Motive and Opportunity: The Difference Between White and ÔOtherÕ Racism

Tim Wise


are few points made about racism that get folks as upset as the oft-heard and

repeated maxim by some, that only whites can be racist, because racism is a

power relationship, and only whites have institutional power–at least in the

United States.


let me note, I have never strictly adhered to this notion. After all, while

racism is a systemic framework of oppression and privilege, to which only the

dominant group typically has access, it is also–as an "ism"–an

attitudinal mindset (in this case of racial supremacy), to which, theoretically,

anyone can adhere. Yet, having said that, I should also point out that I do

think the power aspect of racism should preoccupy discussions of the subject,

and that the white racism that has the backing of said power should be the

principal area of concern for antiracists.


that simple admonition however, often proves too much for some to digest. The

idea that white racism should be seen as fundamentally different than the

"racism" of people of color is one many find unpalatable, or just

plain hard to defend, especially to those whose grounding in these subjects is

limited, and who tend to believe that prejudice is prejudice, and all should be

equally condemned.


long tried to explain with the help of quantitative data why white racism is

different, more problematic, and ultimately the racism issue, I was much

relieved a few months ago, when a news event in my home town developed that made

clear–far better than I had been able to do so–why we must give priority to

the racism of the pale and privileged, over and above the possible racism of

those of color.


probably didn’t hear about it on the news. It was, after all, a minor story,

considered noteworthy only for a few days even in the town where it happened. I

refer to the recent decision by a surgeon at Nashville’s St. Thomas Hospital

to abide by the bizarre wishes of a patient’s husband: namely that no black

man be allowed to assist in her heart surgery; one without which she would

surely have died. Previous doctors having refused to honor the racist

request–made because the husband didn’t want a black man to see his wife

naked–this family continued to search until they found someone to accede to

their wishes. Though he has since announced his regret for collaborating with

the exclusion of a black doctor from the surgery room, the lead surgeon touched

off a firestorm of controversy late last year when word got out of his decision.

His choice will no doubt be the subject of many a medical ethics discussion in

years to come.


the local media, the story was framed in one of two ways: either as proof of how

even today, some are still so racist they would put their own loved ones at risk

just to satisfy their bigotry; or, alternately, as a classic catch-22 faced by

the doctor. After all, if he refused, some reasoned, the husband might–as he

had previously–pull up stakes and head out the door in search of a doctor who

would cooperate, all to the detriment of his ailing spouse. Thus, some said, the

surgeon’s choice, though regrettable was ultimately a compassionate act,

intended to protect the life of the patient: a patient who apparently did not

share her husband’s prejudices, but who seemed intimidated by his volatility

on the subject.


aside the ethicality of the doctor’s decision, it seems to me that this

incident illustrates a number of important points. Of course there are still

vicious and slightly demented bigots, like the husband in this story, but for

most of us that is hardly news. And yes, the doctor faced a professional

dilemma, though one could imagine a scenario in which the physician, concerned

for the woman’s life, would tell the racist husband, "sure, I’ll go

along with your request," and then proceed to use whomever was available.

After all, the husband wasn’t going to be in the O.R., and in the end, he was

making an illegal request anyway. So lie to the husband, save the woman’s

life, and uphold professional ethics by refusing to collaborate with

discrimination as well: it’s a choice the doctor could have made, and given a

chance to do it all again probably would have made, but it too is not the point,

so far as I’m concerned.


what, exactly is the point? Well, I would say there are a few worthy of



the incident indicates that racism on the part of whites, even when the whites

in question are fairly disempowered in economic terms (and indeed this family

was low-to-moderate income at best), can often carry enough weight to be

enforceable, by institutions and powerful individuals. Though the doctor was

appalled at the request made of him, as he no doubt would have been had it come

from a black man, asking to keep whites out of the O.R., the fact remains that

his ultimate acceptance of the demand stands in contrast to what he likely would

have done had the man been black, seeking to keep white folks like himself from

being involved in the procedure. No black person, no matter how bigoted, or

indeed, financially powerful could have made such an absurd demand and expected

to have his or her wishes carried out: whites are not likely to ever go along

with requests to limit their own freedoms and opportunities.


as we can not logically imagine the black-bashes-white equivalent of The Bell

Curve being published by a major house, let alone being reviewed respectfully by

mainstream media sources, let alone becoming a best-seller (since the majority

won’t buy a book claiming they are genetic defectives), it is hard, if not

impossible to imagine people of color demanding the exclusion of whites from any

setting, and actually getting their wishes fulfilled. Such is the nature of

potent racism, versus its impotent counterpart, and such is the difference

between the racism of the dominant majority, and that of everyone else.


and far more importantly, is what this incident says about the importance of

institutional racism and inequity in making individual racism meaningful and

harmful in real world terms. Simply put, the doctor in this case went along with

the demand to exclude blacks from the operating room because he could. Given the

history of discrimination in access to the medical profession, including medical

schools, and the barriers to professional practice faced by too many people of

color, there exists today a limited number of such professionals from which to

draw. As such, excluding them from a particular hospital or procedure is hardly

a huge burden for the institution in question.


imagine what would likely happen if the situation were reversed, and a racist

black man had demanded the exclusion of whites from the O.R. It doesn’t strain

one’s imagination to realize that even if there were a doctor willing to agree

to such conditions, it would be virtually impossible for him or her to follow

through, precisely because whites–having received the opportunities needed to

enter the medical profession in disproportionate numbers–are pretty hard to

work around. "No whites" policies would result in a lot of empty

operating rooms, whereas "No blacks" policies require only a small

administrative headache at best, so few and far between are such professionals

in the first place.


other words, institutional racism is akin to the gasoline, allowing the

otherwise stationary combustion engine of individual racism to actually

function: the former gives the latter life, and the ability to impact others in

a meaningful and detrimental way. Without the power to enforce ones racism, or

expect it to be enforced or enforceable by others, that racism is largely



the same would be true in other realms of life, beyond medical and hospital

settings. Blacks who wish to avoid whites in their neighborhoods will typically

find themselves limited to the poorest, most crowded areas of town–places that

whites long ago abandoned–since finding Caucasian-free zones in more prosperous

suburbs can be a pretty tough task. Whites can more or less live wherever we

wish; if we are not to be found in a particular census tract you can bet it is

because we have chosen to be absent, or perhaps merely can’t afford it because

of the vagaries of the class system. Such cannot be said for why blacks are

often absent from more affluent areas, however. Money or no money, good credit

or bad, millions face discriminatory barriers in residential opportunity every



again, even if people of color despise whites and seek to avoid us, the ability

to do so will be directly constrained by the larger opportunity structure that

has skewed power and resources in our direction. Whites seeking to avoid blacks

and Latinos on the other hand, can do so readily, with the help of mortgage

discrimination, redlining, zoning laws and so-called "market forces"

pricing many blacks out of the better housing markets (even though we only got

into those markets because of government subsidies, and preferences both private

and public).


all reminds me of something a New Orleans-area skinhead said about ten years ago

to a reporter, when trying to explain why black racism against whites was the

"real problem" that needed attention: he noted that, thanks to

"black racism," whites wouldn’t be able to feel safe, standing on a

street corner in the inner-city for six hours at a time, so certain would they

be to become the victims of violent crime.


no doubt he was right. Black racism against whites, to the extent we can call it

that probably does limit the ability of whites to stand around in black

neighborhoods for six hours at a time. But seeing as how there aren’t a whole

bunch of us fighting for that particular privilege, its absence hardly indicates

a general state of disadvantage suffered by us unfortunate white folks. That

such an example of disadvantage was the best this "angry white man"

could come up with, is all the proof one should need that indeed, white

racism–though perhaps not the only kind out there–is certainly of a different

nature, both quantitatively and qualitatively than that of others. And

ultimately, it is the kind of racism that should preoccupy persons concerned

with slaying the beast for good.


Wise is a Nashville-based writer, activist and lecturer. He can be reached at [email protected].##

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