been a white man for 32 years, I have learned there are some things white folks
aren’t supposed to say.
example, we aren’t supposed to acknowledge that we have received, and continue
to receive substantial privileges, simply because of skin color: better job
opportunities, greater access to housing, better educational offerings and
partial treatment in the justice system.
we aren’t supposed to acknowledge the massive prejudice in our communities,
which leads at least a third of us to admit–and no doubt many more to feel this
way but not confess it–that we believe blacks are less intelligent than we are,
less hardworking, and more prone to criminality.
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
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.
had I said, exactly, 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:
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,
"I know your reality better than you do;"
biggest barriers to racial harmony and racial justice are institutional
racism and the existence of systemic white privilege in all walks of life;
and "tolerance" are not worth fighting for, unless accompanied by
equity and justice: the first two are easy and meaningless, the latter two
most people of color these positions are not that radical. But apparently there
are still some of my people 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.
interesting to note what upsets white folks, compared to that which doesn’t. On
the one hand, my words calling for an end to white privilege are seen as
divisive, but the privileges themselves are not; demanding an end to racism in
education, criminal justice, housing and employment is seen as divisive, but the
existence of said racism is not. Frankly, if the good folks in St. Louis, who
found my speech so troubling, are upset about "divisiveness," then
surely they could manage to focus their attention on the following facts, all of
which must be more divisive than anything I said, by a magnitude of thousands:
segregation has been so extreme in St. Louis over the years, that
approximately 75% of all blacks in the city live in neighborhoods that are
virtually all black, and disproportionately low income. The same is true, of
course, in many urban areas of the United States;
hypersegregation has been no accident, but the result of deliberate
discrimination by real estate appraisers, landlords, and mortgage lenders.
As far back as 1941, underwriters in St. Louis were complaining about the
"rapidly increasing Negro population," leading to massive
discrimination that was essentially legal for the next 27 years, and even
since, has persisted in more subtle forms. All across America this was the
case: blockbusting, redlining, steering, and outright intimidation intended
to prevent people of color from obtaining homes in more prosperous
1934-1960, whites moving to St. Louis area suburbs received five times more
government-underwritten FHA home loans than folks in the city, who were
increasingly people of color. This preferential treatment for whites
continues to have an effect today, as those homes pass to the descendants of
the original owners, and become accumulated wealth. Nationally, over $120
billion in housing equity was underwritten by the FHA during this time, and
only 2% went to African Americans;
the metropolitan area, children of color are roughly three times more likely
to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and have infant mortality
rates that are two-and-a-half times higher; figures that remain remarkably
consistent most any place you look in the country.
to some it isn’t the indicia of oppression that deserve our attention or
consternation; rather it is the pointing out of these grim realities; the
reminding of ourselves and others just how unequal things really are and why,
that gets folks bent out of shape. And it’s not just a few whites in St. Louis
who feel this way. No indeed: Two years ago, I was all but banned from Omaha,
Nebraska by the Mayor, who canceled a city-sponsored event rather than to allow
me to speak at the gathering. Later, when the event was rescheduled, it was
explained to me that he had been concerned I would "stir up trouble,"
and inject "divisiveness," into the city along racial lines, by
speaking on the anniversary of a racial lynching that had occurred 80 years ago.
my eventual speech to the Omaha Human Relations Commission, I had breakfast with
the Mayor, who afterward confided in me his love for black Omaha, regaled me
with tales of his many black friends, and made clear that he didn’t want me to
be "divisive," the way some of "those SNCC people" had been
back in the ’60’s. He didn’t actually come to my speech, but if he had, I’m sure
he wouldn’t have liked it much: especially the part where I mentioned how
divisive I thought his new policing strategy was; one about which he had bragged
actually, and which involves low-flying helicopters with bright flood lights,
swooping down over black homes throughout North Omaha. Nice, real nice.
there were the white students at Cal State-San Marcos, who, in 1997,
editorialized in the school’s paper against having a day of speeches on
racism–including a few by yours truly–and suggested that the "Unity
Day" events should be more upbeat and positive. We should focus on what
"brings us together," they insisted, not that "which keeps us
apart." Perhaps ethnic food and dancing, one suspects, but not those
"divisive" subjects like the state’s rollback of affirmative action,
or attack on immigrants.
course, the editors who penned this commentary neglected to mention the real
source of divisiveness surrounding this particular day: namely, the death
threats made against a black professor and myself by racist followers of Tom
Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, and the promise to detonate a bomb on campus
if the event wasn’t canceled. In retrospect, I guess it would have been less
"divisive" if I had just stayed home, the professor resigned her
position, and the event planners caved in to the Nazis. But if so, this just
indicates how meaningless the term really is, and how irrelevant it should be to
those working for justice.
to those persons of color who have been fighting the good fight, trying to force
those in power to heed your calls for justice, keep it up. What you are fighting
for is not divisive. It is that which you are fighting against that is the
problem. And remember that by our defensiveness, by our protestations of
innocence, by our denials that anything is wrong, my people are signing their
confession. They may not be able to handle the truth, but that doesn’t make it
any less factual.
Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be
reached at [email protected]