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Solly Mack Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat May-22-10 04:47 PM
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(Tim) Wise on Racism
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Some essays for people to explore. Enjoy!

But I Can Explain" : Racism and the Culture of Denial

The cry of "I'm not a racist, but..." could be a new stanza in the national anthem. It is America's collective cliche. No one is a racist. Black and Latino poverty or that of Southeast Asian immigrants couldn't possibly be the consequence of economic decline, wage stagnation, or discrimination. Everybody gets a fair shot so if they can't cut it, the fault lies not in our institutions, but with theirs: their ghettoes, their penchant for Malt Liquor and crack cocaine, their lack of a work ethic, and now perhaps their defective, intellect-starved DNA.


Even when David Duke got nearly sixty percent of the white vote for U.S. Senate and almost fifty-five percent of the white vote for Louisiana Governor one year later, the voices of denial assured us Duke's supporters weren't racists. They were just "tired of business as usual," and wanted to "send Washington a message." That the message they had in mind might have been a bit more sinister than "Gee whiz, here's a great guy who supports term limits," was entirely overlooked as a possibility.

Passing the Buck and Missing the Point: Don Imus, White Denial and Racism in America

As in, "Yes, what Imus said was horrible, and mean-spirited" (and sometimes we'll even admit, racist, although several were unable to verbalize this word), "but he does wonderful charity work," or runs "a camp for kids with cancer."

As in, "Yes, what Michael Richards said was awful and racist, but he was heckled and just lost control" (actually, witnesses say he started in on black audience members before they had said anything to him, so this excuse is not only flimsy, in any event, it's also a lie).

As in, "Yes, those white officers who shot Amadou Diallo were wrong, but it's tough being a cop in a dangerous neighborhood."

As in, "Yes, the founding fathers mostly owned slaves and were racists, but they were just products of their time and can't be judged by the standards of today"--an argument that is thoroughly offensive, since, after all, admonitions against theft and murder (both of which were implicated in the slave system) have been around for thousands of years. Not to mention, the idea that "everyone felt that way back then" is false: the slaves certainly didn't, and neither did white abolitionists

Rationalizing the Irrational:Racism and the Fallacy of Personal Experience

Personal Experiences and the Problem of Selective Memory

First, those who rationalize their racism on the basis of their personal experiences with members of the group they dislike, are being highly selective when it comes to the experiences from which they think we should draw conclusions. After all, if their negative experiences with blacks "prove" that blacks are bad people, then by definition, anyone who had had good experiences with black people would be able to say that all blacks are good people: an argument every bit as silly, but just as logical, given the original line of reasoning.

Or, if having been violently victimized in a black neighborhood by a black person proves that black people are dangerous, I could reply that since I have never been victimized by a black person in a black neighborhood--even when I worked in nearly all-black public housing projects, or lived in a neighborhood that was seventy percent African American--that blacks are therefore guaranteed to be no threat to me, ever. In fact, since I have been the victim of black criminals, but only in neighborhoods that were mostly white and fairly affluent, following the rationale of those who think personal experience is all that matters, I could argue--incorrectly of course--that poor black neighborhoods are the safest ones around, and that people should avoid affluent white areas at all costs.

Second, to draw conclusions about large groups (in the case of black folks, some 36 million people, and for Latinos, another 37 million or so in the U.S.), based on one's experiences with a handful of people from those groups is the very definition of statistical illiteracy. Even if you had encountered dozens of folks from a particular group who, for whatever reason, had rubbed you the wrong way, this would be such a small and obviously unrepresentative sample, that to reach any conclusions about that group as a whole would be absurd. This is among the reasons that it's nonsensical to harbor generalized dislike or suspicion of Muslims, as Muslims, or Arabs as Arabs, in the wake of 9/11. After all, nineteen such persons, out of 1.5 billion Muslims on planet Earth and hundreds of millions of Arabs is the walking, talking definition of an unrepresentative sample. Not to mention, we never reach generalized conclusions about whites when they engage in acts of terrorism, and indeed, did not in the wake of Oklahoma City, or the crimes of the Unabomber, or the Olympic Park Bomber, or any of the dozens of abortion clinic bombings over the past two decades, all of which were committed by whites, so far as we can tell.

Which points up the biggest flaw in the thinking of racist whites, who call upon their personal experiences with people of color so as to justify their bigotry: namely, how many bad experiences with other whites are such folks forgetting, which didn't lead them to generalize about white folks as a group? Studies have found that we tend to remember stereotype-confirming behavior in those who are considered different, while ignoring the many times members of our own group did the same things, because in the latter instance, such behavior doesn't trigger a pre-existing mental schema, or set of beliefs, that can be applied to explain the behavior. So whites can do all the same things as blacks, but still be viewed as individuals, while blacks who do anything negative are viewed through a racial group lens. Social conditioning is critical here: by training our minds to not only see differences--which they would see anyway, and categorize as a matter of evolutionary psychology--but also to attach dualistic value judgments to those categories in terms of better/worse, superior/inferior, etc., the culture in which we live has led us away from the ability to think critically, and ultimately in a rational manner about these kinds of things.

The Tyranny of Not-So-Independent Variables: Racism, Sexism and the Deceptive Social Science of the Far Right

The Politics of Place and Age: Whitewashing Racial Inequity in the Workforce

When it comes to racism, direct tests for discrimination--as with matched pair audits, where whites and people of color apply for jobs, having equal qualifications, as well as identical demeanors and communication styles--have long demonstrated, and virtually without fail, the persistence of anti-black and anti-Latino bias in the labor market. These types of studies are almost entirely ignored by conservatives. They have literally no answer for them--after all, if you send out black applicants with more qualifications than their white counterparts as part of a paired test (as several of these have done), and yet the whites get more job offers, or are offered more hours, on better terms than the persons of color, what explanation could there be, other than racial bias?--so they pretend that such studies don't exist. Rather, they concentrate on debunking income disparities between whites and blacks, much as with men and women, by pointing to ostensibly non-racial factors, independent of discrimination, that can explain the phenomenon.

In addition to those factors already discussed, such as education and experience levels (neither of which are truly independent of racism since both are contingent on prior opportunity or the decided lack thereof), conservatives add two more categories of consideration to explain away earnings gaps between whites and blacks: geographic differences in terms of where members of the two groups live, and average age differences between whites and those in the African American community.

Denial, Evasion Won't Solve Racism

Although I'm not psychic, I know what many readers are thinking right now. "Oh no, here we go again, someone else complaining about racism. Why do we have to talk about this? Isn't it time we moved on?" Well, no actually.

No matter how uncomfortable the topic, especially for those who are white like me, talking about racism and then actually doing something about it are the only ways to make the subject go away. It won't disappear just because we choose not to mention it. Indeed, the problem is not talking about racism but racism itself: a stain on our national psyche that has yet to be wiped clean, no matter that its most blatant manifestations -- slavery, Indian removal, Asian exclusion and segregation -- are many years past.

Contrary to popular belief, race is not merely a card played by those who wish to stir up resentment. Instead it is a real and persistent determiner of who has what and why in this country. To extend the metaphor of the card game, race too often determines who the dealer is, and who's getting dealt.

Past racism continues to have an effect in the present. Since whites were able to own property, procure loans, hold jobs and attend schools all of which were off-limits to people of color, the wealth accumulated by those previously privileged whites, elevated by law above all non-whites, has been passed down. Today, the typical white family has twelve times the net worth of the typical black family. In large measure this is due to the head start whites have been afforded in the race to accumulate assets.

The Truth is Rarely Pleasant: White Denial and Some Thoughts on Being "Divisive"

And we aren't supposed to challenge other whites about their racism, or the myriad institutional injustices that most of us accept passively, if not actively support. To do this, and to demand that whites deal honestly with the nation's legacy of racial oppression is to invite indignant charges that one is being "divisive."

This was made clear to me after my recent keynote address to the St. Louis Mayor's Conference on Racial Justice and Harmony, this past October. Though my speech was generally well received, with a standing ovation from at least 800 of the 1200 persons in the audience, there were apparently some in attendance who were not so pleased. And these few (all of them white) have been complaining loudly about my "divisive" rhetoric, which, according to these folks, makes racial harmony more difficult than ever.

What had I said to upset these dear souls? Who knows? Bitter memos sent around City Hall didn't specify, and the gossip columnist for the city's daily, The Post-Dispatch, who ran a blip on the "controversy" didn't elaborate either. But I would assume they were upset because I said, among other things, the following: backed up, of course, with statistical support:

--- First, it is whites who are in denial about the ongoing problem of racism, and this denial is itself a form of racism: a kind of white supremacy that says to people of color, "I know your reality better than you do;"

--- Secondly, the biggest barriers to harmony and racial justice are institutional racism and the existence of systemic white privilege in all walks of life; and finally,

--- "Diversity" and "tolerance" are not worth fighting for, unless accompanied by equity and justice: the first two are easy and meaningless, while the latter two take work.

To most people of color these positions are not that radical. But apparently there are still more than a few whites who get mightily offended by being reminded that we have some work to do -- both individually and collectively -- and until we do it, there will be no kumbaya chorus.

Tim Wise Essay Collection
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