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Reading Racism Right to Left: Tim Wise on Race and Politics
August 18, 2010 1:24 AM   Subscribe

In a series of two essays, author Tim Wise (previously) discusses similarities and differences between how the American political right and left manifest racism.

On the political right:
To see how the culture-based explanations for racial disparity are every bit as racist as biological arguments, consider the case of anti-Jewish bigotry. Although Hitler’s campaign of genocide against European Jewry was rooted in his beliefs about Jews being a biologically distinct and destructive force, would his efforts have been any less racist—and would we have failed to call him a racist—had he stuck with older, more traditional forms of anti-Jewish bigotry: such as beliefs that Jews are culturally clannish, greedy, or have religious beliefs that cause them to kill Christian children and use their blood for baking Matzo? Would the murder of millions of Jews, under these auspices deserve to escape the charge of racism, just because Jews were being inferiorized on the basis of cultural assumptions rather than biological ones? Surely not.
On the political left:
Going back further we should recall that it was perhaps the nation’s most progressive president, Franklin Roosevelt, who not only OKd the internment of Japanese Americans, but who was also willing to cut out virtually all African Americans from the key programs of the New Deal so as to placate southern segregationists in his own party (1). Capitulating to racism, and even practicing it, has a sad pedigree on the left of the spectrum as with the right. And it is time we faced this fact honestly.

This is my first mefi post. Let me know if I screwed something up...
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike (58 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Going back further

Once upon a time a leftist made a moral compromise in order to accomplish something necessary. Therefore, left = right.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:20 AM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


FDR beat Hitler, Tojo, Polio, The Depression, fascists businessmen and reactionaries who wanted to destroy America from within. In doing so he laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. I'm not even confident that Tim Wise could beat his own dick.
posted by humanfont at 2:29 AM on August 18, 2010 [12 favorites]


Therefore, left = right

Did I screw up the links? Because when I click on the link that says "left", I get an article that says "...let me be clear: racism on the left is not exactly the same as its counterpart on the right." And then explains, in detail, what he means by that.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:47 AM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


"So a liberal is on the left?"
"Right."
"Wait -- so you mean conservative then?"
"No, but there also exist nice conservatives. And fix your English."
"I'm lost."
"Great TV show. I'd call myself Party of Five."
"...You're really obnoxious."
"Just Bailey."
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 2:50 AM on August 18, 2010


Realpolitik is a bitch. Just like life.
posted by Decani at 2:51 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


FDR beat...

FDR also confiscated a nation's private gold supply giving them pieces of paper in exchange.
posted by Talez at 3:10 AM on August 18, 2010


FDR also confiscated a nation's private gold supply giving them pieces of paper in exchange.

Yep. Good thing, too. A monetary supply bounded by a need for gold backing it is a real bitch of a limited on an economy.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:36 AM on August 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


google ron paul
posted by Justinian at 3:46 AM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]



msicar?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 3:59 AM on August 18, 2010


To see how the culture-based explanations for racial disparity are every bit as racist as biological arguments, consider the case of anti-Jewish bigotry. Although Hitler’s campaign of genocide...

Sweet, someone's pulled the string in Tim Wise's back.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:03 AM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


The government is not interested in people, but instead in power and wealth. And it is time we faced this fact honestly.
posted by at the crossroads at 4:37 AM on August 18, 2010


Government is interested in people. But mostly the powerful, wealthy people. Yet often it's in their interest that government should show some interest to those not so powerful and wealthy. You can find out more about this topic at your local library.
posted by fleacircus at 4:57 AM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


FDR took the rich mans gold and gains from centuries of oppression and endowed us with retirement, rural electrification and restored the right to drink responsibly. Behind every free man stands a strong central government and community.
posted by humanfont at 5:57 AM on August 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


FDR also confiscated a nation's private gold supply giving them pieces of paper in exchange.

I'm picturing Hired Goons going door-to-door, wordlessly ripping earrings out of womens' ears and teeth out of old people and giving them slips of paper with "FUCK YOU -FDR" written on them in exchange.
posted by griphus at 6:35 AM on August 18, 2010 [20 favorites]


Here's another difference: the Left knows about its own history of racism, writes books about it, and doesn't try to perpetuate its racist past by embracing the same policies today that it embraced in 1920.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:25 AM on August 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


Once upon a time a leftist made a moral compromise in order to accomplish something necessary

Wait, so the argument here is that internment of American citizens based solely on the fact that they were Japanese immigrants or had Japanese ancestors was necessary? That's some bullshit, sorry.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:32 AM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Wait, so the argument here is that internment of American citizens based solely on the fact that they were Japanese immigrants or had Japanese ancestors was necessary? That's some bullshit, sorry.

He meant about African-Americans and the New Deal jobs.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:59 AM on August 18, 2010


Here's another difference: the Left knows about its own history of racism

I'm waiting for the Left to catch up to it's current racism. Seriously.

I live in the Bay, and between "double carding" at gay bars (If you're brown, they'll ask for 2, 3, or more forms of ID and kick you out if you can't provide), Berkeley Anarchists helping "liberate Oakland" by smashing up black owned community businesses and then claiming it was all "Oakland Uprising", activist groups for racial equality who are more socially open depending on the lightness of your skin tone, the quickness with which the initial failing of Anti-8 turned to people literally screaming "Niggers!" in the street, the willingness of supposed liberals to engage in gentrification and when they move to high ethnicity neighborhoods- the refusal to engage with the people who have lived there for generations....

Yeah, the Left doesn't need to open a history book to find it's problems.

(I also lived in Seattle, and saw much of the same. A white friend who moved up there recently told me the housing agent was very strongly advising him not to live "south of the ship canal"...)
posted by yeloson at 8:28 AM on August 18, 2010 [13 favorites]


He meant about African-Americans and the New Deal jobs.

Yeah, internment of Japanese Americans was just gravy.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:18 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm waiting for the Left to catch up to it's current racism. Seriously.

One interesting thing about Tim Wise, one of his most recent books is called "Colorblind" and it's about how the myth of a colorblind society makes institutional racism worse. This is because all the effects, subtle and overt, of the institutions that favor one race are then blamed on the individual members of the victim race. So you have blaming, for instance, of unwed mothers as the cause of the problem rather than as a symptom of deeper racism embedded within the social structure.
posted by graymouser at 10:27 AM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


What a crock. Of course there is racism on the left - as there is in every single political group affiliation - simply because there is racism in society. That tells us nothing new. But if the claim is that therefore somehow left racism is institutionalized with special characteristics on the Left, that's unadulterated bullshit. On the other hand that is perfectly true of the Right/Conservatives - a big fat chunk of right-wing political practice depends on perpetuating racism and benefitting from it politically. That is emphatically not the case on the left, and that's a fundamental difference. This reminds me of the discussions that sometimes erupt on MF about the general culpability wrt. racism and ethnic hatred (f.ex. antisemitism) of extreme left (totalitarian communism) and extreme right (fascism) - both are nasty and oppressive, and there certainly are racist/antisemitic communists (because their society is racist/antisemitic), but it is undeniable that the official ideology of communism is anti-racist. The exact opposite is true for Nazis - there may be non-racist individual Nazis, but the ideology is inherently racist. The same applies to Left - Right wrt. racism.
posted by VikingSword at 10:36 AM on August 18, 2010


I don't think a white person should be allowed to be an expert on racism.
posted by nanojath at 11:20 AM on August 18, 2010


Yeah, to yeloson's comment -- Wise's opening argument, that racism is a huge problem in "progressive" communities, seems perfectly correct. But then the whole rest of his essay seems to miss the point, because he wants to attribute that racism to systematic problems in the political discourse of white liberals. Whereas the actual problem is just white people being prejudiced assholes in their day-to-day interactions with nonwhite people, along the lines of what yeloson spells out. Clearly the guy Wise quotes at the beginning is also thinking of baseline insults like that, rather than his earnest white friends being "colormute."
posted by TheWash at 11:22 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think a white person should be allowed to be an expert on racism.

Ending racism is the responsibility of white people, just as ending rape is the responsibility of men. It would be closer to accurate to state that white people shouldn't be allowed not to be experts on racism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:28 AM on August 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


But then the whole rest of his essay seems to miss the point, because he wants to attribute that racism to systematic problems in the political discourse of white liberals.

Thing is, the political and mass media discourse often also sets the tones for how people act day-to-day.

Consider: Dan Savage was one of the first people do play "blame the black people", when folks ran out in the streets screaming genocidal slurs, he said nothing, when people did the numbers and pointed out black folks couldn't have swung the vote by themselves, he never made a retraction or apology. (Of course, he no longer has a column called "Hey Faggot", so I maybe he's forgotten how slurs used to murder people to work?)
posted by yeloson at 11:55 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


VikingSword:

But if the claim is that therefore somehow left racism is institutionalized with special characteristics on the Left, that's unadulterated bullshit. On the other hand that is perfectly true of the Right/Conservatives - a big fat chunk of right-wing political practice depends on perpetuating racism and benefitting from it politically.

From the second essay:

Whereas conservative theory lends itself almost intrinsically to racist conclusions, for reasons I explained in the first essay, liberal theory is generally egalitarian and intuitively antiracist.

So you're reacting to a claim that doesn't seem to be the claim that Wise is making. In fact, your "fundamental difference" is a difference he spells out explicitly, and you say the same thing he does. So what is the "crock", exactly?

TheWash:

But then the whole rest of his essay seems to miss the point, because he wants to attribute that racism to systematic problems in the political discourse of white liberals. Whereas the actual problem is just white people being prejudiced assholes in their day-to-day interactions with nonwhite people, along the lines of what yeloson spells out.

While I think it's funny that you think the "actual problem" is "just" white people being prejudiced, I'm curious: why wouldn't he discuss the manifested racism in the political discourse of of the left, in an article about racism in political discourse? Day-to-day interactions are political discourse, for one. For another, if the purpose of organizational politics is to effect lasting social change, the ways in which the left organizes and strategizes its movement are indicative of the ideal society of that movement, and the ways in which "left-leaning" communities approach systematic injustice are indicative of how their majority politics will organize. Those don't seem to me to be divorced or distinct operations.
posted by Errant at 11:56 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


In fact, your "fundamental difference" is a difference he spells out explicitly, and you say the same thing he does. So what is the "crock", exactly?

The crock is TW's incoherence. Yes, he makes the same claim. But he then proceeds to contradict that by insisting that the left practices institutionalized racism and that is proof that racism is an inherent characteristic of the left. What he fails to understand, is that racist behavior is going to exist on the left simply because the left is composed of people who grew up in a racist society, but that therefore doesn't mean that the movement itself is racist. There is racism in society. There are political movements. There are individuals within those movements. Leftist racists do not by associating into a movement increase the level of racism above the background racism of society. They decrease it. Basically, it's the distinction of group behavior vs individual behavior. His entire essay is pointing out individual (sometimes unconscious) racism of liberals which then somehow translates into the movement being racist. The facts are quite different - the racism of individual leftists (which absolutely exists) is moderated down by association into an explicitly anti-racist movement. So the movement is like a medicine X - it alleviates the disease, though does not cure it. It would be absurd to then blame the medicine X for the original condition and write long essays on medicine X having characteristics of the disease itself.
posted by VikingSword at 12:27 PM on August 18, 2010


To clarify further: I am glad the Left exists as a movement, because that's the only viable way in which racism (and other problems) can be addressed on a political plane. As a matter of fact, my complaint is that there is too little of the Left in American political life. Individual leftists may fail (and do so constantly), but the movement, thankfully, holds ideals to aspire to and goals to reach (unlike the Right), so that each successive generation gets closer. I only wish there was more of it.
posted by VikingSword at 12:33 PM on August 18, 2010


Ending racism is the responsibility of white people

Uh. Wouldn't it be better and more accurate to say that ending racism is the responsibility of racists?
posted by Justinian at 12:38 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tim Wise: Going back further we should recall that it was perhaps the nation’s most progressive president, Franklin Roosevelt [...] who was also willing to cut out virtually all African Americans from the key programs of the New Deal so as to placate southern segregationists in his own party (1). Capitulating to racism, and even practicing it, has a sad pedigree on the left of the spectrum as with the right. And it is time we faced this fact honestly.

Scenario:

A non-Jew is driving a truck through a Nazi checkpoint. In the back of the truck, he's got a Jewish family whom he is smuggling to freedom, while risking his own life. As he approaches the Nazi checkpoint, he does a Hitler salute, and tells the Nazi guards "Damn Jews, x, y, z" - the Nazi guards wave him through. The Jews are saved.

Tim Wise upon observing the above interaction: this only goes to show how even the so called "rescuers" of Jews were "capitulating to racism, and even practicing it".

I don't think I'd take much advice from Tim Wise. I suppose, TW would approve if the driver of the truck stopped and told off the Nazis and condemned their blatant anti-semitism. The fact that he then would have been shot as would his passengers would be easily outweighed by the satisfaction of knowing that decades later Tim Wise would approve of his brave and principled stand.
posted by VikingSword at 12:49 PM on August 18, 2010


A non-Jew is driving a truck through a Nazi checkpoint...

FDR was one of the most effective presidents in history. He was popular, and powerful. He got things done that seem unthinkable. He was president for longer than any other president in history. Now, you compare him to a random, powerless man driving through a military checkpoint. Can't you see the comparison is completely daft? These two actors are at completely opposite ends of the power spectrum.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:08 PM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


VikingSword:

You fail to understand Wise's point, epically. Consider:

Indeed, to be colorblind in the face of profound racial disparities can encourage the mindset that whatever disparities exist must be the fault of those on the bottom.

This is what he is excoriating in terms of institutional racism on the left. There is a profound desire to be "colorblind" on both sides of the political spectrum, in what passes for a left in the US and the right. Hell, Obama preaches colorblindness as vocally as possible. But this is perpetuating systemic inequalities that make the system, as it stands, white supremacist.

Wise is arguing against "colorblind" liberalism. And he is right to do so. Racism cannot be wished away, it has to be actively smashed or there is no way out of it.
posted by graymouser at 1:14 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be better and more accurate to say that ending racism is the responsibility of racists?

No. Here's an outline of the collective responsibility involved:

(a) Even less-racist white people benefit from racism. We receive material benefits from systematic discrimination in our favor. Even if we did not directly act to cause the discrimination to occur, there is still a moral duty regarding ill-gotten gains (see also unjust enrichment).

(b) Relying on people who commit wrongs to stop themselves, by themselves, is, in general, not so effective.

(c) Racist white people, by nature, are more likely to pay attention to white people telling them to cut it out than to the people they are marginalizing.
posted by pengale at 1:14 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Tim Wise upon observing the above interaction: this only goes to show how even the so called "rescuers" of Jews were "capitulating to racism, and even practicing it".

FDR put American citizens, born and raised in the United States, in concentration camps because of their national heritage. He knew that his party, in the South, was the party of the Ku Klux Klan. He coddled racists because they stuck with the Democrats in the South, and didn't object to the systematic disenfranchisement of every African American in the Jim Crow states. He knew that his programs disproportionately benefited whites. There's a lot of racism to be faced up to, there.
posted by graymouser at 1:20 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


FDR was one of the most effective presidents in history. He was popular, and powerful. He got things done that seem unthinkable. He was president for longer than any other president in history. Now, you compare him to a random, powerless man driving through a military checkpoint. Can't you see the comparison is completely daft? These two actors are at completely opposite ends of the power spectrum.

There were also things that FDR failed at or didn't even attempt because he knew he didn't have a chance (universal health care, notably). And other programs that he scaled down, because he knew he couldn't push through. I'm not saying he was a perfect president or human being (ironically, given my example, it may actually be the case that he was at the very least horrifically negligent if not outright anti-semitic on the Jewish question during WWII), he undoubtedly had his failings as both president and human being. But he was not omnipotent, and it was wise of him to scale back or sometimes even retreat (however unpleasant that may have been), so that the he may live to fight another day (or his programs may survive, to be improved upon when the political/social realities changed). You cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Tactical temporary retreat is a basic technique - it doesn't mean your ultimate objectives changed. Sometimes a flanking attack is preferable to a frontal assault.
posted by VikingSword at 1:24 PM on August 18, 2010


But he then proceeds to contradict that by insisting that the left practices institutionalized racism and that is proof that racism is an inherent characteristic of the left.

I agree with the first part (although I don't find it contradictory to his point), but I honestly don't see where he is making a case for inherent racism on the left (which would be contradictory). It seems to me that what he's saying is that the naturally anti-racist ideology of the left is frequently undermined by the manifestation of racism by liberals. It doesn't seem to follow that he is therefore saying that leftist ideology is inherently racist, but that racism manages to persist despite the ideological inoculation you describe, and that that racism itself counter-infiltrates the movement to some extent.

It seems to me that your emphasis on group vs. individual behavior is a different version of the "real vs. not-so-real" racism he references. You write, "His entire essay is pointing out individual (sometimes unconscious) racism of liberals", as though the unconsciousness of racism somehow mitigates its damage, or the individuality of each racist expression does not contribute to an overall pattern. (Aside: I note that he too attempts to mitigate the severity of this accusation by including parenthetical "(however inadvertent it may be)" qualifiers, and I take issue with that also.) He says explicitly that racism is not ideologically systemic to left politics; should he then not examine how racism is nonetheless practiced in leftist political discourse? That practice is still problematic, more so because it is counter to the stated ideals of the practitioner, and that seems like it's worth talking about.

Further, I don't think your characterization of his examples as "individual behavior" is correct anyway. The "liberal color-blindness" section offers no concrete examples but does describe a perspective that I (and maybe you) recognize as common. The "liberal colormuteness" section examines the lack of racial inflection in climate change activism. The "white privilege" section calls out leftist organizations like NARAL, the Sierra Club, and PETA, as well as a national conference on progressive budget policy. Even if you want to make the argument that these are but a few individuals in but a few individual organizations (which seems needlessly reductive), those organizations nevertheless claim to be representational, so they are accountable for their expression on a broader-than-individual level.

I too am glad there is an American left, and I share with you the complaint that it is too silent in current political discourse. I would like to think that left ideology inoculates against racism as you claim it does and therefore provides a net benefit. I agree with the poster above that the American left has a decent track record of recognizing and addressing its own historical and contemporary racist pedigree. I see this article as being part of that record and as raising interesting and applicable points, even though I'm not really Tim Wise's biggest fan (one need only scroll down to the first few comments to discover why). Just because the Left does better than the Right with regards to racism does not mean that the Left could not stand to do better than it is currently doing.

On preview: the only way your ridiculous example could be applicable is if you are somehow arguing that by placating segregationists in excluding African-Americans from New Deal programs, FDR was somehow secretly saving them en masse. I think you may find that a difficult proposition to justify.
posted by Errant at 1:25 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the biggest difference is that the left contains people who will call out racist actions and tendencies within the left. The right does not appear to have any such voices, even marginalized voices.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:35 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Errant, I object to TW's conflating everything and reductive analysis. Take just this example:

"How many climate change activists, for instance, really connect the dots between global warming and racism? Even as people of color are twice as likely as whites to live in the congested communities that experience the most smog and toxic concentration thanks to fossil fuel use? Even as heat waves connected to climate change kill people of color at twice the rate of their white counterparts? Even as agricultural disruptions due to warming — caused disproportionately by the white west — cost African nations $600 billion annually?"

To me this is a perfect example of TW's form of insanity. Yes, global warming disproportionately affects people of color, but to imagine that somehow if we eliminated racism 100%, global warming would stop affecting people of color disproportionately is crazy. One of the big reasons why global warming affects people of color more, is because they happen to live in areas which experience more damage - purely based on astronomical factors - areas which are now somewhat warm can become deserts, whereas areas which are cold become warm (northern parts of the hemisphere). So yes, the mostly white Canadians or Russians or Scandinavians will be less affected - but not due to racism, but due to geography and the position of the sun and how climate and temperature affect different areas. To then suggest that white climate change activists are racists who don't connect dots is absurd. They are well aware of this, and in fact it's a frequent topic of discussion about how pollution (toxic dumps etc.) affects poor and racial minority communities disproportionately. Broad brushes, conflating and reductionism. Not a very impressive analysis from TW.
posted by VikingSword at 1:50 PM on August 18, 2010


Read the comments after the 2nd essay. Tim goes balistic on an a commenter who made a flippant remark. He wouldn't let it go even after other posters were telling him to chill out and stop being such a douche.
posted by prodigalsun at 1:54 PM on August 18, 2010


But if the claim is that therefore somehow left racism is institutionalized with special characteristics on the Left, that's unadulterated bullshit.

In the UK it is definitely institutionalised on the Left, but presents in very different ways to the Right. Anti-semitism is sort of inferred a lot of the time but never discussed much, even when it really should be. Although the Left has tried really hard to form joint ventures with things like Respect, there's still an element of White people teaching Brown people how to be lefties, instead of recognising how different communities work, and in private an awful lot of pained sighs about the focus on Islamophobia not dragging as many people into the class struggle as it should.

It acts kind of like a country club or academic institution, where on the face of it there's a lot of progressive thought and intent and a Black man might be elected president, but the system on the whole is skewed and likes it that way.

I think the biggest difference is that the left contains people who will call out racist actions and tendencies within the left.

This is true. But it's a heck of a struggle and the amount of self protection and freezing out can be devastating locally. Their racism is worse but ours is way more self defeating.
posted by shinybaum at 1:55 PM on August 18, 2010


There are so many contradictions here, it's hard to know where to begin. For example:

to suggest there is one “black culture” itself essentializes 35 million people

But on the other hand:

[for white people] to sing the same folk songs at a rally that you were singing forty years ago, or to come to an antiwar rally decked out in tie-dye, but not to include the music and styles of youth of color influenced by hip-hop, is to ensure the permanent marginality of your movement in the eyes of black and brown folks.

He's right that the criticism of black cultural values is often racist, but it's a huge contradiction for him to claim that this is also a form of essentialism, because he himself relies on broad characterizations of white culture in order to find sources of racism. The essentialist critique is very effective against some forms of racist discourse, but you rarely see that any more, outside of Tea Party protest signs and those guys tend not to give a shit about your big college words. When Steven Colbert satirizing right-wing racist discourse by claiming to be colorblind, it's no longer effective to critique essentialism. This is difficult for anti-racist thinkers, because they've spent the last several decades arguing that essentialism is the essence of racism and once we cleanse ourselves of that kind of thinking, racism will disappear. Turns out that isn't true, so it's necessary for them to claim that the new post-modern racist discourse is secretly still essentialist. The problem here is that they treat racism as if it is (again, essentially) a single univocal, totalizing, universalizing discourse, in contrast to their ideal of tolerant multicultural diversity and respect for difference.

The weird part is that he almost gets it right - blacks in California were blamed for Prop 8, some in the gay community in the Netherlands are joining with far-right anti-Islam anti-immigrant reactionaries - which is an interesting change, because the idea of "our" Dutch tolerant sexual politics and feminism is contrasted with the "primitive" Islamic fundamentalist bigoted Other. Here in the US, we have something very similar with the Cordoba Mosque issue: some of the opposition is generated by characterizing Muslims as intolerant bigots, oppressors of women, anti-gay, etc. In other words, the same critique that was once used to dismantle bigotry is now used to reinforce it. I like to repeat Badiou's framing of the problem of tolerance: it ends up as "Become like me and I will respect your difference." Tim Wise can't see how many of the legitimate problems he identifies with Left racism in Essay 2 derive directly from the very same ideas he promotes in Essay 1.

It's clear that we're in much more confusing, contradictory times and yet Tim Wise repeats the same old anti-essentialist bromides that no longer function any more. No wonder progressives are so confused - talking about black people is essentialist, talking about black culture is secretly racist (except it's not when Tim Wise is doing it), so maybe it's better to say nothing at all? Oh wait, sorry, that's also racist.

The class reductionism issue is difficult to parse since he seems to hedge by only calling it out when it's "vulgar". I don't know what this means, but it seems like he's dismissing this problem, and not dealing with the fact that the left is deadlocked around class and race. If we were to seriously address inequality (assuming we could), the racist belief that minorities are inherently inferior and couldn't achieve parity without government intervention would persist. But if we try to make capitalism less racist and more meritocratic, this implies lots of white people would be made substantially poorer because they benefit from racism. Removing this benefit would mean 10 million more white people would start living in poverty, which is a strong incentive to keep it there. So drawing attention to class is not to say that race doesn't matter -- just the opposite. In the Marxist analysis, capitalism creates strong economic incentives for persistent racism, because it ensures that your group is partially shielded from the worst of it. Wise's suggestion that left activists be more inclusive and maybe play some hip-hop at rallies and protests is a great idea, but I don't think it comes close to grappling with the real scope of the problem.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:03 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's how Tim Wise would see it:

Racist Climate Change Activist: "Mr. Polluter, you must stop polluting because the climate will change and children, including your children and future generations will live in poverty."

Mr. Polluter: "Let me run that past my accountant and I'll get back to you. For now, fuck you".

Non Racist Tim Wise Approved Climate Change Activist: "Mr. Polluter, do you realize that not only will your children live in poverty, but let me connect the dots for you - people of color in Africa and elsewhere will have it even worse!"

I leave it to your imagination, what Mr. Polluter will say in that case.

That's why it's such a chore to interact with certain kind of ideologues. I may agree with their stated objectives. But I much prefer the guy who actually makes progress on the issue however ideologically impure it may seem at the moment, to the ideological loudmouth who won't lift a finger in practice all the while criticizing the tactics of those who are making progress.
posted by VikingSword at 2:06 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


(a) Even less-racist white people benefit from racism.

I didn't phrase my objection properly. Let me try again.

The statement "ending racism is the responsibility of white people" implies that only white people are racist or perhaps that only white folks benefit from racism. Even if one accepts the controversial position that racism has to do with having the power to discriminate and benefit from that discrimination rather than simply how one feels it would seem that this phraseology is problematic when it comes to racism in much of the world. Japan, certain parts of modern day Africa, China etc.

So wouldn't a better way to state it be "ending racism is the responsibility of those who benefit from racism".
posted by Justinian at 2:10 PM on August 18, 2010


VikingSword:

Your insistence upon putting up strawman arguments fails completely to engage with the problems of systemic racism that Wise is trying to bring into the dialogue. Wise has certain limitations (he is essentially correcting for pervasive racism to a degree that lets him overlook certain nuances such as the fact that there ARE huge and important class divides in modern America) but what he's saying remains important.

I find the climate change one particularly bad because the problem isn't to go and beg the polluters to stop, but to convince the citizenry to force polluters to stop.
posted by graymouser at 2:12 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I find the climate change one particularly bad because the problem isn't to go and beg the polluters to stop, but to convince the citizenry to force polluters to stop.

And how do you do that? More specifically, how is a racial justice based argument going to be the key here? Keeping in mind that the voters in countries that are most responsible for climate change, and who can affect it the most are not racial minorities for the most part? We tell them till we are blue in the face that it's causing havoc in Africa and how it's racist, and I somehow have a feeling it would fall on deaf ears. Even if the argument has merit, it's not the one that's going to be effective. We need different arguments and different tactics. Not "begging", but appealing to their self-interest is certainly a valid - though not only - tactic, and I wager much more effective than appeals to "be anti-racist". Accusing climate change advocates of being a manifestation of leftist racism is doing nothing to solve the problem.
posted by VikingSword at 2:23 PM on August 18, 2010


VikingSword:

Here's what Wise actually says after your pullquote:

To build a global movement to roll back the ecological catastrophe facing us, environmentalists and clean energy advocates must connect the dots between planetary destruction and the real lives being destroyed currently, which are disproportionately of color. To do anything less is not only to engage in a form of racist marginalizing of people of color and their concerns, but is to weaken the fight for survival.

You're actually doing exactly what he is talking about, removing people of color from agency in the discussion. That's what his criticism is. It's a relatively simple thing, in the narrative you're pushing what is important is the votes of white people. In Wise's view it is more important to create a worldwide counter to climate change that disproportionately effects people of color. You can't do that by focusing on screaming OMG white people are eventually going to die at polluters.
posted by graymouser at 2:59 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I sigh, they're not ready.
posted by Danila at 3:06 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


graymouser, not at all. What this misses, is that that climate change advocacy will result in policies that will affect not just white privileged voters, but also people of color. And I'm sorry, but tactical decisions should be examined on their effectiveness, not through some kind of ideological prism. Climate change advocates spend most of their energies on addressing the most effective agents of change, regardless of color. It would be a mistake to stop doing that, and instead spend energy in meaningless "dot connecting" (a vague term if there ever was one). That's not marginalizing people of color. It's recognizing tactical necessity. Praxis, not feel-good ideological posturing. In the end, it's the results that count.

The passage you highlighted is big on generalities, but ultimately utterly lacking in any prescriptive insight:

"To build a global movement to roll back the ecological catastrophe facing us, environmentalists and clean energy advocates must connect the dots between planetary destruction and the real lives being destroyed currently, which are disproportionately of color. To do anything less is not only to engage in a form of racist marginalizing of people of color and their concerns, but is to weaken the fight for survival."
posted by VikingSword at 3:12 PM on August 18, 2010


And how do you do that? More specifically, how is a racial justice based argument going to be the key here?

Not the key, a key. You say yourself that "we need different arguments and different tactics"; why then do you take such issue with an argument that says, hey, we haven't paid enough attention to this aspect of climate change? Your position here seems like you think we only get one argument, one shot, and that's it, so we can't waste it with the arguments you deem less effective. In fact there are many arguments for many audiences, and someone who is unconvinced by climate change data might nevertheless be moved by an appeal to social justice, because social justice is something they care about more than "the environment" or "science".

Accusing climate change advocates of being a manifestation of leftist racism is doing nothing to solve the problem.

You forgot to add "of climate change" at the end there, because it's pretty clearly doing something to solve another problem. Or, to rephrase myself, there's no "the problem", there are a series of interlocking problems. Or, to quote the article, "And know that before long, someone will admonish you to focus on the “real enemy,” rather than fighting amongst ourselves. “What we need is unity,” these voices say, “and all that talk about racism on the left just divides us further.”"

Climate change advocates spend most of their energies on addressing the most effective agents of change, regardless of color.

It strikes me as incredibly convenient that this is not "marginalizing people of color", just because few or none of those agents of change happen to be of color. Or, to put it another way, I have increasingly come to believe that while it is not always the paramount consideration, there is no such thing as "regardless of color".
posted by Errant at 4:23 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


...it would seem that this phraseology is problematic when it comes to racism in much of the world. Japan, certain parts of modern day Africa, China etc.

I admit that my comment was West-centric. But since the OP is about an American speaking primarily about American culture, I think that's reasonable for this thread. Certainly it's different in, for example, Japan (though my understanding is that light-skinned Westerners have it relatively good there compared to other groups). But racism isn't really fungible, so that doesn't have much to do with who benefits in America.

So wouldn't a better way to state it be "ending racism is the responsibility of those who benefit from racism".

I agree with this statement, but don't agree that it's better, because it leaves out who benefits. There are people in America who think that "reverse discrimination" has actually overtaken and now outweighs regular ol' discrimination, so we need to make things clear. (Of course, while we're making things clear, none of this is to imply that anyone else should not be working to end racism -- that would be ridiculous. And my previous point (c) was not an endorsement, just an unfortunate reality.)

... the controversial position that racism has to do with having the power to discriminate and benefit from that discrimination rather than simply how one feels ...

Well, I don't like getting too deep into semantics, but there is a significant difference between being able to create and benefit from social systems and not being able to, whatever names you use. And it's not as if limiting the use of the word racism in this way erases the existence of those who individually call others names or are prejudiced against them. The word for that is bigotry.
posted by pengale at 4:37 PM on August 18, 2010


It strikes me as incredibly convenient that this is not "marginalizing people of color", just because few or none of those agents of change happen to be of color.

Does it also strike you as "incredibly convenient" that climate change effects are more severe in tropical and warm regions vs northern hemisphere? Do you think the sun and the earth's axis are conspiring with the racists? How convenient that whites are distributed more to the north! And conveniently, that's where most countries with the biggest potential impact on the issue exist so you advocate focusing energies there for maximum effect! There's a conspiracy here!

Not the key, a key. You say yourself that "we need different arguments and different tactics"; why then do you take such issue with an argument that says, hey, we haven't paid enough attention to this aspect of climate change?

I'm not opposed to any argument that can help with a given problem. But resources and time are not unlimited. If I have a limited amount of resources/time as an activist, I will focus them fully on the most effective strategies. Any energy that goes to less effective strategies is a net loss. Advocating for less effective strategies is counterproductive.

This doesn't mean that I'm unsympathetic to the issue. It means, that I think we should always look for what works best at any given moment for a given issue. I don't think that asking climate change advocates to "connect dots" is the optimal strategy. There are far superior ways of addressing issues surrounding racial justice - and if we held a strategy session about that, I'd advocate we focus on that, rather than downstream issues. It's rather like the situation that develops at many left-wing rallies. People have a rally to f.ex. oppose the war, and a group suddenly unfurls banners calling on examining the issue of genetically modified food. I am not opposed to consumer rights vs genetically modified food. I just think that at this particular rally, it is counterproductive to dilute the message with other issues, though of course there are always connections (imposition of genetic patents on third world countries food supply - with war and military force always in the background). Same here. Racial justice is enormously important, but I'd rather that we had a focused strategy on that, and not conflate it other issues, even if there are always connections, like global warming. Haranguing climate change advocates as complicit in racism is not productive in that it does nothing for racial justice and does nothing for climate change. And I find this kind of conflating to be TW's stock in trade.
posted by VikingSword at 4:55 PM on August 18, 2010


I'm going to try to contribute here and not just give up or sigh in disgust. Discussing racism with conservatives often makes me angry, and discussing racism with liberals often makes me feel like I am crazy. I agree with just about everything in these two essays. I honestly believe that some of the pushback from white people against Tim Wise is because he is subconsciously seen as a race traitor. When people of color say these things, they can be ignored. When a white person says them (and without apology or easing down his tone), they have to be made illegitimate in some way because they are dangerous. Tim Wise has white privilege, including the privilege to be heard when he makes these arguments, but hey, he's trying to use it for good.

Some reading:

Discourse and the Denial of racism

Oregon's dirty little secret


How Prejudice and Bias works
posted by Danila at 5:51 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


just here enjoying the comments from Errant and greaymouser. i can't favorite and co-sign enough what they've pointed out
posted by liza at 6:20 PM on August 18, 2010


There's a conspiracy here!

I have, I think, been fairly civil with you. If you wish to put a mask on me that turns me into the insane person of this particular fantasy, that's your discursive option, but please forgive me if it makes it harder for me to talk to you in good faith.

The "convenience" is that "white people" and "agents of change" have become inextricably linked in your argument. This may be the actual case, thanks to an unjust and disproportionate society, but it also suggests that agitating for racial justice and a more racially-equitable power structure may have the knock-on effect of causing issues like climate change, which we both agree disproportionately affect people of color, to be given more attention and traction. Throwing your hands up and saying, "well, white people are where the power's at, who am I supposed to talk to?" reinforces the unjust structure. I don't find it to be a dilution of the issue to suggest that there are multiple factors at work both in the causes of a problem and in the lackluster response to that problem. Or to suggest, as you have, that since previous approaches have not been successful, a different tactical approach is worth considering.

Your theory of less-effective strategies as counter-productive has all the hallmarks of putting eggs in basket. The solution to your "limited resources as an activist" argument is not to have every activist saying the same thing; it's to have more activists, each applying their approach to the best of their time and energy. The conflating to which you object, I think is incredibly, deeply important, because there is no simple root cause to these massive issues and there won't be a simple solution either. If I wanted to ignore the connections between social, economic, and global issues, I'd go hang out with those other guys, they have better dental. A rising awareness lifts all eyes, or something like that.

This is presuming, of course, that we are capable of identifying objectively what is most effective in political discourse; from the evidence, I remain unconvinced of that particular notion.

Anyway, I'm not sure where you get the notion that "haranguing" is happening. What he says in the article is that climate change activism seems focused on what could eventually happen and seems to ignore what is currently happening, and that that subordination has a racist element to it. I understand that the word "racist" is viewed by many as the nuclear bomb of accusations, but both you and he agree that whatever racism is occurring is "unconscious" or "inadvertent". That doesn't mean that it should therefore be ignored or go uncriticized. What is best for the issue of antiracism is for potentially racist ideas or actions to be examined. To suggest that doing otherwise is better for the cause of racial justice strikes me as a bit odd.
posted by Errant at 6:42 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


45 years ago, Louis Lomax wrote about this for Ebony magazine:

The White Liberal

There is a lot in that article that still rings true today.

There is also the truth that Negroes, on the whole, simply don't trust white people; they don't believe white liberals really mean what they say; even when White people do right, Negroes are apt to doubt whether they really feel it. The other side of that coin is that white liberals don't know Negroes; they have made an intellectual commitment to be one with a people whom they have been taught to fear and have not yet learned to love. The end result of all this is a kind of awkward, up-side-down white liberal modus operandi which allows the gifted, individual Negro through the chicken wire; he is lionized; the mass Negro, however, is still denied the right to be ordinary -- which is what most people, Negro and white, are.

Also, his take on white "far left" radicals calls to mind the white agitators in Oakland after the murder of Oscar Grant.

Finally, for those liberals feeling put-upon:

Yet, this one thing is clear: things are good in this country but they are not right; not yet, they aren't.

Call me a pessimist but I believe the wave of colorblind (and as Wise puts it, "colormute") racism has harmed race relations. Aversive racism is still unrelenting in the damage it does to people of color, and if white liberals think that their institutions are free of institutional racism (see for e.g. academia), well, I guess it's their privilege to think that.
posted by Danila at 7:36 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ending racism is the responsibility of white people, just as ending rape is the responsibility of men. It would be closer to accurate to state that white people shouldn't be allowed not to be experts on racism. -Pope Guilty

QFT and also QBICFIMTO (quoted because I can't favorite it more than once)

I'll also be using this line all the time. Hope you don't mind.
posted by Chipmazing at 8:12 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have come to hate Tim Wise.

In my experience of reading him (which I gave up doing at some point, so perhaps I"m missing more recent growth in his analysis) I've never seen him quote a person of color. On the radio I've repeatedly heard him explaining racism to people of color who are hosting the shows. And in one essay, I recall him stating something to the effect that if the reader didn't agree with his specific point of view, the reader was therefore a racist.

I don't really want some fucking white dude to be the arbiter of race politics in this country.

I know there is a value in white people doing anti-racist work, but its questionable for this white guy to make his living telling the world what is (and what isn't) racist. When I want to really examine my thinking around race, I try to listen to voices of people of color. It's not like there's some shortage of sharp analysis on race written or spoken by people of color.

His hostility towards class analysis is also exhausting. Recently, he posted this absurdly classist comic on his facebook page. My memory is that several people (including people of color) gently called him out about it but at the time I saw it, he didn't respond to the critisism.
posted by serazin at 9:20 PM on August 19, 2010


some of the pushback from white people against Tim Wise is because he is subconsciously seen as a race traitor.

This idea is exactly what bothers me about Tim Wise. As he positions himself as The Decider on the topic of racism, any disagreement with him is therefore racist? This kind of reasoning shuts down any meaningful discussion. He is simply a week essayist. He doesn't use statistics or references to other (better) thinkers to back up his positions. He rants, he rails, sometimes in a way that is compelling, but rarely.

I just went and revisited his essay after Obama was elected and was newly irritated. He accuses the Obama-critical left (which included Cynthia McKinney, Tavis Smiley, and other people of color) of not appreciating "how meaningful this day [was] for millions of black folks" (a sentiment I never heard from anyone on the left, and I heard a lot of left critisism of Obama) and then says, "those who cannot appreciate what has just transpired are so eaten up with nihilistic rage and hopelessness that I cannot but think that they are a waste of carbon, and actively thieving oxygen that could be put to better use by others."

You want leftists who are critical of Obama to DIE? I mean, this is just a weak way to make your point, dude.

This is particularly disappointing to me because I do think white antiracist work is essential. I wish he was better.
posted by serazin at 10:04 PM on August 19, 2010


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