White America's Dirty Little Secrets
Sometimes its best to just tell the truth. Even when it makes folks angry. In fact, particularly then, because its at precisely those times that the truth is obviously most in need of being spokenotherwise resistance to it probably wouldnt be so strident.
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 diversityin schools, businesses, or certain neighborhoodsin 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 Americaall 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 isnt 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 nothingtheyre 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 Inequity?"
There was one moment where telling the truth became particularly important during the evenings 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 dont know each other that well are in an all-white setting, and issues of race come up. Whether its 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 (CEOs 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 dont 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 doesnt really want racial equity.
Although such a statement may not seem outlandish to Z readers, to most its downright heresy. After all, think about how many times youve 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 dont 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 well be there to greet you.
But its 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 hypothetical:
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 expectedjust black folks helping black folks, without a dime of the white mans 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 Ts 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 Americas 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, Im sure they would have ignored me, or become hostile. But they didnt. 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 trueeven for themselves in many instancesand 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 wasnt that much to do. They were no longer so sure.
Make no mistake, if its true that whites arent 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 were 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 weparticularly whitesshow 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 its 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 wont 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 firstname.lastname@example.org