Tag Archives: Tim Wise

Talking to whites about their (our) racism: a question for anti-racists

Memphis, TN, is one of the few American cities where a critical aspect of white privilege is almost impossible to sustain—namely, the part that means almost never finding oneself in the minority. In Memphis, whites are outnumbered 2 to 1 by blacks, and other demographic factors can make the ratio “feel” much higher. (The city provided my first experience of being the sole white person in a filled-to-capacity venue. This was at the Applebee’s down the street from my house—hardly the Apollo fucking Theater.)

My wife and I spent a year there as part of her (pharmacy) grad schooling. The UT Health Services program attracts a large crop of students each year. Of course, many of these students are white, and as grad students who can afford to relocate—future doctors, dentists and pharmacists, at that—are privileged even among whites.

A quarter of the pharmacy students must complete their final three years at a satellite campus in Knoxville. My wife and I made this move, and naturally drew many acquaintances from this smaller “expat” community.

Among the white classmates, there are frequent expressions of “relief” to be out of Memphis due to the tangible “racial tension” there. When pressed, this inevitably reduces to anecdotes about how some (or a lot, or most) black people there were rude or standoffish toward them. (Note that the alleged cases are typically ones in which the white person is the patron of some customer service the black person is providing them; buying shit is really the extent of the “victims’” experience with local, non-school-related African-Americans.)

While they accuse these blacks of poor behavior, I have never witnessed overt racism attending these accounts. However, I strongly suspect that these impressions are due to latent racism on the part of the white students. (Shit, I know it is.) And naturally I have the urge to “prove” this to them.

I have tended to argue in the following way:

(1) My own experience has not matched theirs. Note too, my data set is probably far larger and more representative: Not being a student, I was more in “the real world” than they. My friends, neighbors and coworkers were likelier to be drawn from the general population, rather than the grad school community.

(2) Studies strongly suggest that high majorities of whites who do not perceive themselves to be racist tend to hold latent racist views. I like to say: “If an open, avowed racist—a klansman or something—relayed a string of negative encounters with blacks, wouldn’t we suspect his racism had something to do with these impressions?; but then, why not suspect a latent racist’s racism as responsible for the identical class of impressions?”

Specifically, those studies indicate that whites tend to rate the same ambiguous behavior as more aggressive or “personal” when performed by blacks rather than by fellow whites. (The evidence is broken down in sect. (ii) of this post; the citations are in Tim Wise’s blog, my original source.)

None of this really “works,” despite my confidence that my associates are overall decent, well-intentioned types. To them, as to most whites (most people?), “racism” always refers to bald, deliberate nastiness toward people of color; knowing they don’t feel this way about blacks, they resist the attribution of racist ideas. (Though I always include myself in the charge.)

Finally, to myself, I entertain a completely different defense angle:

(3) Assuming the white complainants are accurately recounting these exchanges, the “inhospitable” behavior could be perfectly justified. The fact of generalized white racism—or rather, the fact that blacks are aware of generalized white racism—can engender perfectly rational “trust issues.” (None of these are very exotic in kind; they are the sort of thing each of us has dealt with in some relationship or another.) One is reluctant to bestow much effort on someone who is not sure to appreciate it, much less to sincerely reciprocate; or to bend over backward in a service capacity for someone who is likely to think it is his or her “proper place” to do so in the first place; etc. (If you already see me as a clown, the last thing I’m gonna do is tell you a joke.)

(Note that “erring on the side of niceness” is not a risk-free option here. Acting within a trust deficit is no zero sum game. Turning out to be a sucker—or in this case, wondering if you’ve been one—takes a psychic toll.)

I haven’t pressed this line of argument for fear it concedes too much to the whites’ accounts; I don’t wish to reinforce a belief that blacks are standoffish. (Again, that hasn’t been my experience.) I’m only saying that if this is the case, there may be a good reason.

* * *

To conclude with a question:

This issue points well beyond what to tell my friends in isolated conversations. Any anti-racist work will encounter the “rude/unruly black” meme soon enough.

For example, during the 2009 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. flap, anti-racist advocates such as Tim Wise and Michael Eric Dyson were afforded public fora on the matter. They had to address the routine charge that Gates needlessly escalated the confrontation.

Some responded to the effect that, given the prevalence of racist ideas, racial profiling, etc., “it isn’t a crazy idea to ask if racism had to do with the incident.” And I agree—just as I contend it “isn’t crazy” to ask whether racism accounts for these impressions of those white students.

But this answer seems unsatisfying. My burden is how we might go further and actually answer the question with a, “yes, it was indeed racist” in a given case—especially in a way that might impress a (decent, well-intentioned) white critic.

So is the case I make to the white students even a good one? Is it the best sort of case one can hope for? Or what?

What would it mean to “preserve the white race”?

[Parts I and II here. Part III later.]

This past weekend the white power people came to town. This has prompted me to get a handle on what makes these assholes tick.

Part I

“White power” has any number of meanings, not all of them compatible. There is white supremacy, white nationalism/separatism, “mere” white pride, and so forth. The most basic corollary can be termed “white preservation” (WP). The brief 14 Words manifesto (probably the one thing every white power group agrees on) begins, “We must secure the existence of our people….” In a debate with Tim Wise, WP advocate Jared Taylor expresses the fear that “…whites, who are perhaps 7% of the population of the world now, will disappear in a flood of miscegenation; is that what you would like to see happen?”

WP means ensuring the conditions for whites to reproduce into the future. It is the tenet upon which all the others depend; if it fails, so do the rest. (No whites, no “white-anything.”) This makes it a natural starting point for examining white power “theory.”

Who is it being preserved for?

It is obvious that white preservationists (WPs) view WP not as a nice thing to have happen, but a mandate. That is, the numerical decrease in the white population (real or perceived, present or pending, by human or natural causes) is something “happening to them,” a bad circumstance that warrants self-defense.

The difficulty rests in trying to locate a victim in this process. Just who is it happening (or would it happen) to? Suppose that multiculturalism, immigration, and miscegenation actually brought about the “extinction” of the white race. Just who is harmed by this? The fear is not that whites are directly endangered, being “killed off.” (If anyone claims this, they’re crazy.) So whites’ “preserving themselves” cannot mean “saving we particular here-now individuals from death.” It could only mean “ensuring future white generations.” Fine, but in what sense is this a self-defense?—as “the existence of our people” would suggest. How would ensuring future whites serve the self-interests of present-day whites? To say “both groups are white” only begs the question; the whole issue is why the fact that they are both white makes them “ourselves.”

The seduction of grammar

WPs speak in terms of a “loss” that they themselves “suffer.” “Whiteness” is a quantity they have, and must hold onto. The whites of today must preserve their whiteness. Indeed, they could speak no other way; a self-defensive imperative always takes this form. This way of speaking is inspired, or reinforced, by the formal structures of language: Grammatically, “whiteness,” like “being married,” is a transient property, one which can be lost and gained by the self-same underlying subject. But WPs seem to have forgotten that it isn’t transient in real life; unlike marriage, if you ever had “whiteness,” you still do, and vice-versa.

Thus, to say that whites have failed to preserve, have “lost their” whiteness must really mean: Some whites died; and later, some non-whites were born. This describes two distinct events, with two corresponding subjects. The first event in no sense “happens to” the second subject. Indeed, if the relevant event is “the extinction of the white race,” it didn’t “happen to” the first group either! (An individual can’t “go extinct”—any more than running out of jellybeans means this particular jellybean ran out.)

Indeed, a numerical decrease is the very sort of thing that “happens to” no one in particular. For whites to suffer a “loss of whiteness” just means that there are no whites left to suffer any kind of loss at all. What “they” have “lost” is precisely their status as a “they.” (And if there is no “they” to be harmed, then, from a self-defensive point of view, there is no harm.)

* * *

In conclusion: The “extinct” whites can hardly be victims of “extinction”; they simply died out naturally, as they would have without any process of “white loss.” Their position is precisely the same either way. The only possible victims are the future survivors of this “tragedy.” But this is a miscegenated future; the survivors are (at best) biracial. The implicit logic of WP would have us view these persons as “potential” or “supposed-to-be” whites who missed out on “their” whiteness. One imagines them sitting and lamenting to themselves: “We” have been robbed of “our” proper racial inheritance. The absurdity is (hopefully) manifest.

I conclude the “self-defense” argument for WP is simply incoherent.

Part II

Arguments from analogy: ”But we preserve so many other things”

At times, WPs set aside the negative consequences of failing to preserve the race (i.e., those “harms” to be “defended against”) in favor of the positive virtues of preservation. One argument is that those features associated with whites—say, “white culture” or Caucasian physical anthropology—are unique and valuable, and thus should, all things being equal, be kept around. (For now, we set aside questions as to whether a “white culture” exists, and is preservable by moral means.)

For example, an alternate 14 Words with wide currency in white power circles demands, “Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth.” This aesthetic sentiment is matched by those which exploit the discourse of multiculturalism. These are typically heard at those “cultural celebrations” held by WP groups, e.g. Irish, Scottish, or Southern (US) “heritage events”: “If they (Mexicans, etc.) can celebrate (promote, “preserve”) their culture, why can’t we?”

Notwithstanding the near coextension of ‘those who make these statements’ with ‘racist whites,’ by themselves the statements are not necessarily noxious. That is, to say they often indicate racist beliefs is not to say they are themselves racist (any more than a weather vane is a southerly wind). And the analogy of whites to other groups holds a surface plausibility; every culture has folkways, coping mechanisms and other specialized knowledge borne of a particular social housing, which in principle can inspire, enrich, entertain, or aid anyone.

A more advanced argument from analogy is heard as well: Parsing the words alone, the concept “white preservation” seems to resemble other kinds of morally benign “preservations.” Consider the ecological impulse to “preserve” endangered species. By this I do not mean the desire to preserve as a means to some end “beyond” the species (or beyond biodiversity) itself, e.g. ecosystem balance. Nor do I intend anything having to do with protecting species members from pain and harm per se. Rather, I mean the “moral” impulse to save a biological group for its own worth.)

The idea is that each animal group contributes a unique layer of novelty and interest to the world, and this is (all things being equal) a value to be preserved. For instance, we wish to “save the Great Apes” because apes are beautiful, interesting, and so forth; that is, a world in which apes exist is a more interesting, beautiful, etc. world than one in which they are absent.) In short, if a species is worth saving, why not a race? (This could even rescue the earlier “self-defense” argument: If neither extinct whites nor the miscegenated generations of the future would be harmed by white extinction, maybe it is the whole group of survivors, of all racial complexions, that are harmed in being denied that cultural or aesthetic inheritance associated with whites.)

When it “doesn’t” it doesn’t matter whether it “can’t”

Even if this argument can be defended, it is not clear it can be defended from a white power perspective. The WP project as we know it is not simply concerned to endow a unique value to the world. If it were, we could expect to hear from WPs—in parallel with other “multicultural” affections—that WP will benefit and enrich other racial groups. Indeed, one could expect other racial groups themselves to make these arguments alongside the WPs.

The WPs attribute their exclusion from the multicultural catalogue to anti-white discrimination; but this hardly explains why they welcome and foster the “exclusivity” themselves: Whatever benefit they believe “white culture” has conferred upon the world, this benefaction forms no part of their motivation. They don’t give a damn about how this legacy benefits non-whites. (In fact, they probably resent it.)

The point (here) is not whether this racial exclusivity is wrong or right. The point is that it cannot be deduced from the bare preservationist impulse—any more than an impulse to “save the whales” for their beautiful songs and mating rituals implies that whalewatch trips and aquariums should be limited to white patronage. Such delimitations must be “grafted on” from outside, and their merits independently argued.

I don’t doubt that the disanalogies between WP and ecological-preservationism (EP) reflect something sinister; to the extent the WPs use the “us too” argument, it is disingenuous, a mere tactic, a wedge issue to make palatable some other agenda. For present purposes, though, the disanalogy just means: We cannot take the benign character of EP as support for the benign character of WP—as the white power folks actually conceive it. (More on the “multicultural” comparisons in the concluding Part III, soon to come.)

Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part II: Or, Why Obama won’t do shit for black people (and why there’s shit to be done)

In the previous post, I contested Tim Wise’s argument (or rather his declaration, as he doesn’t really “argue” for the claim) that Obama’s win is a “victory over white supremacy.” I maintained, however, it still holds a “significance” for that struggle. It represents progress and should be applauded as such. Still, this should not be confused with a reason to think Obama will contribute to further progress as President.

This merely expresses a logical distinction—an index of progress is not a prospect of further progress. This does not in itself mean Obama won’t be good for black people; it just means the question of whether he will be good for black people is separate from whatever “progress” his election “represents.”

Nonetheless, a hell of a lot of other things mean he (probably) won’t be good for black people.[1]

Obama on (but mostly off) race

There is no evidence that Obama is much concerned with racism, nor even that he believes it exists in any interesting form. Certainly, he does not acknowledge racism in a form that fighters of “white supremacy”—like Tim Wise himself—are concerned with. Judging from his book and his speeches, including his begrudging response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap, Obama’s view of racism has three interrelated parts:

(a) Racism amounts to “prejudice”—individual, mostly conscious, feelings of “ill will” toward blacks—and acts which flow from this. The concept of a system of oppression which acts upon people apart from their ideas is denied by omission.

(b) Racism is largely a thing of the past. (This follows from Obama’s “idealist” definition of “racism”; if racism means overtly racist ideas, there is indeed much less of this than in the past.) We’ve come, for Obama, “90 per cent of the way” on race; we have only “yet to perfect” ourselves on that issue. He castigates Wright for focusing too much on the “historically oppressed”—not the still-now-oppressed.

(c) Black people are largely to blame for anything affects them negatively in particular, as a group. (Again, this follows from the first two points.)

This trinity is as false as it is dangerous.

The persistence of racial inequality

First, racial inequity is not merely an ugly historical relic. This is evident as soon as we separate whites and blacks into groups and make comparisons. In terms of every conceivable factor by which we measure quality of life—nutrition, housing, health and health care, access to credit and freedom from debt, physical safety at work and in the streets—we (still) find deep, enduring discrepancies between blacks and whites. (These are analyzed nicely in Tim Wise’s own Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male.[2])

But in brief: If we imagine all American whites to constitute the population of their own country, that country would have the highest standard of living in the world; American blacks, considered separately, have a third world standard of living.

And as society reproduces or “re-peoples” itself over time, the inequality maintains itself; the actors change, but the positions they occupy relative to one another don’t. [3] So either this is the grandest coincidence in history, or there are real, underlying causes that foster black inequality.

Reducing race to class

Obama does not—he cannot—deny the inequalities but prefers to reduce them to a matter of class, rather than race: In his book, he writes, “What would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that lead to such jobs, labor laws and tax laws that restore some balance to the distribution of the nation’s wealth, and health care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.”

Obama sometimes illustrates this by citing Ronald Reagan’s “rising tide lifting all boats” metaphor. In other words, there are no specifically “black” problems—at least, no serious ones—thus no specifically “black” grievances for a government to address. What ails black America is just whatever ails white America. A color-neutral approach to economic health and growth is justified.

Not quite

But this “class” analysis doesn’t hold up. Indeed, black households have about one-tenth the net worth (i.e, wealth) of white households. But even when we control for income—comparing only blacks and whites with the same pay scale—this only narrows the wealth gap by a quarter. Blacks retain far less wealth than whites in the same “class.” This is not what we would expect if the issue were merely economic.[4]

And this is how it goes for all such “wellness indicators”: Among blacks and whites with identical health care coverage, blacks are still far less healthy; they are more prone to under- and misdiagnosis and live shorter lives, with or without treatment. Where education and training are parallel, blacks look longer for jobs, lose them more quickly, and are sooner passed over for promotion. (A white man with a high school degree has the same odds of being employed as a black man with a college degree.)

In general, black dollars are just worth less than white ones. Black households have to work twelve weeks longer per year than whites to get the same income, and have to take on more debt to maintain the same consumption levels.

In other words, while there are economic factors behind black struggles, these are thoroughly racialized. They are “picky” rather than colorblind.

This is why, contrary to the metaphor, no historical “tide” has ever fostered racial equality. The biggest “tides” for workers were probably the New Deal and the post-war boom which followed. These periods were defined by those same redistributive “labor laws and tax laws” Obama favors. But they also saw an increase in absolute black-versus-white inequality.[5] Broad economic trends are never indiscriminate: When good tides arrive, they favor whites; when bad ones come, they hit blacks hardest.

Matter over ideas

Contrary to Obama, this phenomenon is not fundamentally about what kinds of ideas white people carry around in their heads. (And think about it: If racism were rooted in “naughty thoughts” about black people, it would be no more sinister than a dislike for redheads or tennis players. The fact that we even have a word for “racism” and not for dislikes of redheads and tennis players indicates there must be more to the issue.)

Obama’s view of racism in ‘(a)’ can be described as “psychological” rather than “structural” or “systemic.” He fails to appreciate the ways in which, once inequalities are in place, impersonal economic forces can perpetuate them—apart from what anybody thinks about the victims.

Structural Racism: Two Examples

1. Disinvestment

For one example, blacks are disproportionately concentrated in poor urban centers. Since a poor market can only buy so much, these centers suffer disinvestment—larger companies won’t set up shop there and banks won’t risk business loans to locals. This keeps the poverty going. Schools are largely funded by property taxes, so lower education is worse, which diminishes black chances in the higher education lotto—further diminishing the pool of eligible borrowers. Among those who manage to get degrees, there is a “brain drain” whereby the educated migrate to sectors that can employ their skill set. More poverty means more crime (of a certain type) which leads to aggressive policing which leads to more convictions of breadwinners, which maintains the poverty. And so on…

2. Hand-me down wealth

A second example can be found in Tim Wise’s latest book. He chronicles the role of VA and FHA loans, tax incentives, and the GI Bill in creating the American middle class—and how the beneficiaries of these helps were almost exclusively white men. In the generations since, this wealth has been transferred from older whites to their offspring, snowballing with interest all the while. Wise writes:

“…[T]he baby boomer generation of whites is currently in the process of inheriting between $7-10 trillion in assets from their parents and grandparents, property handed down by those who were able to accumulate assets at a time when people of color couldn’t. To place the enormity of this intergenerational wealth transfer in perspective, consider that this is an amount greater than all the outstanding mortgage debt, all the credit card debt, all the savings account assets, all the money in IRAs and 401(k) retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined.”

In this way, the massive racial wealth gap of “yesteryear” is ever rolled over to the present. Aiding the process, black families retain less access to credit, mortgage and business loans than whites, and are charged higher rates of interest for them. This is partly due to a perception of the “typical” property owner as white—a perception this cycle of inequality has helped create in the first place.

“Colorblindness” won’t fix the problem

Neither of these dynamics depend on personal prejudice against about black people; nor would they change if racist ideas were eradicated tomorrow. Companies do not divest in black neighborhoods because they are racist—though they may be—but because these communities lack spending power; white people do not choose white heirs because they are racist—though they may be—but because their offspring are (typically) white.

All of this suggests that we need economic solutions that target blacks as blacks. Asking for “color-blindness” in this situation is a deadly mistake. In fact, it isn’t even “color-blind”: It amounts to throwing up our hands and leaving quite color-conscious social forces to operate as they will, unchecked.

Targeting the right audience: Appeasing whites and lecturing blacks

Again, unlike a Sharpton or Jackson, Obama has assured white people he won’t press for any specifically “black” demands. This is a critical part of his “electability.” Indeed, most of his few references to race are directed toward whites—either to massage their guilt over historic racism or quell their fears that an Obama presidency might actually do something about it. When he bashes the “divisive” and “destructive” “excesses” of the 1960’s and the “failures of liberal government”—again, praising Reagan for rolling them back—he signals to whites that no “special interest” appeals will compete for their slice of the pie.

But Obama also addresses blacks on race. His plea, in the Wright speech, that we should put the matter of race aside altogether for the sake of “unity” was not directed to those majority whites who would like nothing better than to do just that.

When he speaks to blacks openly and directly, it is politically obligatory, and serves mostly to castigate them for thinking race mattered that much in the first place. It is almost invariably to let white people off the hook for something. In this way, Obama scrambled to assure blacks the Katrina tragedy had nothing to do with race(!), and bade them “respect the verdict” exonerating the white cops who pumped fifty bullets into an unarmed Sean Bell and his companions.

Or worse, mimicking Bill Cosby, it is to blame blacks for their slothfulness, irresponsibility, and degenerate culture. Obama asserts that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare” as a leading cause of a lack of initiative, discipline, independence, and overall “order [and] structure” in the black community. (Thus he voted in the Illinois Senate to attach punitive work requirements to welfare receipts.)

In the fine American tradition of Sambo, Mammy, and Stepinfetchit, Obama has personified black culture in the racist caricature of poor, lazy “cousin Pookie,” whom he urges to “get off the couch,” “turn off the TV” and “start a business.”[6] He adds that “the single biggest thing we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” is to get unmarried black girls from reproducing.

Obama’s cultural commentary is as false as it is racist. The assumption that “black” problems like poverty and high teen pregnancy follow from “welfare dependency,” or a broader, chronically dependent mindset, puts the cart before the horse. There is precisely zero evidence to support this, and what research we do have—and it is voluminous—consistently cites the lack of meaningful, dignified, secure, long-term economic (and other) opportunities in urban centers as the primary cause of high black pregnancy rates and unemployment.

Obama is miles away from any plan, such as a mandatory living wage, that can begin to address this.

[See also the next post: Four additional considerations on Obama and Race.]


[1] As with many of my posts lately, the above is indebted to Paul Street’s book, “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics,” from which is drawn both inspiration and a few of the specific examples.

[2] Brown, et. al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society offers a more “scholarly” but less accessible account.

[3] That is, the “deep…discrepancies” are maintained between the groups.

[4] For more on the racial wealth gap, see Shapiro’s The Hidden Cost of Being African American.

[5] On the New Deal and post-war boom, see Ira Katznelson, “When Affirmative Action Was White.

[6] Toward full disclosure: Obama only tells Pookie to “get off the couch”; but in the same context he tells blacks of whom she is the collective caricature to “not only get a job, but start a business.”

Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part I: Or, The difference between an index and a prospect

Seriously, my biggest fear with Obama’s presidency is that it will make radicals stupid. This is already evident in the tendency of some leftists to hyper-inflate the political significance of his “blackness.”

Tim Wise is a writer and activist who is dead-on about the persistence and ubiquity of white privilege. As a speaker, he is smart, aggressive, witty, and immensely competent. I’ve gotten chills watching videos of his debates. I’ve linked him favorably on this blog before.

However, his latest essay is a particularly vulgar example of this “stupidity.” Its the absolute worst thing he has ever written. (It may be the only very bad thing he has written.) He attacks “barbituate leftists”—“downers” who are so wedded to the “revolution” that they pooh-pooh any signs of progress short of the full program. So far as I can tell—and I’m from the same city as Wise—these guys either don’t exist or are too marginal to warrant serious address.

Don't harsh this guy's mellow, dude

Don't harsh this guy's mellow, dude

In Wise’s view, radicals have failed to appreciate how Obama’s win is “a victory over white supremacy.” At the root of this failure is “left cynicism”—the idea among radicals that Obama is just “the same” as Republican politicians and thus that his win represents nothing good.

As Lou Proyect points out [and nods to him for the Wise link], American elections actually presuppose—they require—that Democrats and Republicans not be “all the same.” And this, indeed, is part of the problem: As I’ve written before, Democrats can so assuredly count on “lesser evil” votes from their “core historical constituencies” of women, minorities, labor, and the poor, that they don’t have to be but a step to the left of (indeed, merely “less evil” than) their rivals. And they don’t have to offer their “core” anything; they only have to deal with the white, male, wealthy voters who are actually up for grabs. This moves the whole spectrum of political thought—what counts as left and what counts as right—a bit further to the right every single election. (If both parties were “the same,” this might be better. There wouldn’t be this internal regressive dynamic; the spectrum could just “hold” rather than slide right-ward.)

The thing is, Wise never defines just how Obama is a “victory over” white racism. At most he notes there is a “significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy.” And indeed, this is true. Obama would not have been elected when black people were being murdered for looking whites in the eye or reading books without pictures. Nor would a black man have been elected just eight years ago, as some polling data [1] suggests.

But this describes not so much a “victory over” anything as it is an index or representation of victories already gained. And let me stress that this does not make it “nothing”; the “significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy” is real, positive, and nothing to be “cynical” about. This was indeed my first thought on hearing the election results. And, contra Wise, I haven’t encountered a single leftist who would say otherwise.

But we still have to call things by their proper names. An index is not the same as a prospect. The fact that Obama represents progress on race doesn’t mean his tenure won’t still be a net loss for black people (and white workers, and the world, for that matter)—any more than a wedding, as an index of a couple’s love, means they will actually have a good life together.

And really, the prospect is the important thing here, right? At least, it is far, far more important than anything Obama “represents.” Wise seems to agree: He objects to radicals’ “lecturing the rest of us about how naïve we are for having any confidence whatsoever in [a President Obama]” (i.e., confidence in the prospect that he will do good things on the racial front). But he never bothers to argue why such a confidence is warranted. At most, he cites the “millions of people who…are mobilized and active,” whose “[political] energy is looking for an outlet.” Ostensibly he means that this energy can be harnessed for progressive political ends. Fine, perhaps we should “hav[e] confidence” in them. But what does this have to do with “confidence in Obama” himself?

(Maybe Wise hopes Obama will be progressive. Well, so do I. I hoped Bush would be, too; I hope the Iraq occupation goes well; I hope the Klan starts serving inner-city children breakfast. I hope golden coins fall out of my cat’s ass. But I have no “confidence” in any of it.)


The point (index versus prospect) is a logical one: A, quite simply, is not B. But beyond this, we have good reason to be, if not “cynical,” at least reticent about B—that is, about the prospect that Pres. Obama will further the fight against “white supremacy.” I argue for this specifically in my next post.

But for now:

(a) If I’m right—if Obama looks to be a bust for black people—there is no contradiction in stating this fact while celebrating the positive things his election “represents.” Indeed, if so,

(b) We should focus on that fact, because it affects the kind of strategy we who are concerned with black liberation and “progress” should follow.

In the end, Wise’s lament against political “downers” has no teeth on its own. When “downing” is applied to a deserving target, it simply amounts to telling the truth. It is only wrong to deny “confidence” in Obama IF he has given us a reason to have confidence in him. (Nobody would tell the doctor, “Come now: First the cancer diagnosis, now diabetes? Stop being such a downer!” If they do have cancer and diabetes, “downing” is just what they need.)

So Mr. Wise: Do the work; make the case. If we should have “confidence” in Obama’s willingness to fight “white supremacy,” give us the evidence, as you would (and do) with any other truth-claim.

Again, I present my own evidence to the contrary in the next post.


[1] Richard Wolffe and Darren Briscoe, “Across the Divide: Barack Obama’s Road to Racial Reconstruction,” Newsweek (July 16, 2007). 2007 Poll shows 59% of respondents agree the U.S. is “ready to elect a black President”; only 37% said so in 2000.

Regarding Affirmative Action: On the Specious Idea of a “Most Qualified” Candidate

[For reasons of expediency, I’ve concentrated my examples on Affirmative Action in the workplace as opposed to school admissions. However, all of the basic points apply to both.]

[P.S. Sorry I’ve been away so long.]

Opponents of any kind of Affirmative Action (AA) preference for minorities often appeal to the idea that we must assess candidates by their “qualifications” as opposed to their race or gender. (And, it goes, focusing on race or gender risks overlooking the best or “most qualified” candidates, who may not always be among the minorities.)

(a) Race and gender as qualifications

Of course this begs the question that race or gender could not itself be a “qualification.” But why not? The idea is probably that qualifications must be merits—things achieved, or worked for, or chosen by the candidate. The candidate is personally responsible for them.

And one is clearly not responsible for one’s race or gender. But the same could be said of many other features normally accepted as qualifications. My talents, and those dispositions of attitude and behavior that led or permitted me to cultivate those talents, or to craft a decent work ethic, are not things about myself which I “choose” in any meaningful sense. Further, the features I do choose can be shown to rest in turn upon other features or circumstances I don’t. If nothing else, possessing a “qualification” today means having sidestepped—by sheer dumb luck—a virtually infinite number of potential obstacles in the past. Had a candidate been lent a different kind of native home life, or health, or been struck by a car the previous year, any number of qualifications (including the “achievements”) might have been stunted or snuffed out.

In this way, the things a person can help about himself and the things he can’t are inextricably “mixed together” in the biography. The burden of proof rests with AA opponents to state why race per se could not be a qualification, while other “un-chosen” features of a person could be.

Even if we accept that some qualifications are entirely the product of the candidate himself, with no credit to accidental circumstance, it would be impossible to tell which ones are and which aren’t. There is simply no immediate way to tell how much work (or sacrifice, or anything else a person can “help”) went into a candidate’s previous performance. You cannot just look at the performance to “deduce” how much hard work (for example) accounts for it. This is because hard work and performance do not correlate in a standardized way. For instance, my own grade of ‘C’ might come at much harder effort than an ‘A’ for a more natural student.

What’s more, if the point is just to choose the “most qualified,” there isn’t any reason why we should care who worked hard or sacrificed. The best are simply the best, no matter what factors conspired to make them so. Indeed, such factors are never evaluated in hiring or school admissions. (No college admissions department has the resources to evaluate it, and no private company cares to.)1

(b) A job is more than the work, so one must be qualified for more than the work

By its nature, a “qualification” always takes an object. That is, one is always qualified for something, some specific role or task. This much is obvious. But AA opponents set about investigating what kind of feature counts as a qualification without first arguing just what kind of thing a candidate is actually qualifying for. Their assumption is always that what a candidate is qualifying-for is limited to the parameters of that job—that the actual mechanics of the work is all that need to be assessed in asking what counts as being qualified.

We might respond: Yes, the qualification is for the job itself, obviously; but surely the job is in turn a part of something bigger than itself—namely, a society encompassing many different such jobs. And we might just as well ask whether a person is “qualified” for his role within that. That is, how a worker contributes, for instance, to the racial or gender distribution across the broader work economy is one of his roles as surely as how he contributes to profit-making or productivity or morale at the company of hire; and just as we ask whether he is qualified to enhance profit or productivity or morale, we can ask whether he is qualified to assist in the desired racial or gender balance at large. And he will be so on the basis of his race or gender.

My point here is that whenever one takes a job, one does, in actual fact, assume a role within and toward securing some specific racial and gender balance in the economy. He performs this role whether or not we hired him to do so and whether or not he thinks of himself as doing it. (Just as a custodian performs a customer service role whenever he, uniformed, greets a customer in the hallway, whether or not we hired him for this and whether or not he thinks he’s doing it.) And if this role is—like customer service—an important one, we must ask whether candidates are “qualified” for it; whether they can be expected to perform the role in a desirable way. And if they are, it is precisely their race or gender which makes them so.

(Now, you can argue that the role the worker performs in maintaining the actual balance is not an important one—by arguing that any particular racial or gender balance is, unlike customer service, itself undesirable or unimportant (or perhaps unachievable). But this must indeed be argued, not merely assumed at the outset.)

(c) Why do we care about getting “the best” candidate when we don’t care about “the best” anything else?

It is odd that we should take concern to secure “the most qualified” candidate in an industry or academia when we don’t ever look for the most qualified—that is, “the best”—of anything else in everyday life. Rather, we look for something that is adequate, satisfactory for present purposes.

Consider: If I’m receiving adequate service, why do I care that somewhere, out there, there is a “best” service provider? How does the existence of this distant provider affect the one in front of me? How can her service determine how good or bad this service is?

Of the millions of entities that confront us, very few could be said to be the “best” of their types. (And even the best are not at their best at every single moment.) Do we lament a zoo trip that didn’t offer “the best” elephant? How often would we dine out if we felt compelled to patronize “the best” restaurant within distance? Do we seek “the best” hammer before driving a—the “best”—nail? (Are we distressed when our airline pilot is not “the best” there is, but automatically relieved when we find that his betters have died off or retired over the weekend, leaving him to be the best after all? The logic here gets very silly quickly.)

If we were truly distressed at the thought that our, say, airline pilot were not the “the best” or “most qualified” among the applicants for his job, why shouldn’t we take it further?: For surely, even if our pilot were the best of these candidates, he is almost certainly not be “the best” pilot in the world, probably not even at the airport or in his smaller circle of peer pilots. Indeed, the whole spectrum of “qualification”—ranging from the least to most qualified—represented by the applicants for a single open position at a single moment in time pales unspeakably to the spectrum represented by an entire industry of workers. If we can live with the idea that a given worker who services us is almost certainly not “the best” in the world, how much easier to accept that he might not be “the best” among the much tinier group of persons who applied for his job.

To paraphrase the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce: “Let us not pretend to care about, in discussions of Affirmative Action, what we do care about in our hearts.” Nobody gives a damn about finding “the best” anything. And this is perfectly rational: The simple fact that other people, somewhere, are worse at something (“less qualified”) has no power to make me more or less adequate to the task at hand.2

(d) The beneficiaries of Affirmative Action match or outperform white, male counterparts

Opponents of AA object that when race or gender is considered in hiring or college admissions, it will yield a dangerous preponderance of candidates entering positions for which they are unqualified, and in which they are destined to underperform. (This is also supposed to hurt their self-esteem.) However, there are no less than 200 studies that refute this claim: The American Economics Association analyzed these and determined that beneficiaries of AA programs perform equal to or better than their white, male, “meriting” counterparts. (This is partly because they expect the “free rider” stigma from the start and feel they must work all the harder to shake it.) And in education, when economic background is controlled for—comparing black students with white students of the same wealth and income bracket—these groups are a statistical match in grades and rates of graduation.

On their side, AA opponents have the feeling that AA should select for bad candidates, but zero evidence to confirm it ever actually happens. (That they don’t feel the need to provide any evidence reflects the clinical abstractness of their arguments in general, and that of the neoclassical economic prejudices that underlay them.)

* * *

Bonus Video

Tim Wise debates AA on a panel discussion. I’ve linked the parts he appears in but you can link to the other sections from there: Tim’s opening statement. Q & A Part 1. Q & A Part 3. Q & A Part 4. Q & Q Part 5. Tim’s closing remarks.


1 This discussion points to another anti-AA confusion. On the one hand, talk of qualifying or “meriting” a job over other candidates suggests that a job is a kind of reward for something. It is earned, thus in some way owed to the candidate. This is why opponents speak of AA as unfair to non-minority candidates who are passed over by lesser qualified ones. This is a kind of moral argument against AA. On the other hand, there is the more pragmatic argument that we must promote the best candidates, for the sake of economic efficiency or consumer quality control, for example. But again, why should these two standards yield the same outcomes? Only if we can assume that “the best” will always match “those who worked the hardest or otherwise did something on purpose to merit being the best” does it make sense to collapse these two standards into one. But again, these things won’t correspond. AA opponents need to decide: If they want to allocate positions to “the best,” then so be it. If they want to allocate them according to who earns them, they should articulate extensive methods of researching how much hard work, etc. has gone into each candidate’s resume.

2 As the next section shows, this is not to suggest that black or female beneficiaries of AA are underqualified in any way, that they are less likely than anyone else to be “the best.” Only that when it comes to AA, the way we talk about being qualified is so out of line with our regular speech as to be almost certainly not what we mean to say.