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The Truth is Rarely Pleasant


Tim Wise

Having

been a white man for 32 years, I have learned there are some things white folks

aren’t supposed to say.

For

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.

And

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.

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, 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:

  • 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,

    "I know your reality better than you do;"

  • The

    biggest barriers to racial harmony and racial justice are institutional

    racism and the existence of systemic white privilege in all walks of life;

  • "Diversity"

    and "tolerance" are not worth fighting for, unless accompanied by

    equity and justice: the first two are easy and meaningless, the latter two

    take work;

To

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.

It’s

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:

  • Housing

    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;

  • This

    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

    neighborhoods;

  • From

    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;

  • Throughout

    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.

But

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.

Before

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.

Then

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.

Of

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.

So

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.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be

reached at [email protected]

 

 

 

 

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