Book Review Original Paul Von Blum

Wise Observations on White Racism

[Victoria Pickering / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Paul Von Blum / Original to ScheerPost

A review of Dispatches from the Race War, by Tim Wise

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. That grisly event catalyzed the massive Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, and shortly thereafter, throughout much of the world. I was impelled to participate in many of these mass demonstrations in the Los Angeles area, and heartened to see that they included large numbers of people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. White participation was substantial from my observations.

There is nothing new about what Cornel West calls “vanilla brothers” in the long struggle for racial justice in America. From the early white abolitionists to John Brown to the courageous white volunteers during the struggles in the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, African Americans have relied on some allies among the majority population. They are comparatively few, but they have made significant political and intellectual contributions to the long and unbroken quest for racial justice in this land.

Tim Wise is a prominent and distinguished contemporary representative of this tradition. Antiracist activist, writer, speaker, and media personality, he has been in the fight against white racism his entire adult life. The author of seven previous books addressing politics, social class, and racism, he has just published Dispatches from the Race War, a collection of new and older essays that are extraordinarily useful in the post-Trump era.  

Tim Wise has perceptively subtitled the introduction to his book, “America’s Longest War.” That war began in 1619 when Africans were first brought to the colonies. With slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the present, race has been at the forefront of American life. And there have been millions of casualties, overwhelmingly people of color. Hundreds of thousands of whites also perished in this war, mostly dying, regrettably, to preserve slavery and white supremacy during the Civil War and beyond. 

Not much has changed. As Wise notes, the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president was a mere intermission in the deeper history of American racism. The subsequent election of Donald Trump was a disturbing but predictable reaction, bringing racism to the fore once again of American life. The entire nightmare of Trumpism, with its overt and pervasive racism, only exacerbated this long war. Like the late critical race theorist (and revered legal scholar) Derrick Bell, Wise seems to believe that American racism is intractable, yet must still be fought in every way possible. He demands that we embrace antiracism, also a part of our national history, albeit much smaller.

A key theme of Dispatches from the Race War is that “post-raciality” is a fantasy. It’s disconcerting how widespread this notion is throughout the land. Obama’s election and the prominence of Black superstars in sports and entertainment feed this illusion. I hear it all too frequently from some of my white students, a few of whom actually say that they “don’t see color at all.”  

I do my best to persuade them that this is delusional. People of color know fully that they are different, in hundreds of ways, each day. Contact with superiors in the workplace, with some professors and university administrators, with police, with store personnel, with fellow workers and students, and unpleasant countless racial microaggressions they encounter regularly reinforces the racial inequality embedded in the soul of the nation.

One essay, for example, addresses the 2009 incident where distinguished Harvard African American Studies Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested while trying to enter his own home. Police officer Sgt. James Crowley was offended when Gates called him a racist and placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct. Gates said, “This is what happens to black men in America.” President Obama later remarked that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly.” 

As Wise notes, most white people think that Gates was to blame in this incident. Even many of my white students thought he could have defused the situation by not being so belligerent, by being a little more cooperative.  

But Black people, even privileged Black folks like Professor Gates, have a different lens when dealing with the police. They are not hypersensitive; rather, they carry the long history of racist police practices within them, going back to the early slave patrols. Wise points out that it is irrelevant whether Gates was belligerent or that Crowley was not personally racist. People of color experience things like police stops entirely differently. In my civil rights activism and my African American art research, I have worked closely with hundreds of African Americans over the years. Almost all of them have been stopped by the police and almost all of them have expressed rage about these unpleasant encounters. White people simply do not get stopped trying to enter their own homes. That is white privilege and it is the dominant American reality. 

Wise puts it accurately and succinctly: “This incident and white America’s reaction to it demonstrate a profound obliviousness to the black experience. We cannot understand what it feels like to be thought of as a criminal solely because of our race.” 

One of the most powerful essays in this remarkable book is “The Face of American Terrorism is White.“ In a society where terrorism is reflexively identified with extremist Islamist groups, especially after 9/11, Tim Wise identifies many of the real domestic terrorists who have murdered and marauded the nation for decades. We know the names: Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, Dylann Roof, and scores of others—mostly white men: militia members, conspiracy followers, assassination plotters, ad nauseam. Wise writes: “Indeed, more than 70 percent of the domestic terror killing since 9/11 have been committed by far right extremists…. “ He is so correct. 

This chapter was written before the monstrous insurrection on January 6, 2021 that Donald Trump intentionally incited, seeking to overturn the election he lost in November 2020. The violent mob that overran the Capitol, with Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and Trump regalia, was almost entirely composed of white people, predominantly men, the same people that Tim Wise discusses in this remarkable chapter. These were not “the good people on both sides”; they were a fascistic throng that sought to overthrow a democratic election, threatening democracy itself. The time has come to recognize the real face of American terrorism. 

Tim Wise shows just how much Donald Trump was responsible for that horrific event: “When you start your political career generalizing about migrants from Mexico being rapists and drug dealers, and you say that you wish to shut down all immigration by Muslims, and you suggest your opponent should be jailed for using an unsecured e-mail server. . ., and you refer to the media as the enemy of the people so that your fans verbally assault reporters at your rallies, you are the problem. “ 

“Dream Interrupted: The Sanitizing of Martin Luther King Jr.” is a sharp critique of the undoing of the legacy of Dr. King.  He has been made out to be little more than a gentle Kumbaya apostle of nonviolence. That misses King’s radical and militant stance, calling for major racial and economic transformation of a fundamentally rotten capitalist society.  

Wise is suspicious of using the King holiday every January to call for a national day of service. Of course, no one can object to decent public service projects. But I asked my students recently to contemplate Tim Wise’s comments from this chapter:

“Honoring Dr. King requires action, and not just any kind of action, but action aimed at producing a new way of living. It is one thing, after all, to build houses for homeless people, but quite another to demand an end to housing shortages in a nation as wealthy as this one. It is one thing to feed the hungry, but quite another to demand that food security be guaranteed as a matter of public policy. . .”

That is the fundamental difference between understanding Martin Luther King as a mere liberal symbol or as a radical Black militant in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, W.E B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and hundreds of others. This essay will serve me and my educational colleagues well for a long time. 

Likewise, the essay entitled “Debunking The Model Minority Myth: Asian American as Pawn in a White Game” has special resonance for my students and for me. Wise spells it out unambiguously: “Consider how intrinsically absurd it is to think Asian Americans possess some intrinsic cultural secret to success.” This myth has been used against African Americans regularly to castigate them for their low success rate in academic achievements, college admissions, and the like. Far too many American whites use this myth to bash Black people as somehow inferior, calling them unwilling to work hard enough to reach the achievements of their Asian-American counterparts. It also, as Wise suggests, often pits Blacks and various Asian American groups against each other, especially in contentious controversies like affirmative action.

There are more insidious consequences to this model minority myth. I have had many hundreds (or more) students from various Asian backgrounds over the years at UCLA.  Some, of course, have performed spectacularly well, just as have many students of African origin. But that is not always the case. Many Asian American students are also victimized by this harmful myth. They suffer when they fail to excel academically and feel that they have somehow not lived up to the high, even impossible, standards of their parents, their classmates, society, and worst of all, themselves.

Every term, I have Asian American students with anxiety and depression. When they (finally) get help from therapists and medication, they feel a serious stigma. This model minority myth can interfere with their academic and personal lives. In the most troubling case I have had, well over a decade ago, a young Chinese American woman who excelled as an undergraduate continued on to a prestigious law school. When she failed to find herself at the top of the class, she returned home and committed suicide. It haunts me to the present.

Dispatches from the Race War contain several other cogent essays. Those addressing white denial, de-policing, the myth of Jewish power, and white privilege, among many others, speak powerfully to the present moment. The volume appears at a post-Trump time when it may actually be possible to begin redressing centuries of legitimate Black grievances.  It behooves the serious attention of anyone, of any racial or ethnic background, for whom fighting racism is a top personal and political priority.

14 comments

  1. Because of what we have become I see a lot of writing along these lines with rarely a mention of Native Americans.
    Can we transcend all of these labels? I think of it as “all of our shadows are the same”. There, you are just like me wherever you are on the globe.

  2. Thank you Paul, an outstanding review of a long overdue indictment of America and its white supremacy!
    Wise might have added a chapter on American state sponsored terrorism around the globe against people of colour from wars abroad in Mexico, Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and on it goes, including America’s unashamed and unlimited support for Israeli apartheid and occupation! Then you can add sale of weapons to all the ugly regimes that keeps America’s arms dealers in business Raytheon, Boeing, Northrup Grumman et al. Any wonder that blowback like McVeigh and many ex-soldiers then embark on acts of terror at home! As Noam Chomksy says, “If you want to stop terrorism, then stop being a terrorist!”

  3. My problem with Tim Wise and many of the others, especially white people, in the “woke” anti-racist space is that they seem to have no realistic strategy for actual positive social and political change in America. To the extent that the United States is a democracy, a real improvement in the difficult situation of Black people, who make about 15 percent of the population, will require the consent and support of at least a majority of the entire population of a nation that has has long, entrenched and continuing history of institutional racism. I find it hard to believe that an effort that seems to depend on converting the majority of Americans into enlightened, woke, unquestioning allies who will rise up, confess their historic complicity with white supremacy and demand the end all white privilege and anti-Black racism, both implicit and institutional. This is magical thinking, not a real strategy for attacking a problem that is actually as dire and difficult as Tim Wise and other’s describe. (Derrick Bell’s book, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” is a better guide.) And, as is often true of magical thinking, it is seriously damaging to those it seeks to help. The rhetoric involved , such as “white privilege,” while aimed at increasing empathy, actually leads to resentment, pushback and disunity. Labeling that “white fragility” only makes that worse. Real anti-racists, if they want to do more than merely proclaim their own “superior” virtue, need to have a strategy based on how positive social and political change actually happens. I suggest they go back and study how the Civil Rights struggle of the last century managed to achieve what it did and why it failed to accomplish more. I think they will find some answers. I would suggest that Tim Wise, Robin D’Angelo, Ibram X. Kendi and other self-proclaimed “anti-racists,” who have taken all the wrong lessons from the Civil Rights and Black Power struggle, are not useful guides. Better guides include Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Michelle Alexander, Derrick Bell, Barbara Ransby, Cedric G. Johnson and Cornel West, not to mention W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King.

    1. The problem IS capitalism. The BPP clearly understood this. As a result they were murdered by the capitalist class political police —FBI. Mark Clark story was just retold. Class consciousness is a critical step in the struggle for liberation , for us in the ninety nine %.

      1. 80% , the 19% of wealth and income professional / managerial class after the 1% enables and facilitates the system for the 0.01, 0.10, 1% .

  4. I believe young Professor Reed has a book entitled ‘Race Reductionism” which works as Tim Wise’s unofficial biography.

  5. “Hundreds of thousands of whites also perished in this war, mostly dying, regrettably, to preserve slavery and white supremacy during the Civil War and beyond.” Say what? Did you forget about all those dead and wounded Union soldiers?

  6. “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”[3] That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States.
    Nothing more really needs to be understood about capitalism .

  7. “On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis”

    Innocent until proven guilty. The jury will hear many facts we won’t. Let the courts do their work.

  8. Not only is it magical thinking, “critical race theory” is highly illogical postmodern gobbledygook. It saddens me that this sloppy, unscientific ideology came from the left. For decades, this PhD-level piffle was rightly shunted to sub-basements in university backwaters but, since the mid to late eighties it has arisen from the dark recesses and is now both pernicious and pervasive. Once you recognize “it,” you’ll see it everywhere.
    Case in point, Kendy, Wise, Bell, and others declare there are only 2 categories: Racist, and antiracist. How about those of us who are simply not racist?
    “It” is so illogical and confounding I find it difficult to argue against…which is exactly the point. The “theory” is riddled with kafka traps, it attempts to racialize every interaction, and is absolutely Maoist in the authoritarian Cultural Revolution sense.
    Possibly the only things it does well is manipulate people, who in a desire to be liked or fear for their wellbeing, blindly adopt its quasi-religious terminology and jargon and become “allies.”
    “It” is really quite disgusting, actually racist, and “it” is coming for you. Hitch your wagon to “it” at your peril.

    -fixie

    1. Problems with academic theory aside, the fact that you believe any person can be flatly “not racist” by simply not be, apparently, overtly racist, strikes me as making the rest of your opinion not worth considering. Do you really think that being a white person in a racist culture does not affect your unconscious, does not confer privilege whether you claim it or not, does not shape who most people are close to, who they love, who they help to advance and so on.

    2. You can’t be neutral about race and feel smugly ok. That’s the point of being either a racist or anti-racist. Your fantasy middle ground keeps everything exactly the way it has always been. But, that’s probably what you intended all along. …

  9. I said nothing of the sort. I simply said I am not racist. There is prejudice, which you seems to conflate with racist, which is, by definition, overt.
    Nor did I declare my own race. The fact that you believe me to be white says something about you, however. The fact that Kendi et al deny the non-racist category means they wish to redefine racism, and place people into convenient boxes in order to advance their sloppy thinking and reverse the tables of oppression. It makes their “theories” not worth considering, certainly. Indeed, their “theory” is everything to them. The fact that it can be easily dismantled using basic argumentation makes IT not worth considering.
    That was a neat rhetorical trick you tried to pull though, instead of addressing the myriad problems with critical race “theory.” Didn’t work though.
    -Fixie

    1. I am not interested in debating academic critical race theory, that’s not me. What I am interested in is disabusing those, usually but not always white people who have very little meaningful interaction outside of their homogenous communities, who are smug enough to believe they are “without sin” while they benefit from enduring racist systems and cultures that are linked to evolution, capitalism and imperialism because they “know better” than to believe in racial eugenics, argue for white supremacy or feel great, undeniable hate/fear toward people who do not look like them.

      Whether you are white or not doesn’t matter to me, because what you are talking about is primarily about white people, and anybody else who benefits from a racist society/economy.

      The idea that to be racist you have to be consciously and “overtly” racist is absurd — it was never true, and the definition of the concept has been expanded and refined in the half-century since they word came into widespread use and replaced prejudice. Merriam-Webster recently updated their definition, in fact:
      https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52993306

      That the word/concept is continuing to be examined, explored, refined is normal and good for a society that is adapting and seeking solutions. You can and are joining that conversation. One of the main arguments that is controversial is that while anybody can be prejudiced, only those that are in the “dominant” position in a racist society can be racist.

      Another, which you seem to be upset about, is that if you are not ACTIVELY struggling (as an “antiracist”) to end racism AND you BENEFIT from systemic or structural racism, then you are part of the problem — you are benefitting from oppression while claiming a deniability which is false. This is akin to those whites in pre-Civil War America who did not own slaves absolving themselves of any responsibility to end the practice … even though the country as a whole benefitted from slave-made exports bouying the overall economy, for example, or creating wealth for slaveowners which then was spent elsewhere with white businesses.

      From Oxford:
      “racist: a person who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”

      You can certainly find more narrowly define defined ones like this, from dictionary.com:
      “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.” Believe does imply that it is conscious, but honestly — are all your beliefs conscious? Are you really that enlightened, Fixie?

      And, yes, here is the definition from dismantlingracism.org — which of these tenants do you not agree with?

      “​The definition of racism offered here is grounded in Critical Race Theory a movement started in the 1970s by activists and scholars committed to the study and transformation of traditional relationships of race to racism and power. CRT was initially grounded in the law and has since expanded to other fields. CRT also has an activist dimension because it not only tries to understand our situation but to change it. The basic beliefs of CRT are:
      Racism is ordinary, the “normal” way that society does business, the “common, everyday” experience of most People of Color in this country.
      Racism serves the interests of both white people in power (the elites) materially and working class white people psychically, and therefore neither group has much incentive to fight it.
      Race and races are social and political constructs, categories that society invents and manipulates when convenient. In reality our differences as human beings are dwarfed by what we have in common and have little or nothing to do with personality, intelligence, and morality.
      Society chooses to ignore this and assigns characteristics to whole groups of people in order to advance the idea of race and the superiority of whiteness.
      The power elite racializes different groups at different times to achieve their economic agenda, continually and repeatedly prioritizing profit over people.”

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