By Tim Wise. City Lights Books, 2020. 352 pages. $17.95/paperback or eBook.
I recently read a letter to the editor of a local newspaper saying that the writer was not sympathetic with Black Lives Matter because of Black-on-Black crime. I knew the letter needed to be answered, but I was having a hard time articulating my rebuttal. So I looked up Tim Wise’s chapter on Black-on-Black crime, and I was able to clearly write that just as most Black victims are hurt by Black people, so are most White victims hurt by White people; as in most neighborhoods, the vast majority of people in African American neighborhoods are hardworking, kind, and loving people; it is people from those neighborhoods who are working to keep kids off drugs and out of gangs; and that no unarmed person should be shot dead by anyone, including police.
It is Wise’s clear-eyed understanding of race in the United States that for years has helped me see through the rhetoric that attempts to justify the racial status quo.
Wise’s latest book is a collection of essays written shortly before the 2020 election. The essays start around the beginning of the Obama years. (I wish he had dated them.) The book is divided into seven sections, including one relating to the Obama presidency and another relating to the Trump presidency. The title, Dispatches from the Race War, refers to a question he received over a family dinner: Do you think there will be a race war? He knew his aunt was thinking of a war instigated by Black people because of grievances. He tried to explain to her that such a war was already under way, only it was being waged by a White supremacist society against Black people, as it had been for 400 years. At that, his aunt suddenly remembered somewhere else she needed to be, and left.
In the chapter “Americanism Is a Pandemic’s BFF,” Wise delves beneath the obvious mismanagement at the top to identify cultural factors that have led to our country’s tragic losses to COVID-19. One such factor is “a kind of hyper-capitalism, which . . . renders even health itself a commodity for which one must pay, as opposed to a right to which all are entitled.” He addresses our prevalent attitude toward labor: many workers have no paid leave for illness and no assurance their job will be there if they seek leave, leading to their going to work when they should have stayed home. And he suggests that we were too willing to risk lives in order to protect the economy.
Wise identifies a second factor in American culture: hyper-individualism. While “self-reliance can spur innovation and a drive for excellence,” the downside is little concern for the well-being of others or our connection to one another within the broader society.
Finally, Wise identifies hyper-evangelical Christianity, which leads millions “to believe that they will be protected from things like viruses because of their piety.”
Other topics Wise addresses include police brutality, White entitlement, Whites’ cluelessness about Black people’s lived experience, a focus on violence by Black people while ignoring violence toward Blacks, White denial and fragility, identity politics, the genocide of Native Americans, immigration, the teaching of U.S. history, Confederate statues, and the “model minority.”
I look forward to Tim Wise’s next book, as I know he will have interesting and insightful things to say about the 2020 election and the events of January 6 in Washington, D.C.
Patience Schenck worships with Annapolis (Md.) Meeting on Zoom and lives at Friends House in Sandy Spring, Md. She is clerk of the Diversity Committee at Friends House.