Thoughts on Tim Wise: Part 2, Objective Reality, Denial and Persuasion

A second point Wise made, in both his evening presentation and in his discussion with the faculty, was the role of objective reality when discussing race relations or race-based inequity.

Wise admits that today, in 2010, there may be some disagreement about if America has achieved racial equality. That is, many whites (and, of course, some blacks) might look around at modern America and conclude that the field of equal opportunity has been successfully leveled. America has no problem with race or racial inequality.

Many in the black community disagree with this assessment. So the question is raised, which view of America is more accurate? Is America fair or unfair?

Of course, the answer has to be based on more than mere opinion. The facts on the ground will need to have the final say. Are people of color treated differently when they apply for home or business loans? What is the median-income for black college graduates compared to white college graduates? Can blacks marry whites without social stigma? And so forth.

But before considering the objective data Wise asks us adopt a historical perspective. Specifically, he asks us to evaluate race relations in 1962, before any of the important Civil Rights legislation had been passed. Was America fair and equal in 1962? Obviously, looking back at the Jim Crow South reasonable people easily see that America was unjust and unfair in 1962. This seems beyond controversy. And yet, Wise asks us to consider the Gallup polling data in 1962. How did Americans in 1962 view their racial situation? For example, in 1962, a year before Birmingham police turned fire hoses and dogs upon the children of Birmingham, Gallop asked the following question:

In general, do you think that black children have as good a chance as white children in your community to get a good education, or don't you think they have as good a chance?
In 1962, 83% of Americans said that black children had "as good a chance" as white children. And please note that even my own school, Abilene Christian University, hadn't yet been racially integrated in 1962!

In short, white Americans in 1962 looked around and saw no racial inequality. This despite our 2010 assessment that 1962 America was a racially unjust society.

The point, obviously, is that whenever racism exists, even objectively so as in 1962 America, privileged groups cannot see it. So it makes you wonder, if 1962 America couldn't see that kind of segregation as racist how is 2010 America going to see subtler forms of racism?

In short, although we do need to consider the objective evidence regarding white privilege in America there is an important sense in which objective reality doesn't matter. And it has never mattered. In fact, during slavery white America thought the slaves had it "good." Even the objective realities of slavery failed to register on the moral consciousness of America. So how are we to believe that data on median family income is going to register on 2010 America as it evaluates its racial situation?

Basically, privileged groups engage in a form of denial. And this fact is beyond dispute. Any reasonable examination of the historical record supports this conclusion. Privileged groups cannot see their own privilege. White America has always felt--during the era of slavery and during 1962 America--that the race problem was illusory and a non-issue.

The point is, no assessment of objective reality is going to be persuasive until the privileged group comes to terms with its own tendency for self-deception.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tim Wise: Part 2, Objective Reality, Denial and Persuasion”

  1. This is so true. White, middle-class homeowning Americans are so far removed from issues like racism, and even poverty, so much that they cannot see that it still exists today. We attend mostly white-churches, send our kids to private schools or at least public schools in the "good part of town," and we choose housing that is far from the "ghetto." If we don't step back from our own perspective to empathize with others (and take social actions), then we are doomed to repeat history or never make any conscious effort to represent and aid the minorities in our country. This all even said from a white point of view. We need to also educate our children about real history, not just white history. I think that schools need to take a proactive role in tackling issues like racism. We cannot eradicate sin nature, but we can try to educate people and cultivate compassion.

  2. Minority rights, social norms and how these are negotiated are of primary importance in how we view reality.

    All people are not created equal in outcome, because this MUST be left up to individual intiative, choice and commitment. Otherwise, we do disservice to those that want a 'reward" for their hard work, which undermines motivation.

    But, what should be equal is opportunity, and how can we gauruntee that opportunity? Discrimination laws are what the government attempts to do, but we all know that what is really at play is "self perception". We defend our right over against another's right because we want special priviledge or right. The law should prevent such special priviledge or right.

    One does wonder how to infilterate cultures that are of a minority color. How does one go about changing attitudes toward "what is or should be"? How does one motivate those whose motivation just isn't there? These are the questions that should be addressed and not how we can give "away the store" by assuring a house, a Porsche, a cell phone, etc.

    America should neve bite into the victim mentality of minorities, otherwise, we will feed it. And victimhood does not equip, but inhibit.

  3. Dr. Beck,

    Thanks for your posts on this topic. It's a difficult topic, always, but one that needs perpetual discussion. It's encouraging to me that a Christian is initiating it.


  4. Angie:

    "Minority" is an inherently racist terminology that subconsciously minimizes the concerns of blacks and Latinos. Their concerns are painted as "minority" concerns instead of being intrinsic to the justice and equality that we would like to exist in the United States.

    A lot of racism in this country is so deeply psychological and embedded in every form of media that you can't point to it directly. It's no longer open segregation, but semantics and financial manipulation.

  5. As I am no longer at the University, I had to resort to iTunes U to hear from Tim Wise. There is a speech from 1997, entertaining for its insight as well as for the period in which it was given (welfare reform is given intense treatment). From what I gather, he gave a penetrating analysis on the justifying myths about race that keep white people ignorant or complacent of race issues, or as you put it, privileged groups are in denial. I wish political consensus could be in agreement with this analysis, but from my observations, interested parties play the war of statistics to proof or disprove entrenched beliefs about equality and opportunity. Objective reality could better serve perceived reality if we all had this type of view as the starting point for discussions and statistics. For while I’m in agreement with his analysis, his proffered solutions to these problems, at least in his 1997 lecture, are exclusively liberal, but the problems seem open to solutions from different political persuasions. For example, Wise’s solution to funding discrepancies between inner-city public schools and suburban public schools is increased funding, while solutions like giving parents more power to choose which schools their children attend, competition between schools for students is not mentioned, pay for performance, etc. are not mentioned. Now I have my own entrenched perspective on these views, and these other options might have already been debunked by objective reality, I’m not sure, but I would like to believe that liberal and conservative persuasions can both care about the same thing and simply offer different solutions to the same problems. My wife often counters the notion that conservative persuasions care about the same things but only have different solutions. This is all too often true. Privileged groups are in denial. We need a starting point like the one coming from Tim Wise so all political persuasions can offer solutions to issues of equality. Maybe such an admission would betray the conservative understanding of human agency you referenced in you last post. Maybe that’s not a bad thing though.

  6. A few things about this discussion bother me: First, isn't it a problem to talk about race in such broad terms? "White people" are x,y,z. "Black people" are x,y,z.

    There are over 300 million people in America, and yet somehow we've identified a "white privilege". Orwellian? Seems like it.

    Second, while not trained in political philosophy, there is something about Richard's attempt to say we are all liberal (in his first post on this topic) that doesn't seem right to me. Broadly, Richard identifies modern conservatives and liberals as branches of the same tree, with classical liberalism as the trunk.

    I took this as an attempt to put Tim Wise in the category of a person who's roots are in classical liberalism, so I spent some time reading what Tim has written in the past. The short version: Tim Wise is not coming at this from a branch of the same tree as modern conservatives. He appears to be from a tree of a different variety. Here's a link to his past articles so you can see for yourself:

    I only read a small portion of his essays, but he's clearly a guy who is obsessed with racial issues (just look at the titles of his essays), and has been for quite some time (read his first essay written in 1994--over 15 years ago--and ask yourself whether Tim sees America as moving in the right direction). He appears to despise America, and not for just its racial problems, and he engages frequently in moral equivalency (i.e. sure, Bin Laden is a bad guy, but man that Rumsfeld...)

    And finally, the cure for white privilege will likely be worse than the disease. What will white people be asked to do as a result of this affliction? If it is to be mindful of it, with humility, so that we can be more Christ-like--well, them I'm all for it. But, alas, it probably is not that simple. We'll be asked to flog ourselves for the past horrors of others (see, e.g. Tim's metaphor of a CEO not wanting to pay past debts); we'll be asked to support things like affirmative action, reparations, or other government policies that redistribute money on the basis of social conditions.

    And black people will continue to be treated as though all of their problems will go away if only white people treated them better, or gave them more money. How offensive this must be to a black person? It is also offensive as a white person to be lumped in with those who truly are racists. Which brings me back to my first complaint: who are we talking about, anyway?

  7. Has our President and Nobel Prize laureate, Barack Obama, spoken about this problem? Did Wise talk about President Obama's personal struggle?

  8. Maybe one way to move forward is to reconsider what we mean by racism. Lots of people think that to be a racist you have to use racial epithets and burn crosses on the lawn of someone who is not white. Since most people and most activity between people doesn't fall in that category, maybe we need to redefine racist to mean a system or society that routinely benefits white people and disadvantages people who are not white.

    No one wants to think of themelves as racist. Of course. No one - especially anyone from a working class background - wants to be called privileged when they feel they've worked for all they have. I know that when I first heard this theory, the idea of being privileged drove me nuts and made me angry.

    Unfortunately, that doesn't change the reality that because I am white, I don't/ didn't encounter obstacles that non-white people do.

    I think Dr. Beck and Tim Wise are talking about, at the outset, merely considering (and acknowledging if so convicted) that white people enjoy benefits that to them may be invisible because they have never not had them.

    It's probably too dense of a conversation to have on a blog, but I really appreciate the efforts being made by everyone participating.
    Thanks again Dr. Beck.

  9. Perhaps one way to move forward is to redefine what we mean by racist. When we use the word racist lots of people think that is a white person who burns crosses on the lawns of people who aren't white and calls them racial epithets. Maybe it would be more useful to consider racism as a system that routinely advantages white people while disadvantaging non-white people.

    No one wants to be considered a racist or called a racist. Not many people - espeically those from workign class backgrounds - want to hear that they are privileged when they feel they've worked hard and continue to work hard for what they have.

    But be that as it may, it doesn't change the reality that white people don't face some obstacles that non-white people do and that absence of difficulty is a privilege that is invisible to them. I'm not saying white people have simple easy lives without suffering. I'm saying there are other systems at work in addition to what an individual contributes to her or his own destiny.

    This is a hard conversation and maybe too dense for a blog but I appreciate that it is happening.

  10. Dammerung, I appreciate you desire for fairness. I also want to see fairness, but, again, I question whether fairness is sameness except in opportunity.

    Hopefully, you have never encountered discrimination. I have. And what is expected is not given, the disillusionment could not be deeper, but again, I do not expect that to be rectified by those that cannot see and cannot know.

  11. I do not have to be a racist (evaluating individuals on the basis of their color) to be oblivious to the realities faced by different races. In fact, BECAUSE so many in the majority group are good, decent people of the sort described by Wise, it makes sense that they would be shocked to hear that they have an inherent advantage by virtue of their race. Admitting obliviousness is going to be a painful thing to people who pride themselves on being "color blind."

  12. Angie Van De Merwe

    Why are black people so poor? Because they are inherently inferior? Because they come from an inferior culture? Because they won't learn English?

    The Federal Reserve is basically the source for money in this nation. It lends to banks, banks lend using fractional reserve banking. Every day they create MORE MONEY, which competes with the money we already have. But lending is set up against black people and has been for decades. They are well and truly economically disadvantaged because they aren't players in the credit game.

    So for every dollar a hard working black man earns, he's competing in the marketplace against investment banks which lend out thirty for every dollar they have. For each dollar he has he's thirty dollars disadvantaged against Goldman Sachs. His good money is driven out by the fake money of the credit/debt cycle.

    Poverty and incarceration for blacks is deliberate POLICY, not an accident of their culture or genetics.

  13. Another perspective...

    If a black man on the street or white man living in a trailer has $10 in his wallet, he can lend out $10. Maybe if he's lucky he can charge 10% interest on it over a month's time. So he can earn $1 for his $10 lent out.

    Goldman Sachs can lend out THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS if they have ten dollars in their wallet. And they charge a 30% APR. So for the $10 Goldman Sachs has, it can earn $380!!

    See why bankers are rich and we get poorer every day?

  14. Just once, I'd like a race hustler to outline in concrete, a priori terms what circumstances would need to obtain for us to be able to pronounce a consensus opinion that the era of "racist America" is over.

    Several decades ago, the paradigmatic MLK vision was an America in which people were judged on their character merits, not on the color of their skin. (Ironic, in light of your Tim Wise post on meritocracy.) Now we see the goalposts being moved, time and again, because being judged on one's merits is apparently not as desirable as the Reverend might have wished us to suppose.

    So, I guess in relation to that first paragraph, qb's not holding his breath. I can't help but conclude that if the goals were to be set out in concrete form, reaching them (assuming we ever did *cough* *cough*) would put some high-profile folks out of business.


  15. qdsblog: Black men get convicted more often than white men and serve longer sentences for the same crime. I'm sure equality is just around the corner though

  16. Last night in my class at church about self-deception I talked about this issue. Basically, I said let's bracket the following three things:

    1) Does racism still exist?
    2) How severe is it?
    3) What should we do about it?

    Let's just set all that aside for a moment and ask a more fundamental question: Could I be deluded in some way about the status of race relations? Particularly if I'm white?

    From a moral and Christian perspective I think we should pause and consider the possibility that we might be compromised and biased in various ways, irrespective of the three issues I list above.

    And, worryingly, the fact that we are often so quick to discount or dismiss these issues seems symptomatic of just this sort of self-deception. True this is not a foolproof diagnostic test. But it should give us pause.

    It is Lent after all. A little self-suspicion and self-examination might do us some good.

Leave a Reply