White America’s Dirty Little Secrets

Sometimes it’s best to just tell the truth. Even when it makes folks angry. In fact,

particularly then, because it’s at precisely those times that the truth is obviously

most in need of being spoken–otherwise resistance to it probably wouldn’t be so


Such has always been my feeling when it comes to discussions of race

and racism, where too often we skirt the real issues. So, for example, well-meaning mostly

white liberals praise "diversity," without addressing the institutional

injustices which caused and continue to cause a lack of diversity–in schools,

businesses, or certain neighborhoods–in the first place. Likewise, so-called

defenders of affirmative action who wanted to talk about anything but ongoing

racism in their tepid and ineffective opposition to Initiative 200 in Washington recently.

So too, those in the "tolerance training" business who treat racism as little

more than a personality flaw in need of adjustment, instead of a carefully cultivated

system of oppression to which good people often acquiesce.

These are folks who think it brave to condemn the lynching in Jasper,

or to ridicule the Klan, but think little of mortgage discrimination, racially-unequal

healthcare access, race and class tracking in public schools, or racially-biased police

practices across America–all of which exact a greater collective price on communities

of color than the Aryan Nations or a pack of skinheads ever have. This is not to say that

the organized white supremacist movement isn’t dangerous, just that real people are

being locked up now, shot at now, denied adequate schooling now, and

"ghettoized" now because of racism, by guys in suits and uniforms rather than

sheets, and yet the dear souls at the Southern Poverty Law Center among others say

nothing–they’re too busy keeping track of hate groups on the internet.

The importance of telling the truth about race issues was demonstrated

yet again to me last week, when I had the chance to sit on a panel in Knoxville, Tennessee

to discuss the question: "Is White America Responsible for Combating Racial


There was one moment where telling the truth became particularly

important during the evening’s discussion. Only a few minutes into the event, one of

the moderators asked whether white America "has any secrets that we should know

about?" In particular, he wanted to know if there were certain rules of the club, so

to speak, about which people of color are unaware, but about which they should know, in

order to more effectively organize against racism.

At first I thought about discussing the process of "white

bonding" that goes on when white folks who don’t know each other that well are

in an all-white setting, and issues of race come up. Whether it’s in a cab, a bar, a

park, a restaurant, or a college dorm room, whites almost instinctively assume every other

white person in the room thinks just the way they do, and proceed to cut loose with any

number of racial diatribes: about "those people" on welfare (CEO’s I ask?);

"those people" coming across the border (Canadians, I presume?); "those

people" who will shoot you at the drop of a hat (white schoolchildren in Arkansas, or

Oregon, I inquire?).

But I decided to share something else: a secret so deep that even most

whites don’t realize it to be true. A secret which has major implications for our

organizing efforts, but which is never discussed, and would be denied by most: namely,

that by and large white America doesn’t really want racial equity.

Although such a statement may not seem outlandish to Z readers, to most

it’s downright heresy. After all, think about how many times you’ve heard

someone say something like, "we all want the same thing, we just have different

beliefs about how to get there." Or, "I want everyone to have an equal

opportunity, I just don’t want government to force it," or to "confiscate

my wealth" to make more opportunity for others. Self-help, after all, is something

they insist they do support, and would love to see in communities of color, even if it

resulted in significantly greater equity in terms of good jobs, educations and homes in

"better" neighborhoods. "Lift yourselves up" they proclaim, and

we’ll be there to greet you.

But it’s a lie, and I felt it necessary to say so. And to

demonstrate just how fraudulent are the claims whites make about supporting equality so

long as it stems from self-help and not redistribution, I offered the following


Imagine that next week a group of twenty black families call a press

conference at the National Press Club to announce that for six generations since

emancipation, their families have been stashing away money, investing it and letting it

collect interest in banks around the country. And now, after all that scrimping and saving

they have decided to distribute the savings throughout the black community. As believers

in self-help and enterprise, they wish to "liberate" every African-American from

the "bonds" of government largesse and so they have saved and saved, and now

have enough to give to every black family approximately $40,000 free and clear. With that

money, they declare, the black community can get the job training and education it needs,

the health care it deserves, and buy a home in most any neighborhood. There are no strings

attached, no government matching funds expected–just black folks helping black folks,

without a dime of the white man’s money or one iota of government intervention.

How do you think, I asked the audience, most of white America would

respond to this announcement? With praise? Joy at the thought of blacks having roughly the

same accumulated wealth as whites (the average gap is about $40,000)? Would we have a

parade to honor the modern-day Booker T’s for their magnanimity and refusal to ask

for a handout for their people? Or would we react by and large in horror? Would we scream

"reverse racism," "discrimination," and accuse the benefactors of

fomenting "separatism?" If any of you honestly believe we would celebrate, I

then proceeded, let me suggest that you seek out professional help, and quickly.

Silence. Absolute silence. And then smiles crept across the faces of

the persons of color in attendance. They knew that perhaps the biggest secret of all in

the white community had just been shared, and for that matter made visible not just to

themselves, but to other whites who probably had never really contemplated just how

shallow white America’s commitment to racial equity really was. What was most amazing

was that simply stating this truth, clearly and without equivocation seemed to have a deep

impact on the whites in the audience. Had I been a person of color, I’m sure they

would have ignored me, or become hostile. But they didn’t. Instead, after the event

many approached me to say how much they appreciated hearing this perspective. Although

they found it troubling and more than a little pessimistic, they agreed that it was

true–even for themselves in many instances–and realized that they needed to get

more involved than ever talking with other whites, challenging our perceived racial

interests, and building a movement for social and economic justice. In many ways, they

said, their lethargy in this area had previously been the result of thinking there

wasn’t that much to do. They were no longer so sure.

Make no mistake, if it’s true that whites aren’t really

committed to racial equity then we obviously have a lot farther to travel than many

Americans currently believe. But even this fairly pessimistic reality can inspire us to

redouble our efforts: at least we can proceed without being blinded by those who say they

support our ends (equity) but not our means (affirmative action, living wage legislation,

workplace democracy, redistribution, etc.). If we are honest, and realize that an entirely

new and compelling vision has to be offered which can trump that offered by racial

privilege, then progress can be made. But that can never happen if we’re not willing

to tell the truth about racism, and certainly not if we run away from the discussion

altogether, or limit it to a discussion of "extremists" and Nazis. And that can

never happen until we–particularly whites–show other whites exactly what they

stand to gain from equity (and what they lose from racism) as workers, parents, neighbors,

and even taxpayers. For there is a flipside to racial privilege, and it’s none too

pretty: a growing gap between rich and poor which threatens all but a few; a crumbling

educational infrastructure; the expenditure of billions of dollars to incarcerate those

whom we deemed "throwaways" many years before; and the beggaring of millions of

white working people, willing to sacrifice material and communal interests for the sake of

staying ahead of people of color.

The bad news is still the bad news: institutional and attitudinal

barriers to true racial equity are everpresent and formidable. But there is good news:

when whites confront other whites about their fears, and are willing to challenge what

other whites say, think, and how they act when it comes to racial equity, movement is

possible. It won’t be easy, but then, nothing worth having is anyway.

Tim Wise is the Director of the newly-formed Association for White

Anti-Racist Education (AWARE), in Nashville, Tennessee. For more information, please

contact him at [email protected]

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