Tim Wise: Yes, of course, although there is also a bit of a uniquely “American” twist. On the one hand, there is little doubt that an ethno-cultural supremacist mindset drove those early colonists, who saw nothing wrong with conquering the land and bodies of others so as to expand their own power. On the other hand, whiteness – as a specific, fixed, racialized and immutable identity – didn’t really exist in Europe to any real degree.
The term white was not, in fact, used in the European context to universalize the various European ethnic and national identities:
after all, those national and ethnic groups had been slaughtering each other for generations. They hardly thought of themselves as members of a single team, let alone family. So while white supremacy has its roots in the class, religious and ethno-national systems of Europe, it took America – this place where the old divisions would need to be put aside so as to subjugate indigenous persons and maintain chattel enslavement of Africans in the name of “the white race” – to really bring racism, as we know it to fruition. Whiteness was really something of a trick, developed for the purpose of uniting otherwise disparate Europeans, first, so as to make the subordination of “non-whites” easier, but also (and importantly), to paper over the otherwise deep class cleavages that had long beset those from Europe. If the elite could make the poor Europeans believe they were members of the same “white” team as the rich Europeans, then the prospects for class-based rebellion would be dampened.
MK: You describe in your open “letter to a new minority,” that far from the election of Barack Obama ushering in an era of a post-racial society, it seems to have intensified white racial anxiety. Bill Maher did a riff the other night that Barack Obama has to be the Jackie Robinson of presidents, turning a blind eye to disrespect and racial resentment that directly confronts him. Did his election force the cockroaches of racial animosity to come out of the woodwork?
TW: I think it did. It’s not that the election of Obama caused the racism of course, but it certainly gave those with deep seated racial resentments and anxieties a new opportunity to articulate those under the guise of mainstream politics. The election of a man of color challenges the fundamental notions that many whites have long had, about what a leader is supposed to look like. And since this particular president is not only a man of color, but also has a name that seems “exotic” to some, and had a father who wasn’t even African American, but rather, straight off the continent of Africa itself, the sense of otherness surrounding him is even greater. He stands as something of a symbol of the transition from the old, white narrative of America to a new, multicultural, multiracial norm – and it’s a norm for which many, many whites simply are not prepared and about which they are not pleased.
MK: You write very much as a healer, trying to assuage the anxiety of the white majority that is on the verge of becoming a minority – as has already happened in California. You write, “as the economy implodes and the future creeps up on us as thick and murky as chowder, those directions we’ve been following seem no longer to suffice.” But you also recognize that it is dream of returning to some idealized Disneyesque period of white patriarchal rule that tugs at the emotional angst of so many whites. How else will they be assuaged?
TW: My goal isn’t so much to assuage whites as it is to confront us with the reality that, ultimately, racial equity is in the interest of all of us; that the nostalgic remembrance of the past is not only problematic in that it tethers us to a narrative that overlooks the fundamental evil of those “good old days” for millions, but also because it commits us to the kind of nation that is not sustainable for anyone in the long run. We simply cannot survive if we get to that day in, say, 25-30 years, when people of color will be half the population and whites the other half, if we remain a place where people of color are still 3 times as likely to be poor as whites, twice as likely to be unemployed, have one twentieth the net worth as persons in the white half, on average, nine years less life expectancy, etc. The inequities to which the nostalgic are so indifferent are literally a dagger pointed at the heart of most all of us. It is my hope that if we come to understand how the pain we’re now seeing in white communities – the unemployment, housing foreclosures, inadequate health care access and such – is linked to the pain in communities of color (where these crises have been longstanding), that perhaps we can begin to forge some solidarity across racial lines. I don’t expect the truly nostalgic white folks to much care – they will never be satisfied until their white republic is restored – but I do think there are millions of other whites, perhaps younger and less attracted to this “Pleasantville” kind of nation, who can be brought into allyship with people of color, and that’s what I think we should focus on.
MK: Why is it that so many poor whites – let’s say in Appalachia – feel closer to white billionaires, who care nothing about their economic plight, than poor minorities, who share their economic travails?
TW: First, because they have been subjected to intense racial propaganda for generations, which has sadly left them clinging to what DuBois called the “psychological wage of whiteness,” which means the psychological advantage of believing oneself superior to someone, anyone of color, even though you are suffering economically. Unfortunately, when your real wages and working conditions are poor, the weight of the psychological wage intensifies and can become a crutch to which one clings in moments of insecurity. Also, the U.S., more so than elsewhere, has cultivated the notion that “anyone can make it” if they try hard enough. Unlike the feudal monarchies of Europe, where the poor and working class knew full well they were never going to be on top, here, the reigning ideology – the secular gospel if you will of America – is that individual initiative trumps all. If one believes that, then it becomes less likely that one will problematize the rich, or criticize them, or seek to challenge them, because at some level, even the poorest persons hope that one day they will be one of them – or if not rich, at least comfortable. So class consciousness becomes harder in such a place, and yet, when one’s class position doesn’t rise very much from generation to generation (and for many whites it still doesn’t), they content themselves with their perceived superiority relative to persons of color, and settle for that, rather than fighting for a better deal for all workers, white and of color.
MK: You make this appeal to whites who are deeply attached to their racial identity in terms of political and social power: “One thing is certain though, we cannot hold onto the old ways and move into the future at the same time.” But, as mentioned earlier, isn’t that the whole point for them? They want to go backward, not forward.
TW: Yes, they do. But few whites have ever been confronted with the dysfunctionality of our privilege, and racial inequity generally. Rarely has the anti-racist message been one that clearly confronted whites with the ways in which these disparities damage not just people of color, but indirectly, us as well. I think there is at least a chance that if that becomes a key part of the narrative, as mentioned above, that enough whites can be peeled away from our tendency to engage in race-bonding, and instead to begin thinking about solidarity more seriously.
MK: In your introduction, you recognize that most people whom you are speaking to in your book won’t be reading it. You bring up the issue that some of them will accuse you of being a self-hating white. How then does one overcome racism and bigotry among those who rely so heavily on being white, as you say, “mean[ing] something”?
TW: Obviously, if you want to problematize a key identity – in this case whiteness – which people have become wedded to over time, you have to replace it with something. You have to give people some personal incentives for giving up the safety and security of all they’ve known, so as to trade it in for something else. The way I hope to do that is by making it as clear as possible that whiteness, while providing real advantages relative to people of color, comes at a cost. It tethers us to an economic system that ultimately harms all working people, by keeping them fighting with one another, by convincing us to slash safety nets in the name of free markets and “small government” (even as millions of whites then come to need these same programs and assistance in order to keep their heads above water), and by prioritizing individual success and accomplishment at the expense of the collective good. So for those who are deeply committed to whiteness, perhaps nothing can be done. But for many, many others, I think there is at least a chance that that kind of message can hit home.
MK: Beyond the identity issue of feeling more “worthy,” perhaps – in some cases – more “chosen by God,” being white entitles one to certain privileges, you argue. Playing devil’s advocate, isn’t it terribly hard for any group to willingly surrender privilege and power?
TW: It’s incredibly difficult. But then again, if the cost of clinging to those relative privileges and advantages outweighs their benefits, in the long run, then realizing that can help us begin the process towards relinquishing them in the name of equity and a better deal for all.
MK: You have a fascinating account of an email exchange with a Tea Party member who claims that racial resentment is not a motivating factor in the group. She asserts that lower tax issues are a major goal. But when asked about the year, by you, in which she thought taxes were at an acceptable level she mentions 1957. As you point out, “the top marginal tax rate in the United States was ninety-one percent” that year. So, what do you suspect was really going on in her head?
TW: I suspect her nostalgia for the 1950s has very little to do with taxes or the size of government at that time, since taxes were far higher and government spending was significant and growing too (and government had always been huge for white people). My guess is that this nostalgic vision of the 50’s (or really the pre-1960s, let’s be honest) is due to the way in which the country in those days seemed to be so clearly white, protestant, straight, etc, and how the 1960s and 70s confronted the nation with its warts, with its injustices, none of which white America wanted to see. They remember those days fondly because it was before they had to share the notion of Americanness with those who were fundamentally different, racially, culturally, ethnically and so on. It was a time of “innocence” to them, even as it was a time of intense racial terror for millions. That’s why the cries of “I want my country back” are so clearly about race, at least in terms of their background noise.
MK: Why does the debate about “big” vs. “small” government today have racial overtones?
TW: Well, simple. Big government was something that was hugely popular, even among white people, right up until the 1960s. In the 30s, whites (including Southern rural whites) loved big government. It saved them during the depression. It gave them rural electricity, jobs, retirement programs, roads, schools, FHA loans, etc. Of course, those big government programs were also mostly if not exclusively for white people: blacks, for instance were largely excluded from them. Indeed their exclusion from the programs had been a precondition for southern senators supporting the New Deal actually. But as soon as people of color gained access to the same programs that whites had always had access to, that is when we discovered our “inner libertarian,” and things like government intervention in labor markets or housing markets came to seen as bad, and destructive, and a cause of laziness, etc. It was very convenient. And as social policy and programs to help the have nots and have-lessers became more and more racialized, support for those efforts dropped. In fact, one international comparison found that the factor that most explains why the U.S. doesn’t have the kind of social safety nets so common in other western industrialized democracies, is because whites believe black people will abuse the programs if we have them here. Of course, the irony is that then the programs that millions of whites need, especially in times like this, aren’t there for them either.
MK: You make a very insightful observation about how things might have unfolded if the Wall Street con men responsible for breaking our economy’s back had been black. Can you elaborate on that?
TW: Well, think about it. I mean, if black people, because of their incompetence, ethical depravity and criminality had managed to wipe out $12 trillion in wealth (mostly owned by white people, I should point out), which is what the Wall Street con men managed to do from 2007 to 2009, in just 18 months, you know what the discussion would have sounded like. People would have openly discussed the race of the perps. They would have said things like: “I bet those people only got those jobs because of affirmative action. They weren’t probably even qualified to be on Wall Street.” Of course, when white people destroy that kind of wealth (20 percent of the accumulated net worth of the entire nation), not only do we not see it as a matter of racial pathology, or evidence that white people might be particularly unqualified for bank or stockbroker jobs, or whatever, but instead, we try and turn around, take the blame off of them, and put it back on poor black people, by lying and saying that the reason the housing markets crashed is because banks were forced to make loans to “minorities and other risky folks,” as FOX’s Neil Cavuto put it. And this, despite the fact that there is no evidence at all that loans made in furtherance of fair lending regulations had anything to do with the crash. In fact, loans like that tended to perform better than other loans. But we are more comfortable blaming the “other” for the mess, rather than placing it where it belongs.