They Want Their Country Back: Racism and the Politics of White Resentment, April 20, 2011
To listen to Tim's speech click on the audio file.
Sumary of Tim Wise's talk below:
Tim Wise was brilliant at First Church Boston on April 20th as he spoke at a fundraiser for Community Change. He addressed what he calls a “perfect storm” of white anxiety brewing in the United States. This anxiety is being manipulated by powerful people who are less interested in equality and equity than in their own interests. The “pillars” on which this anxiety rests, in Tim’s analysis, are the following - in increasing order of importance:
1. The presence of a person of color in the White House. This challenges the white narrative about who gets to be president of the United States. Not only is President Barak Obama a black man, his name and his birthplace seem exotic to many white people. It doesn’t matter that Hawaii is one of the fifty states, even Cokie Roberts was not originally sure it qualified as a U.S. birthplace.
2. The economic meltdown. Though financial insecurity is not new in the history of this country, the proportion to which it currently impacts white people is unprecedented in the last three generations. Many communities of color experience it at all times, however, white people no longer recognize or accept it as “normal.”
3. The icons of popular culture are increasingly multicultural and multiracial. There are now many more people of color in the limelight and it is harder for white people to see themselves reflected in popular iconography.
4. A demographic shift that will soon lead to there being more people of color than white people in this country. It is now increasingly rare for white people find themselves in “white only” space.
These four pillars together mean that for most white U.S. people the standard is shifting for what “an American” is understood to be. It used to be, in the words of James Baldwin, that “Being white means never having to think about it.” However, all of these shifts force whites into an awareness of their whiteness.
According to Wise, the more white people are being made to consider that they are white, the more they will react. One possible reaction when white people notice their own identity is to notice, too, that this identity does not actually serve them. Letting go of the identity - abolishing whiteness - is the scenario people such as Wise hope for. However, the more common reaction is for white people to defend and cling to their identity and to vie for what they believe are their racial interests.
Those in power on the right wing are doing whatever they can to channel white reaction toward the second option. Thus, a ground swell of white people has a new core narrative that shows up in the meme, “I want my country back.”
When challenged to name the date they want to go back to, they will say they want to go back to a time when government was small and taxes were lower. This framing avoids any mention of race. However, when challenged to name a date when the reality they are after was true, they will invariably mention sometime in the mid to late fifties - a time just prior to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. What the people who want to go back to this time seem not to know is that this time period was not a time of small government or low taxes - quite the opposite.
In the late 1950’s the top tax rate was 91% and there were three tax levels that were higher than the highest level today. And “big government” was working very well for whites. Wise discusses several federal programs including the Social Security Act, creation of the interstate highway system and urban renewal. These combined with the policies of The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) worked very well for whites. The FHA was founded in 1933. During its first 30 years, it gave out $120 billion in housing subsidies through multiple programs including the GI Bill. Of that total, 98.5 % went to whites creating a suburban landscape that was and is overwhelmingly white.
While blacks and other people of color were being divested of wealth, government-lending practices guided by FHA policies were subsidizing the accumulation of wealth for whites. The impact of these policies is reflected in the statistics of net worth today. Prior to the collapse of the housing market, the net worth of whites was 12 times higher than that for blacks. Recent reports indicate that it may be more the 40 to 50 times today.
Prior to the Civil Rights era, the vast majority of people receiving welfare were widowed white women with children. At that time, it was understood that white women should not work outside the home if they had children to raise. However, after civil rights legislation was passed, the complexion of the recipients of welfare changed. That’s when the story of who deserved welfare began to change. The recipients of welfare were no longer considered deserving. They came to be understood as lazy and freeloading. According to Wise, the single more important reason the social safety net has dissolved is white people’s belief that Black people abuse the system.
Thus, unemployed white people today who are not prepared for being unemployed do not know how to think about themselves. They know they are not lazy and that they have not been abusing the system, but they think that is how they are seen. They don’t know what happened. They played by the rules: they stayed in school, got a job, worked hard. This was not supposed to happen “to them.” The narrative that was reserved for people of color is now unacceptable to white people about themselves. So, a new story needs to be constructed in order to preserve the identity.
In the end, Wise’s invitation to white antiracism activists is to promote an alternative narrative - one grounded in the understanding that white people have been duped. While the system has privileged white people - to a point - it would help white people to understand they are part of a system that does not help us cope with things that “aren’t supposed to happen to them.” It turns out that privileges are dangerous because the privileged cannot see themselves for who they really are and do not learn the skills needed to live in a system that in the end does not actually care about them. The story all of us are invited to tell is one which invites everyone to live as the person they are actually trying to be. As an example, Wise shared the story of Barack Obama during the presidential campaign inviting a group of white people not to be the ones who wouldn’t vote for a black president. He lifted them up as better than that. Wise suggests we all need to invite each other - including white people in the Tea Party Movement - to consider who they really want to be - not people who fall for lies, but people who are willing to face the truth.
Wise’s speech went into much more detail on all these points. It was a pleasure to listen to someone with such ready access to current and historic information, such clear analysis and critique, such humor and such compassion. To listen for yourself, click here.
Thank you to Meck Groot and Dave Goodman for making this post possible.