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White Perceptions


This is an interaction lifted from the ZNet Sustainer Forum System. In addition to receiving daily commentaries ZNet Sustainers have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with many other activists and intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cynthia Peters, and many more. This post by Tim Wise was in response to a question asked by a ZNet Sustainer. There are thousands more in the ZNet Sustainer program. If you like this why not consider becoming a member.


To what extent do you consider it important to frame a movement against racism in a way that affects whites’ perceptions of blacks (or other races) in a positive way?

Not very. At least not as the means to an ends…precisely because progress on racism has never been related to how whites felt about black people. Rather, progress has come via movement activity forcing elites to make changes, whether or not the mass of whites supported such changes. None of the civil rights acts of the 1960′s were supported by the majority of whites. Neither was desegregation via the Brown v Board decision. And needless to say, neither was abolition of slavery. But interestingly, after laws were changed, more and more people (though admittedly not enough) came to accede to the new norm, and actually reduced their opposition to such laws and changes. Keep in mind, most people are conformist. They assume the laws are legitimate, and the state is legitimate. As a result, when activists force changes, over time (sometimes a very short time), most people come to at least passively accept those changes, and many even come to support them outright.

Never to my knowledge have most white people’s perceptions of blacks in this country been:

a. based on what blacks did or did not do.
b. that blacks were equally capable and deserving of opportunity
c. the key to whether or not progress would be made for black people.

No matter how blacks have “behaved” or what their demands have been , whites, especially elites, have found ways to explicate white superiority. So if slaves ran away, they were mentally ill and dangerous, but if they didn’t run away, they were happy and clearly inferior beings (since what rational person would accept bondage?). If blacks fought for their rights, they were agitators, commies, etc. but if they didn’t, they were docile, and “recognized their own limitations and the need for white guidance.” In other words, whites’ support for challenging racism has never been dependent on what blacks did or did not do.

For example, one of the arguments Horowitz uses against reparations is that it is racially divisive and will cause racial tensions to increase.I think he has a point, given that 90% of whites are opposed to the idea.

So what? At the time of the deseg descision in Brown, numbers about this high in the south opposed deseg. So should the court have ruled differently? Likewise, the majority of whites opposed the 1964 civil rights act, the voting rights act and fair housing act. Now, the majority opposes affirmative action…so should we get rid of AA, and should we have never passed the civil rights laws because they were divisive? The majority of men opposed (and perhaps still do) and equal rights amendment, but does that effect whether it is a good or bad idea? The majority opposes many of the ideas espoused by folks at Z, but does that fact impact whether they are ideas we should fight for?

It seems to me that much of what holds black people back is white’s perceptions of them, whether fearful, condescending, or whatever.

What holds people back is racism, and the power that white people have to put their fear into action.

So many white people are simply _afraid_ of black people, which will make people afraid to rent to them, or make police more on-edge in black neighborhoods and more likely to unjustly injure or kill someone.  And many whites perceive blacks as lazier or incompetent, so would be less likely to hire them or give bank loans to them, etc.

Right, and they have felt this way since long before anyone brought up reparations. These beliefs have been common among whites since the beginning of the country in one guise or another, no matter what black people did. They are irrational and ought not be pandered to. They should be challenged frontally. This has nothing to do with whether of not we should have reparations. If anything, we should be pointing out that much of the racism that animates white fear actually STEMS from slavery. After all, it was slavery that necessitated rationalization, so as to make the so-called belief in equality and freedom consistent with chattel ownership. So what was the rationalization developed? Racism: the belief that blacks were inferior, dangerous, etc. In other words, slavery itself, and the apartheid system that followed CREATED anti-black racism, anti-black fear, etc. As such, a debate over reparations and the effects of slavery may be the ONLY way to actually unseat those fears, by going back to their root, and looking at how slavery effected and distorted white folks as well, by skewing our perceptions of our fellow human beings.

So isn’t correcting these perceptions key in fighting racism?

Nope…not historically. Forcing power concessions and changing laws is the key. Perceptions follow institutional realities, not the other way around, typically.

 And mightn’t it be more productive sometimes to be less divisive, even if that sometimes will give a less pure form of justice in the short-term?

But what would be less divisive? Think about it. What other things could be pushed for? More aff action? Also divisive. A Marshall plan for the cities? Also divisive. More money for urban education? Not very popular. Even ending racial profiling creates howls of protest from law and order conservatives.

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