Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism

[This by Tim Wise piece was originally published, June 22, 2007 at Lip Magazine.]

Sometimes you just have to ask, “What is wrong with you?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot lately, given the almost monthly reports that white college students at one or another campus have yet again displayed a form of racist ignorance so stupefying as to boggle the imagination.

For some, it means dressing up in blackface. For others, a good time means throwing a “ghetto party,” in which they don gold chains, afro wigs, and strut around with 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor, mocking low-income black folks. For still others, hoping to spread around the insults a bit, fun is spelled, “Tacos and Tequila,” during which bashes students dress up as maids, landscapers, or pregnant teenagers so as to make fun of Latino/as.

The 2006-2007 school year saw at least fifteen such events transpire, bringing to well over thirty the number of such incidents in recent years. Among the institutions where white kids apparently think this kind of thing is funny, we have the University of Texas School of Law, Trinity College, Whitman College, Washington University, the University of Virginia, Clemson, Willamette College, Texas A&M, The University of Connecticut School of Law, Stetson University, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Swarthmore, Emory, MIT, Macalester, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, the University of Louisville, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, William Jewell College, Oklahoma State, Auburn, the University of California at Irvine, Syracuse, Tarleton State, Union College and the Universities of Colorado, Tennessee, Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, Delaware, and Mississippi.

Whether racist parties like this are growing more common, or whether they’re just gaining more attention thanks to websites like Facebook, MySpace, and others that allow the sharing of photo files is unclear. But in either case, the question remains: Why do so many whites engage in these kinds of activities, without giving their appropriateness a second thought?

There are generally two theories postulated to answer this question. The first holds that these students are ignorant about the history of blackface, and the racist implications of mocking the so-called ghetto. The second suggests that the whites involved are anything but ignorant. According to the latter theory, the students know exactly what they’re doing, and are deliberately trying to make a statement, as a form of backlash against students of color on their campuses.

While it may be tempting to accept one or another of these explanations, both might contain a partial truth. For some–like those who have thrown these parties on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (as happened a half-dozen times this past year)–it is hard to believe that they were unaware of the racial message they were sending. On the other hand, persons dressing in blackface as part of a Halloween costume, while offensive, may well be acting from sheer stupidity, absent malicious intent.*

The truth is probably somewhere between the two theories. It’s certainly true that most whites are unaware of the way that blackface has been used historically to denigrate the intellect and humanity of blacks. And most probably know little about the history of how ghetto communities were created by government and economic elites, to the detriment of those who live there. Yet, at some level, most of those engaged in these activities had to know they were treading on offensive ground. After all, never did the sponsors of these parties make the mistake of inviting real black people to the ghetto celebration. They knew better, apparently, than to approach their campus’s Black Student Associations and ask them to co-sponsor the events. They didn’t ask Latino students to come to “Tacos and Tequila,” so as to lend authenticity to the fun. Had they been acting out of pure ignorance, they wouldn’t have hesitated to try and make the events into multicultural funfests. But they never made this mistake, suggesting that even if only subconsciously, they had to know something was wrong.

There are several potential causes of racist theme parties. Among the more obvious would be the insular nature of the Greek system, from which a disproportionate number of these events have emanated. After all, fraternities and sororities mostly choose members based on how much alike they are to those already in the club. They are not, in other words, natural incubators for diversity. Nor are they the kinds of places where dissent typically flourishes. So if one’s brothers or sisters were planning a racist party, even those who were bothered by it might not speak up, for fear of being ostracized. But as easy as it might be to beat up on the Greeks, there are much larger institutional issues involved. Not to mention, there has also been a massive failure of white students, including those not involved in fraternities or sororities, to take a stand against these kinds of events.

Watered-Down Multiculturalism as a Cause of White Racist Behavior

For the past two decades, most colleges have engaged in various types of diversity efforts, from affirmative action policies, to the creation of multicultural affairs offices, to diversity-related programming. Yet the way in which diversity and multiculturalism have typically been approached on campus, leads one to wonder whether or not the messages being sent might actually contribute to the kinds of racism on display in events like ghetto parties or blackface incidents. Sadly, diversity on campus is still most often approached as it was at my college, Tulane University, in the 1980s, with little having changed since then. Namely, in most instances, schools push the “celebrate differences” paradigm of diversity, in which everyone is encouraged to be tolerant and to appreciate the cultural contributions of all the different racial and ethnic groups. While this may sound good, in practice it creates problems.

First, “tolerance” can be used as a weapon to insist that we should be tolerant of racist humor too. As such, emphasizing toleration rather than equity of treatment may contribute to a climate where students feel comfortable throwing these kinds of parties, because after all, “it’s just a joke.” Secondly, by implying that race issues are about culture (and not power differences between whites and folks of color), most diversity efforts allow whites to think of blackness as little more than style, which can be appropriated, copied or mimicked, without making fun of black people per se, or furthering inequity. In this kind of multiculturalism, the power dynamic that makes racially insensitive humor hurtful isn’t discussed. Students are encouraged to see how “We’re all different” (and gee, isn’t that interesting?), but are not asked to reflect on the biggest difference of all: in this case, the one regarding who’s on top and who’s not in the larger society.

Even worse, to copy what they see as black culture and style, is just as likely to be seen by such persons as celebratory and positive, as negative and demeaning. In other words, it’s as if they were saying, “Hey, we’re just celebrating difference! Look at me, I’m a rapper!” Now sure, they may have a horribly stunted view of what constitutes both celebration and true cultural difference (seeing as how they clearly equate blackness with the gangsta image), but their assumptions in this regard make sense, stemming from a context-absent analysis, in which issues of power are largely missing.

Additionally, by avoiding issues of power, mainstream multiculturalism makes it possible for whites who see no harm in blackface or ghetto parties, to respond to their critics by saying things like, “Well, what about that movie ‘White Chicks,’ where the Wayans brothers put on white face makeup and made fun of people like us?” In other words, whites see all groups as equally capable of objectifying each other, so what’s the big deal? Indeed, if you’re being taught to view issues of race as the mere pluralistic existence of different groups, perhaps competing for resources and attention, but without a discussion of power, this kind of argument has a certain kind of logic to it. Of course, once the social context is brought in, it makes no sense at all. There has been no history of whiteface as a mechanism for denigrating the intelligence of whites, whereas blackface served precisely that purpose. “White Chicks” conjures up no painful memories, and is so devoid of the historical ‘umph’ of blackface, that to consider it in the same category as minstrelsy is to call into question one’s ability to think rationally at all.

What’s more, because mainstream multiculturalism rarely explores the historical or sociological roots of what some now think of as cultural phenomena, it is also possible for whites to view “the ghetto” as an authentic expression of black culture, rather than understanding it as a geopolitical space occupied by persons whose opportunities have been constricted. To most whites, ghettos are culturally-specific spaces, either to be feared, turned into style, or even romanticized as more “real” than the places from which most of them come. If they had an understanding of how the ghetto became the ghetto–a history of residential segregation, urban “renewal,” which destroyed black homes and neighborhoods, and deindustrialization, beginning in the ’60s–many of the whites who have participated in these kinds of activities might have thought twice about it. If they understood that the ghetto is something that has been done to millions of black people–that indeed it is more an expression of white supremacist culture than anything authentically black–many might recognize that throwing parties celebrating or mocking ghetto life would be hardly different from throwing concentration camp or internment camp parties. But if whites think of the ghetto as an authentic expression of blackness, they’ll be less likely to feel shame while making fun of such a place. Indeed, they may not even view a ghetto party as making fun at all, so much as being a romanticization of a place that both fascinates and terrifies them.

So long as diversity talk avoids issues of power and privilege, opting instead for cultural tourism, whereby we’re encouraged to sample one another’s stuff, from food, to clothing, to hairstyles–note the phenomena of white boys wearing dreadlocks, and white girls with tight braids–we can expect this kind of thing to continue. After all, what could be more “touristy” than dressing like the people whose culture you’re sampling? To many whites, blackface, or putting on an Afro and fake bling, is just a more up-to-date and hipper version of the Hawaiian shirt their dad wears every time the family goes to Honolulu.

Until colleges include discussions of power, inequality and privilege (and how these can misshape the campus climate) during first-year orientation programs, and with all students, they really can’t feign shock or outrage when some proceed to act out their ignorance on a public stage. Until schools clearly define what a racially hostile environment is, and what is to be viewed as contributing to such a climate–and what kinds of acts will therefore not be tolerated, just as they would not be in the workplace–they can’t be surprised when students feel they can get away with virtually anything, no matter how offensive. Finally, so long as colleges turn a blind eye to the overwhelmingly white student pathology of epidemic binge drinking that has served as the backdrop for most if not all of these racist parties–indeed, white students are 130 percent more likely to binge drink than blacks, and 300 percent more likely to do so on a regular basis–not much is going to change. This means attacking problem drinking as an abuse of privilege, and not just alcohol.

White Protectionism and the Need for Ally Behavior

In addition to the need for school officials to take action, students must also take responsibility for addressing these occurrences head-on. In particular, whites who are not involved in these acts need to stand up against those who are. Although some whites have joined with students of color to condemn these events when they’ve happened, quite telling has been the speed with which others have sought to downplay the racism evinced in such instances.

At Oklahoma State, one young man minimized the seriousness of the incident in his fraternity–in which one of his “brothers,” wearing a Klan hood, posed for a picture while holding a rope around the neck of another member who was dressed in blackface–by noting that the perpetrators were just “young men, having fun, no one was hurt, and above all nothing was meant by their actions.” At Stetson, a group of young women who dressed in blackface, claimed that their event had the blessing of the mostly black basketball team; and at Illinois, white sorority girls defended their “Tacos and Tequila” event by noting that their two Latina members were “cool with it” (as if a handful of black and brown folks can speak for their entire groups). The attorney for a group of white frat boys at Auburn even suggested that his clients had actually been trying to be “inclusive” by dressing in blackface, since the party theme was to come dressed as something you might see in the Auburn community.

Or consider the internet posting of a University of Texas law student, who didn’t participate in last year’s “ghetto fabulous” party, but who found more fault with those critiquing it, than those who threw it in the first place:

“Get over it. You were offended. You complained…Prolonging the drama only makes you look like attention whores — you aren’t trying to educate people, and you aren’t trying to create an atmosphere of inclusion, where people can understand your point of view. You want to continue to spank the naughty 1Ls. The Dean gave you recognition. Everyone in the law school received that email. Do you honestly think that prolonging the drama is going to do anything productive? And for the record, equating ghetto fabulous with blackface is really fucking stupid.”

In other words, the students who engaged in the racist objectification of blacks are “naughty,” but the students of color who complained are “attention whores,” and “f–ing stupid.”

Other whites at the law school voiced their displeasure at the possibility that the school may now alter its curricula, thereby forcing them to learn about racism–imagine having to learn about such an irrelevant subject while studying law. Still others criticized the black students for going public about the event (instead of handling things internally), since it might harm the careers of whites who didn’t participate, but who would now be tainted by the actions of a few. Instead of being upset at their white peers for throwing the racist party, and thereby tainting them as whites, their anger was focused on the black students for discussing it openly!

And in keeping with the tendency for white folks to seek out black scapegoats whenever one of ours engages in racism (as happened with Don Imus), many students have sought to shift the blame for things like ghetto parties onto hip-hop and rap music. In other words, white kids are just copying what they see on MTV, and if black folks can glamorize the ghetto, why can’t they? That rappers, for good or ill, are often telling stories about their own lives and communities from which they come (or at least with which they have some familiarity), while white co-eds are engaging in vulgar voyeurism devoid of authenticity escapes them. Not to mention, rap can hardly be blamed for the ignorance here: after all, black students, who last time I checked often liked hip-hop too, don’t throw these parties. Not ever.

Then there’s the tendency to redefine racist incidents as something else, like simple bad taste, or even political satire. The latter of these was offered as the excuse last year, after one Willamette student came to a party in blackface to mock the school’s President, and another (albeit a student of South Asian descent, but by most accounts highly white-identified) dressed as an indigenous woman who had been raped. Funny stuff.

Until white students become less concerned about hurting the feelings of a bunch of racists, or drunks (or both) by calling them out, and more committed to the creation of a respectful and equitable environment on campus, those whites who engage in acts of racism will feel no need to change their behaviors. Unless whites ostracize such students, those who find racism humorous will continue to push the envelope. Only by making clear that these kinds of things are unacceptable to us, will other whites apparently get the message that their actions are inexcusable. It’s obvious by now that they won’t respond to black and brown protests alone.

Perhaps we should think of it as an updated version of the white man’s (and woman’s) burden: not, as with the original and racist version, to “civilize” others, but instead to civilize ourselves, to grow up, and to enter into the world of adults as more functional human beings, rather than as the walking, talking stereotypes into which we too often turn ourselves.

* Putting aside whether or not blackface incidents or ghetto parties are intentionally racist (as opposed to being mostly the result of ignorance), there is little question but that overt racism poses a serious problem on college campuses. Data going back to the 80s suggests that there are thousands of instances of ethnoviolence (ranging from assaults, to graffiti, to racial slurs) directed towards students of color each year. A study at the University of California-San Diego in the 90s found that over eighty percent of white students admitted to having seen or heard racial slurs or acts of race-based discrimination aimed at students of color. And a 2004 survey at the University of Virginia found that forty percent of all black students at the school had been the target of a direct racial slur, while ninety-one percent had either experienced or witnessed an act of racial discrimination or intolerance since coming to the college. Additional research by Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca, published in their recent book, Two-Faced Racism, finds that white students often use racial slurs and express blatantly racist beliefs around their white friends and colleagues, even though they would rarely if ever do so publicly, or in front of the persons to whom the slurs are directed.

Sick Heil: Racial Paranoia, White Victimology and the Hitlerizing of Obama

[Reposted from]

If you get a chance, today or perhaps tomorrow, do yourself a favor. Look up some file footage, perhaps on YouTube, of Adolf Hitler, addressing his followers. I know, it doesn’t sound like the best way to spend your day, or even a few minutes of it, but trust me, there’s a point to the recommendation. While you watch, notice the unhinged shouting, the wild eyes, the veins on his neck, the psychotic bodily gesticulations. Then, take a look at footage from yesterday’s town hall meeting, called by President Obama in New Hampshire, in which he sought to lay out his case for health care reform to an audience that included supporters and opponents of his plan. Notice: no shouting, no wild eyes, no bulging jugular vein, no apparent sociopathy whatsoever. Indeed notice as the President actually seeks out questions from people who disagree with him, and then thanks them for making good points and raising legitimate concerns, even when the premises of their questions are dead wrong, and largely originated in crazy town.

Then ask yourself, is this the man that much of right-wing talk radio would have us believe is a Nazi? The political reincarnation of Hitler–ya know, the lunatic I asked you to watch first? Really? Really? Wow. Sometimes, it’s hard to know where to begin.

On the one hand, the comparisons seem literally bat-shit insane. Especially when considering that at the same time folks are comparing Obama to the world’s most infamous right-wing fascist, they are at the same time calling him a Marxist, and a left-wing radical. Oh sure, they try and say that Hitler was really a leftist, ya know, because the Nazis were National Socialists. Of course. And hot dogs are made from puppies.

Anyway, it seems at first blush to make no sense. Any reading of the Nazi era makes it all too clear how far afield from the Third Reich the Obama administration is. After coming to power, the Nazis moved to outlaw all opposition parties, suspend the nation’s constitution, round up and detain their political adversaries (or better yet, kill them), and destroy the trade unions. All this, well before initiating the murderous campaigns against Jews, Romany, homosexuals and others deemed “life unworthy of life.” Needless to say, Obama has done none of this, has proposed none of this, and only the most truly unstable person could really believe such things were just around the corner. Although there are such persons to be found in the body politic, such as Ron Paul acolytes, Ayn Rand devotees and real estate agent/dentist/professional far-right activist, Orly Taitz, surely even the most cynical would have to agree that the numbers of persons who seem to buy into this rhetoric far and away exceed the likely national percentages of the truly mentally ill.

And those propagating the comparisons–the Limbaughs and Becks and Savages, and Hannitys (who have the top four radio talk shows in the nation right now)–despite their fervent commitment to right-wing ideas, surely cannot believe that an American Reich is on the horizon. In short, they can’t possibly be serious.

So why then, do they keep saying it? It is this question that I’ve been pondering for the past few days. What could possibly be the purpose of making an argument that has so little intellectual validity; so little indeed that it can be easily shot down by the average 12th grade European history student (who, it should be noted, would have as much education as either Limbaugh or Hannity)? What would be the value, symbolically speaking, of putting forth on protest signs this Obama=Hitler meme, and visually representing that meme, straight down to the little mustache, side-swept hairdo and swastika adornment?

And then it struck me. This analogy, as absurd as it is factually, and as offensive as it is historically, makes almost perfect sense politically, to a movement that is trying desperately to create a groundswell of support behind the notion that white people are the new victims of massive discrimination, the new victims of the Obama era: the ones who don’t get picked first for the Supreme Court, and who can no longer take for granted their hegemonic power. And that is precisely the kind of movement they are trying to build, what with their equally facile rantings that white men, according to Limbaugh, are being sent to the “back of the bus” under Obama, because he literally hates white people, and that white men are now experiencing, to hear Pat Buchanan tell it, “exactly what black folks” experienced during the days of Jim Crow. Within a politics of white resentment and white victimology, the Hitler meme works. After all, Hitler was not just a fascist, but is understood to have been a racial fascist: one whose dictatorial and murderous schemes were directed at a distinctly racialized “other.” So to make the black man atop the U.S. political system into Hitler, is to plant the idea in white minds that he too will be a racial fascist. And if that is the case, the question is quite obviously begged, which race will he be coming for? Ah yes, white man, see? Now are you scared?

By playing upon white fears–fears of a black President with a funny name, fears of a country that within about 30 years will no longer be majority white, fears of the inability to take for granted that our Leave-it-to-Beaver, Norman Rockwell, Boy Scout-approved national narrative will continue to predominate–the right hopes to prove resurgent, and the GOP hopes to remain a living entity. They have all but abandoned any hopes of attracting large numbers of people of color. The writing in that regard is on the wall and they seem to very much know it. So they have retreated into the laager–South African imagery very much intended here–and decided to go all in as the party of nostalgia, a white nationalist party, in effect, whose only hope is to claim that the nation has lost its greatness, and that everything that made America, well, America (ya know, back in the days of segregation) has been lost. And that such a transformation, from a formal white supremacist state, to a multicultural society, is of course a bad thing.

In addition to rallying the troops of white backlash, the Obama/Hitler analogies also serve another function, one that would be immediately recognizable to most any psychologist. That function is called projection: when someone recognizes a trait within themselves, and then, ashamed of that trait seeks it out in others and locates it there, displacing the shame and self-hatred that might otherwise manifest onto someone else.

For these right-wing louts to accuse President Obama of being a racist, let alone a potentially genocidal one at that, is the ultimate in projection. After all, it is the right whose authors regularly publish books with hateful and prejudicial comments about racialized others, not Obama, whose own writing reveals a deep and abiding love for his family–all of it, including the white half.

It is the right that channels Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebells, every time they spew lies about the health care bill’s euthanasia provisions, or about how Obama is going to confiscate all the guns, or casting doubt on Obama’s citizenship, or about how Mexicans are looking to “reconquer” the American southwest, or about how illegal immigrants are a major source of leprosy and disease. All of these things have been debunked, time and again, and yet they are repeated daily, as if facts don’t matter. Because to anti-intellectual brownshirts, they don’t.

It is the right channeling the thuggishness of the Nazi bullies by sending folks to public forums to shout and disrupt, and to intimidate people by carrying weapons.

It is the right that would like to smash the trade unions.

It is the right that stood by while the last president circumvented the Constitution on such matters as wiretaps, torture, the primacy of international treaties to which the U.S. is a party, and the suspension of habeas corpus for suspected “terrorists.” Continue reading…

Red-Baiting and Racism: Socialism as the New Black Bogeyman

(Reposted from RedRoom)

Throughout the first six months of his administration, President Obama–perhaps one of the most politically cautious leaders in contemporary history–has been routinely portrayed as a radical by his opponents on the far-right. In particular, persons who have apparently never actually studied Marxism (or if they did, managed to somehow find therein support for such things as bailing out banks and elite corporations) contend that Obama is indeed a socialist. Reducing all government action other than warmaking to part of a larger socialist conspiracy, the right contends that health care reform is socialist, capping greenhouse gas emissions is socialist, even providing incentives for driving fuel efficient cars is socialist. That the right insists upon Obama’s radical-left credentials, even as they push an Obama=Hitler meme (something they apparently think is fair, since, after all the Nazis were National Socialists, albeit the kind who routinely murdered the genuine article) only speaks to the special brand of crazy currently in vogue among the nation’s reactionary forces.

As real socialists laugh at these clumsily made broadsides, and as scholars of actual socialist theory try and explain the absurdity of the analogies being drawn by conservative commentators, a key point seems to have been missed, and it is this point that best explains what the red-baiting is actually about.

It is not, and please make note of it, about socialism. Or capitalism. Or economics at all, per se. After all, President Bush was among the most profligate government spenders in recent memory, yet few ever referred to him in terms as derisive as those being hurled at Obama. Even when President Clinton proposed health care reform, those who opposed his efforts, though vociferous in their critique, rarely trotted out the dreaded s-word as part of their arsenal. They prattled on about “big government,” yes, but not socialism as such. Likewise, when Ronald Reagan helped craft the huge FICA tax hike in 1983, in a bipartisan attempt to save Social Security, few stalwart conservatives thought to call America’s cowboy-in-chief a closet communist. And many of the loudest voices at the recent town hall meetings–so many of which have been commandeered by angry minions ginned up by talk radio–are elderly folk whose own health care is government-provided, and whose first homes were purchased several decades ago with FHA and VA loans, underwritten by the government, for that matter. Many of them no doubt reaped the benefits of the GI Bill, either directly or indirectly through their own parents.

It is not, in other words, a simple belief in smaller government or lower taxes that animates the near-hysterical cries from the right about wanting “their country back,” from those who have presumably hijacked it: you know, those known lefties like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emanuel. No, what differentiates Obama from any of the other big spenders who have previously occupied the White House is principally one thing–his color. And it is his color that makes the bandying about of the “socialist” label especially effective and dangerous as a linguistic trope. Indeed, I would suggest that at the present moment, socialism is little more than racist code for the longstanding white fear that black folks will steal from them, and covet everything they have. The fact that the fear may now be of a black president, and not just some random black burglar hardly changes the fact that it is fear nonetheless: a deep, abiding suspicion that African American folk can’t wait to take whitey’s stuff, as payback, as reparations, as a way to balance the historic scales of injustice that have so long tilted in our favor. In short, the current round of red-baiting is based on implicit (and perhaps even explicit) appeals to white racial resentment. It is Mau-Mauing in the truest sense of the term, and especially since Obama’s father was from the former colonial Kenya! Unless this is understood, left-progressive responses to the tactic will likely fall flat. After all, pointing out the absurdity of calling Obama a socialist, given his real policy agenda, will mean little if the people issuing the charge were never using the term in the literal sense, but rather, as a symbol for something else entirely. Continue reading…

Racism and Implicit Bias in Cambridge

If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.

To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.

Such a perception on the part of whites makes sense, given the white racial frame, as sociologist Joe Feagin calls it, through which most whites view these matters. That frame says, among other things, that as long as you are respectful to police, nothing bad will happen to you (thus, if something bad does happen to you it was likely your own fault), and secondly, that there can be no racism involved in an incident unless the person being accused of such a thing clearly acted with bigoted and prejudicial intent. In this case, since Gates mouthed off and Crowley is, from all accounts, hardly a bigot, the case is closed so far as the dominant white narrative is concerned. Continue reading…

Racism and Right-Wing Lunacy

For a group that regularly decries what they view as “minority” whining, and the politics of victimization, white conservatives are demonstrating a penchant for the unhinged histrionics of victimhood, virtually unparalleled in modern times. Facing a nation led by a black man, with a black wife and black children, sullying the hallowed halls of a house they long considered white in more than just name, the far-right finds itself in the midst of a prolonged and currently exploding aneurysm, which would be humorous to observe were it not so toxic in its consequences for the nation.

Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train: Right-Wing Lunacy in the Age of Obama

Now, with the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, these same gasbags see yet further confirmation of the takeover of America by hostile colored forces. It is making them insane, literally, as with Bill O’Reilly, who recently stated with a straight (if somewhat contorted and scowling) face, that Sotomayor’s nomination is just more evidence that the left “sees white men as the problem,” in America.

Reactionary cranks across the radio dial have been trying to outdo one another in the annals of batshit lunacy, and so Continue reading…

Essay Collection is Now Out – “Speaking Treason Fluently”

Just wanted to let folks know that my essay collection, Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male, has just been released by Soft Skull/Counterpoint. In it, you can find a little more than 40 of my essays on race, institutional racism and white privilege, from 2000 to 2008. Ranging from pieces on white denial to the costs and consequences of white privilege and inequality on folks of color and whites as well, the collection covers most every conceivable racial flashpoint and subject of the past decade. For those on racismreview who are familiar with my writing, and who have perhaps used it before (in classes, or with recalcitrant family members for that matter!), getting a copy of the book will allow you to have all the “best” pieces in one place. Much easier than tracking everything down on my ridiculously non-user-friendly website! Anyway, you can grab a copy at your local bookstore (they may have to order it), or easily get it by going to my home page, and clicking on the book cover, which will take you to the Amazon link.

Thanks in advance for your ongoing support of my work, and to many of you, for your example and mentorship as well over the years.

New Book Announcement – Input Desired

Hello all, just wanted to announce my newest book project, for which I would love to have any input that racismreview readers would like to share. City Lights has agreed to publish a long-form essay (probably about 125 pages or so), in Spring 2009, entitled “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and Whiteness in the Age of Obama.” As you can see from the title, it will address the impact of the Obama candidacy on our national understanding (or misunderstanding) of racism and whiteness as related phenomena. It will likely be the first treatment of the subject post-election to be released, and so I am trying to hard to make sure I cover all the bases. As such, please feel free to send me things you think are important to consider, angles to explore, points that you feel MUST be made in such a book. Of course, much of the material on racismreview will be referenced, but other input is greatly appreciated. I am well into the writing of it by now, and have a very quick deadline (September 1), but any input you all might have is appreciated. You can reach me at Thanks.

Tim Wise

Farrakhan is not the Problem

Thirteen years ago, when I first started out on the lecture circuit, speaking about the issue of racism, it seemed as though everywhere I went, someone wanted to know my opinion of Louis Farrakhan.

To some extent, this was to be expected, I suppose. It was 1995, after all, and Farrakhan had just put together the Million Man March in DC. So when race came up, that, and sadly, the OJ Simpson trial and verdict seemed to be the two templates onto which white folks in particular would graft their racial anxieties. Though OJ has long since faded as a matter of conversation among most, discussion of Farrakhan never seems to end. As controversy has erupted regarding comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Wright’s occasional words of praise for Farrakhan’s community outreach programs have caused many to suggest that he, and by extension, Obama, are somehow tainted. Although Wright has never indicated that he agrees with the more extreme comments made by the Minister over the past two-and-a-half decades (and indeed, much of Wright’s own ministry and approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality suggests profound disagreements with Farrakhan on these matters), his unwillingness to condemn the Nation of Islam leader is used to write him off as an extremist and a bigot. But the simple truth is, Louis Farrakhan is not the problem when it comes to racism, sexism or heterosexism in this country; nor is he any real threat to Jews as Jews, or whites as whites, contrary to popular mythology.

Honestly, what ability does Farrakhan have to do me any harm, or any Jew for that matter? When was the last time those of us who are Jewish had to worry about whether or not our Farrakhan-following employer was going to discriminate against us? Or whether our Fruit of Islam loan officer was going to turn us down for a mortgage? Or whether our Black Muslim landlord was going to screw us out of a rent deposit because of some anti-Jewish feelings, conjured up by reading the Nation’s screed on Jewish involvement in the slave trade? The answer, of course, is never. If anything, members of the Nation, or black folks in general, have a much greater likelihood of being the victims of discrimination at our hands–the hands of a Jewish employer, banker or landlord, and certainly a white one, Jewish or not–than we’ll ever have at theirs.

Even worse, for white Americans to condemn Farrakhan, while still admiring some of the people for whom we have affection–who have not only said but done far more evil things than he–is evidence of how compromised is the principle we now seek to impose on others. It is evidence of our duplicity on this subject, our utter venality as arbiters of moral indignation. It isn’t that what Farrakhan has said about Jews, or gay and lesbian folks is acceptable–it isn’t. But the fact that his words make him a pariah, while white folks actions don’t do the same for us, is astounding. Louis Farrakhan didn’t bomb the home of a foreign leader, killing his daughter in the process, or arm a rebel group in Nicaragua responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 civilians, or give guns to governments in El Salvador and Guatemala that regularly tortured and executed their people. One of white America’s favorite white Presidents, Ronald Reagan did that. And millions of white folks (and pretty much only white folks) cried tears of nostalgia when he passed a few years ago, after which point thousands of these went to his ranch in California to pay tribute; and they name buildings and airports for him now; and some even suggest that his face should be added to Mt. Rushmore. Louis Farrakhan didn’t say that his adversaries should be hunted down until they no longer “remained on the face of the Earth.” One of America’s most revered white presidents, Thomas Jefferson, said that, in regard to American Indians. And he’s on the two-dollar bill that I used to buy some coffee this morning.

And even if we were to restrict our comparative analysis to extreme statements alone, the fact is, white folks who say things every bit as bigoted as anything said by Farrakhan remain in good standing with the media and millions of whites who buy their books and make them best-selling authors. Take Pat Buchanan, for instance. Despite a litany of offensive, racist and anti-Jewish remarks over the years, Buchanan remains a respected commentator on any number of mainstream news shows and networks, his books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and rarely if ever has he been denounced by other pundits, or grilled by journalists, the way Farrakhan has been, in both cases.

So, for instance, Buchanan has said that AIDS is nature’s retribution for homosexuality; that women are “not endowed by nature” with sufficient ambition or will to succeed in a competitive society like that of the United States; and that the U.S. should annex parts of Canada so as to increase the size of the nation’s “white tribe” (because we were becoming insufficiently white at present), among other things. Most relevant to demonstrating the hypocrisy of the press when it comes to Farrakhan, however, consider what Buchanan has said about Adolf Hitler. When Farrakhan said Hitler had been a “great” military and national leader–albeit a “wicked killer” (which is the part of the quote that normally gets ignored)–he was denounced as an apologist for genocide. Yet, when Buchanan wrote, in 1977, that Hitler had been “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the great war,” a man of “extraordinary gifts,” whose “genius” was due to his “intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path,” it did nothing to harm his career, and has done nothing in the years since to prevent him from becoming a member of the pundit club in Washington. Nor would he receive the kind of criticism as Farrakhan–at least not lasting criticism–when he wrote in 1990 that survivors of the European Holocaust exaggerated their suffering due to “Holocaust survivor syndrome,” and that the gas chambers alleged at Treblinka couldn’t have actually killed anyone because they were too inefficient.

In other words, a white guy can praise Hitler, can cast aspersions on the veracity of Jews who were slotted to be killed, and can make blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and ultimately nothing happens to him, and no white politician is ever asked their opinion of him, or made to distance him or herself from the white man’s rantings. But black folks will have to do the dance, will have to make sure to reject Farrakhan, because otherwise, apparently, we should intuit that they are closet members of the Nation, just waiting to take office so they can pop on a bow tie and put Elijah Muhammad’s face on the nation’s currency. Perhaps when white folks begin to show as much concern for the bigoted statements and, more to the point, murderous actions of white political leaders as we show over the statements of Louis Farrakhan, then we’ll deserve to be taken seriously in this thing we call the “national dialogue on race.”

~Tim Wise, Author, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. See longer version at