Tim Wise’s latest book (Colorblind) addresses the move toward colorblindness in our society, and how this is “one of the chief impediments to addressing institutional racism.” Julian Bond, he points out, says that color has consequences. And if we will grant this paradigm of color consequences has existed historically and continues to today, “then to not notice the thing which is provoking the consequence — to not take account of that thing, to try to be blind to that thing, is to be blind to the consequences and to never be able to solve them. How do you fix a problem rooted in color consciousness unless you yourself are conscious of color? Who’s down, who’s up, and why in both cases.”
A friend of mine got us tickets to Tim Wise’s talk at PLU, and we departed just after I got off work. The drive was quick, and we were fortunate enough to be in the third row as the talk began. As with many talks, I brought a notepad, and jotted furiously. Below I’ll include many of my notes, plus some of my thoughts.
I was excited that this was mostly new material. There is a fabulous one-hour talk from Tim on google video, and I was hoping that not too much of this talk would be reused for his PLU commentary.
First off, Wise addressed the difference between guilt and responsibility, calling guilt what you feel for the thing you’ve done, and responsibility what you do because of the human that you are. This pretty nicely sums up the responsibility I feel — in the last several years I’ve come to really appreciate how privileged I am, that just having access to public libraries as a child (and parents who didn’t restrict what I read) allowed me a world class education, and that many of the benefits I enjoy (on top of my education) come at the great expense of others. I won’t make this a diatribe about the United States and centuries of imperialism, but I will say that I feel a responsibility to try and make good on the privileges I implicitly enjoy.
Wise also notes that we like to live with a concept of a past that venerates us. He cites the fourth of July, in that we write history that is convenient and forget our wrongdoings. It would have been nice if he’d pointed out that the declaration of independence wasn’t even signed on the fourth of july, which I think speaks exactly to his point of our selective memory about past events. (For the record, the document was voted in on July 2, and wasn’t fully signed until 1781, something even that National Archives link doesn’t mention! John Adams declared, “The second day of July, 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha in all of American History.” John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, ran off some flyers regarding the signing, dated them July 4, and that apparently is where history found its date. All of this information is courtesy Bill Bryson and his Informal History of the English Language in the United States.) Regarding our need for veneration of the past, he says “We just want the pretty, without the ugly.”
Wise claims the median net worth of white families before the economic collapse of 2008, compared to black is a 12:1 ratio, with 8:1 for latino. Now those ratios are closer to 50:1 and 20:1 respectively. The collapse, he states, erased 20% of the accumulated US wealth, a staggering 12 trillion dollars (why isn’t Mike Huckabee up in arms about this, instead of the “staggering” 1% of our budget we spend on welfare?).
The wealth gaps in the US, Wise claims, are the direct result of government intervention on behalf of the dominant class. This can be seen, I think, in structural oppression (the history of welfare, slavery, etc). Wise also points out it can be seen in socialism for whites (which is actually what I am getting at with the history of welfare, but more on that later). The Homestead Act of 1862 gave out 240 million acres of US land to white families. Wise also notes the FHA from 1934 – 1962 gave $152 billion to white families, black/brown families were excluded. By 1960 40% of all loans to white families were under FHA. Here’s an interesting article on these and other white advantages in the US.
Wise proclaims the interstate freeway system to be a governmental subsidization of white suburbanization, and I can’t say that I disagree. He then made some pointed comments about white flight to the ‘exburbs’ now that the suburbs are increasingly becoming spaces for non-whites.
At this juncture in the talk, Tim Wise touched on “Mothers’ Pensions,” which was the original incarnation of welfare. I wish he’d actually used the term, instead of just saying “the original incarnation” (or something to this effect), but that is a minor quibble. He pointed out quite rightly that welfare was designed to benefit white widows, not single black mothers. Specifically, he sees welfare as originally designed to promulgate the idea of staying home to raise children (crazy!), but once blacks were let in on the program at large suddenly it became a program designed as a stopgap until you got a job. I will review Welfare Racism soon, which goes in depth into these issues. It was actually coincidental that Wise touched on Mothers’ Pensions, since I’m extremely versed on the subject at the moment.
He pointed out that logic and reason and analysis don’t have much to do with our national dialogue with respect to characters such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. A while back Beck alleged that universal healthcare in the US was designed as a program of covert reparations for slavery. “They’re coming for your money and they’re gonna give it to ‘those people,'” to paraphrase Wise paraphrasing Beck. Limbaugh one-upped Beck, in Wise’s view, charging that a school fight between two black kids and a white kid on a bus was part of the Obama agenda, again with a paraphrase: “they’re coming for your children.”
This sort of thing, the reporting of “today a black man…” is so blatantly indicative of the racist nature of our societal workings. We only seem to feel the need to mark the minority class. Deborah Tannen writes about this in her essay, Marked Women Unmarked Men, where her thesis is essentially that we give little away when we talk about men (the dominant class), but when we talk about a woman we must necessarily give something away. Men as simply mister, or doctor, but women are miss, or missus, or mizz, and even the latter — billed as the equivalent to mister — will likely be taken to mean something about the woman, where a man gives nothing away when identified as mister. She points out this same marking and unmarking takes place when women dress (makeup or no makeup), get married (to hyphenated your name or not), and on and on. So when “two kids beat up a third on a the school bus today,” they are white by virtue of being unmarked. We only feel the need to mark gender or race when it is of a subordinated identity.
Dipping into the same statistics that he uses in the GoogleVideo talk I linked above, Wise points out that blacks and latinos are 2-3x as likely to be stopped by police for suspicion of drug possession, but actually whites are 4x as likely to actually be carrying drugs. African Americans with degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their white counterparts. Structural violence ahoy.
Tim Wise also made a great analogy, that Obama being elected president is to the end of racism in America as Bhutto’s prime ministership ending sexism in Pakistan in the 1990s. Back to the GoogleVideo stats, he points out that in 1963 Gallup found that 2/3 of whites believed blacks had equal opportunity, and in ’62 a whopping 87% said that blacks had equality in education for their children. His point is that if we can all agree that whatever you may think about racism now, that even the most cynical of us will cede that racism was a problem in the early 1960s, when identical numbers of whites today think people of color have “equal opportunity” as did the proportion of whites in 1963, then obviously we have a problem. We have a few problems, really. First is that racism is still very much alive, assuming there is any correlation between whites thinking racism doesn’t exist and it actually existing. Second is that whites are obviously not very good at spotting racism. Tim Wise points out that he can barely remember the specifics of how he entered the building, but for someone with a physical disability the same wouldn’t be true, and in that same manner if we want to discover whether racism is still alive, we ought to ask not whites but those most sensitive to racism. To be white in 1962, 1963, 2011, is to not to have to know any better.
“Solidarity not charity.”
“Indifference is a new form of racial bias.”
“It’s as if Adam and Eve has resided in the garden of Sweden.” (Speaking about the blue-eyed portrait of Jesus)
“One of the most effective ways to interrupt systemic oppression is to have self awareness.”
“Institutional racism kills far more people.” This nails it on the head, for me. Are hate crimes horrible? Yes. Does 99% of our society agree they are horrible? Yes. Do tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of persons of color die in America every year simply because the system treats them differently than their white counterparts? Yes. What percentage of our society even acknowledges this, let alone finds outrage against it? This is structural violence. To reproduce a small piece of Paul Kivels’ Uprooting Racism,
It is estimated that blacks suffer 91,000 “excess deaths” a year. In one recent study, medical residents viewed a video showing a white male and a black female patient, who described identical symptoms of chest pain indicative of heart disease. 74 percent of the students believed the white male had heart disease, but only 46 percent believed that the black female did. Another study of Medicare patients found that only 64 percent of black patients receive potentially curative treatment for early stage lung cancer, while 77 percent of white patients receive it. A UCLA study found that Hispanics in emergency rooms in Los Angeles are twice as likely as white people in comparable circumstances to end up with no pain medication — not even a Tylenol. Over 20 years’ worth of studies show that people of color who arrive at a hospital while having a heart attack are significantly less likely to receive aspirin, beta-blocking drugs, clot-dissolving drugs…
He also mentioned DuBois and the psychological wages of whiteness.
The controversial La Raza studies program in Tucson also came up, which Wise viewed as being well designed.
The last note I took says that 650,000 US citizens of Chicano descent were expelled to Mexico in the 1930s under the pretenses of “job taking.”