Activist Tim Wise drew over 600 people who spilled into McLaren Hall to listen to his discussion on the racial consequences that lie within wealth distribution, unemployment and healthcare. Community members, professors, and students from USF and the Bay Area scrambled to find a seat, gathering to hear Wise’s talk on Feb. 26.
Wise is one of that nation’s most prominent anti-racist activists and has been regarded by Cornel West as his “vanilla brother.” He is a white man who is a ruthless critic of white privilege.
Wise is the author of six books, one of them being the acclaimed memoir, “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son.” In 2010, he was named one of “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” by Utne Reader magazine. Wise has spoken at over 800 college campuses and discussed a central theme of his 2010 book, “Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.” The book argues for deeper color-consciousness in both public and private practice.
Donning a casual green cargo jacket, Wise opened up his discussion with a few friendly jokes and assured the crowd that he wasn’t going to be mild. He pointed out the light-skinned Jesus that hangs on most crucifixes and then discussed Chris Rock’s controversial tweet from July 4th last year: “Happy White People’s Independence Day! The slaves weren’t free, but I’m sure they enjoyed the fireworks.”
One may think we are well on our way towards a post-racist society, especially after the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. Some claim to “not see” color and accept everyone as equal and, in turn, many people stay hushed on the subject of racism. Wise said it’s a common misconception to think that talking about race perpetuates racism. He explained this by applying the same silent solution to world hunger. “Imagine if someone were to say to you, ‘Did you know that there are billions of children around the world starving due to lack of food—Shh! Damn fool! Don’t talk about starvation…People will starve.’”
In terms of political colorblindness, Wise demanded we wake up and smell the black coffee. Dripping with sarcasm, he explained that a black president can suggest racism is taken care of — the same way that sexism is magically gone in Pakistan due to their past female prime ministers. Wise said no, asserting that a black president does not warrant people to consider ourselves so vastly superior to the days of slavery that they suddenly have permission to be numb from reality, and assume the “politically correct” position of color-blindness. “Color has had consequences and continues to have consequences,” Wise said, explaining that we cannot be blind to color.
According to Wise, wealth is being disproportionately and unfairly distributed in our country. Because interest exponentially expands wealth, larger socioeconomic gaps are created. And it is not necessarily income that matters in this country. Accumulated wealth allows people to buy houses, start businesses, and be active participants in this nation.
Wise asserted that a typical white middle class family has 20 times the net worth of their typical African-American and Latino family counterpart — close to $100 thousand more. He said that it is not because they’ve worked harder, nor is it because white men have some “superior investment wisdom.”
“There is an awful lot of money that can be lost by white guys without any help from black people, or Mexicans, whether they are documented or not,” Wise said. He pointed out that there is no way domestic theft by any minority group could possibly amount to the efficiency of the white men on Wall Street, who managed to lose 12 trillion dollars in a matter of 18 months last year.
Wealth distribution is all dependent upon if one can even get a job to begin with, and Wise shared some statistics pertaining to national unemployment. Black people and Latinos are twice as likely to be unemployed than white people with similar skills. In 2009, the white teen unemployment rate hit 25.3 percent, a historic high, and the nation was up in arms. However, what remained unmentioned that year was the black teen unemployment rate, which was 45 percent and had been that way since the early 90s.
Wise jumped from topic to topic like jazz, and as he put it, “not the smooth kind” – another prominent topic being health care. Wise said that the House Health Care and Wellness Committee seems to be utterly bewildered as to why, though these minorities have health care available to them, are still presenting negative outcomes. Health care is related to geography, which is related to race, Wise said. Everyday experiences of big and small racialized mistreatment has significant physiological consequences, he said.
For no known reason, the mortality rate of infants birthed by employed African-American women with a college degree and health care coverage is double than that of the infants of poorer white women who are less educated and smoke every day of their pregnancy. Wise said that the health of at least 8,500 people are being affected by this racial consequence. The Health Care and Wellness Committee, however, cannot speak of it, because to not see color and to not talk about racism, is the decided “solution.”
Wise closed his talk with the simple plea for race conversation, if even just out of self-consideration as a nation. In 20 years, white people will be the minority — or at the very least, will be sharing the population 50/50 with non-whites, he said. Race conversation is gravely essential to our country’s future, and Wise suggested that his mere presence on our campus attested to that. Wise said, “I am 44 years old, I am white, I have a bachelor’s degree, and I can come and tell you more about the system of racism and get away with more, than the President of the United States. That’s how not post-racist we are.”
“I think [the talk] provided some really important food for thought in a community that has a lot of racial diversity but not a lot of dialogue about it, and still considers itself progressive,” said Haley Zaremba, a junior media studies student.
When asked for any words of further advice for students, Wise said to start by taking personal inventory. Take a good look at your life and your privileges. “Let it percolate. Let it sink in,” he said.
Tim Wise’s feature-length documentary film, “White Like Me” explores his personal biography and political analysis, and is scheduled for release this April.
The event was sponsored by the USF Office of Diversity and Community Outreach.