By Tim Wise. City Lights Publishers, 2012. 190 pages. $14.95/paperback; $15.95/eBook.
Many of us understand that if not our generation, then it will be our children’s that can expect to be “the new minority” as the time rapidly approaches when white people will no longer be the majority in America. Author Tim Wise has even more to offer than this prediction. A preeminent anti‐racist writer and speaker, Wise reminds us how uncomfortable it can be to know people “with whom it seems impossible to have a conversation about race.” Dear White America, the most recent of Wise’s books, may make these conversations easier and more frequent.
[Note: I am using “white” and “black” or “white folks” and “black folks,” as Wise does. I’m among the white folks, as is Wise.]
The first, perhaps most valuable, takeaway from Dear White America is recognizing the distinction between guilt and responsibility in matters of race. Guilt is what we feel for things we have done. Responsibility is what we take on willingly because of who we are, not because our concerns are the fault of anyone currently alive. The first responsibility for white people is to extinguish any feeling of obligation to make up for the past. Wise is not interested in guilt about the past: “We are not to blame for history—either its horrors or its legacy, but all of us together—black and white—are responsible for how we bear that legacy and what we make of it [today].”
When white folks pass the blame, denying any responsibility for people experiencing problems because of their skin color, we only reinforce the idea that they—“the others”—are just not working hard enough. There is no need, then, for us to feel compassion, and in its place comes indifference.
In Wise’s observations, when we feel guilty we tend to transfer blame to people of African descent. You’ve heard the reasons before: they don’t work hard enough; they would rather have babies than jobs; they choose welfare over work. And since they are at fault, it’s easy to talk about their own particular pathology as the cause for poverty.
How hard it is, then, to have a meaningful conversation. Wise suggests a more fruitful path: “Perhaps we’d do well to listen to the voices of those who have been and continue to be targeted; unlike us, they don’t have the option of ignoring it.” Too many activists define the problem and prescribe how to fix it. That’s racist since it means we believe that we know “their reality better than they.”
Wise offers a new way of looking at what keeps us from moving forward and, in instance after instance, demolishes claims heard so often that people begin to believe them. His book includes an abundance of examples that refute what one reviewer calls the “insidious mythology” that keeps racism alive. Notice how white people tend to give their own poor the benefit of the doubt, after all “deep down they are good people,” while when it comes to black poverty, we speak of “pathology.”
Wise also reports on current surveys which reveal often surprising beliefs about racism held by the majority of white people, including the ill‐founded opinion that to focus on racism is to encourage a “victim mentality” that saps initiative. Also: it’s unfair to criticize our own country’s racism and discrimination because, after all, inequality is found in every nation, likely even worse than in the United States. This mentality is a way to avoid looking at ourselves, Wise suggests.
Wise’s work includes an abundance of statistics that defy these kinds of beliefs so often named as “facts.” One familiar—and false—complaint: African American students are given preference in scholarships that aid people of color at the expense of people with European backgrounds. What is true: less than 4 percent of the scholarship money awarded in the country gives race some (but not the only) consideration. Only 0.25 percent of awards are available exclusively for people of color. The other 99.75 percent are awarded with no consideration of race.
On the contrary, Wise points to government programs that have actually excluded African Americans. A prime example is the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. To assure support from southern Congressmen, agricultural and domestic workers (the bulk of African American employment at the time) were excluded from the program.
Wise also observes how white people often object to “big government” but nevertheless have benefited from it at many points in American history. Take for example the Homestead Act of 1862, which confiscated more than 200 million acres of land from indigenous people or Mexicans and made it available for free to white settlers. Skip ahead to 1956, the start of the Interstate Highway System, which benefits and expands the suburbs, often at the expense of inner city neighborhoods. Wise notes he’s not heard of benefactors of those programs offering to pay back what they received in that “socialist” scheme!
Finally, Wise illustrates two of my pet peeves, namely the limited understanding of our history and the distortion of agreed‐upon facts by people who like history as long as it fits their views. He tells of watching a Fourth of July parade, complete with marching scouts, minutemen, and of course, the flags. Pleasant enough perhaps, but Wise recognizes the hypocrisy of celebrating the events of 1776 and then when it comes to slavery, saying “time to get over it, that was long ago.”
While this review has concentrated mostly on Wise’s ideas, his books are packed with statistics to support his statements. To conclude, here’s one, a startling reminder of how things still are: even with identical credentials, a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be called back for a job interview than a black man with no criminal record.
Do you ever wonder how to respond to those who insist there is no such thing as “white privilege?” This book would be very helpful.