this farm, oh, hell. Get this. I'm feeling horrible about this.
Nobody's doing that. The 1950s, actually beginning in the '30s, when the FHA, and the VA loan program later in the '40s come on line, and allow $120 billion worth of housing equity to be loaned preferentially to white families from the late '30s to the early '60s. 40% of all white mortgages by 1960 written under this one government program, without which there would have been no middle class in this country. Nobody complained.
In fact, average everyday working white folks, loved government so much, that when Barry Goldwater came South to campaign for the presidency in 1964, and tried to tell my people—because I'm from Tennessee—tried to tell my folk in the South, that he wanted to privatize the utility companies because government is bad and the market can do it better.
My people now, conservative as the day is long, were like, what? You want to sell TVA to some rich fat cat from New York City? Have you lost your mind? We don't want you to take away our government programs. We just want you to talk about black people. Oh. Which is to say they love big government. As long as they were the only ones benefiting from it.
And as soon as people of color gained access to the stuff that white folks had already had access to, that is when we discovered our inner libertarian. That is when we decided we love the free market. That is when we decided government was the problem.
So much so that in the 1930s when cash welfare was created as part of the Social Security Act, the Congresspersons who defended that creation of that program, got up on the floor of the Senate and the House and actually admitted that the reason they wanted to be able to give single moms cash benefits, was so that these white widows and white women whose husbands have left them to look for work during the Depression, would be able to stay at home, raise their children, and not have to work in the paid labor force. Oh? Really?
Now putting aside the sexist and patriarchal undertones of that argument, which is that women should not be in the paid workforce and they should all be at home. Putting that to the side for a second, that's problematic enough. But beyond that, is that the rhetoric we hear today about folk on welfare? Oh, no. As soon as black and brown women gained access to the programs, that's when we decided this stuff will make you lazy. This stuff will make you pathological. Makes you dependent on the State.
Hell, that was the point of the program when it was white women. As soon as it was black and brown women, you all need to get a job. What, raise your children? That's the craziest damned thing I ever heard. Stay at home and raise your children? What kind of lazy pathological, social deviant are you, anyway? You see, so we decided to turn on these government that social uplift, and justice, and equity, only when people of color gained access.
That's why the Tea Party narrative is about race. See, but that takes longer than 14 seconds or 17 seconds on CNN. It's a lot more complicated, right? It's that when you talk about wanting to go back to an era of overt white supremacy even if that's not your motivation for doing it, you're willing to countenance that, right?
A couple of years ago, Glenn Beck actually made some comments—he always does this every couple of days—his waxing nostalgic about the '50s, or the 1811, or whatever the hell he thinks was a great period. And so it's interesting, right? You listen to him. And my guess is, if you were to say to Glenn Beck, do you not realize what it was like in this country for people of color in these eras that you seem to think were so great?
He would probably say, well I didn't mean that part of the past. And he probably would be honest in saying that he didn't mean that. I'm even willing to cut him enough slack to say, you know what, he's probably not consciously thinking, I wish we could go back to slavery, I wish we could go back to segregation, I wish we could go back and steal half of Mexico again, I wish we could go back in and kill millions of indigenous people. He may not mean any of that.
But that's the problem. He's not even thinking about that. That's even worse. When you don't even credit the social reality of what will soon be half of your country's population. That itself is a problem. And that's where we are today. Race is the backdrop for all of this. And there's an irony here if we're willing to engage it.
We have this movement afoot to limit the public's fear in every realm. To limit the public's fear vis-a-vis education, and job creation, and housing, and healthcare, so much so that to even conjure the term, public, for anything, is to set off alarm bells of race and class bias. Because when you say public housing, who lives there? When you say public education, who is increasingly going there? When you say public transportation, who rides that?
So when you say public option for healthcare, what do you think millions of people hear? And then when you have someone like Rush Limbaugh, someone like Glenn Beck, openly saying what, that the president only is pushing for healthcare reform as a way to get reparations for slavery. I didn't make that up. Man, you can't make that up.
That was Glenn Beck a couple years ago. You know why? You know what the healthcare debate's really about, don't you? He said—and I was watching and I don't know why. I was watching. And I was totally sucked in. You all want to know what the healthcare debate is really about? I'm like yes, yes, yes. And I'm guessing, stick with me, healthcare. But clearly I am only thinking that because I'm an idiot who does not possess the superior wisdom of a Glenn Beck. Because you've got to be a genius to have a television show.
So he looks at me and says, it's not about healthcare. I'm like, damn, really? Do I get another guess? And he says, it's really just about this administration's attempt to get reparations for slavery. I thought, wow. I didn't see that coming. And I thought about it. See this is my error, though. This is the problem sometimes those of us on the Left, and those who were sort of liberal. We like to get in our head and so we try to climb into the brain of people that are saying some crazy stuff.
I mean like, I tried to climb into Glenn Beck's brain and it's a scary place. Do not attempt this at home. So I climb up in there, and I'm trying to see what he sees. I'm like what? What? What reparations for? Healthcare is reparations for? What? Like, what kind of reparations is it that you've got to get sick first to get paid?
What kind of scam is that? What evil, genius, black person thought that one up? Like, was this some black person sitting at home on a weekend, and he was like damn, how are we going to get this reparations, man? How are we going to get this 40 acres and a damn mule? How are we—oh, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I've got it. And then this evil, genius, black person—I'm just trying to envision what Glenn's envisioning now. Like I said, scary place, but also funny.
This evil, genius, black person picks up his phone. It's a Blackberry, of course, that's why they call it that. And he calls up, or whatever, every black person in America because there's an app for that. Because he wants to tell them the scam—now at this moment I should sort of go off script and say for the white folks in the room there's not actually an app for that.
I want to be clear because I know there will be some white folks in every audience, even this one, who will be like, that seems racist to me that they have their own app. If we had a white app, they would call that racist. That's reverse racism. So OK. It's just a joke. Got to keep it lively.
And so this evil, genius, black person calls all the other black people, and he's like, hey I got a plan. I know how we're going to get paid. Do you want to hear? Do you want to hear? Do you want to hear? Do you want to hear? And black folk are like, yeah, we want to hear. And he's like, cool, here it is. Here's the plan, cancer. What? That's your plan? That's not a plan.
But see then I realize, oh, wait a minute. I understand why he said this. It wasn't about logic. It wasn't about political rationality. It was about political points that you can score. See it's a very intellectually bankrupt argument. But politically, it's really quite genius, isn't it? Because what he just did was look at millions of people and say to white Americans, they're coming for your money. And when they get it, they're going to give it to those people.
Never forget that's what government does, it takes from you and it give to them. You see that reinforces this narrative of the public's fears being inherently unjust because it's inherently redistributive and that's wrong, you see. So there's an irony though, right now.
You have millions of people that are arguing against healthcare reform from which they would benefit. You've got these folks at these rallies in DC. And they go to them. These interviewers go to them and on microphones be like, do you have healthcare? No. Do you want healthcare? Well, yeah. But I'd rather not have it than have the government pay for it. What?
How's your health? Not good. I got 400 over 200 blood pressure, I had a triple bypass, right? But I'd rather not have healthcare than have the government provide it, by god. Wow. What does it take to get us to that place? Where people just so as not to let certain other folk that they have problems with get something that they think they didn't deserve, actually willing to deprive themselves. See there is a real sickness in this.
And we've got to understand this. I got an email from a guy eight months ago or so. I wrote an article about it and some of you probably saw it. It was actually interesting. Unlike the Tea Party woman who was sort of in this real nostalgic place, this guy was a little more nuanced. He wrote to me. And he apparently had come across an article I had written about white privilege while he was searching for a job on the internet.
He had been out of work, he said, for 26 weeks. And he'd sold his own computer. He'd had to raid his kids' college fund. He was down to the last remaining money in his account. He was really hurting. And he'd gone to the public library. And he was, I guess, looking for work, when somebody sent to his Yahoo email account—his public free account—a link to something I'd written.
Then he read it. And it really sort of angered him. But he wrote to me. And for a guy who was angry, he was reasonably measured in his tone. He said, I came across this article and I'm not going to argue with you that racism is real. I'm not going to deny that. He said, I'm not going to deny that white privilege is real. He said, generally speaking I would say just about every day white folks like myself do have an advantage over people of color that isn't fair. And I totally understand that.
But he said, look, I've got to tell you right now I am hurting. I've been out of work for 26 weeks. So, I've got to tell you when I hear the term, white privilege, it sort of upsets me because I don't feel real privileged right now. And I understood that.
And the reality is, if we can't figure out how to talk to that man, if we can't figure out how to give him, if not a job, which would be nice and preferable, at least an analysis that will allow him to get through this moment and come out the other end of it with some clarity that he doesn't have going in, then we're lost. And we will never build social justice in this country.
So I took a deep breath and I resisted the temptation that I think sometimes we have, right? When those of us who talk about racism hear about a white guy who says he's suffering, but yet he had a college fund to cash out. And he had a retirement fund to cash out. And he's got a house that he hasn't quite lost yet. It's real easy to say, well you think you got it bad, let me tell you about so and so. But that doesn't help.
So I said to him instead, look, I want you to understand this. I said, first of all if I had a job to offer you, I'd do it in a heartbeat. And if I had the contacts in your particular field to point you towards, so that you could find work, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I said, unfortunately I don't have any of that for you. But I said, I do want you to hear this. And if this is all I can offer you, let this be hopefully enough.
I'm going to give you an analysis that you can think about for awhile. So that when you come out the other end of this, and you will come out the other end of it if you stay strong. Just like millions of folks of color have come out the other end of their travails over the years. I said, just you stick with it.
But I want you to understand this moment. Because you've got a choice just like white America, generally, I think in this moment of increased anxiety, these pillars of white anxiety, has a choice. We either take the choice of this sort of real insular circling the wagons, sort of offer Connor's strategy. Which is this sort of white nationalist strategy that says, well if I've got racial identity, maybe I've got racial interest. And I should identify myself openly that way, and defend those against those horrible people that are trying to take what's mine. Or we have another option, an option of solidarity.
And what I said to him was this, I said, do you not find it interesting—Well actually what I said, I want to reflect with you about some of the things you said in your email. And so I pointed out this particular part where he had written to me and he said—and this was very telling—and this is pretty much a direct quote. He said, this wasn't supposed to happen to me. I did everything right. I played by the rules. I stayed in school. I worked hard. I came in early. a stayed late. I did everything I was told to do. And now I find myself in this situation. It's not fair.
Well indeed it's not. But I said, you know when I hear you say it like that, there's an undertone of entitlement. And I don't know that you mean it that way. In fact I'm willing to extend to you the courtesy of assuming that you do not. But it comes across to me like what you're really saying is, those other poor shlubs in the unemployment line, they didn't play by the rules.
So whatever happens to them is not my problem. But by god, I did everything right. Wasn't supposed to happen to me. It's the same thing that all those white suburban communities said in the late '90s when those school shootings were happening. Right? Mass murder in suburban and rural areas. This wasn't supposed to happen here.
Well mass murder is not supposed to happen any damn place. But when violence happens in certain communities we don't even pay attention to it. We just shrug it off. We assume it's normative for that community. When it happens to us—Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. And now this guy was doing the equivalent of that—Oh my god. It wasn't supposed to happen to me.
Do you not see the irony? Because here's what I see. Maybe—if you and others like you, me and others like me, white folk in general, and white men in particular of middle class and above means, professional backgrounds, college educations—if we had taken this economic crisis seriously 20 years ago when it was already recession level, if not depression level, in black and brown space, we would have done something. And it wouldn't have spread to where you're getting hit now.
Maybe if we had taken subprime lending, and predatory lending, seriously in the early '90s when the only people who wanted to talk about it were in the Congressional Black Caucus, Maxine Waters, and a handful of other folk. ACORN, much reviled and lied about community organization. They were the only ones that wanted to talk about it.
And nobody, Democrat or Republican, with the exception of the CBC really wanted to go there. Because after all, it wasn't affecting Main Street. Which in case you all don't know where Main Street is, trust me when I tell you, it is in the part of town that is not where Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard is. That much I know.
So it wasn't affecting Main Street so folks just sort of blew it off. And they even said things like, well if these people are too stupid, they sign documents that they don't read, and they don't read the fine print on their loan instruments, they deserve to lose their house. Putting aside the ethics of that argument which we've all heard probably said by somebody—putting aside the ethics of it, think about the practicality of it.
Man, maybe you can get away with rockin' that kind of indifference when only one house in your neighborhood is in foreclosure. But if you don't do anything about predatory lending and fast forward 15 years and now half the houses in your community are up on blocks, so to speak, good luck trying to sell your house Jack. It isn't going to sell because now your upside down and you pay your mortgage on time. And now your house is worth zip as well.
You see, in that sense, we are our brother and sister's keeper. And we do have to worry about what's happening to folk down the block because it will affect us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, next month, next year, but wait a decade, a decade and a half, two decades, and it all comes around. So here's this man telling me it wasn't supposed to happen to him. And if he had had the same attitude about the people to whom it was happening 20 years ago, he would not be in this situation right now.
But he had had the luxury of believing the lie that he'd been told. A lie that no person of color could take for granted. It's sort of like—and I know this means we're just about out of time—but it's sort of like after the OJ trial, I mean the first one. I know there've been several. OK. But the first one. I remember after the OJ trial, there was this white guy on national television who was breaking down in front of millions of people crying. Losing it with tears just streaming down his cheeks. Oh my god, now I realize that everything they told me about this country having the greatest justice system imaginable in the third grade was all a lie.
Now you figured that out. If you'd been around some black and brown folk, they could have set you straight by the time you were 11, Jack. But you're in your mid-30s and you haven't ever had to confront reality. You've been able to live in La La Land assuming that the world that you knew was the world as it existed, instead of this sort of fictionalized thing that you've created in your own mind.
And now you don't know how to cope with reality. This is a dangerous moment. That millions of folks, who if they had opted for solidarity 10 and 15 and 20 years ago, we might be in a very different place right now. But they didn't and now we are in this moment where the difficulty of choosing solidarity is even greater.
But we've got to have this conversation with people. We've got to be clear. The reason folk are hurting right now—the reason we have no safety net in this country relative to those nations that we like to compare ourselves to, was precisely because of the racial resentment that says, we don't want those people gettin' over.
There was actually a study done on healthcare internationally that found the single biggest factor to explain why the United States does not have universal healthcare relative to Western industrialized nations. They figured out all these different elements. And they did what they call a regression analysis, big social science term, where they control for all these different factors.
They found the single biggest correlated factor with the opposition to universal healthcare in this country was the belief that black folk would abuse the program. So now you got millions of white folk without healthcare, but by god at least those black folks aren't gettin' over. This is what W. E. B. Du Bois calls the psychological wage of whiteness.
It doesn't pay your bills, but psychologically it tells you well I might not have much, but at least I'm not black, at least I'm not brown, at least I'm not red, at least I'm not a person of color. But see at the end of the day, that doesn't put your kid through college. And it doesn't pay the emergency room bills and it doesn't pay your house note.
We've got to be willing to have this conversation. Sadly as a country, we're running away from it. Trying to downplay the issue of race. Trying to talk about class in a vacuum to try to bring everybody on board. Afraid that if we talk about race, working class white folks will bolt from any progressive movement. But what working class white folks got to understand is the very reason that they're hurting. The very reason that they're so disempowered is because of racial inequity.
In other words, they were not the targets of it. To be sure people of color were, but those of us who were white become over time the collateral damage of a system of white supremacy and racial inequity. So we need to be clear on it.
One more thing though. And I have to tell this story to end because I want to get it out of our head for a second. We can talk data, and statistics, and studies, and facts, and analysis, but really we got to bring this down to a human level as well. Because the only way we stay in this work is if we understand the damage that this thing does to us at a very personal, and affective levels.
So even though I thought I knew this long ago—I've been doing this work for 20 years in some capacity—but just a few years back I'm sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon when my wife and my two girls, who at that time, were six and four. And it's raining like crazy outside. Too much to do anything outside. Can't go to the park. Can't go for a walk. Can't do anything out of doors. And so we decided—we played every game in the house, the kids are getting restless as four and six year olds are want to do.
So we decided to watch a movie on cable. We turn it on. We're looking for trailers for, commercials for, previews for, movies that would be good for kids and families. We're not finding much. But we come across the trailer at one point, to the movie Evan Almighty, which many of you might have seen. Came out in 2007. This would have been early 2008 after it was done at the theater. It's now on cable on the Satellite on Demand, $3.99 order up a movie, blah, blah, blah, thing.
So we decide we will watch it. Now understand—well at first we're just watching the trailer, we're not going to watch the film. But we're watching the trailer and for those who don't know, it's Steve Carell plays a newly elected Congressman who was told by God, who is played by Morgan Freeman, that a flood is coming and he should build a very large boat or one might call it an ark and ride it out.
You have probably heard this story in a different context at a different time. It is the modern retelling of the Noah and the ark story. It is fascinating. Not a great movie, but cute. As it turned out, my kids had already seen it. They'd gone with my wife to the theater five or six months earlier, when it was still out and they didn't really want to see it again.
But because they recognized the actors on the commercial, and they recognized the dialogue, it got their attention. So the little one Rachel, who's four, she looks up. She sees Morgan Freeman in the role of God in the flowing white robe. She looks at her father—she looks at me—and she says, as any four year old would in that moment, is that really God?
Because that is exactly what you would say at four. You don't know anything about the Screen Actors Guild at four. You don't know anything about casting directors at four. You just figured God wanted to make a movie. And you probably think to yourself that, if God wanted to make a movie, done. Wouldn't be particularly hard for God to get that movie greenlighted.
You'd probably get it made. Now you would hope that God would make a movie capable of getting better than a 23% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. But in any event, you might think to yourself, that must be God. So I thought it was a funny question. I giggled. I said, no, honey, that's not God, it's Morgan Freeman. He's an actor. He just plays God often. But it's a roll you'll probably see him in again. It's a recurring thing, he has a very good agent. But in any event, he is just an actor.
And I thought the conversation was done. It was not done. Because then the older of the two girls, Ashton, who was six, looks up. Now she is interested in our conversation. She sees Morgan Freeman in the role of God in the flowing white robe. She looks at her sister and she laughs. She says, Rachel that can't be God. And I knew in that moment two things.
Number one, I was going to have to ask her why not. And number two, that I already knew what her answer was going to be before I asked the question. But I had to ask it. And I was hoping for some support from my wife who was sitting over in this general vicinity. I looked over to that side of the room looking for any insight, brilliance, some genius thing, that she could tell me that would help me in this moment of need. I got nothing except a look with which I'm all too familiar after this many years together, a look that says, OK, smart ass this would be your area of expertise.
So I'm going to defer to you on this one. Good luck with that. I got nothing for ya. So I knew it was on me. I look back at my daughter and I ask her why, why can't that be God? And in the split seconds before she offered me her answer, I had this fantasy bouncing around in my head. It was a fantasy where I hoped, dreamed, that maybe my daughter was going to come up with some brilliant answer, some alternative answer that I had not at all expected.
Unlike the one that I fully anticipated and which I'm sure you do as well, that she was going to say something along the lines of, well father that can't be God because God is a woman. Or really what I was hoping for was some existentialist answer along the lines of, oh father what is God anyway? [PSSSSSSSSSH] God. Why do we speak of such things, father? That's what I was hoping. That would have been sort of hip.
But she's a smart six year old, but come on, she's not that smart so she didn't come up with that one. Instead she looks at me and she gives me exactly the answer I knew she would. She says to me, and to her mother, and to her sister, that can't be God, because God is not black, God is white.
Now I don't think it'll come as any big surprise to you to learn that we do not in our home have any images of a deity that are racialized. We actually don't have any images of a deity at all, but if we did, they would not be racialized images. We have been very studious about not allowing into our home those pernicious, I would dare say evil, bible picture books for children. The ones that would give you the impression if you didn't know better, that Adam and Eve had resided in the garden of Sweden. You know the books that I'm talking about. We haven't allowed them.
So I knew she hadn't seen this in our house. But I knew she had seen it somewhere, if not in our home, somewhere. Perhaps in the church that she attends with her sister and mother. Perhaps in bookstores, or libraries, or just on the Christmas cards that we get sent every holiday season, that would give you the impression again, if you did not know better, that Jesus had been born in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
And so somehow this has come into my house you see. And the reason I'm telling you this is not for the cheap laugh, though it is very much appreciated. The reason I'm telling you this is because, make no mistake if you were to break into my home and try to poison my children, I would kill you.
And I'm not saying that to be all big and bad. I'm like 5' 8" on a good day. OK. So I can't physically do much. I don't have a gun or anything. But I would find something. If you broke into my house and I would throw it at you. Hard. And you would die. Like I'm just that confident about the accuracy and the velocity with which I would hit you somewhere about here [POINTS TO FOREHEAD] with something very hard.
I'm not a violent person. I'm just saying, if you try to hurt my family, I will take you out. It's just that simple. But here's the point. You see, something is coming into my house. And it is poisoning my children. And the doors are locked. And the windows are shut. The alarm is on. This thing that's coming in doesn't know the code with which to turn that alarm off. And it is getting in and it is getting out before I knew it was there. Before my wife knew it was there. Before we could sense its presence. And it is doing its damage with or without our intent or assent.
And that is something that devastates me on behalf of my children. It enrages me. It doesn't make me feel guilty because I know it's not my fault. But now I'm living with the legacy of that. That is not who my children are meant to be. And if it can happen to my children in my home, a deliberately anti-racist ally home, I assure you it can happen in any of our homes.
And if it's happening to white children—if white children are being given the impression in this and other countries around the world, that they are closer to divinity, to the source of creation, however you define that, however you conceive of that, what message is being given to black and brown children who are 80% to 85% of the world's population?
They are seeing the same images and they are being given the impression that they are farther from the creative source of the universe. This is an evil and iniquitous thing that we are fighting in this country, and in this culture, and on this planet. It is capable of devastating and stealing our humanity when we didn't even know it was happening.
This is not an abstract struggle. This is not an abstract struggle for social justice, economically, socially, or culturally. It is a struggle for the very soul, however you define that term and that concept, of every single one of us in this room, our children if we're lucky enough to have them, grandchildren if we are one day or now lucky enough to have them. And if we do not figure this out and very quickly, we will be back in this room. Not us, but someone 10 and 20 and 30 and 50 in a 100 years hence. Only then the risk of failure will be far greater. The odds of success far longer. And we will be in a world of hurt.
Thank you all so much for being here and I appreciate your time. Thank you.
MICHAEL TINO: So we want to do some questions. We've got a microphone there. It may be the only one. There may be other ones. If people are physically able to get up and line up, that'd be great. If not we can call. Oh, we've got a traveling mic as well. But we'll start here. Yes, sir.
REV. FINLEY C. CAMPBELL: My name is Reverend Finley C. Campbell of the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Action Caucus. Alan Specter says that what you say is 80% correct. Specifically the data describing racial disparity in this country. But he also says that 20% what you say is totally and dangerously wrong.
I agree with that segment. I believe that you are the most articulate, comical, almost hypnotic, person in presenting neo-racist ideology, particularly the anti-white variety. Ironically, anti-white racism is a form of anti-black racism. Because it only permits whites to be allies, but not comrades in a common struggle.
TIM WISE: OK.
REV. FINLEY C. CAMPBELL: I have written a booklet on the nature of neo-racism, which will be available tomorrow at a workshop that will counter your thoughts, while taking from it the basic truths which I've articulated. But I must say, I could not hardly endure your insults to my people, my white brothers and sisters, my white ancestors, my white identity.
TIM WISE: Well I would—if you don't mind staying just for a second, because I want to be able to dialogue with you. But perhaps you're not interested in that. I am not sure how condemning white racism is tantamount to condemning white people. In fact I find that a rather absurd formulation. And let me explain why.
To say that condemning white racism, or white privilege as an institutional reality, is anti-white, that somehow that translates to being anti-white people, as human beings, is an interesting equation. If we had a board up here and we could do it is a mathematical equation, right? So anti-white racism equals anti-white is the equation that I'm gathering is the argument.
Though I don't know, because the person making the argument has decided to leave rather than to engage which is not on me. But if that is true, if to be opposed to white racism, white privilege, white institutional advantages, to be against white people, then that sort of seems to me like the inverse, sort of the other equation, would be that the only way you could be pro white people, as human beings, the only way you could actually honor them and be in favor of them as living, breathing, beings, would be to be pro white racism. That would be the algebraic flip of the equation.
So to be against white racism is anti-white means to be pro white is to be pro white racism. Now what's interesting is, if I were to stand up and say, all white people are racist. The very essence of white people is racism. Most white people and some folks of color would be rightly concerned about that way of saying it, that formulation.
Because that seems a little—even if you agree with some of the underlying arguments that we're all racist, and we're all conditioned to be racist—saying it the way I just said it, would seem a little harsh. And understandably so. What's interesting is, if condemning white racism makes you anti-white, then in effect that's what those people who say that are saying, that the essence of whiteness is racism.
So it seems to me that to stand up here and to condemn institutional racism, to condemn an assault on the humanity of people of color, and by extension, on the humanity of white people, like the individual who wrote to me, and was suffering. Who I showed nothing but sympathy for, and nothing but hope for, and who I tried to bring into a circle of solidarity that would fight racism not only on behalf of people of color, but on behalf of he, who was suffering indirectly because of it, is the essence of putting aside racialist thinking.
So I'm not sure what 20% of what I said is wrong. Is it the part where I said that white people have always had advantage? That's not arguable.
Is it the part where I said that the Tea Party in their nostalgic vision of America, wants to take us back to an era that was an era of oppression and terrorism against people of color? That is not arguable.
Is it the part where I said we've internalized this notion of God as white? That is not arguable. And study after study—so I don't know what the 20% is. I'm fascinated. I'm sorry that some would view this as an argument against white people.
But we're a culture that is more than willing to critique people of color. And to critique their culture, and their history, and their heritage, and their folk ways, and their morays, and their ethics, and their intelligence, and yet insist that when they do that, that isn't racist.
All I'm saying, is that we ought to be able to condemn a social structure that advantages some at the expense of others. And not be thought of as being anti anyone, that seems to be the essence of humanism to me, but maybe that's just me. But thank you. Yes.
REV. MICHELLE WALSH: I thank you. I'm Reverend Michelle Walsh. I actually do not have a question. I want to thank you for your comments, and just make a clarifying point that the last person who spoke is not a minister in fellowship with Unitarian Univeralist. He is a member of a congregation. He does not share the analysis of the Allies for Racial Equity. And I just want to clarify this.
TIM WISE: I was pretty clear. Actually—
REV. MICHELLE WALSH: Thank you.
TIM WISE: That last part in particular. And again, like I said, I would have been happy to—I mean, I'm fascinated by the argument, if I just knew what it was. I think I'd be interested in it. It's all cool. I mean just little specificities would help. But OK. Anyway, go ahead.
DAVID MCFARLAND: David McFarland, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I serve a church in the inner city there. And I very much appreciated in the context that you were talking about the guy with the email, your talking about it, if I had a job. Because something that you said, we really have to understand where those people are coming from. Who aren't completely crazy. And as a Universalist, I can't believe that that many people are completely crazy. What I despair about are the spaces where those conversations can take place. I mean in this environment where it so—And so how in this dismantling process, can we create those spaces [UNINTELLIGIBLE]?
TIM WISE: Well I mean that is the trick, right? Because the problem is at the very moment when the obvious necessity of that conversation presents itself, it's usually a time of crisis. And we don't do good thinking in moments of crisis. Sort of like after 9/11, there was this moment—that some of us tried to take advantage of—where we had to ask the question that nobody seemed to know the answer to, at least in the general public, because they all kept asking, why do they hate us? Why?
Now, black people did not ask this question. And I am just being honest. People of color, generally, Native people, indigenous Native North Americans, Lakota peoples in South Dakota, did not wake up on 9/12 and go, why would anybody hate the United States of America. I'm confused. Like no people of color were asking that.
But millions of white folks actually were. And some of us tried to answer it. Not to say that anything that happened on that day was justified or OK. But to say look, you've got to place every historical incident in its proper, sociological context if you're going to understand it and prevent it from happening again, just like the Columbine shooting, any of those things.
But in those moments of tragedy, we don't do our best critical thinking because we're in pain. So how do we create those opportunities? Well the reality is, we do have the opportunity to begin to engage them in a very deep level in our churches, and mosques, and synagogues, and community organizations.
My guess is, that most of the time, we're not going to be able to just go down to the unemployment line and have a long conversation with the white folks on that line about the dangers of white racial privilege to themselves. No, in that moment they're not going to hear it. But those folks who were on that unemployment line, or who were on their computers at the public library trying to job search, they don't do that 24 hours a day.
They also spend time in their houses of worship, in the PTA meetings, or just in the neighborhood in their communities. I mean, they have other lives beyond their lives of desperation and misery. We all try to carve out these moments of sanity for ourselves, even in the midst of great tragedy. All of us do that. We lose loved ones. And we don't spend 24 hours a day grieving. We also get our lives together, we try to, and we try to get out of the hole that we're in.
So I think we can create those moments. We have to do it with real deliberativeness in the sense that, so often, I think we are afraid to go to that place. So we'll have a conversation with people about the need for healthcare reform. We'll have a conversation with people about the need for better educational funding, or job creation strategies.
We're willing to talk about that and push for this policy or that policy. What we're often not willing to do is, engage this very sticky question about why don't we have those things already? Why is it that we're having to pull teeth to get this very basic kind of reform?
Because if people, I think, that if most people—I mean there are some for whom this won't matter—but I think that if most of those people who I believe are decent folks, and most people are good folks, with some obvious exceptions out there, but I think most people are decent, and caring, and compassionate. If they really were forced to reflect upon the way that this racialized narrative has damaged us all, it would not click immediately with them.
I don't believe that all of a sudden they would just go, oh, sure. I've been missing it all of these years. But I think that the analysis is so new to them, that once you plant that seed, and you continue to come back to it, and you show compassion, and you start by listening to what the person is saying about their pain, I think we then create an opportunity to really engage at a deeper level. And we just have to keep trying.
I can't tell you the value of repetition. It seems like some of us, we do this work for years, and we feel like we're banging our head against the wall. And it's the same thing. You are saying the same thing over and over and over again, and nobody is getting it. But you know, sometimes it's like that last drop of water that wears down rock, it really makes a difference. People of color, for instance, have been saying all of this stuff that I said today, in one way or another, forever. Forever.
And yet what's interesting is, I can get up as a white man, say various versions of the same truth mixed in with some of my own insights, and all of a sudden folks around the country will go, oh my god. That's like the most brilliant thing I've ever heard. I never heard that before. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.
OK well now that's messed up on the one hand, that people would go, wow, that was really intriguing. Even though people of color have been saying some version of it. But if that repetition works. If all of a sudden me going and saying that and also owning and being accountable to the unfair advantage I have in saying it. If that allows people to rethink, and to maybe hear what they had not heard before—I saw it after Columbine. I'll tell you, I wrote a piece after that shooting and after the one in San Diego. I talked about how white blindness had contributed to that tragedy because we didn't see pathology when it was white kids.
If it had been black kids threatening to kill everybody in the school, we would have kicked them out. We would have called the cops. But it's white kids making a movie about murdering people. So it's art. And it's no big deal. And we don't have to worry about them. What was interesting is, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the people in that community could not hear what I had to say.
But a year later, I had a meeting—I was at a conference on youth violence with a pretty young guy, about my age, who was the head of security I think, for the district in Littleton, Colorado, where this tragedy at Columbine had happened. And I was a little nervous to meet him because I actually felt like he's going to really hate me, he's going to think that I was bashing his community, and all that.
But before I actually met him, he was on a panel, and I'm watching him. And he said, I really hope you all will go to the session that Tim Wise is going to be in later. Because he has some really important things to say about our communities that we really don't want to hear. And frankly we did not want to hear for at least a year after this thing happened, but that we needed to hear.
So you just keep coming back to that well. And I think it makes a difference. Yes. Thank you. OK. A couple more, real quick. And by the way, although we're going to have to cut this short for time purposes, we're going to do a book signing thing. And I'll be happy to continue the conversation with those who we don't get to. I guess, where's the book thing? Is it down—
MICHAEL TINO: Room 103.
TIM WISE: Room 103. OK. Cool. So there you go. Yes.
CARL WOLF: My name is Carl Wolf. I'm a member of First Unitarian in Hobart, Indiana. And I've heard this terminology before. And it strikes me, this use of the word, allies, in confronting our privilege. And it somewhat bothers me.
TIM WISE: Yeah.
CARL WOLF: That as a white person, I can be no more than an ally. And that the first step in fighting racism, is confronting my own privilege. And racism does awful things. It's really, I think, the basis of capitalism in many ways, racism is. And we see it in Chicago where Cook County Hospital is shutting down hospitals that serve the public, that serve poor black, poor Hispanic, families. That's racism. And that has to be fought. We need to confront that. Do we do that by me first confronting my own privilege, and considering myself an ally, first and foremost. What's the formulation here? Why can't there be a more multiracial fightback. Or is that what you mean?
TIM WISE: Well look, the term is problematic. And lots of us in this work go back and forth about the weakness of the term, ally. And I'm all for better terminology if people have got better terms. I think the concept of allyship as I conceive of it, and as many of us in the work think of it, it's simply a way to distinguish the role of leader versus person in solidarity with.
Because the dynamic—and I think many of us are familiar with this dynamic—even when people are doing good work, good people doing good things, which I know what general assembly I'm at. OK?
And I know that this is a GA filled with good people doing good things. And I'm not trying to dismiss the importance of that. That is valuable and important. But good people doing good things sometimes forget that when we're fighting a system of oppression that we're not the direct targets of, and we sort of take over that work or maybe become the leaders of it, as opposed to allies, which implies to me sort of standing side by side with, but not in front of, that we run the risk of not purposely, but inadvertently, hijacking that work in a way that makes sense to us, but which actually might disempower communities of color.
And that's what concerns me and that's why I use the term. And let me just finish this. I think it means that we follow the leadership of people of color, because they're the ones that have the most to lose. Just like as a man, if I'm going to fight sexism, I need to listen to and follow the leadership of women. Or if as a straight ally or assist gendered ally to LGBT folks, I need to listen and follow the leadership of LGBT communities and organizations.
It doesn't mean that I don't have a major role to play. I do. But it's a role that is collaborative and solidaristic, rather than running the show. And here's how I learned this—just to give you the thumbnail sketch real quick.
When I was doing community organizing in New Orleans, which I did for 15 months in the mid-90s in public housing in the City of New Orleans, at a time when New Orleans public housing was considered the worst in America by white people who had never gone there. But that was the way it was considered.
And I met amazing people there. One of the guys that I met there was another organizer who had been working there for many years. I remember when I met him, my thing was, I thought I knew what the issues were, by god. I'm a white radical, Tulane educated, kid who—I know what the issues are. The issues are white supremacy, and institutionalized racism, and poverty, and economic oppression. And it's not that I was wrong, those are the bigger issues.
But when I said to him when we're talking about strategy, what he said to me was, he said cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, just listen. He said, you're right. You're absolutely right. And we were in there organizing to try to defeat the welfare reform bill at the time, and the balanced budget amendment, and get people organized against the social safety net cutbacks.
And he said, OK, that's great, too. But listen. You can't start there. You can't. And I said, well but why? I said, what are you all working on? This was a different organization that he worked for. And he said, well right now we're working on getting a street light—a stoplight—at that corner. And I was like, what? A stoplight? Why a stoplight? That to me, seemed real small potatoes.
But he said, well here's a couple reasons. Number one, three kids have been hit on their bikes at that corner, because there's no stoplight and cars just barrel through and they've been hit. So there's a real practical need. But he said, more importantly the reason that I tell you that the stoplight is so important. More important than what you're talking about in the short run, is that we can get that stoplight. We can win. If we say our agenda is to get that stoplight, I'm telling you that we can get that. A few letters, a few protests, and by god, they'll give us a stoplight. Then the people will know of their power. And they will feel capable of going on to the next level.
If on the other hand, you come in trying to do the right thing, and having the right overall analysis that says the issue is this huge injustice. And you say our goal is to end white supremacy. Or on a lower level, our goal is to block the welfare reform, or to block the unequal healthcare situation in Cook County, or in New Orleans, or police brutality. All of that stuff that we all know is real.
He said, you will get unanimous support in this community. But six months from now when you have accomplished none of that, you will also have set these folks up. They'll be burned out. So allyship means for you—this is a man of color telling me this—allyship means you've got to come in, you've got to listen to what we need, and what we're telling you we need. And you need to do that.
That doesn't mean that our judgment is always right. But you should start from the assumption that because we're in the space, we probably have some strategic insights that you lack. So when I talk about allyship, that's what I mean.
But I absolutely agree with your formulation in the sense that it's not that we're not equal partners in the work. It's that to be an equal partner when you're a member of a dominant group, whether that's men as men, whites as whites, people with money as people with money, straight folks as straight folks, you always have to be on guard—just careful—about the way that you might reinscribe privilege in the work and thereby damage the work.
It isn't about saying I have to just navel gaze. It's not about oh, I'm a bad person, I'm a bad person, I'm irresponsible, and I have privilege. It's not about self-flagellation. It's about realizing that this system gets down on its knees and begs for us to screw up. And it makes it so easy for us to screw up.
And so in order for us to fight the fights that you're talking about, and that I'm talking about, and most people in this room are engaged in, we just have to always be aware, self-conscious enough, of how easy it is to make that mistake. And I think if we do that, we'll be more effective at the institutional piece.
I'm clearly being told to leave but I will talk to the rest of you when we get a chance. Thank you so much. Thank you.
MICHAEL TINO: I wish we could go on. We're having a reception and a book signing in Room 103. There are books for sale right over here. Will there be books for sale downstairs, too? We're also going to have the books for sale down in Room 103. You are all invited to a less formal conversation.
Roadmap to Racial Equity: Allies in Today’s World General Assembly 2011 event number 2061.
For more information contact la_racialjustice @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Tuesday, August 23, 2011.
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