Tim Wise – not just a name

I’m floored.

I’m stunned.

Flabbergasted am I.

Over the past couple of days, a debate has popped up on the comment thread of this Monday’s think-piece about my strategies to combat racism. In brief, I stated three concrete approaches that I think will, over time, markedly improve racial dialogue and equality. A commenter expressed his feeling that while he thought my overall outline was good, that the philosophy underpinning it was false and counter-productive:

“But when we have 3 generations of emotional, white guilt laden liberals dominating the debate with no end in sight, sadly this will never happen. The systemic views of those who believe we live in a hugely unjust world will not allow it.”

The commenter was very adamant in his position that the reason for racial disparities was the fault of liberal policies and the mindset that non-white people face systematic discrimination the puts them immediately behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

“Once you realize that most Conservatives couldn’t give a damn about what race you are, and dont see things through the blinders of race/gender/class, the sooner you’ll realize that we could be closer to a society with completely marginalized racism.”

Ah yes, the old “just ignore race and it will go away” canard that I’ve been railing against since I first started posting about race. Well aside from the fact that conservatives do give a damn (take a trip to any conservative-voting part of the country, you’ll see what I mean), even if they didn’t it wouldn’t matter. Racial prejudice is real, and it’s neither enlightened nor noble to pretend as though it’s not.

Why am I so surprised? Because that’s exactly what Tim Wise thinks:

After all, to deny that people of color face unequal opportunities in America—due either to the legacy of past racism, the persistence of racism today, or some other set of structural barriers—is to leave explanations for racial achievement gaps that are racist by definition. If black folks really do have equal opportunity and yet still don’t achieve at levels equal to their white counterparts, then there must be something wrong with them as black people. Either genetically or culturally they must be inferior to whites. There is no other possible explanation.

I can’t recommend to you enough that you take the time and read this article. If you have enjoyed reading any of my previous discussions on race and race issues, this guy hits all of the high points.

But lest you and I on the left feel too smugly superior, Tim follows up with an absolutely brilliant examination of liberal racism (or what I term “polite racism”)

Beyond the personal biases that exist to some extent within all of us (including those who are progressive), liberals and those on the left operate within institutional spaces and even in our political activism in ways that contribute to systemic racial inequity. This we do through four primary mechanisms. The first is a well-intended but destructive form of colorblindness. The second is an equally destructive colormuteness. These mean, quite literally, a tendency among many on the white liberal-left to neither see nor give voice to race and racism as central issues in our communities and the institutions where we operate, or their connection to and interrelationship with other issues. Both liberal/left colorblindness and colormuteness perpetuate the marginalization of people of color and their concerns, in the larger society and within progressive formations for social change.

Tim expresses everything in these two articles that I’ll try to flesh out over the next however many years I can keep blogging. This is required reading, folks. If you’ve ever said “I want racism to go away” and meant it, these two articles are a great place to start. But of course… you should keep reading here too 😛

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  1. says

    I think his comments stem from privilege denial. I see similar comments on feminist articles. It’s hard to recognize privilege when you have it. When you try to tell some people they have privilege, they react as if you are saying that they did not work hard for what they have. This is of course not true…but it makes people defensive. Once you deny privilege, it becomes easy to think that any proactive acts against discrimination just stem from white male liberal guilt…like above. I find that the next phase of the argument then goes to them talking about all of the examples of reverse racism and how they are now much worse than racism itself.

    As if.

  2. says

    “Of course things in America didnt start on a level playing field, so the catch up will take longer, thats obviously one reason. American’s history of racism is long and deep and it will take a long time to completely root out. But we’ve made strides, and nowadays whites are actually discriminated against in some arenas. College entrance for example. http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748703724104575379630952309408.html

    Nailed it

  3. says


    Overall an excellent article on privilege in white liberal areas, but there’s a couple of things in the Tim Wise article that seem a little odd to me. Namely,

    …To treat everyone the same — even assuming this were possible — is not progressive, especially when some are contending with barriers and obstacles not faced by others. If some are dealing with structural racism, to treat them the same as white folks who aren’t is to fail to meet their needs. The same is true with women and sexism, LGBT folks and heterosexism, working-class folks and the class system, persons with disabilities and ableism, right on down the line. Identity matters. It shapes our experiences. And to not recognize that is to increase the likelihood that even the well-intended will perpetuate the initial injury.

    This doesn’t really jive with my personal experiences growing up in (white and liberal predominated) Vermont. Maybe Vermont is just weird (though this seems unlikely) but my experience growing up was that a lot of emphasis was put on the struggle of blacks and racial inequalities. In fact, by the time I had gotten to high school and was learning about the civil rights movement for the 5 or 6th time, I was beginning to get a little fatigued by the whole thing and it had the rather unfortunate affect of desensitizing me somewhat to the struggle of black people at that age.

    Of course, it probably would have been better if we had learned a bit more about the struggle of blacks currently, but I’m sure our school boards didn’t want to open that can of worms. :-/ Even so, just learning about the struggle of blacks historically (and the struggle of women) had the effect of making me pretty aware of racial inequality in school and that “colorblindness” wasn’t the answer to that problem. Rather than teachers, it was more likely to be fellow students (or even mass media) that would perpetuate the “colorblind” meme.


    But as troubling as colorblindness can be when evinced by liberals, colormuteness may be even worse. Colormuteness comes into play in the way many on the white liberal-left fail to give voice to the connections between a given issue about which they are passionate, and the issue of racism and racial inequity. So, for instance, when environmental activists focus on the harms of pollution to the planet in the abstract, or to non-human species, but largely ignore the day-to-day environmental issues facing people of color, like disproportionate exposure to lead paint, or municipal, medical and toxic waste, they marginalize black and brown folks within the movement, and in so doing, reinforce racial division and inequity. Likewise, when climate change activists focus on the ecological costs of global warming, but fail to discuss the way in which climate change disproportionately affects people of color around the globe, they undermine the ability of the green movement to gain strength, and they reinforce white privilege.

    This is another place where this doesn’t really speak to my personal experiences in the environmental movement. Granted, this may just be because (I feel) the environmental movement has grown up a lot in the past 3-5 years in terms of recognizing the human cost of environmentalism, but when I’ve gone on treehugger or other environmentalist web hot-spots, while there is still talk of tigers and polar bears, there’s just as much if not more talk of how it affects people in the third world and how African and the Midwestern US will be the first places to suffer in terms of famine, etc. Even within our own atheist movement, I feel like we’re getting in on the game pretty early as far as trying to include people and be more aware of how to do so. Not that we’re ~pinnacle of amazing~, but I feel like we’re doing better than Tim Wise suggests here.

    I definitely agree with Tim Wise about the feminist movement, though–the feminist movement has done a terribad job of reaching out to people of different ethnicities (and people of lower incomes as well.)

    One last little quibble, haha….

    research that says money and access are not the principal problems.

    I don’t know about healthcare, so this is a bit of extrapolation–but it seems weird to me that although money is certainly not the only problem by any stretch of the imagination, it is the principle problem, at least from reading articles that say exactly that:

    “But there was also a bleaker interpretation: that schools — public and private — just might not make all that much of a difference in students’ lives. What if academic success is so overwhelmingly predetermined by outside factors that schools can do little to change the situation?

    The recent spate of homework hatred raises this same question, and it should produce the same answer: Educational debates should focus less on education policy as such, and more on socioeconomic inequality.
    …The American Journal of Sociology found, early social context is so important that children are “launched into achievement trajectories when they start formal schooling or even before” that are “highly stable over childhood and adolescence.” These trajectories, in turn, create achievement gaps that are evident in early grades and grow with age, so that “even a slight edge in test scores during the early years can predict long-term advantage.” And this isn’t just because wealthier students go to ritzier schools: The trajectories are almost as predictable even when well-heeled students end up in economically disadvantaged institutions.

    …It’s easy to see why this happens. Privileged students with well-educated parents have dinner-table conversations, in-house resources, and access to experiences — like travel and tutoring — that underprivileged students do not. And a good portion of the problem — tragically and surprisingly — has to do with the beloved summer break. While affluent students are treated to stimulating camps and Shakespeare in the Park, impoverished minority students spend a good portion of those three long months losing everything they’ve acquired over the previous nine.”

    That’s not to say that ethnicity/minority status is still not a huge piece of the piece, and the article says as much. Moreover, it’s my firm belief that a lot of socioeconomic disadvantage comes hand in hand with someone’s minority status. (though a more equitable economic system would eliminate some of the worst problems for minorities, it would still leave a lot of problems behind.) Still, a lot of the research I’ve come across says that although socioeconomic status is certainly not the only variable effecting success by any stretch of the imagination, it is the most major one. I think Tim Wise’s point about areas of “concentrated poverty” putting blacks in a worse situation is probably an especially salient one. If you know of any researchy-type articles that say “No, socio-economic status is not the most important factor and here is why” I’d certainly be open to having my mind changed on this.

  4. Holms says

    Just got referred here from ‘The worst thing in the world (Tuesday Edition)’. Imagine my shock at reading:

    Tim expresses everything in these two articles that I’ll try to flesh out over the next however many years I can keep blogging.

    …So I’ve been reading your blog for some months now, and it’s been redundant this whole time?!

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