Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dear Social Justice Warriors who cite Tim Wise

Tim Wise is a white anti-racist who makes his living telling rich people that the problem with the US is racism, and the solution is to buy his books and keep him on the private school lecture circuit. A graduate of Tulane, one of the fifty most expensive universities in this country, Wise has done his show at “over 400 college campuses, including Harvard, Stanford, and the Law Schools at Yale, Columbia, and Vanderbilt.”

Adolph Reed Jr. mentions him in The limits of anti-racism:
This anti-Marxism has some curious effects. Leading professional antiracist Tim Wise came to the defense of Obama’s purged green jobs czar Van Jones by dismissing Jones’s “brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group,” and pointing instead to “his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism.” In fact, Jones was a core member of a revolutionary organization, STORM, that took itself very seriously, almost comically so.

And are we to applaud his break with radical politics in favor of a style of capitalism that few actual capitalists embrace? This is the substance of Wise’s defense.

This sort of thing only deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.
For me, Wise's most appalling moment came when he lectured Henry Louis Gates on how black folks should think about slavery. In How to End the Slavery Blame, Gates wrote, "President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade. Other African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, followed Mr. Kerekou’s bold example."

Wise, whose shtick is based on the slavery blame game, responded with Pardon You: Racism, Reparations and the Politics of Blame (as Explained by Henry Louis Gates Jr.).

Wise's With Friends Like These, Who Needs Glenn Beck? Racism and White Privilege on the Liberal-Left is mostly talking-point arguments interrupted by pauses to pimp his books. But his points about class are so bizarre that I'll address a few:

He says, "...the biggest reason why there is so little working class consciousness and unity in the Untied States (and thus, why class-based programs to uplift all in need are so much weaker here than in the rest of the industrialized world), is precisely because of racism and the way that white racism has been deliberately inculcated among white working folks. Only by confronting that directly (rather than sidestepping it as class reductionists seek to do) can we ever hope to build cross-racial, class based coalitions. In other words, for the policies favored by the class reductionist to work — be they social democrats or Marxists — or even to come into being, racism and white supremacy must be challenged directly."

He wants the white working class to indulge in mea culpas for a culture created by the ruling class and fails to see that "white supremacy" is actually "upper class supremacy." People like Wise love labeling socialists as "class reductionists", even though no socialist thinks "racism is over." But if you subscribe to a race reductionist faith like Critical Racism Theory, anything that doesn't emphasize the importance of race must be diminishing it.

He says, "...lower income whites are more likely to own their own home than middle class blacks." I don't doubt that's true. But lower income whites tend to be rural, so the homes they've inherited or bought are cheap. Middle class blacks tend to be urban, so they do what other urban middle class folks tend to do—they rent.

Just as he misses the difference between rural and urban poverty, he misses the most basic fact of all: Historically, racism is the reason the US class system is racially disproportionate, but it continues to be racially disproportionate because there's so little class mobility. The only way to create a racially proportionate distribution of wealth in the US is to redistribute wealth.

But Wise has no interest in a classless society.

He says, "The other side has proven itself ready and willing to use racism to divide us. In response, we must commit to using antiracism as a force to unite."

But when Republicans are electing conservatives of color, antiracism isn't about uniting. It's about dividing us while capitalists of all hues keep their eyes on the prize: controlling the world's wealth.

At A Close Look at Growing Income Inequality in the U.S., Wise recommended The Usual Suspects are Innocent. He failed to note that it contradicts his race-reductionism: “…the Great Divergence can’t be blamed on either race or gender. To contribute to the growth in income inequality over the past three decades, the income gaps between women and men, and between blacks and whites, would have to have grown. They didn’t.”

I pointed that out in the comments and added:
To address it, you’ll have to say something about capitalism, which doesn’t seem to be one of your usual subjects. I think the unwillingness to criticize capitalism is the great flaw of modern anti-racism. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both quite critical:

“…capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.” —Martin Luther King

“It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.” —Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
Trying to debunk all of Wise's race-based claims would be tiresome, but here's one from his book, Colorblind: "2004 was the same year that research from MIT and the University of Chicago found that job applicants with ‘white’ names were 50 per cent more likely to be called back for an interview than those with ‘black’ names, even when all their qualifications were indistinguishable."

A Roshanda by Any Other Name criticizes that research and notes:
The California names data, however, afford a more robust opportunity. By subjecting this data to the economist's favorite magic trick—a statistical wonder known as regression analysis—it's possible to tease out the effect of any one factor (in this case, a person's first name) on her future education, income, and health.

The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name—whether it is a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn—does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But it isn't the fault of his or her name. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don't tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn. And that's why, on average, a boy named Jake will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn. DeShawn's name is an indicator—but not a cause—of his life path.
Or, in other words, what looks like race is really class.

I watched a little of one of Wise's youtube videos, then turned it off when he claimed that by speaking about institutional racism, he was doing what black speakers could not. Black speakers have been popular on college campuses all my life. The idea that someone like Ralph Abernathy, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X could not speak at a college campus, then or now, is as silly as the title of one of Wise's books, Speaking Treason Fluently. When the majority of a nation supports diversity, a better title would be Speaking Truisms Fluently.

a comment by Rose 
(left on an earlier post about Wise)

Wise says "White working class folks are just as racist as other white folks." In my experience this often isn't true. All the close relationships with POC in my family take place among my poor and working class relatives. The more well to do ones exist in a totally white sphere. My kin that SWPL types would dismiss as rednecks and probable racists are the ones having relationships and children with POC, and they don't make a big show about how enlightened they are, either.

Although Wise claims to have grown up relatively poor, things I've read by him convey a greater contempt for working class whites than other whites. He sounds like the white yuppies Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Fear of Falling, who project all their own racism onto working class whites. 

I'm reading White Like Me right now. Though I haven't finished it yet, it reinforces some suspicions I've had about Wise. Wise claims to have grown up in a small apartment in a rundown building that happened to be in a posh, yuppie Nashville neighborhood called Green Hills. Wise says they sometimes received financial help from relatives. Tim's grandfather owned a chain of liquor stores and it isn't clear what happened to his business or money after his death. I get the feeling Wise is leaving some things out. He doesn't seem to know a thing about working class white people, or how their lives or culture differ from that of affluent whites.

As of 2006, Wise was getting at least $4000 plus expenses per speech. Considering how his star has risen since then, he probably makes more now. He lives in a large house in an affluent Nashville neighborhood. My guess is that his hostility (and that of folks like Robert Jensen and Peggy McIntosh) toward discussion of class and capitalism is in part an attempt to keep his immense class privilege off-limits. Wise likes to be the one doing the interrogating. He'd deny working class people the right to interrogate his privilege.

Also, the way Wise always lashes out at Marxists and leftists seems like a betrayal of the pioneers of Wise's movement. WEB DuBois, Angela Davis, CLR James, Theodore White and many other predecessors of modern anti-racist work were Marxists. Their discussion of race was grounded in solid Marxist class analysis. Why do many modern anti-racists have such contempt for the socialism of their proclaimed influences?

Wise's main goal seems to be a more racially proportionate version of our current economic pyramid. If only black people could make up 13% of the tiny elite who own everything, Wise could be free of white guilt and enjoy his wealth in peace. It's a ridiculous goal, because since the top 20% have 84% of the wealth, there isn't much for those of us in the bottom 80% to fight over. If the top 20% were 13% black, most black people would still be SOL. 

I've read Wise say that class-based struggle is pointless until white people have dealt with their racism. How do they do this detached from class struggle? An endless series of Tim Wise workshops? Wise seems to think that working class white people have no right to discuss their class interests until they are completely free of the reptile brain stuff Wise's ilk describe as aversive racism! As the economic collapse immiserates the working class, this is galling coming from a rich man like Wise.

The backlash from some anti-racist bloggers doesn't surprise me, considering how defensive Wise is with POC in the comments on his website. I was really surprised at how snippy he was with some of them. He is hotheaded and doesn't deal well with criticism.