Q&A session after my talk at the MOSAIIC conference, December, 2014…this discussion is specifically about how white southerners come to issues of race…
Tim Wise Speech – “Racism, White Denial and Criminal Justice: Ferguson and Beyond,” 12/5/2014 – Lexington, KY
My keynote speech at the MOSAIIC conference, 12/5/2014 in Lexington KY at the Lyric Theatre, organized by Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
Tim Wise on “Our Common Ground” (BlogTalkRadio) w/Janice Graham: “White Rage in America – Unhinged” (12/7/2014)
My appearance on December 7, 2014 on “Our Common Ground” (BlogTalkRadio) with Janice Graham to discuss racism, white anxiety and the prospects for change, post-Ferguson
My appearance via Skype on the ZoWhat!? Show, December 8, 2014 to discuss racism and white privilege post-Ferguson…
Discussion on HuffPost Live, 12/8/14, hosted by Marc Lamont Hill. We discuss the aftermath of the Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson and New York, and next steps for the movement to end racism and police brutality in communities of color
Guests: Franchesca Ramsey, Patrisse Cullors, Redditt Hudson and Tim Wise
This past week, Chris Rock noted in an interview that in his estimation, America is producing the nicest white people in its history.
Perhaps. But if so, this only suggests the pitiable limits of niceness and its utter irrelevance for the production of something approaching justice, or for that matter even insight. And if so, it may merely signify how far we had to come out of the pit of whatever one takes the opposite of nice to be: mean, nasty, cruel, selfish, and so on. In short, it’s pretty thin gruel in the pantheon of praise, however sincerely Rock may have meant it.
One can be perfectly nice, after all, and still fail to see that which is right before you, staring at you from the computer screen as you watch Eric Garner killed on the streets of Staten Island by an officer who compresses his jugular vein with a chokehold, and still others who sit on his back, thereby compressing his chest and restricting his ability to breathe. The officer who applied that pressure to Garner’s neck might well be “nice” in the sense that he is kind to old people, babies and animals. Likewise, the grand jury that decided yesterday not to indict him for any crime might well have been filled with nice people, who send get-well cards to sick friends and relatives, participate in Secret Santa at work and volunteer at the local food bank. And what of it? Their niceness did not, clearly, provide them with the gift of comprehension, as they managed to watch an officer kill a man who posed no threat to him whatsoever—no reaching for his gun, even in some paranoid fever dream, no charging him like a bull, or as Darren Wilson put it to justify his killing of Mike Brown, like “a demon.” Their niceness came laced with nothing so helpful as empathy as they watched a man choked to death, gasping for air, all because he had been selling loose cigarettes on the street and dared to tell the officers to leave him alone when they decided to harass him for that most serious of crimes.
Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice white folks on that grand jury outside of Akron that refused to indict the officer who killed John Crawford a few months ago in the Walmart there. Among their number may well have been at least a few white folks, for instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold blooded murder on video—a video that completely contradicts what the officer said about the incident, and also gives the lie to the claims of the possibly nice white man who first alerted police to Crawford’s presence in the store—and still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve, so let us at least make note of this for future reference.
“Personal anecdotes don’t prove anything. The justice system isn’t racist. Black people are arrested more often because they commit more crime. Period. End of story.”
So read the message in my inbox this morning, sent by someone who had happened across my essay about Ferguson, the grand jury decision in the Darren Wilson case, and the history of police misconduct in black communities. To the writer of said missive, that history didn’t matter; even if true, in his mind it was no longer relevant—a trifle of an earlier less enlightened era when compared to the present. Yes, racism may once have plagued the nation’s legal apparatus and those charged with enforcing its rules, but today if black youth die at the hands of police or find themselves in jail or stopped and searched on the streets, it is either the result of their own wrongdoing, or the wrongdoing of others like them. To the extent crime rates are higher in black communities than white ones, according to this logic, any and all black people (especially males) will simply have to accept the possibility that regardless of their own criminality or lack thereof, they may be subjected to suspicion, profiling, search, harassment, even violence at the hands of the cops. Life as a walking contagion is simply the price that must be paid for wearing the epidermal uniform of the team with the higher rate of offending. Innocent until proven guilty, on this rendering, is but a theoretical contrivance with no applicability to those who are dark; a legal standard meant for show, and for no more serious reason than that. Because of the odds represented by the y-axis on some social science graph, the black people represented on the x-axis can be stripped of their humanity and reduced to walking actuarial tables.
This is America. Welcome to it.
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015) This section explores the way that many (especially on the right) valorize the wealthy and insist that unlike the poor — the so-called “takers” in society — the rich should be praised for their unique contributions to society. In this portion of the book, and in this excerpt, I respond to the idea that the wealthy carry a disproportionate share of the nation’s tax burden, or that they have been successful solely because of their own efforts, demonstrating that in fact the wealthy are as dependent (if not more so) on government than the poor and working class. In coming weeks I will post a few more excerpts from the book, which is in the editing process currently. Note, there may be slight changes to the final text when it is released in book form.
When Mitt Romney issued his now-infamous “47 percent” remark during the 2012 presidential campaign, in which he insisted that roughly half of the American public is dependent on hand-outs and will never be persuaded to “take responsibility for themselves,” many in the media and among the general public seemed shocked. But was there any reason to be surprised that an economic plutocrat like Romney might feel that way? Fact is, Romney (as with his running mate, Paul Ryan, who previously had suggested as many as 60 percent of Americans were “takers” rather than “makers”) was not going off-script in the least. He was merely giving voice to an all-too-common belief among the nation’s ruling elite and their conservative media mouthpieces: namely, that the poor are simply different from the rich in terms of values, work ethic and talent. While the latter create jobs and add value to the larger society, the former simply live off the more productive.
Of Makers and Takers: Taxes, Public Subsidies and the Real Face of Entitlement
Rather than criticize the wealthy, the poor and working class should be thanking them for all the good they do, or so the thinking goes. According to billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell, “the one percent work harder,” and rather than criticize them, everyone else should emulate them. Likewise, Forbes columnist Harry Binswanger has said in all seriousness that anyone “who earns a million dollars or more should be exempt from all income taxes,” and because even that tax rate of zero is insufficient thanks for all the good they do for the world, “to augment the tax-exemption, in an annual public ceremony, the year’s top earner should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
He was no angel.
That’s the refrain, repeated for over two months on social media by defenders of Officer Darren Wilson, convinced that Michael Brown was little more than a violent and dangerous thug, worthy of death that August day in Ferguson.
From the beginning, Brown’s strong-arm theft of cigars from a local market was used by Wilson’s supporters as justification for whatever happened to him. “Thieves deserve their fate,” came the refrain from many a (mostly white) Facebook feed—this, from persons who have never openly advocated death for, say, Wall Street bankers who stole a lot more than Swisher Sweets. Nor have they likely ever contemplated what such a maxim might suggest about the merited destinies of their own white ancestors, for whom theft of land and the labor of others was central to the development of the very country those same commentators now call home.
“He had weed in his system,” cried others, suggesting that marijuana use either justifies being shot by a cop, or at the very least might explain his “aggressive behavior” towards Officer Wilson—the kind of thing that could only be said by someone who had never smoked much weed. Attacking police officers is, as a general rule, the last thing on your mind when you’re high.
I should know, as I spent quite a bit of my time when I was Michael Brown’s age in just such an altered state, never once concerned that such a condition might serve as a rationale for my demise at the hands of law enforcement. Indeed, I never even gave much thought to the likelihood that such behavior might land me in jail. All this, despite the fact that…
I suppose there is no longer much point in debating the facts surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown. First, because Officer Darren Wilson has been cleared by a grand jury, and even the collective brilliance of a thousand bloggers pointing out the glaring inconsistencies in his version of events that August day won’t result in a different outcome. And second, because Wilson’s guilt or innocence was always somewhat secondary to the larger issue: namely, the issue of this gigantic national inkblot staring us in the face, and what we see when we look at it—and more to the point, why?
Because it is a kind of racial Rorschach (is it not?) into which each of these cases—not just Brown but all the others, from Trayvon Martin to Sean Bell to Patrick Dorismond to Aswan Watson and beyond—inevitably and without fail morph. That we see such different things when we look upon them must mean something. That so much of white America cannot see the shapes made out so clearly by most of black America cannot be a mere coincidence, nor is it likely an inherent defect in our vision. Rather, it is a socially-constructed astigmatism that blinds so many to the way in which black folks often experience law enforcement.