Last week I attended a guest lecture by Tim Wise, who is considered a notable anti-racist activist. The theme of his nearly two-hour speech was “white privilege” in America. Mr. Wise dug into racial issues that he believes are not discussed nearly enough in this country, and when discussed people are simply afraid to tell the truth.
Unfortunately, I left the lecture feeling disappointed and unconvinced by his relentless polemic against American culture and institutions.
Mr. Wise can claim to have a unique perspective because he is white and believes that white people have been and continue to be favored in America both institutionally and culturally.
Bemoaning the Fourth of July tradition of celebrating American history and customs, Mr. Wise claimed that this behavior is unethical. It is unethical because instead of celebration, Americans everywhere should be talking about America’s sins and history of what he believes are hundreds of years of white supremacy.
His list of racist or hypocritical policies included more than just slavery and Jim Crow laws. Mr. Wise targeted drug laws, the prison system, elements of the New Deal, and the Homestead Act as well. He even went as far as to say that ghettos were created in order to keep minority populations imprisoned. He didn’t elaborate, so I can only guess at what he meant.
While there is simply not enough space in this column to break down and dissect every line of argument that Mr. Wise made, I think that it’s important to demonstrate a few examples of why I think his attacks are both off base and are in fact destructive to the cause that he so fervently championed.
For example, Mr. Wise got particularly angry about what he claims is an attempt by white America to pit people of Asian descent against other minority groups. He said that Asians are used as an example of a “model minority” in order to put a wedge between them and other minority groups. He continued to say that this is a flawed notion because there are in fact many different ethnic groups that comprise what is commonly referred to as “Asian.”
Treating people with such a broad brushstroke and portraying an entire community in a stereotypical fashion is inaccurate and wrong.
Never once during his speech did Mr. Wise mention the differences both culturally and ethnically within the “white” community. He never mentioned the differences between people of Italian, German, Polish and Irish descent. They all fall under the blanket term “white,” when all other communities must be divided by their original nationality of origin.
“White” was not a term that he used to describe people, but simply became a metaphor for “the opposition” or “others.” He thinks that white people, and in fact all groups of people in this country, have an inherent mental bias in favor of white people and white culture.
The devastating words that Abraham Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address to end slavery in America, and words written in the original Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” are rendered meaningless when you believe that people are physically, intellectually or morally inferior because of the color of their skin.
If the America that Mr. Wise described is real, one that is divided, broken, focused on racial superiority and incapable of giving any opportunities to anyone other than white Americans, then why do people from all over the world and of all different ethnicities keep trying to get in instead of trying to get out?
The difference between the leaders who have made real progress in ending racism in this country and Mr. Wise is a matter of approach. Can you make institutions non-discriminatory or can you make people non-discriminatory? Mr. Wise wants to use institutions and functions of the state to differentiate based on ethnicity in order to correct for any biases that people might have. This is opposed to allowing people to discover the truth themselves to make the institutions non-discriminatory.
I celebrate the Fourth of July not just because I am proud of the great achievements and accomplishments of this nation, but because I believe that the ideas and beliefs that have endured throughout this nation’s history have made it great despite the flaws and personal failings of some people and leaders.
JARRETT STEPMAN believes that a colorblind society is a noble ideal, and that a society that is used to treating people as individuals and not as representatives of a certain identity comes closest to reaching that ideal. Send him your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.