In the fall of 1968, six months after civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, Tim Wise was born to lower-middle-class white parents down the road in Nashville. Wise, who would later commit himself to carrying on King’s fight for a racially just society, grew up in a nation struggling to redefine itself: sweeping reform legislation had been passed, ending legalized segregation, but black Americans remained largely shut out of decent jobs, housing, and education.
Wise went to Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he called for the university to divest its holdings in apartheid South Africa. In the early 1990s Wise fought fiercely to defeat political candidate David Duke, a white supremacist who ran for various state and national offices as a Republican. Soon after that, Wise began lecturing and writing about issues of racial justice.
When Wise introduces himself to an audience, he often starts with his ancestry. Like most of us, he has inherited a complex past. His maternal ancestors were early colonists who took ownership of land that had once belonged to the Powhatan and Shawnee Indians, and they farmed it with the help of slave labor. On his father’s side, Wise’s ancestors arrived from Russia in the early twentieth century, Jewish immigrants looking for a refuge from oppression. Though many of Wise’s ancestors embodied the values of hard work, honesty, and responsibility, they had one trait Wise believes made an even greater difference in their success in this society: their white skin.
As a white Southerner, Wise is somewhat unique among antiracism activists. African American scholar Michael Eric Dyson has proclaimed Wise “one of the most brilliant, articulate, and courageous critics of white privilege in the nation.” Over the last decade Wise has spoken at more than four hundred colleges and universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Columbia. He’s also appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows and has helped train law-enforcement officers, corporate executives, government officials, and journalists to spot racial bias in their work. Wise is the author of four books, including Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male and White like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (both Soft Skull Press). Earlier this year City Lights published his latest, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Race and Whiteness in the Age of Obama, which debunks the idea that we live in a “postracial society.”
Wise believes race continues to be a defining quality for people in our nation, a trait that grants either advantage or disadvantage. I have heard him speak several times, and he reminds me of a James Baldwin quote: “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk.”
Wise and I met over a pot of coffee in Nashville, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters. Barack Obama had recently become the nation’s first black president. It was Sunday morning, when many Americans go to church, the time of the week that Martin Luther King Jr. called “the most segregated hour” in America.
Cook: By your definition, what is racism, and what does it mean to be racist?
Wise: Racism is an ideology that says certain people, by virtue of their race, are either inferior or superior to others of a different race, with race usually being defined by skin color. Like any word that ends in “-ism” — capitalism, communism, socialism — racism is a system as well as an ideology. It’s a way of organizing society.
There are two different types of racists. First there are the overt racists: the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists. Then there are the ones we might consider “passive” racists. In a society like ours, where racism is so prevalent, the vast majority of us — maybe all of us — silently collaborate with systemic racism. We don’t consciously believe in racial superiority or inferiority, but we’ve become so used to the existing policies, practices, and procedures that we don’t question them. To the extent that we don’t challenge this system of racism, we are collaborating with it.
I think the second type of racist is actually more dangerous. The first type we can easily recognize, and it doesn’t take much courage to condemn them. The second type is like an invisible gas: you don’t know it’s there until you’ve been lulled unconscious by it.
Cook: You often write about “white privilege.” Can you give us some examples?
Wise: White privilege is any advantage, head start, or protection the system grants whites but not people of color. It’s the flip side of discrimination. If people of color are victims of housing discrimination 3 million times a year — and that’s a safe estimate — then that’s 3 million more opportunities for housing that whites have. If people of color are discriminated against in employment, then that’s more employment opportunities for whites. The flip side of disadvantage is advantage. You can’t have a down without an up.
Privilege also takes the form of less pressure to perform. If a white student in a classroom doesn’t answer a question correctly, no one will say, “Those white people don’t even deserve to be in this school. They obviously had standards lowered for them.” We whites are able to be as incompetent or mediocre as we want and never have our mediocrity ascribed to our race. George W. Bush mangled the English language with regularity and still became president. If Barack Obama had mispronounced words the way Bush did, would he have been given the same degree of slack?
Then there’s the privilege of not having to worry about being singled out for suspicion or mistreatment. I can go through the airport and not be viewed as a likely terrorist despite the fact that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the terrorists behind the Oklahoma City bombing, were white like me.
Cook: Some people dispute the notion that in 2009 white Americans have access to better lives simply because of the color of their skin.
Wise: Most people who say that will acknowledge that white privilege existed at some point. I always ask them: When did it stop?
Some think that racism ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Those were important steps, because they made it illegal to engage in discrimination. But just because you’ve made something illegal doesn’t mean it no longer happens. No enforcement mechanisms existed for the Fair Housing Act until 1988, and evidence suggests there are still millions of cases of race-based housing discrimination every year.
We also know that job applicants with “white-sounding” names are 50 percent more likely to get called back than those with “black-sounding” names, even if both have the same qualifications. That is privilege. Is it as blatant as a “No Blacks Need Apply” sign? Of course not. The privilege has become more subtle.
Justice Department data tells us that black and Latino males are two to three times more likely to be stopped by police and searched for drugs, even though white men are up to four times more likely to have drugs on them.
Many generations of privilege have left whites with a financial advantage too. Young black couples just out of college start out on average with one-fifth the net worth of similar white couples. Their ability to start their own business, to finance further education for themselves or their kids, and to put money down on a home will all be less than that of the white couple.
The mistake people make is to think that history stops and starts with each new generation. But what happens in one generation affects the next, and the next, until some social force pushes back. It’s not like a video game where you hit reset and we start over again with each generation.
Cook: Why do you think so many white Americans deny the existence of privilege?
Wise: One reason is that most people want to believe they are living in a just society. Another is that to acknowledge the truth would call upon us to make some tough changes, and people are afraid to give up their advantage. It can also be psychologically harmful to confront the fact that one is benefiting unfairly from the system. The first thing whites tend to do, when they open their eyes to their own privilege, is fall into guilt and self-flagellation, and that isn’t helpful. This becomes another reason not to confront the truth.
White denial isn’t new. It has always existed. In the early sixties, when we were an apartheid nation, polls found most whites didn’t think there was a problem. In 1963 two-thirds of whites thought blacks were treated equally. Every generation of white Americans, by and large, hasn’t believed the problem to be real.
What is so disturbing to me about white denial is that we are denying the reality of other people’s experiences. We are saying to people of color that what they think they experience is not what they actually experience. It’s true that not every allegation of racism is well-founded. People can make mistakes of interpretation, and none of us is a perfect chronicler of his or her life. But white deniers are saying that people of color are hypersensitive, that they overreact and “play the race card.”
Cook: Is racism a natural part of being human? Are we born with racist tendencies?
Wise: We are naturally predisposed to notice height, weight, eye color, skin color, facial features, hair texture. And there is probably a human tendency to favor those who are more like oneself. But there is a difference between that and having antipathy toward other groups. Also, the focus on skin color doesn’t make sense to me. We have elevated its importance because powerful elites decided to do so. Skin color hasn’t always been a primary concern. The Greeks viewed the African kingdoms as far superior to Europeans, whom they thought were slow and stupid, even though they were closer in skin color to the Greeks. In the colonies that would become the United States, white indentured servants and African slaves worked, lived, slept, and played together — and some in the Virginia colony even conspired together to overthrow their masters. The elites needed a way to divide them, so they extended the notion of supremacy to servants of European descent and passed laws to segregate the races.
In a way segregation laws themselves are proof that racism isn’t natural. If people naturally refused to associate with other races, there would be no need for laws to keep them apart.
Cook: What is your response to people who say race is a social construct, an illusion, and that they don’t “see” it?
Wise: It is a biological illusion, but it’s a social fact. There were no witches in Salem in 1692, but women died because people thought there were. There may not be separate races of humanity, but skin color has been given social meaning that affects people’s lives. It’s a sign of privilege for whites to say they are going to view people of color only as people. If I don’t see their race, I’m not going to see their lives as they really are. I’m seeing them as abstract “human beings,” not as people who’ve had certain experiences. I’m going to miss or misunderstand how their experiences have shaped them. Civil-rights leader Julian Bond said years ago that to be blind to color is to be blind to the consequences of color, and especially the consequences of being the wrong color in America. It would be like pretending not to notice that some people are disabled: if we don’t notice disabilities, we aren’t likely to build a ramp so the disabled can enter a building.
When you are in the majority, you come to take your experience as the universal experience, as opposed to a culture- specific, gender-specific, class-specific experience. We whites view ourselves as the norm. In workshops I ask people to tell me honestly who they see in their mind when I say, “all-American boy,” or, “all-American girl.” Most acknowledge that they see a white person with blond hair and blue eyes. Even people of color tell me this at times.
We like to think that Western civilization is civilization. The introduction of people of color and women to the literary canon at universities strikes some as “political correctness,” an assault on tradition. But what are the odds that all the greatest books ever written were written by white men only?
Cook: OK, but shouldn’t we talk about what all races have in common?
Wise: Yes, but we have to talk about difference in order to understand sameness. We may all bleed the same color — as people say in homilies — but some of us bleed a lot more than others. We all need water and food and resources, but some of us get them and some don’t, and that’s the result of many deliberate decisions made over long periods of time.
Cook: What about calls for practicing tolerance and diversity? Are they enough?
Wise: Tolerance and diversity are fine, but they are surface changes. Diversity tends to mean we whites learn a little more about people of different races, but we don’t examine our own way of doing things or what we take for granted or how we marginalize others. When whites celebrate diversity, we tend to ignore racism. I was invited once to a Minnesota college for “Diversity Day.” The white students who picked me up insisted there was no real racism on campus. I asked them how they knew there was no racism, and they said that they had a policy called “Minnesota nice,” which meant you treated people the way you wanted to be treated. The people of color I spoke to said “Minnesota nice” meant that if they wanted to challenge discrimination or injustice, they were going to be viewed as instigators who were creating an issue where there wasn’t one. Sometimes tolerance and diversity smooth over problems without fixing them.
Cook: You have said that white privilege creates anxiety for white Americans, but it seems as if privilege would create a sense of safety and relaxation.
Wise: It can do both. On the one hand, it gives you a sense of security and entitlement. On the other hand, once you are king of the hill, you’re worried about being knocked off. In some ways you end up feeling more anxiety about keeping what you have than you felt about getting it. After World War II, our nation was filled with fear that the Soviet Union was coming to take our resources and wealth. That’s the king-of-the-hill mentality. If you have all the power, any potential reduction in power is seen as catastrophic.
Cook: Once white Americans have accepted that racism exists and have begun to break out of the shell of white denial, what’s next? And how do whites avoid slipping back into a privileged role?
Wise: Until society changes, privilege will be there, regardless of whether or not you’re aware of it. What we can do is resolve to look for it. We can say that we’re not going to wait until evidence of privilege slaps us in the face; we’re going to pay attention. When I’m out shopping or getting on an airplane or driving down the street, I try to keep my eyes open for evidence of white privilege. Sometimes I slip back into being unconscious, and I’ll go days without paying attention. You can’t be the perfect resistance fighter all the time. But I think we have to try to be more alert and aware and resolve to do something about privilege when we see it.
George W. Bush mangled the English language with regularity and still became president. If Barack Obama had mispronounced words the way Bush did, would he have been given the same degree of slack?
Cook: What do you do when you see injustice?
Wise: If I’m out shopping, let’s say, and I notice an act of racial profiling or customer-service racism, I feel it’s important for me to speak out. It’s better to protest collectively, because then it’s not written off as one crazy radical making a scene, but if you’re alone and have to do it, then I say, Do it.
The ability to speak up requires practice and thinking ahead: What would I do if such-and-such happened? When I was young and new to this work, I made a list of all the times I’d seen racism and hadn’t spoken up. Being able to look and see where I’d fallen short helped me. If that happened again, how could I do it better? What would I say now? The more you think it through and practice it in your mind, the less frightening it becomes. I’ve even practiced in front of the mirror and role-played with friends.
Cook: In your book White like Me, you compare our past to an unwelcome relative who’s come to stay with us over the holidays. If the past is a guest in our lives, then how do we practice hospitality toward it?
Wise: You don’t have to embrace the past, but you have to make peace with it, just as you do with family members. We have to recognize that each generation is damaged by the one prior to it, and this damage goes way back. Making peace also means understanding that the past is more complex than you’ve been led to believe. Some of my ancestors owned slaves, but there’s also an antiracism tradition in my family. We have to connect to the alternative tradition of resistance. In most white families there have been people who have stood up against racism. Maybe they didn’t make the news, but in their own lives or families they stood up. My mother was never an activist, but she took special pains to raise me in a way that ran counter to her own family’s racism. Elizabeth Angel, a relative of mine several generations back, convinced her parents to free their slaves. I make peace with my past by recognizing that there was both good and bad.
I’m interested in those unheralded whites who spoke out, like the Grimke sisters, who were abolitionists, and Jeremiah Evarts, who was a leading opponent of the removal of indigenous peoples from the Southeast. I’m talking about the whites who stood up not just against Jim Crow and segregation but also against the theft of Mexico and the slaughter in the Philippines. The fact that we don’t know their names — and I could list thirty more — says to me that we aren’t interested in honoring real heroism. Instead we have chosen to praise and follow as examples the people whose faces appear on the currency. The twenty-dollar bill has Andrew Jackson’s face on it. Jackson ordered the forced migration of indigenous people that Evarts opposed. Having Jackson on the money is to a Native American what having Hitler on the money would be to a Jew. People will criticize me for that analogy, but they are able to do so only because the perspective of whiteness says that Jackson was “a product of his time.” He scalped indigenous people and kept their skins as trophies. How is that not seen as barbarism?
The fact that there were whites who opposed slavery suggests that any white person of that era could have resisted. Abolitionists were not superior, evolved human beings; they simply looked at the situation and came to the obvious conclusion that slavery was wrong. That more whites didn’t is their shame.
Lastly we can make peace with the past by recognizing that good people can still do great evil. Oppression, genocide, and murder are often committed by people who otherwise can be good. Once we come to realize that, we become a lot less smug about our own goodness and more aware of the evil we participate in every day.
Cook: Why are the resisters always in the minority?
Wise: When injustice benefits you, you have a material interest in not challenging it. And, as James Baldwin said, whites who stand up against racism run the risk of being turned away from the “welcome table” of white society and becoming pariahs. That is a real fear, because no one wants to lose his or her social connections. So only a few people — usually ones who are more privileged, ironically — are likely to speak out.
Another reason few people speak up is that we have a learned helplessness around social change. When I point out examples of white privilege, people will say to me, “That’s true, but what can we do about it?” When I was circulating anti-apartheid petitions in college, some people wouldn’t sign — not because they approved of apartheid, but because they wondered what difference signing would make. Most people won’t commit to anything unless they’re sure it will pay off. We’ve become skeptical about the possibility of change and don’t spend enough time envisioning what society should look like.
Cook: What would a racially just society look like?
Wise: It’s hard to know, because I’ve never seen one. I imagine one indication would be when I could look around a neighborhood and not be able to tell, by virtue of which businesses were there and which were not, and what the houses looked like, who lived there. Because right now I can recognize signs of economic deprivation and apartheid and racial inequity almost immediately. When I can no longer do that, I will know things have changed.
Cook: Do you think we will get there?
Wise: There are days when I’m pretty skeptical about the chances, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. People of color have to fight racism every day. My guess is it will always be a distinct minority that challenges injustice in any society. But the good news is we don’t need a majority. All the social change we’ve seen in our nation’s history has happened because of an active minority. A minority called for the abolition of slavery. A minority demanded fair labor laws and child-labor laws and the forty-hour workweek. A distinct minority brought down legal apartheid in the U.S.: only two hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., in 1963, and polls around that time showed that as many as three-fourths of whites said blacks were pushing for too much, too fast. A year later the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Cook: I’d like to mention a few events and ask you to give me your immediate take on them. Let’s start with September 11, 2001.
Wise: A wake-up call. White Americans were shocked to learn that there are a lot of people in this world who don’t like us. People of color were just as upset on 9/11, but they were not shocked that people hate us. Privileged whites had to realize that this bubble of innocence we’d created around ourselves wasn’t going to keep us safe.
Cook: Hurricane Katrina.
Wise: A missed opportunity. Here was a chance for us to stare racism in the face, and we did it for about a minute, but then everybody went back to sleep. Within three months whites were saying that they didn’t think the devastation in New Orleans had anything to do with racial inequality, whereas 95 percent of blacks said it did. Contrary to the popular perception that the media held politicians’ feet to the fire after Katrina, most journalists repeated false stories about black criminality, which reinforced stereotypes and undermined whatever sympathy other Americans had for the people of that city. Three weeks later the news media issued retractions, saying there had been no murders or rapes, but most people didn’t hear the retractions.
Cook: The border wall being constructed between Mexico and the U.S.
Wise: Selective enforcement. We have another, longer border to our north, and we’re not building a wall there. This isn’t about border integrity but about keeping certain people out. If we were really serious about maintaining our culture, then we would want to keep out those crazy Canadians. [Laughter.]
I have a lot more in common with people to our south than I do with, say, Croats, but during the Serbo-Croatian war we greeted Croatian refugees at the airports and helped them find jobs. We didn’t do that for Salvadorans escaping war in their country — a war that we’d started.
Cook: Sean Bell, an unarmed black man shot fifty times by New York City police, who were acquitted in 2008.
Wise: Typical. This sort of thing happens regularly, and there are rarely any consequences. The reality is that thousands of black and brown people have been killed by law-enforcement officers. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was routine. Until we have the same level of outrage about this as we do about crime — maybe even more outrage — we’re not going to see much progress.
Obama’s presidency . . . will have little impact on racism in our society. When Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister of Pakistan, it didn’t end sexism there.
Cook: After President Obama was elected last November, Congressman John Lewis — a civil-rights leader — said Obama’s election was a “nonviolent revolution.” African American film director Spike Lee said, “This changes everything.” And Forbes magazine published an essay titled “The End of Racism.” How do you interpret the election of Barack Obama?
Wise: For John Lewis and Spike Lee, Obama’s election can’t be anything but meaningful; of course it changes everything. But for Forbes to say racism has ended is entirely different. Forbes is written, published, and edited by people who played little role in the progress of the last fifty years. I question their motivation for proclaiming the end of racism.
Obama’s presidency changes everything because it is something none of us could have foreseen twenty years ago. But it also changes nothing, because I predict it will have little impact on racism in our society. When Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister of Pakistan, it didn’t end sexism there. If I were to say that India and Israel and Great Britain have no sexism because all have had female heads of state, would my comment even be taken seriously?
The success of individual persons of color does not change reality for the rest of the approximately 90 million people of color in the U.S. In a way it is easier for a person of color to become president than for a person of color to become, say, the head contractor in rebuilding after Katrina. In an election you need only a slight majority to win, and the bigots’ votes can be canceled out. But a job interview is often with only one person, and if that interviewer has any racial bias whatsoever, the odds are that a person of color won’t get the job.
Oprah Winfrey, when she gave her endorsement of Obama, said that he was the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. I can’t fully experience her excitement, of course, because I’ve never thought that I couldn’t be president. Black parents can now tell their children that becoming president is a realistic possibility. That is a real change. At the same time, Dr. King’s dream was a lot bigger than a few blacks’ becoming billionaires or president. It was about the eradication of institutional racism and oppression for all people. At the time of his death, King’s dream was to end the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. None of those are items on Obama’s agenda, so how can he be the fulfillment of King’s dream?
Cook: Some have said that, for them, Obama “transcends race.” What does it mean for a black man to transcend race?
Wise: I think what we really mean is that he’s “less black” than other black people, which is the same as saying that there’s something wrong with being black. What it says to other people of color is, You’d better be just like Barack Obama. What if I’m black but don’t speak the same Harvard-educated English? Am I less intelligent? Probably not, but I might be viewed as such.
Something similar happened in the 1980s with Bill Cosby, another black man whom white Americans found they could love. Bill Cosby’s sitcom character Cliff Huxtable was black, but none of the scripts dealt specifically with his race. Even though he had African art on his walls and wore sweat shirts from historically black colleges, he was racially neutered.
Cook: More than 90 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama. Some might say that’s racism in reverse, voting for someone simply because of the color of his skin.
Wise: I think the percentage was 96 percent, and if Hillary Clinton had been running, she would have gotten 94 percent. For the last forty years the vast majority of black voters have supported the Democratic Party. Early on in the primaries, Clinton had more black supporters than Obama. It wasn’t until Obama became a viable candidate that black voters started listening to him and realizing they liked him. Black-voter turnout would have been less if he hadn’t been the candidate, but I think the percentages would have been fundamentally the same.
Don’t forget that blacks have been voting for white candidates for a long time. Had the Republican candidate been black and the Democrat white, some blacks would have voted for the Republican out of excitement to have a black candidate, but I suspect most would have gone Democratic.
Neither would I say that whites who didn’t vote for Obama are racists. If you’re a conservative, naturally you’re going to vote against Obama. Most Republicans would have voted against Obama even if he’d been white and his first name had been Fred. On the other hand, some whites who hadn’t voted before came to the polls just to stop the black man from being elected, and that is racist.
Cook: Would it be so wrong for African Americans to vote for a candidate because he or she shared their cultural background? It’s no secret that Catholics loved JFK in part because he was Catholic, or that candidates from the South appeal to Southerners.
Wise: I don’t think African Americans voted for Obama just because he’s black, but I think they were excited to have a black candidate. Many Jewish voters got excited about Senator Joe Lieberman in 2000 when he was Al Gore’s choice for vice-president, even if they didn’t share his politics. If the presidential nominee were a former steelworker, then I’m sure working-class voters in the Northeast would have been ecstatic about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. If whites think there is, it’s evidence of our privilege. We have never been the group not in the room.
A white man can go on a shooting spree in a school, and no one asks, “What’s wrong with white people?” When crime is white, we deracialize it. The shooter’s race is considered irrelevant. We’re not color-blind: we’re white-blind.
Cook: Last year black columnist Walter Williams published an essay titled “Getting beyond Race.” In it he argues that black Americans have succeeded; they have reached the mountaintop. In 2005 black Americans earned nearly $650 billion. He cites countless black CEOs, former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, and, of course, President Obama as evidence that racism has ended. He says that black Americans have problems, such as a 70 percent illegitimacy rate, but those problems are their own fault.
Wise: Walter Williams has been saying the same thing since the eighties. There have always been people of color in every generation saying, “Let’s not focus on race.”
Are all the problems blacks face the result of racism? No. All people are capable of making bad choices and must take responsibility for them. That is the part of Williams’s essay I agree with. But so many problems blacks face are out of their control. They can’t control whether they’re racially profiled, for example. Williams names many powerful black people in that essay. But the fact that he can make such a list says to me that it’s not the norm for blacks to be in power. If I were to ask him to make a list of powerful white people, then I’d hope he had nothing else to do for the next few months.
The statistic about out-of-wedlock-birth rates is deceptive. Williams wants people to see that number as evidence of black sexual irresponsibility, but the rise is actually due to a decline in the number of babies born to married black couples over the last fifty years. When black two-parent families have fewer children, it drives up the percentage of out-of-wedlock births.
Cook: There’s a stereotype that African American students don’t value education as much as their white counterparts. What do you say to that?
Wise: What the research says is that people of color have at least the same, if not greater, aspirations for educational achievement. Black students work just as hard on their homework, and their parents are just as likely to push them to get good grades. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which was a twenty-year study, lower-income black kids are more likely to put emphasis on schooling than lower-income white kids, who are more fatalistic about their chances. There is also more perseverance and resilience among kids of color. If white kids bomb on a standardized test, it tends to make them more despondent, because they think the test is valid. The black kids, because they know the test is bullshit and doesn’t accurately measure anything, are less likely to believe that the test results reflect how smart they are.
Whites in general are more nonchalant about schooling, particularly white males, who answer “no” more often than any other group when asked if it’s important to do well in school. Yet white males still wind up running things. George W. Bush bragged about having been a C-minus student at Yale. Only a white man could have done that and gotten away with it. If a politician of color were to go in front of students and say it’s OK to be a C student, we would accuse him or her of encouraging failure and not valuing education.
Cook: You mentioned before that white couples are likely to start out with more money because their parents had more money. How much of white privilege is traceable to wealth? Do you see the redistribution of wealth as a possible solution?
Wise: A lot of it is traceable to wealth. The good news is that in the last thirty years some income gaps have shrunk, but the wealth gap — which includes inheritance — is still massive. A young white couple and a young black couple, both just out of college, might have the same income, but the black couple’s starting off in a hole, because the white couple’s families are more likely to give them a down payment on a house or financial support of some sort.
The reason whites have those greater assets is because the government passed policies that subsidized white wealth accumulation. Government assistance programs, such as the Federal Housing Authority and Veterans Administration loan programs and the GI Bill were in theory open to everyone but in practice limited to whites. We need a new GI Bill for people of color, so that those who were deprived then can now have access. It’s not so much redistribution of wealth as correcting the unfair distribution already in place. If people of color had the same access to housing — just housing alone, forgetting income, jobs, and education — then they would have $100 billion more in assets. We can disagree on how to restore equality, but society needs to begin to do it.
Cook: Are there differences in race relations in the South as compared to other parts of the nation?
Wise: There are differences in style and form but not in degree of racism. In other parts of the country racism exists in the same abundance, but it looks different. In the Midwest they generally don’t talk about race, and that creates a lot of tension there. People of color in the San Francisco Bay Area have said to me that it’s one of the most racist places in the country. They say that white liberals think they are on black people’s side, but really they have no idea what black people’s struggles are, and their own liberal activism is concentrated in all-white circles.
One thing I can say about the South is that Southerners know race is an issue, and that’s half the battle. I can go to the University of Alabama and give a talk, and not everybody will agree with what I say, but they will all understand the concepts, because it is a subject they are used to talking about. It’s in our water, in our blood. The first time I went to California, on the other hand, they asked me why I was there and said I should go back home to the South, where the problem was. Yet it was California — not Mississippi or Tennessee — that had just passed an anti-immigration bill and was banning affirmative action.
Cook: If you ran the media, what would you have them say?
Wise: Traditionally the media try to tout people of color who have achieved a lot, but you can’t counter stereotypes with individual success stories. During Black History Month I could read about twenty amazing black people in history yet still view the five thousand who live across town from me in the projects as stereotypes. You can get rid of stereotypes only when people in the majority come to have personal relationships with those being stereotyped, which means that headlines can’t do it. The only way it gets broken down is by knowing people.
The people of color who get attention in the media are either dangerous criminals or superstar athletes, politicians, and entertainers. If I’m like most whites, the criminal scares me, and the superstar elicits envy. Neither envy nor fear is a positive emotion. How many average black people do most whites see on TV? Bill Cosby’s original concept for his show was for Cliff Huxtable to be middle-class. The networks made him change the character to a doctor. They said a middle-class black family wouldn’t work with white audiences. Meanwhile Roseanne gave us a dysfunctional, working-class white family for seven seasons. We need to see more blacks and Latinos and Asians on TV living normal, everyday lives.
Then there’s the fact that when people of color engage in deviant behavior, their race is always pointed out in the media. A white man can go on a shooting spree in a school, and no one asks, “What’s wrong with white people?” When crime is white, we deracialize it. The shooter’s race is considered irrelevant. We’re not colorblind; we’re white-blind. We ought to point out white criminals’ race, just to let whites see how ridiculous it is to racialize pathology.
Whites are so afraid of black crime that they move to the suburbs, believing it to be safer there. Then they have to commute to and from work, when the data says you are far more likely to die or be seriously injured in a car accident than to be the victim of a violent crime. Yet whites feel safer on busy, congested roads than on city sidewalks.
Michigan State University has had three riots in the last decade, all fueled by alcohol abuse and a loss by the university’s basketball team, and the rioters were almost all white kids. If you look at the videos, you see hardly any faces of color in the crowd — just drunk white kids throwing bottles and rocks. And no one shoots them. If these had been black kids rioting and throwing things at cops, people would have died. The white kids had T-shirts printed up that said, “Absolut Riot,” with the date on them, and they wore them around campus. This mentality of privilege can be destructive.
I refer to today’s racism as “Racism 2.0.” It’s the kind that says we like black and brown people — if they are enough like us. We like Obama because he “transcends race.” This is a much more subtle kind of racism.
Cook: Are there people whose stories give you hope?
Wise: The person who is the most inspirational to me lately is Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Here’s a man who for thirty years has worked in relative obscurity to make life better for people of color on the South Side of Chicago, and, by extension, in the nation. He was thrust into the spotlight by the media’s desire to find something controversial about Obama and his background. They took Wright’s words out of context and spliced them together in videos, turning him into a caricature of himself. The fact that he maintained his dignity and refused to apologize is an amazing testimony to his character. Wright talks about U.S. history without apology or sugarcoating, even though he knows he will be vilified and misunderstood. Seeing him do that keeps me in the fight.
Cook: What do you think people of color wish white Americans knew?
Wise: What people of color tell me is that they wish we knew our own perceptions are not objective. Like everyone else, we whites are looking through a lens of culture and experience that distorts perception. They don’t necessarily want us to know what it’s like for them; they just want us to see that our point of view is as subjective as theirs.
Cook: How do racial-justice activists of color view you?
Wise: Some thank me. Most people of color who do this work are glad I’m doing it too, but they also wish whites would take them every bit as seriously as they take me. If you’ve been trying without luck to get white people to listen to you for years, and now a white man steps up and says the same thing you’ve been saying all along, and white people listen, then you’re going to get upset. I try to be mindful of that and make sure I give credit to the people of color who’ve taught me most of what I know and have mentored me and brought me to this point.
Cook: How can white activists help black activists rather than taking over or stealing the spotlight?
Wise: I’ve worked with a white antiracism group in Seattle that asked activists of color, “What can we do to help without being paternalistic?” The activists of color said they needed them to provide child care and cook meals and make phone calls, but they didn’t need whites at their meetings. The white activists were taken aback, but they realized that being an ally sometimes means freeing other people up to do what they need to do. It may not seem political or radical to cook and baby-sit, but it furthers the other activists’ work. Being an ally to oppressed and marginalized groups requires asking, and listening, and understanding. And it takes practice. You might make mistakes, and somebody might get pissed, but relationships are messy. You can’t sulk and give up. The person of color probably expected you to screw up. No big deal. Pick yourself up, and try again.
Cook: Even with all the work you’ve done, do you still catch yourself having racist thoughts or behaviors?
Wise: Sure. Once I got on an airplane with two black pilots, and my immediate reaction was Can they fly the plane? I caught myself and realized that of course they could. But the thought was there, and I had to acknowledge it. There are times when I’m supposed to talk to someone in charge about an event, and if it’s a person of color, I’m sort of surprised. Why did I assume the person would be white? I’ve done that with gender too, if the person in authority is a woman.
We have to be honest with ourselves and realize we’re conditioned to have certain reactions, and that doesn’t make us bad people, as long as we catch ourselves. It helps to tell our story, because it allows other people to share theirs. Nobody is going to want to tell the truth unless somebody else goes first. When I give a talk, I’ll go first and hope the audience will follow.
Cook: You have two young daughters. When they are grown, do you think their generation will be having this same conversation about race?
Wise: My hope is that the conversation will be somewhat different. In one sense it will have to be different, because if in thirty-five years we won’t have made any progress, then I think the relationship between whites and people of color will have become untenable.
My guess is that the conversation will always change. What we can’t afford to do is allow the shifting of the conversation to be mistaken for an end to racism. Racism will change its shape. I refer to today’s racism as “Racism 2.0.” It’s the kind that says we like black and brown people — if they are enough like us. We like Obama because he “transcends race.” This is a much more subtle kind of racism. I think that there will be a version 3.0 and a 4.0. The issue will shift, but the problem will still be there. We’re not done with the conversation.