[sixties-l] Racism, White Liberals, and the Limits of Tolerance

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed Mar 07 2001 - 02:05:53 EST

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    Racism, White Liberals, and the Limits of Tolerance


    by Tim Wise

    Let me get this straight, if three white guys chain a black man to a truck
    and decapitate him by dragging him down a dirt road, that's a hate crime;
    but if five white cops pump nineteen bullets into a black street vendor,
    having shot at him 41 times, that's just "bad judgment?" And what's more,
    we should pass hate crime laws that require enforcement by the police? Call
    me crazy, but something about this brings to mind the one about the foxes
    and the henhouse.
    Now don't misunderstand: I realize there are horrible acts of violence
    perpetrated every day in America against people of color, not to mention
    gays and lesbians, women, and religious minorities. And I have no problem
    in principle with passing special laws to send a message that such hatred
    won't be tolerated. But is this really the point? Does it do anything to
    address the larger issues of racism, sexism, or homophobia that plague our
    society? And will it save Amadou Diallo, or prevent Abner Louima from
    getting a toilet plunger shoved up his ass by bigots in blue uniforms? Of
    course not. Hate crime laws make us feel better. But in the end, the
    biggest injuries suffered by people of color continue: job and housing
    discrimination; unequal access to health care; and the development of a
    prison-industrial-complex that is locking up black and brown people faster
    than you can say "three-strikes-and-you're-out;" all of which could and
    would persist, even if there was never another cross-burning on a black
    family's lawn, or another violent assault on an immigrant.
    And this is what's wrong with the "national dialogue on race," as our
    therapist-in-chief calls it. It only takes place in a comfort zone where
    pretty much everyone can agree. So when James Byrd gets dragged to death in
    Jasper, everyone, including the Klan, is quick to condemn the atrocity. But
    when the Centers for Disease Control and National Center for Health
    Statistics report that about 6500 African Americans and a few thousand more
    Latino/as and American Indians die annually because they receive inferior
    health care relative to their white counterparts, few people say anything.
    When we hear about people of color harassed by neighbors in white
    communities and forced to move due to the bigotry of a few, most of us
    react with horror. "How terrible,' we insist 'people should be able to live
    wherever they choose." But when study after study indicates that people of
    color are denied home mortgages at twice the rate of whites, even when they
    have similar credit and twice as much annual income, and that they face
    housing discrimination over two million times a year because of more subtle
    biases, far less blatant than the racist neighbor, few raise their voice
    indignantly, and no one thinks to send bankers or real estate agents to
    jail for bias crime.
    And when we turn on Jerry Springer and see some Klansman or skinhead
    ranting about the inferiority of black and brown people, we laugh, and yell
    at the TV, and collectively condemn them. But when two well- respected
    social scientists named Murray and Herrnstein write a book like The Bell
    Curve, which argues pretty much the same thing, only with footnotes, we not
    only fail to condemn them, but white folks go out and make their book a
    best-seller: half-a-million copies sold in the first 18 months.
    Furthermore, Murray gets interviewed on every major news show in America,
    and is then asked to speak to the GOP Congressional delegation one month
    after the Republicans took over Congress.
    My point is simple, but given what passes for our national understanding of
    these issues, apparently in need of explicit recitation: The problem of
    racism is not to be found at the extremes. It's not about "intolerance,"
    and a need to "love your neighbor," hold hands, and sing Pete Seeger songs.
    The problem is the everyday discrimination, inequity, and mainstream
    silence about these things by folks who pretend to care about racism, and
    think they can prove it by condemning lynch mobs: an act which ceased to be
    courageous about forty years ago.
    To that effect, we have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center
    spending all their time taking a handful of Nazis to court, tracking hate
    groups on the internet, and sending out stamps that say "teach tolerance"
    to folks on their mailing list so as to raise more money (despite an
    endowment in the tens of millions of dollars), all so they can do anything
    but help poor people, which, given their name, I had always assumed was the
    point. In addition to the Center, there are at least a half-dozen
    organizations nationwide that focus almost exclusively on doing battle with
    "the far-right." They can tell you everything you'd ever want to know about
    even the most insignificant Christian Identity church (members of which
    believe Jews are Satanic and persons of color are "mud people" without
    souls), or let you know who attended the most recent meeting at the Aryan
    Nations compound, all of which might be helpful the next time you're
    sitting around playing militia trivia with Morris Dees, but is likely of
    little use the rest of the year.
    It makes one wonder: with all these nice liberals focusing on intolerance
    and "extremists," who's challenging the persistent institutional injustices
    which will do more damage to people of color in the next ten minutes than
    the National Socialist White People's Party has done in their entire
    history? Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly enough folks to meet the
    challenge. Indeed, not only does mainstream liberal discourse on these
    issues siphon off time, money and energy from the real battles against
    structural injustices, it makes it harder to convince anyone those problems
    really are problems after all. When President Clinton says "we have torn
    down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our
    lives, our minds and our hearts," it makes it easy for people to believe
    racism is nothing more than an attitude problem in need of adjustment, or
    perhaps a 12-step group to put us on the collective road to recovery.
    What's more, since hardly anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any
    type, focusing on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies
    the belief that racism is something "out there," a problem for others, "but
    not me," or anyone I know.
    Extremism and the Focus on "the other"
    Ask any white person what a racist looks like, and you're likely to get a
    response involving the kinds of characters one sees on talk shows, men and
    women wearing sheets, hoods and swastikas, and yelling "nigger," and "spic"
    at people of color. Having seen these types of bigots on a regular basis,
    folks become convinced that they and they alone are the problem.
    Consider one of the women interviewed by Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera for
    their 1995 book White Racism, who, when asked her opinion of blacks
    replied: "they look like apes...I dislike them, except when they treat me
    with respect...I don't say I hate every black person, (just) the majority,"
    but then went on to explain, "I don't consider myself racist. When I think
    of the word racist, I think of the KKK, people in white robes burning black
    people on crosses...or I think of the skinheads..."
    Indeed, it's doubtful that the 17% of white Americans who readily tell
    pollsters that "blacks lack an inborn ability to learn," would consider
    themselves racists; nor the 31% who claim "most blacks are lazy;" nor the
    50% who believe blacks are "more aggressive and violent" than whites; nor
    the 75% who express the belief that "most blacks would rather live off
    welfare than work for a living."
    In fact, despite these numbers, only 6% of whites admit they are "racist or
    prejudiced" about half as many as will say they believe Elvis is still alive.

    Even more disturbing than these individual's own denials of their racism,
    is the seeming disregard paid such everyday prejudice by "anti-bias"
    organizations. Despite the fact that 17% of the white population, the
    percentage admitting they believe in black genetic inferiority, comprises
    34 million white Americans; and despite the fact that this 34 million
    people is equal to the size of the entire black population of the U.S.,
    groups like Klanwatch, the Anti-Defamation League and others seem to care
    little about challenging these folks' racism, unless of course they join a
    hate group or kill someone, in which case they will then become a problem
    worth addressing.
    Again, call me crazy, but I'm more concerned about the 44% who still
    believe it's alright for white homeowners to discriminate against black
    renters or buyers, or the fact that less than half of all whites (according
    to polls in the early 90's) think the government should have any laws to
    ensure equal opportunity in employment, than I am about guys running around
    in the woods with guns, or lighting birthday cakes to Hitler every April
    20th. Sure, folks like that can do serious damage (just witness Oklahoma
    City or Columbine High), but the fact remains that the Tim McVeighs and
    Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises of the world get these ideas somewhere,
    long before they stumble across white power websites or read The Turner

    Where Would They Get Such a Crazy Idea?
    Ever notice how people seem genuinely amazed whenever yet another vicious
    hate crime takes place, or when they hear about an increase in the number
    of openly racist organizations in the U.S? Each time one of these "isolated
    incidents," like Jasper occurs, the teeth-gnashing begins and the tears
    flow anew, and the sense of confusion as to how anyone could become such a
    hateful racist in a nation like ours begins to set in.
    But is it really that hard to understand? Is it that hard to imagine that
    young white people who look around and see police locking up people of
    color at disproportionate rates, might conclude there was something wrong
    with these folks? Something to be feared, and if feared then perhaps
    despised? Is it so difficult to believe that whites who hear politicians
    blame immigrants of color for "taking American jobs," or "squandering
    welfare dollars," might conclude that such persons were a threat to their
    own well-being? Is it that difficult to believe that someone taught from
    birth that America is a place where "anyone can make it if they try hard
    enough," but who looks around and sees that in fact, not only have some
    "not made it," but that these unlucky souls happen to be disproportionately
    people of color, might conclude that those on the bottom deserve to be
    there because they just didn't try hard enough, or didn't have the genetic
    endowment for success?
    When police in Riverside, California shoot Tyisha Miller in her car,
    because, after they pounded on her window and woke her from a diabetic
    stupor, she reached for a gun to protect herself, what message is sent
    regarding the value of black life? And how does it differ from that of the
    When police in Philadelphia shoot Dontae Dawson in his car because he
    raised his hand and they "thought he had a gun," (which he didn't), what
    message is sent about the value of black life? And how does it differ from
    that of White Aryan Resistance?
    When New Jersey State Troopers pump eleven shots into a van occupied by
    four black and Latino students on their way to basketball tryouts, simply
    because the van, after being pulled over, started to slowly roll backwards
    and they thought the young men were "trying to run them over," what message
    is sent about the value of black and brown life? And how is it different
    from that of the skinheads?
    When a cop in Chicago shoots Carl Hardiman for refusing to drop his
    "weapon" (which turned out to be a cell phone), or when Brooklyn officers
    shoot 15-year old Frankie Arzuega in the back of the head, kill him, and
    then don't report the "incident" for three days, at which time they're
    never disciplined, or when Anibal Carrasquillo is killed by yet another
    Brooklyn cop, shot in the back, for no identifiable reason, or when Aswon
    Watson is killed by still another of New York's finest, shot 18 times
    sitting in a stolen car, unarmed, and the grand jury indicts no one, or
    when Aquan Salmon, age 14, is shot in the back by an officer in Connecticut
    after being chased for a crime he didn't commit, what message is sent about
    the value of the lives of people of color, and how does it differ from the
    message of David Duke?
    And lest anyone think these are more "isolated incidents," it should be
    noted there are over 15,000 cases of alleged police brutality on file with
    the Justice Department, languishing for lack of funds to investigate; and
    that brutality complaints in New York City alone have risen by 62% since
    1992, costing over $100 million in damage payouts to victims; and that
    studies have found that anywhere from 80-97% of brutality victims are
    people of color, while the overwhelming majority of officers involved are
    white; or that in 75% of the cases where police kill someone, the person
    killed was unarmed.
    But the message that people of color are "different," "dangerous," and need
    to be controlled is sent out by more than just local police. The criminal
    justice system from start to finish inculcates such a mindset. Even though
    African American and Latino crime rates have remained roughly steady for
    two decades, the numbers of persons of color incarcerated has tripled,
    thanks to intensified law enforcement in communities of color. The war on
    drugs, fought mostly in poor and person-of-color-communities, despite the
    fact that whites are 74% of drug users, has contributed dramatically to the
    growth of a prison-industrial-complex, which is quickly sapping resources
    from education, job training and other vital programs.
    Nationwide, spending for job creation and training has fallen by more than
    half since the 1980's, while spending on "corrections" has exploded by
    521%. In California, spending on higher education as a share of the state
    budget has fallen by nearly 99% since 1980, while spending for prisons has
    mushroomed by nearly 800%. In New York, spending on prisons has increased
    by $761 million since 1988, during which time funding for the City and
    State University systems was slashed by $615 million. A decade ago, New
    York spent twice as much on higher ed as it did on prisons. Now, the state
    spends almost $300 million more annually locking mostly people of color
    away. Since 1980, the number of whites incarcerated for drug offenses
    increased by 103%, while the numbers of blacks incarcerated for drug
    offenses during this time grew by 1,311% and the number of Latinos
    incarcerated on drug charges grew by over 1,600%.
    What message does our society send when we allow, and even cause by a
    combination of policies, the kind of housing segregation, isolation, and
    poverty which confront all too many persons of color? When blacks who work
    full-time, year round are still three times as likely to be poor as whites
    who do the same, and Latino/as working full-time year-round are still four
    times more likely to remain poor? When unemployment for persons of color
    remains in double-digits and twice the white rate even in times of economic
    recovery? When white college grads are two-and-a-half times more likely to
    find work than black college grads, and whites with only a high school
    diploma are just as likely to have a job as an African American or Latino
    with a college degree? Why should we be surprised that at least some
    persons, witnessing the way the larger institutions of our society neglect
    (at best) and oppress (at worst) people of color, might reach the
    conclusions that they were superior, more deserving of opportunity and
    perhaps even life, than those same persons?
    Simply put, any nation that allows corporate polluters in communities of
    color to get away with fines that amount to only 1/5th the amount they
    would pay in white neighborhoods, is going to have a hard time convincing
    me that it's serious about cracking down on hate or racism of any kind. Any
    nation that thinks nothing of strip mining uranium on American Indian land,
    thereby causing Navajo teens to develop reproductive organ cancer at 17
    times the national average, doesn't have much moral capital to expend
    lecturing Klansmen who burn down black churches. Any nation that funds
    education mostly through property taxes, thereby guaranteeing massive
    inequity between the schools and resources available in poor urban and
    rural areas relative to more affluent suburbs, deserves to be laughed at
    when it proclaims itself committed to fairness, tolerance, and equity.
    In other words, even to the extent that we should concern ourselves with
    combating "hatred," or "intolerance," be it of the individual or organized
    type, it is still necessary to consider the ways in which such overt
    bigotry is instilled by the larger workings of the dominant culture, and by
    institutions run not by "extremists," but by acceptable, respected and
    mainstream Americans. This is the vital context to the politics of hatred
    which is rarely explored, let alone addressed by the organizations who
    proclaim themselves dedicated to an antiracist mission.

    The Defeat of David Duke and the Victory of 'Dukism'
    There is perhaps no better example of the inadequacy of simply fighting
    "extremists," and overt racism, than in that provided by the decade-long
    struggle against lifelong white supremacist David Duke, in Louisiana. The
    best-known organized racist in modern times, Duke was elected to the
    Louisiana legislature in 1989. Thereafter he received 44% of the vote (and
    60% of the white votes) in a losing stab at the U.S. Senate in 1990, lost
    in his bid for Governor in 1991 (although he received about 55% of all
    white votes cast), and then faded considerably in subsequent campaigns for
    President, and a second run for a Senate seat as well as another
    Gubernatorial campaign.
    At the time of Duke's electoral collapse (around 1995), many proclaimed him
    finished, a has-been, with no ability to influence American politics in the
    future, let alone win office. And yet, in 1999, even after a solid eight
    years of being exposed as a vicious racist and anti-Semite, there he was,
    pulling down 28,000 votes (almost one-fifth of all votes cast), and running
    third in the race for the U.S. Congress seat vacated by Bob Livingston.
    Missing the runoff by only about 4,000 votes, Duke can rightly claim that
    although he is not likely to win elected office anytime soon, he has had a
    significant impact, and will continue to do so, on the face of politics.
    Even though his electoral support base is now largely limited to fairly
    hard-core racists, who haven't been put off by his reversion back to open
    advocacy of white supremacy, the fact remains that even in those elections
    Duke has lost, the other candidates, including the winners, have been
    forced to move to the right on issues like welfare, affirmative action,
    crime, education, and immigration. Likewise, campaigns across the nation
    have increasingly sounded like those he was running eight and nine years
    ago, with candidates literally falling all over themselves to "steal from
    Duke's playbook," as Pat Buchanan termed it (shortly before doing it back
    in 1992).
    So unfortunately, even as Duke, the "extremist" has been defeated, and
    don't get me wrong, it was proper to target him as a Nazi, and I was part
    of the Coalition that did just that in the early '90'sthe fact remains that
    the salience of race politics, and the mainstream acceptance of racial
    scapegoating which existed before Duke came along, and has been such a
    large part of American politics since at least George Wallace, made Duke's
    rise possible, and even in the midst of his fall, ensures his unfortunate
    but continued relevance.
    Unless antiracists, including those of us who fought so hard to convince
    voters that Duke was a white supremacist, and an "extremist," can do just
    as good a job undermining the ideological basis for his political appeal,
    he will never be finally defeated, and the danger he posed and poses will
    never be finally passed. Reorienting the discussion won't be easy,
    committed as most are to lauding the legitimacy of mainstream institutions
    even as they attack the "extremes." Consider the recent flap over whether
    or not neo-Nazi Matt Hale should be allowed to join the Illinois
    bar. Hale, a graduate of Southern Illinois University Law School is
    currently being blocked from his chosen profession by those who claim his
    participation in the administration of justice would somehow "pervert the
    process," and call into question the state's commitment to the
    administration of "color-blind justice." Imagine that, in a state which has
    sent at least a half-dozen known innocent persons of color to death row in
    the past few years, and from what I can gather, has no intention of
    disbarring any of the esteemed jurists who participated in these despicable
    Again, just who is the bigger problem: Matt Hale, whom everyone knows is a
    bigot and whom everyone will be watching for signs of racist behavior, or
    the Cook County District Attorney and a handful of overzealous cops,
    looking to send some guy, any black guy will do, to his death so they can
    proclaim a big murder case solved? To even ask the question is to answer
    it. It is precisely the visibility of the former's racism, contrasted with
    the invisibility of the latter, which makes the latter so much more
    problematic, not to mention more worthy of our attention and concern.
    The same is true for hate crimes. To punish those overt and violent
    expressions of bigotry is all fine and good, but what about the underlying
    mindset which gives rise to such acts? And the institutional inequities
    that make such a mindset seem rational? And which crimes are the ones we
    should punish anyway: the retail versions perpetrated by lone bigots and
    hate groups, or the wholesale versions which form the basis of
    institutional racism, and are the very fabric which comprise the tapestry
    of American society? And who makes this decision? Local district attorneys
    and federal prosecutors? And who sentences the hate criminals? Juries like
    the one that thought nothing of the Rodney King beating? Thanks, but,
    surely there has to be a better way.

    Tim Wise is a Southern-based anti-racism activist who was instrumental
    in the political devastation of neo-Nazi David Duke. Wise has appeared on
    hundreds of television and radio programs to discuss the rise of the Far
    Right and the influence of racial prejudice on public policy. He has
    squared off against white supremacists, religious fundamentalists and
    noted conservatives.
    More on Tim Wise:

    Tim Wise is the Director of the newly-formed Association for White
    Anti-Racist Education (AWARE) in Nashville, Tennessee. He lectures across
    the country about the need to combat institutional racism, gender bias, and
    the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S. Wise has been called a
    "leftist extremist" by David Duke, "deceptively Aryan-looking" by a member
    of the Ku Klux Klan, and "the Uncle Tom of the white race," by right-wing
    author, Dinesh D' Souza. Whatever else can be said about him, his ability
    to make the right kind of enemies seems unquestioned. See his writings here:
    <http://www.zmag.org/bios/homepage.cfm?authorID=96> Also of interest:
    Tim Wise/David Horowitz Exchange on Racism

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