Faux-pression: Racism and the Cult of White Victimhood

To hear conservatives tell it, there’s a one-sided race war going on in America, and white folks are the targets. From President Obama’s secret plan to use health care reform as a way to procure backdoor “reparations” for slavery, to his equally secret plan to wreck the economy as a way to pay white people back for centuries of racial oppression, to his personal responsibility for a fight on a school bus in Belleville, Illinois, in which two black kids beat up a white kid, it’s open season on white America. And of course, in case you weren’t convinced, surely that tax on tanning bed customers that was part of the health care bill should suffice to make the case: after all, it’s a clear slap at white folks and the result of the President’s deep antipathy towards those of us lacking sufficient melanin.

Into the breach of white hysteria–heightened by Rush Limbaugh’s claim that Colin Powell only endorsed Obama as an act of racial bonding, and that the President only appoints people to high office or the Supreme Court who hate whites–now come two stories, spun for maximum effect by the right and its media mouthpieces at FOX News. To wit, the so-called scandal surrounding the Justice Department’s handling of voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), and the recent allegation that a black official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Shirley Sherrod, admits to having mistreated a white farmer who was seeking government help, at least in part because of his race.

Since the Panther story broke, and today in the wake of the white farmer incident, I’ve been inundated by angry e-mails, demanding to know when I was going to join the fight against “black racism,” and speak out as forcefully about bigotry aimed at whites as I do about bigotry aimed at people of color. One e-mail suggested that I needed to issue an apology for previous columns I’d penned, in which I had argued that reverse racism was a myth, since people of color are generally powerless to turn their biases into concrete action that truly injures white people. Obviously, the author said, things have changed. Now a black-led Justice Department in a black-led administration does have the power to collaborate with anti-white racism, “as in the case of the Black Panthers,” and a black official in the Ag Department has the power to “deliberately mistreat” a white farmer and then brag about it.

But as it turns out, new evidence has surfaced indicating that the uproar about Shirley Sherrod has no merit. Right-wing blogger Andrew Brietbart posted edited video of a speech in which Sherrod ostensibly made fun of a white farmer and joked about not doing all she could to help him. But in fact, the rest of her story as told during the speech (which Brietbart conveniently did not post, and which FOX News has also ignored) details how she learned from her interactions with the farmer that her initial cavalier attitude about his situation was unfair, and how once she realized that, she went all out to help him save his farm. According to the family itself, she did just that, and they consider her a friend. In other words, the story was about not making assumptions on the basis of race and not discriminating. But in the hands of the right, Sherrod is a bitter racist out to hurt salt-of-the-Earth white farm folks, evidence be damned.

Likewise, the New Black Panther Party debacle is rooted in a level of intellectual mendacity that is rare even for a right-wing that has demonstrated its willingness to race-bait black folks for years without compunction.

In the case of the New Black Panther Party, the so-called intimidation of white voters by black militants led to an injunction against the leader of the Philadelphia chapter–the only one who was carrying a potential weapon, a nightstick, outside the polling place on election day, 2008. In other words, punishment was forthcoming and King Samir Shabazz, the only Panther against whom a case could have been made, has been legally held responsible for his actions. This, in spite of the fact that not one voter ever stepped forward to indicate they had been intimidated, or threatened, or blocked from voting. Even the Civil Rights Commission’s leading conservative Republican says the right-wing/FOX feeding frenzy over the story is unwarranted.

But despite the vapidity of the story, FOX has hyped it with over nine hours of breathless coverage, giving airtime to those who continue to insist that the Obama Administration “dropped the charges” against the Panthers because of a political/racial directive not to pursue cases involving white victims. This, despite the fact that it was the Bush Administration that dropped the criminal charges, and the Obama Administration that successfully got an injunction put in place against Shabazz. And again, despite the fact that not one white voter has even hinted that they were victimized. Interestingly, FOX has given spokespersons for the New Black Panthers–a small group with no significant reach or influence–continued airtime over the years, with more than 50 appearances on various of the network’s shows. In other words, the right sees the political payoff in keeping whites afraid of black anger, and has done everything they can to feed white fear, both before and after these immediate stories broke.

However, as phony as these stories happen to be, there is actually a more important point to be made regarding racism, how we do (or don’t) understand it, and how media chooses to cover it as a subject.

So let’s consider the distinction I’ve made in those previous essays–the ones that had my electronic adversary so angry–between white racial bias and institutionalized racism against people of color on the one hand, and occasional bouts of black or brown racial bias on the other. My argument has never been that folks of color can’t be philosophically racist. Nor have I said that they cannot, on occasion, practice racial discrimination against whites. What I have said (and frankly what the New Black Panther story and the Shirley Sherrod incident confirm, even if they had happened exactly as the right has spun them) is that there is a fundamental difference, in practical terms, between these various types of racism.

Racial bias on the part of black folks, even the most vicious and unhinged bigotry on their part, is pretty impotent. King Samir Shabazz hates white people and thinks “cracker babies” should be killed. And yet what kind of power does Shabazz have? None. He is in a position to kill no one, and if he were to try he would go to jail. Forever. That’s not power. Power is when you can deny people jobs, housing, health care, decent educations, or their physical freedom via the justice system, thereby wrecking their lives. And there are virtually no black folks–and certainly no black folks wearing berets, fake-ass military uniforms and carrying nightsticks–who can do any of that. But there are white folks in positions to do those things, and who do them with or without bigoted intent regularly, as I have demonstrated in previous essays and books.

Likewise, even the NBPP’s ability to intimidate white voters (in theory, since there were no such white voters in the instant case) pales in comparison to the actual denial of the right to vote to millions of black men–one in seven nationally, and as many as one in four in several states–because they are ex-felons. As law professor and scholar Michelle Alexander discusses in her brilliant new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, despite serving their time and paying their debt to society these people of color are disallowed from voting forever. Not by white thugs standing outside a polling place, but by perfectly legal actions taken by state legislatures many years ago, for blatantly racist reasons, and which the courts have said are acceptable despite their racial impact.

And even on the individual level, while the Panther leader has been legally sanctioned for his actions, and while the story about King Samir Shabazz has received non-stop coverage on FOX, the Bush Justice Department really did ignore voter intimidation allegations against the anti-immigrant Minutemen in Arizona in 2006. And that case–in which the Minutemen stood outside the polling place with loaded weapons, questioning Latino voters about their ability to speak English–received zero coverage on FOX News, despite assurances by FOX’s Megyn Kelly (the most animated of those pushing the Panther story) that the “voting place is sacrosanct.” Apparently not for Latinos, and not for the millions of black men who can no longer vote because of antiquated and racist laws. Oh, and not for the voters of color who former Supreme Court Chief Justice and conservative hero William Rehnquist intimidated at the polls during his early days as a Republican activist That is the difference between white and other racism, and it matters.

So too, even if Shirley Sherrod had been a horrible anti-white bigot in the Department of Agriculture (and interestingly the incident about which the right has made such a stink didn’t even happen when she was in that Department, but rather, nearly a quarter century ago when she worked for a non-profit agency), the fact would remain, the impact of her “bigotry” would have been small potatoes compared to the institutionalized discrimination meted out to black farmers for generations. On the basis of overwhelming evidence that black farmers were treated differently and worse than their white counterparts over the years by the USDA, those victimized by the government sought legal remedies. The first lawsuit was settled during the Clinton Administration, while a second group of farmers–cut out of the first case for technical reasons–recently procured from the Obama Administration an agreement to settle their claims for a little over $1 billion. Even the USDA’s own Commission on Small Farms has acknowledged the history of persistent and “blatant” discrimination against tens of thousands of black farmers by the agency. Yet Congress has still not released the monies due to these actual victims of racism, and seems in no hurry to do so. And the media has given the story almost no coverage, unlike the Sherrod incident, which, as it turns out, had no basis in fact to begin with.

Once again, a case of individual racism–which turned out to be phony anyway–gets the attention, while the institutionalized mistreatment of people of color goes ignored.

The pattern is familiar. In every generation whites have hyped fears of black anger, black bigotry and the supposed desire of African Americans to exact revenge on whites. From fears about slave rebellions, to claims that integration would lead black children to knife white children in the hallways and rape white girls, to paranoia about Obama’s secret plan for “white slavery,” the cult of white victimhood has long had its charter members. Sadly, nowadays the cult has the attention of the media and a white public already anxious about changing demographics, the presence of a black president and economic insecurity. Unless the targets of their race-baiting (including the President) show the courage to push back and expose them for the venal fear-pimps they are, their methods will only get more extreme, their lies more bold, and their ability to inflict lasting damage on the nation more definitive.

Tim Wise is the author of five books on race and racism. His latest is, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010)

7 Responses to “Faux-pression: Racism and the Cult of White Victimhood”

  1. I came to read some of these writings today after being accused of being a racist. The reason I came to this site is because the person making the claims said that your work told her how to recognize people like me. The reason I was considered a racist was because I suggested that an ad probably was not meant as a racial slight. This ad has a number of people speaking in favor of a political candidate, but none of them were black.

    In reading your article, I do agree with some of your points. There is racism that runs rampant in our society, but I think you need to be clearer in regards to what makes a racist. You state that black racists exist, but then say it doesn’t matter because they can’t effect people on a grand scale. I believe that racism is wrong across the board. Creating two standards is the exact thing we need to stop in order to achieve equality, yet you actively promote such standards in your writing.

    In regards to your statements about the denial of voting rights to blacks, I would like to know if the laws you are criticizing state that only black felons be kept from voting. If this is the case, please let me know where to sign-up to fight this, but I suspect that the laws prevent all felons from voting equally. If I am correct, then you argument is void because the law is just in regards to voting. This would leave the argument regarding felony convictions being affected by race as a sideline for your point. Unfortunately, you chose not to speak to an issue that potentially is one and instead manufactured an issue against a law that does not back discrimination, unless you are speaking of felons in general. Is this any better than the actions of Brietbart?

    Racism is wrong for everyone. Please stop justifying hate by saying it is harmless. Even if the effect of hate is limited, it is still harmful to those it touches. King Samir Shabazz, as you state, hates whites. How can you claim he has no power when he has the capability to act on his beliefs that “cracker babies should be killed”? Would you feel the same if that “cracker baby” was your child?

    I hope to get a response to this that doesn’t include accusations and name calling, which is what I have received for posts like this in other venues. I also hope that points are given sincere consideration and not simply dismissed. As I stated before, racism and hate are serious problems, but they need to be fought on both sides if we are truly to be united and equal.


  2. Hi Shawn, thanks for taking the time to read at least one article I’d written. I appreciate it and will try and respond to your concerns.

    I am not saying racism is not equally wrong, morally, when expressed by Shabazz or whomever. It is. But as a practical social issue it isn’t equivalent at all, and does not deserve “equal time.” Think about it, I’m sure that during the period of slavery and Jim Crow, there were millions of black people who hated white people. I would have had I been enslaved, that’s for sure. But so what? Should we really have been having a conversation at that time about “black racism” towards whites, when obviously the social issue was white racism? That’s the point. I’m sure there are always members of less powerful groups who hate more powerful group members (often because of the mistreatment they experience), but if they cannot effect those people’s lives (unless they break the law and subject themselves to criminal sanction, which is not power at all, frankly), they do not deserve the same social concern. Moral equivalent, yes. Practical equivalent, no. That’s all I’m saying.

    As for the voting right and felony issue: please understand, these laws were passed for blatantly racist reasons. No they did not and do not just apply to black felons, but because blacks are overcharged with felonies (especially for drug crimes, which they DO NOT commit more often than whites), they end up bearing a dispro cost, and this was the plan from the start. If you follow the legislative history of the states that did this with EX felons who have paid their dues, you will see that they had blatantly racist reasons for doing it: they KNEW that blacks would get charged more often with felonies, no matter who did the most crime. So it’s racist, much as literacy clauses for voting were. They applied to “everyone” in theory, but everyone knew that in practice, the people to whom it would be applied were black, because of the unequal application of the law.


  3. Thank you for the quick response.

    I do understand your point about the practicality of white racism as a social issue. I think where we disagree is that I believe in eliminating racism as a whole and not placing degrees and qualifiers on it. It doesn’t matter if the racist is black or white, the effects of his or her actions will still result in harm to someone. It will also perpetuate the hatred.

    I believe that you are trying to do some very important work, but I fear that it is really backfiring. As I mentioned in my original comment, I was accused of being a racist because I didn’t think an ad was meant to be a slight to blacks. I was also insulted by the person. I was profiled and stereotyped based on the limited information available. I was told that I couldn’t possibly understand anything about diversity because I live in a predominantly white town. All of this because I didn’t think the casting of an ad was racially motivated. This person is an avid fan of your work, but I don’t think you mean to incite people to go out of their way to find problems or worse create them. Not everything is a white conspiracy and not everyone who offers the benefit of doubt are racists. I believe you know that, but I can say for a fact that at least one of your fans doesn’t. My experience with that person was disturbing and another person may have been pushed towards believing all blacks are like that. I happen to know that isn’t true because my friends aren’t like that.

    If we want to end racism, we need to stop feeding the flames. We need to acknowledge that racists exist on both sides and neither can be justified. While I agree, that someone who has been mistreated by racists have every right to their anger and hatred, but only towards those that mistreated them. If they paint everyone with the same brush because of the actions of a few, then they are no better than the racists they despise.


    Janet Reply:

    Asking people to acknowlege the truth is not feeding the flames. I have no idea whether or not you are a racist. I am aware of no definitive test. Further, I don’t think that it is particularly helpful to label people. However, conduct should be evaluated.

    In my nearly 60 years on the planet, I have observed that people whom I deem to engage in racist conduct frequently acccuse blacks and others, who merely tell the truth about racism, of being racist or divisive. It is not being negative for an addict to admit that he is an addict. In fact many believe that it is the first step to recovery. Similarly, admitting where we are is the first step to resolving the race issue. Yes, admittiting what is going on is painful, but necessary. Let’s get the first step behind us. This step is long overdue.


  4. “I do understand your point about the practicality of white racism as a social issue. I think where we disagree is that I believe in eliminating racism as a whole and not placing degrees and qualifiers on it. It doesn’t matter if the racist is black or white, the effects of his or her actions will still result in harm to someone. It will also perpetuate the hatred.”

    Shawn, I appreciate that you are interested in tackling these issues. I recommend you read Blauner’s “Talking Past Each Other”.

    See, you’re talking about racism and bigotry as personal actions and decisions. Saying racist comments, discriminating against a fellow worker because of their race, etc. Racism is certainly that.

    But black folks have by and large always thought about racism as being that AND the way that institutions operate to exclude them. So the end of the Bretton Woods system and the start of neo-liberalism certainly had very little, probably nothing, to do with racism per se. I don’t think GATT, NAFTA, the WTO, etc. were formed for racist reasons, though the institutions of neo-liberal “globalization” certainly behave in racist ways, say racist things and employ racists. But their IMPACT has been decidedly racist, because their impact has been classist. Because neo-liberal norms slam the working poor, they disproportionately slam blacks.

    Now, this is racist not because Nixon had racist views when he dismantled the Bretton Woods system, but because those decisions that are made are made without any concern for blacks.

    So, within the black lexicon, racism includes a white person using the N-word out of hate, the KKK lynching a Latina/o, felon disenfranchisement laws, welfare reform (which was racialized in its motivation and the way it was sold to Americans), and NAFTA.

    Thus, when we talk about racism, we talk about all those things. Opposing bigotry and prejudice that is experienced or felt by non-whites is ancillary to that mission in toto, though not to the mission of dealing with prejudice and hate specifically, because even if we were to eliminate all hatred that non-whites feel, we would still not have accomplished anything of note in diminishing institutional racism.

    But, Shawn, I argue that even if we’re only concerned about reducing prejudice and bigotry per se, then we STILL have to be talking about white folks more often. It’s not black folks who move out of neighborhoods when white folks move in, it’s the other way around. Blacks when polled express much a preference for a much higher rate of integration. Down the line, when it comes to racial attitudes, blacks are (unsurprisingly) far more enlightened than whites, according to the data.

    “Not everything is a white conspiracy and not everyone who offers the benefit of doubt are racists.”

    But they might be SUPPORTING racists, or not dealing with racism sufficiently. That’s sort of the distinction.

    To be a good white ally means you have to go beyond just not being bigoted. You have to embrace the fight in your culture.

    Yes, sometimes I’ll see something that some people think is racist that I don’t. I’ll have arguments with black and brown folks within movements for justice. But it’s important that we proceed with tremendous humility. And when we hear a lot of brown and black folks expressing that something might be racist, we better play very close attention.

    I think it’d behoove you to start going beyond a mere concern with hate and prejudice and start looking at institutional white supremacy and racism, the way that the media, the courts, the legislature, the military, and other dominant institutions have racist priorities…


  5. Welcome to the conversation, Shawn. (Ok, so I’m a bit late and hope you read this at some point).

    I don’t like the way ‘racist’ is used because it’s a false Western dichotomoy- you either are or you aren’t, right? And no one in polite society WANTS to be that and will deny it (sort of like with the GLBT community no one wants to be a f**** because those people are powerless) It’s a sliding scale, though, not an absolute. It’s like maturity, maybe. It’s not that you’re only OLD or YOUNG but often somewhere in the middle. And, just like racism, it’s all relative. I personally think adults calling their parents Mommy and Daddy is a maturity blind spot. Similarly, many whites have racial blind spots. They don’t understand because they haven’t been exposed to it or have self-selected away from knowledge.

    It sounds like some sort of uncomfortable exchange went down with the consideration for that ad. Is it possible that what that person said was that it was a racist observation or comment? It is different and usually less confrontational. There is a difference between saying someone’s acting like a jerk and calling them a jerk.

    From uncomfortability can sometimes arise great things, though. Personal example: I can still remember 30 years ago (at age 10) hearing my (white) father talk about the worst racist memory from his personal history (he, at 12, was ‘kidding around’ with a black playmate and said he was ‘moving away to get away from all you n******’). How he said he felt, and how it was clear his playmate felt after that was very powerful to me. I actually grew up in a refugee resettlement area and had lots of contact with my family helping people of color, so it wasn’t as if I was insensitive up to then, but that certainly reinforced it.

    So, it’s hard for me to judge the commercial you’re referring to without having watched it, but I have to say that the biggest thing that leaps out at me is that you gave the white person/candidate(/media producer?) the benefit of the doubt with that political ad. Let’s put aside the racial implications for a moment (mainly because my judgment of you is probably irrelevant) and just talk about the media for a moment. Have you ever seen a transcript of a commercial or a script? Do you know how much planning, casting, forethought and testing goes into one of those things? For you to have a default value of ‘probably not on purpose’ means you should learn more about the political system. Political ads are usually negative and prey on voters’ fears. Remember when George Bush was prez and he had all those ‘over-zealous staffer’ photo-op moments like the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, spray-painting “Made in America” on boxes in a factory that really said “Made in China”
    or that fake plastic turkey when he Visited the Troops? Well, that kind of political theater is par for the course for many different spheres of influence. (Including Democrats, for that matter, Hillary and her ‘Obama’s not a Muslim, AFAIK’ game during the campaign). To use a more historic example, remember the Willie Horton ads the Republicans used to take down Dukakis? Was that ‘just a coincidence’ that Willie Horton ‘happened’ to be black?


    No, Lee Atwater and his cohorts made their careers on stuff like that.

    Here’s the thing: old-school racism is largely missing from the (polite) public sphere (we will still have our George Allens http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI ). Racists have gotten much sneakier and subtler about the way they encode stuff.

    It is great that if you want to fight against racism you are engaging people on issues, but I think you would be well served learning also about institutional racism and environmental racism. This is a stretch for many people (since no one’s calling someone a slur to their face, how can it be racist?) but there’s a reason why there’s such a phrase as ‘the wrong side of the railroad tracks.’

    Here’s another way modern sensationalist media twists issues on TV: they blow up tragedy and crime when it affects ones of people into something that affects MILLIONS of people. Who is the latest Pretty White Girl Missing? Is that blatantly racist? No. Is the way that the media (and consumers) obsess on stories like that racist though? Yeah, definitely. It’s a double standard and the effects of one person missing are blown up out of proportion. In the same way that the tragedy pimps sells you sympathy for Natalie Holloway, chances are they are racist-ly slighting you about the news of something else that matters far more.

    Let me put this a different way: if there were another political ad with all people of color in it and not a single white person, don’t you think that would have struck you as odd?


  6. I loved reading this exchange of ideas. These are exactly the types of conversations Tim Wise is hoping to generate, and I am very pleased to see they are happening.

    The take-home point for me here was that when any group feels victimized, and tries to alert us to their sense of victimization, it behooves us as fellow humans to take note and extend our empathy towards them, and really listen to them, instead of immediately assuming that they are just being over-sensitive.

    And even if a member of a racially oppressed group is being “too sensitive”, I submit, why are we so judgmental and intolerant of that heightened sensitivity? Neuroscience has amply demonstrated that people who go through traumatic life events become hyper-sensitized to real and perceived threats. Should we be really so surprised that the African-American population, having gone through an intra-generational trauma of such monstrous proportions, is indeed sensitized to racist slights? What would it cost the dominant group to respect that fact and exercise utmost caution (ie “more than usual caution”) in dealing with their friends of the oppressed group?

    And if we don’t want to exercise that caution, isn’t that akin to telling a trauma survivor to “just get over it”?


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