The Trouble With Tolerance
They came in the mail again, even though I never ordered them: those personal address labels that say "teach tolerance" -sent out by the Southern Poverty Law Center: America's favorite civil rights group. The one run by Morris Dees: America's favorite crusader for, well, "tolerance." You know, "tolerance" - America's favorite word because it commits us to nothing and means nothing, or at least, so little that virtually all can rally under its banner. "Tolerance." Something to be taught, and apparently bought via donations to a certain organization, with their big security-conscious building, and their multi-million dollar lawsuits against Klansmen and skinheads, and their endowment-did I mention their endowment?-now worth nearly $100 million. That's right: $100 million, in the bank, collecting more interest in a month than most families will make in the next decade. Think about that the next time they send you a mailing asking for a C-note so they can "continue their important work;" and HURRY! Didn't you hear? Tom Metzger has threatened to kill Dees, and they need your donation so they can hire one of those police officers they've trained to be "tolerant" to guard their physical plant from the Michigan Militia or something. And folks wonder why I laugh whenever I'm asked whether I actually know St. Morris of Montgomery. Yeah, I know him. I know him as the guy who sent out a fundraising appeal in 1990 implying he was going to crusade against David Duke in Louisiana, and proceeded to spend zero dollars and even less time actually doing it. I know him as the head of an organization that refuses to take environmental racism cases against corporations in their own backyard, or cases involving job discrimination, or virtually any "poverty law" cases at all-as one might foolishly infer from their name-because they're so busy chasing high-profile bigots. And even the cases they take usually amount to little but headlines: witness the Center's $12.5 million judgment against White Aryan Resistance, which judgment has-some eight years later-been largely uncollected and has yet to put WAR out of business. But then, perhaps putting them out of business would be "intolerant," and we couldn't have that. So what is "tolerance" anyway? As I see it, "tolerance" means I don't burn your church down, or tie you to a fence and leave you to die, or drag you down a dirt road behind my pickup. It means I tolerate your existence and little else. I let you live and breathe for another day. But it doesn't mean I'm expected to fight loan discrimination against people of color by bank officers (unless it turns out they burn crosses on their lunch hour of course); and it doesn't mean I'm expected to speak out against police brutality, or unequal health care access, or the racialized spiral of incarceration, or tracking in the schools, or unequal funding between poor student-of-color-districts, and suburban ones serving mostly whites. And if I'm the parent of one of those white children, it doesn't mean I have to think about my own role in someone else's oppression. I just need to put an "erase the hate" bumper sticker on my Volvo, next to the one that reads "Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty," and everything will be fine-even as my comfortable existence comes at the direct expense of the persons of color kept in neighborhoods and schools far from me and mine. Emphasizing "tolerance" will focus my attention on overt hostility, perhaps, but do nothing to address the institutional forms of racism which kill people every day, as perniciously as any member of the Aryan Nations could. As with race, so too with religion: "tolerance" might well preclude me from criticizing churches for their "hate the sin, love the sinner" mantra vis-à-vis gays and lesbians. After all, isn't that the very essence of tolerance? Just because these folks think and teach their children that gays and lesbians are going to hell, doesn't mean they're implicated in gay-bashing! To even imply such a thing would demonstrate one's "intolerance" of fundamentalists; as would, I suppose, mentioning that evangelical Christianity is intolerant by definition, as per its desire to convert all non-Christians so as to "win the world for Christ" -an act of spiritual genocide against other faiths or the faithless to be sure. Yet, even to say this makes one "intolerant," in which case, perhaps we need a little less tolerance and a lot more truth. As a Jew, let me make clear: what I need is not tolerance, 'cause all that means is that you'll smile and insist you love me, even as you say my soul is in jeopardy. Well I don't want your love: I want you to get a grip, and I want you to check your arrogance; and no, I don't think you have the right to teach that to your kids-or at least, not an exclusive right-seeing as how me and a lot of my non-Gentile and queer friends are gonna have to deal with your kids out here in the real world someday. Likewise, people of color don't want tolerance, they want justice. And sometimes getting the latter requires sacrificing the former, since, if one's watchword is tolerance, it could become far easier to begin tolerating in-justice. Too easy to resist raising one's voice against the prevailing mentality of white superiority which pervades our culture, because, after all, one must be "understanding," and less " judgmental," and "tolerate differences" - perhaps even those which destroy lives. To "teach tolerance" risks inculcating the mentality that every idea is equally worthy of attention. But the Bell Curve is not worthwhile, and it deserves to be ridiculed, not "tolerated" as just another contribution to the marketplace of ideas. Folks who deny the Holocaust merit derision, not ad space in college newspapers. Those who say slavery in the U.S. "wasn't racist," (D'Souza), or that blacks suffer from a "civilizational gap," (also D'Souza), or that Jim Crow laws were meant to "protect" blacks (guess who?), deserve to be treated with contempt, or at least criticized by genuine antiracists. And yet, on these points there is no response from SPLC, or its Klanwatch program, which, by definition, is too busy watching the boys in the sheets, to keep their eyes on the boys in the suites. Tolerance often precludes anger: and anger is usually a necessary predicate to social change. Martin Luther King Jr., despite his commitment to love his enemies was decidedly intolerant of American apartheid. By confronting white Southerners with their attachment to the system of racial subordination, King was, thankfully, making clear his intolerance for many folks "way of life," as quite a few of his targets were quick to point out. King and his contemporaries were not attacking "intolerance," nor pushing for "diversity" -that other buzzword of the well-intended. They were challenging racism: a word that many don't even like to mention because it's seen as divisive. "Let's focus on what brings us together,' they insist, 'rather than on what divides us," which is to say, let's not talk about oppression, because that's a pretty big downer. But neither a plunger shoved up Abner Louima's ass nor the 41 shots fired at Amadou Diallo by a bunch of New York's finest are about hate. Both are about power. Both are about the implied prerogatives of whiteness within the justice system: prerogatives which devalue by their very existence the rights and lives of black and brown people. And the culture of racism that pervades law enforcement won't be effected by "tolerance training." Racial profiling doesn't happen because cops hate people of color, but rather, because they-like too many others-believe danger has a black or brown face, and so "who cares if we inconvenience these people 'a little bit'?" After all, it's for the greater (read, white) good. Aida Hurtado says it best: "It doesn't matter how good you are, if the institutions of society provide privileges to you based on the group oppression of others. Individuals belonging to dominant groups can be infinitely good, because they are never required to be personally bad." None of which is to say I wish groups like the SPL Center would cease to operate. Despite the fact that they'll never get-because they don't need-my money, on balance, I guess I'd say that I'm glad they're around; that it's better that they exist than if they didn't. But since that's exactly how I feel about Brussels Sprouts, it's probably not saying too much.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based antiracism organizer, writer and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org