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.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments