Everyday Racism, White Liberals
December 4, 2000
& the Limits of Tolerance
Let me get this straight: if three white guys chain a black man to a truck and decapitate him by dragging him down a dirt road, that's a hate crime; but if five white cops pump nineteen bullets into a black street vendor, having shot at him 41 times, that's just "bad judgment?" And what's more, we should pass hate crime laws that require enforcement by the police? Call me crazy, but something about this brings to mind the one about the foxes and the henhouse.
Now don't misunderstand: I realize there are horrible acts of violence perpetrated every day in America against people of color, not to mention gays and lesbians, women, and religious minorities. And I have no problem in principle with passing special laws to send a message that such hatred won't be tolerated. But is this really the point? Does it do anything to address the larger issues of racism, sexism, or homophobia that plague our society? And will it save Amadou Diallo, or prevent Abner Louima from getting a toilet plunger shoved up his ass by bigots in blue uniforms? Of course not. Hate crime laws make us feel better. But in the end, the biggest injuries suffered by people of color continue: job and housing discrimination; unequal access to health care; and the development of a prison-industrial-
complex that is locking up black and brown people faster than you can say
"three-strikes-and-you're-out;" all of which could and would persist, even if there was never another cross-burning on a black family's lawn, or another violent assault on an immigrant.
And this is what's wrong with the "national dialogue on race," as our therapist-in-chief calls it. It only takes place in a comfort zone where pretty much everyone can agree. So when James Byrd gets dragged to death in Jasper, everyone, including the Klan, is quick to condemn the atrocity. But when the Centers for Disease Control and National Center for Health Statistics report that about 6500 African Americans and a few thousand more Latino/as and American Indians die annually because they receive inferior
health care relative to their white counterparts, few people say anything.
When we hear about people of color harassed by neighbors in white communities and forced to move due to the bigotry of a few, most of us react with horror. "How terrible,' we insist`people should be able to live wherever they choose." But when study after study indicates that people of color are denied home mortgages at twice the rate of whites, even when they have similar credit and twice as much annual income, and that they face housing discrimination over two million times a year because of more subtle biases -far less blatant than the racist neighbor - few raise their voice
indignantly, and no one thinks to send bankers or real estate agents to jail for bias crime.
And when we turn on Jerry Springer and see some Klansman or skinhead ranting about the inferiority of black and brown people, we laugh, and yell at the TV, and collectively condemn them. But when two well-respected social scientists named Murray and Herrnstein write a book like The Bell Curve - which argues pretty much the same thing, only with footnotes - we not only fail to condemn them, but white folks go out and make their book a best-seller: half-a-million copies sold in the first 18 months. Furthermore, Murray gets interviewed on every major news show in America, and is then asked to speak to the GOP Congressional delegation one month after the Republicans took over Congress.
My point is simple, but given what passes for our national understanding of these issues, apparently in need of explicit recitation: The problem of racism is not to be found at the extremes. It's not about "intolerance," and a need to "love your neighbor," hold hands, and sing Pete Seeger songs. The
problem is the everyday discrimination, inequity, and mainstream silence about these things by folks who pretend to care about racism, and think they can prove it by condemning lynch mobs: an act which ceased to be
courageous about forty years ago.
To that effect, we have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center spending all their time taking a handful of Nazis to court, tracking hate groups on the internet, and sending out stamps that say "teach tolerance" to folks on their mailing list so as to raise more money (despite an endowment in the
tens of millions of dollars), all so they can do anything but help poor people - which, given their name, I had always assumed was the point. In addition to the Center, there are at least a half-dozen organizations nationwide that focus almost exclusively on doing battle with "the far-right." They can tell you everything you'd ever want to know about
even the most insignificant Christian Identity church (members of which believe Jews are Satanic and persons of color are "mud people" without souls), or let you know who attended the most recent meeting at the Aryan Nations compound, all of which might be helpful the next time you're
sitting around playing militia trivia with Morris Dees, but is likely of
little use the rest of the year.
It makes one wonder: with all these nice liberals focusing on intolerance
and "extremists," who's challenging the
persistent institutional injustices which will do more damage to people of
color in the next ten minutes than the
National Socialist White People's Party has done in their
entire history? Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly
enough folks to meet the challenge. Indeed, not only does
mainstream liberal discourse on these issues siphon off
time, money and energy from the real battles against
structural injustices, it makes it harder to convince anyone
those problems really are problems after all. When President
Clinton says "we have torn down the barriers in our laws.
Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds
and our hearts," it makes it easy for people to believe
racism is nothing more than an attitude problem in need of
adjustment, or perhaps a 12-step group to put us on the
collective road to recovery. What's more, since hardly
anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any type, focusing
on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies
the belief that racism is something "out there," a problem
for others, "but not me," or anyone I know.
Extremism and the Focus on "the other"
Ask any white person what a racist looks like, and you're likely to get a
response involving the kinds of characters
one sees on talk shows - men and women wearing sheets, hoods and
swastikas, and yelling "nigger," and "spic" at people of
color. Having seen these types of bigots on a regular basis,
folks become convinced that they and they alone are the problem.
Consider one of the women interviewed by Joe Feagin and
Hernan Vera for their 1995 book White Racism, who, when
asked her opinion of blacks replied: "they look like
apes...I dislike them, except when they treat me with
respect...I don't say I hate every black person, (just) the
majority," but then went on to explain, "I don't consider
myself racist. When I think of the word racist, I think of
the KKK, people in white robes burning black people on
crosses...or I think of the skinheads..."
Indeed, it's doubtful that the 17% of white Americans who
readily tell pollsters that "blacks lack an inborn ability
to learn," would consider themselves racists; nor the 31%
who claim "most blacks are lazy;" nor the 50% who believe
blacks are "more aggressive and violent" than whites; nor
the 75% who express the belief that "most blacks would
rather live off welfare than work for a living." In fact,
despite these numbers, only 6% of whites admit they are
"racist or prejudiced" - about half as many as will say they
believe Elvis is still alive.
Even more disturbing than these individual's own denials of
their racism, is the seeming disregard paid such everyday
prejudice by "anti-bias" organizations. Despite the fact
that 17% of the white population - the percentage admitting
they believe in black genetic inferiority - comprises 34
million white Americans; and despite the fact that this 34
million people is equal to the size of the entire black
population of the U.S., groups like Klanwatch, the
Anti-Defamation League and others seem to care little about
challenging these folks' racism, unless of course they join
a hate group or kill someone, in which case they will then
become a problem worth addressing.
Again, call me crazy, but I'm more concerned about the 44%
who still believe it's alright for white homeowners to
discriminate against black renters or buyers, or the fact
that less than half of all whites (according to polls in the
early 90's) think the government should have any laws to
ensure equal opportunity in employment, than I am about guys
running around in the woods with guns, or lighting birthday
cakes to Hitler every April 20th. Sure, folks like that can
do serious damage (just witness Oklahoma City or Columbine
High), but the fact remains that the Tim McVeighs and Dylan
Klebolds and Eric Harrises of the world get these ideas
somewhere, long before they stumble across white power
websites or read The Turner Diaries.
Where Would They Get Such a Crazy Idea?
Ever notice how people seem genuinely amazed whenever yet
another vicious hate crime takes place, or when they hear
about an increase in the number of openly racist
organizations in the U.S? Each time one of these "isolated
incidents," like Jasper occurs, the teeth-gnashing begins
and the tears flow anew, and the sense of confusion as to
how anyone could become such a hateful racist in a nation
like ours begins to set in.
But is it really that hard to understand? Is it that hard to
imagine that young white people who look around and see
police locking up people of color at disproportionate rates,
might conclude there was something wrong with these folks?
Something to be feared, and if feared then perhaps despised?
Is it so difficult to believe that whites who hear
politicians blame immigrants of color for "taking American
jobs," or "squandering welfare dollars," might conclude that
such persons were a threat to their own well-being? Is it
that difficult to believe that someone taught from birth
that America is a place where "anyone can make it if they
try hard enough," but who looks around and sees that in
fact, not only have some "not made it," but that these
unlucky souls happen to be disproportionately people of
color, might conclude that those on the bottom deserve to be
there because they just didn't try hard enough, or didn't
have the genetic endowment for success?
When police in Riverside, California shoot Tyisha Miller in
her car, because, after they pounded on her window and woke
her from a diabetic stupor, she reached for a gun to protect
herself, what message is sent regarding the value of black
life? And how does it differ from that of the Klan?
When police in Philadelphia shoot Dontae Dawson in his car
because he raised his hand and they "thought he had a gun,"
(which he didn't), what message is sent about the value of
black life? And how does it differ from that of White Aryan
When New Jersey State Troopers pump eleven shots into a van
occupied by four black and Latino students on their way to
basketball tryouts, simply because the van, after being
pulled over, started to slowly roll backwards and they
thought the young men were "trying to run them over," what
message is sent about the value of black and brown life? And
how is it different from that of the skinheads?
When a cop in Chicago shoots Carl Hardiman for refusing to
drop his "weapon" (which turned out to be a cell phone), or
when Brooklyn officers shoot 15-year old Frankie Arzuega in
the back of the head, kill him, and then don't report the
"incident" for three days, at which time they're never
disciplined, or when Anibal Carrasquillo is killed by yet
another Brooklyn cop, shot in the back, for no identifiable
reason, or when Aswon Watson is killed by still another of
New York's finest, shot 18 times sitting in a stolen car,
unarmed, and the grand jury indicts no one, or when Aquan
Salmon, age 14, is shot in the back by an officer in
Connecticut after being chased for a crime he didn't commit,
what message is sent about the value of the lives of people
of color, and how does it differ from the message of David
And lest anyone think these are more "isolated incidents,"
it should be noted there are over 15,000 cases of alleged
police brutality on file with the Justice Department,
languishing for lack of funds to investigate; and that
brutality complaints in New York City alone have risen by
62% since 1992, costing over $100 million in damage payouts
to victims; and that studies have found that anywhere from
80-97% of brutality victims are people of color, while the
overwhelming majority of officers involved are white; or
that in 75% of the cases where police kill someone, the
person killed was unarmed.
But the message that people of color are "different,"
"dangerous," and need to be controlled is sent out by more
than just local police. The criminal justice system from
start to finish inculcates such a mindset. Even though
African American and Latino crime rates have remained
roughly steady for two decades, the numbers of persons of
color incarcerated has tripled, thanks to intensified law
enforcement in communities of color. The war on drugs -
fought mostly in poor and person-of-color-communities,
despite the fact that whites are 74% of drug users - has
contributed dramatically to the growth of a
prison-industrial-complex, which is quickly sapping
resources from education, job training and other vital
Nationwide, spending for job creation and training has
fallen by more than half since the 1980's, while spending on
"corrections" has exploded by 521%. In California, spending
on higher education as a share of the state budget has
fallen by nearly 99% since 1980, while spending for prisons
has mushroomed by nearly 800%. In New York, spending on
prisons has increased by $761 million since 1988, during
which time funding for the City and State University systems
was slashed by $615 million. A decade ago, New York spent
twice as much on higher ed as it did on prisons. Now, the
state spends almost $300 million more annually locking
mostly people of color away. Since 1980, the number of
whites incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 103%,
while the numbers of blacks incarcerated for drug offenses
during this time grew by 1,311% and the number of Latinos
incarcerated on drug charges grew by over 1,600%.
What message does our society send when we allow, and even
cause by a combination of policies, the kind of housing
segregation, isolation, and poverty which confront all too
many persons of color? When blacks who work full-time, year
round are still three times as likely to be poor as whites
who do the same, and Latino/as working full-time year-round
are still four times more likely to remain poor? When
unemployment for persons of color remains in double-digits
and twice the white rate even in times of economic recovery?
When white college grads are two-and-a-half times more
likely to find work than black college grads, and whites
with only a high school diploma are just as likely to have a
job as an African American or Latino with a college degree?
Why should we be surprised that at least some persons,
witnessing the way the larger institutions of our society
neglect (at best) and oppress (at worst) people of color,
might reach the conclusions that they were superior, more
deserving of opportunity and perhaps even life, than those
Simply put, any nation that allows corporate polluters in
communities of color to get away with fines that amount to
only 1/5th the amount they would pay in white neighborhoods,
is going to have a hard time convincing me that it's serious
about cracking down on hate or racism of any kind. Any
nation that thinks nothing of strip mining uranium on
American Indian land, thereby causing Navajo teens to
develop reproductive organ cancer at 17 times the national
average, doesn't have much moral capital to expend lecturing
Klansmen who burn down black churches. Any nation that funds
education mostly through property taxes, thereby
guaranteeing massive inequity between the schools and
resources available in poor urban and rural areas relative
to more affluent suburbs, deserves to be laughed at when it
proclaims itself committed to fairness, tolerance, and
In other words, even to the extent that we should concern
ourselves with combating "hatred," or "intolerance," be it
of the individual or organized type, it is still necessary
to consider the ways in which such overt bigotry is
instilled by the larger workings of the dominant culture,
and by institutions run not by "extremists," but by
acceptable, respected and mainstream Americans. This is the
vital context to the politics of hatred which is rarely
explored, let alone addressed by the organizations who
proclaim themselves dedicated to an antiracist mission.
The Defeat of David Duke and the Victory of `Dukism'
There is perhaps no better example of the inadequacy of
simply fighting "extremists," and overt racism, than in that
provided by the decade-long struggle against lifelong white
supremacist David Duke, in Louisiana. The best-known
organized racist in modern times, Duke was elected to the
Louisiana legislature in 1989. Thereafter he received 44% of
the vote (and 60% of the white votes) in a losing stab at
the U.S. Senate in 1990, lost in his bid for Governor in
1991 (although he received about 55% of all white votes
cast), and then faded considerably in subsequent campaigns
for President, and a second run for a Senate seat as well as
another Gubernatorial campaign.
At the time of Duke's electoral collapse (around 1995), many
proclaimed him finished, a has-been, with no ability to
influence American politics in the future, let alone win
office. And yet,in 1999, even after a solid eight years of
being exposed as a vicious racist and anti-Semite, there he
was, pulling down 28,000 votes (almost one-fifth of all
votes cast), and running third in the race for the U.S.
Congress seat vacated by Bob Livingston. Missing the runoff
by only about 4,000 votes, Duke can rightly claim that
although he is not likely to win elected office anytime
soon, he has had a significant impact, and will continue to
do so, on the face of politics.
Even though his electoral support base is now largely
limited to fairly hard-core racists - who haven't been put
off by his reversion back to open advocacy of white
supremacy - the fact remains that even in those elections
Duke has lost, the other candidates, including the winners,
have been forced to move to the right on issues like
welfare, affirmative action, crime, education, and
immigration. Likewise, campaigns across the nation have
increasingly sounded like those he was running eight and
nine years ago, with candidates literally falling all over
themselves to "steal from Duke's playbook," as Pat Buchanan
termed it (shortly before doing it back in 1992).
So unfortunately, even as Duke, the "extremist" has been
defeated - and don't get me wrong, it was proper to target
him as a Nazi, and I was part of the Coalition that did just
that in the early `90's - the fact remains that the salience
of race politics, and the mainstream acceptance of racial
scapegoating which existed before Duke came along, and has
been such a large part of American politics since at least
George Wallace, made Duke's rise possible, and even in the
midst of his fall, ensures his unfortunate but continued
Unless antiracists, including those of us who fought so hard
to convince voters that Duke was a white supremacist, and an
"extremist," can do just as good a job undermining the
ideological basis for his political appeal, he will never be
finally defeated, and the danger he posed and poses will
never be finally passed. Reorienting the discussion won't be
easy, committed as most are to lauding the legitimacy of
mainstream institutions even as they attack the "extremes."
Consider the recent flap over whether or not neo-Nazi Matt
Hale should be allowed to join the Illinois bar. Hale, a
graduate of Southern Illinois University Law School is
currently being blocked from his chosen profession by those
who claim his participation in the administration of justice
would somehow "pervert the process," and call into question
the state's commitment to the administration of "color-blind
justice." Imagine that, in a state which has sent at least a
half-dozen known innocent persons of color to death row in
the past few years, and from what I can gather, has no
intention of disbarring any of the esteemed jurists who
participated in these despicable exercises.
Again, just who is the bigger problem: Matt Hale, whom
everyone knows is a bigot and whom everyone will be watching
for signs of racist behavior, or the Cook County District
Attorney and a handful of overzealous cops, looking to send
some guy - any black guy will do - to his death so they can
proclaim a big murder case solved? To even ask the question
is to answer it. It is precisely the visibility of the
former's racism, contrasted with the invisibility of the
latter, which makes the latter so much more problematic, not
to mention more worthy of our attention and concern.
The same is true for hate crimes. To punish those overt and
violent expressions of bigotry is all fine and good, but
what about the underlying mindset which gives rise to such
acts? And the institutional inequities that make such a
mindset seem rational? And which crimes are the ones we
should punish anyway: the retail versions perpetrated by
lone bigots and hate groups, or the wholesale versions which
form the basis of institutional racism, and are the very
fabric which comprise the tapestry of American society? And
who makes this decision? Local district attorneys and
federal prosecutors? And who sentences the hate criminals?
Juries like the one that thought nothing of the Rodney King
beating? Thanks, but, surely there has to be a better way.
Author: Tim Wise is a Southern-based anti-racism activist
who was instrumental in the political devastation of
neo-Nazi David Duke. Wise has appeared on hundreds of
television and radio prbgrams to discuss the rise of the Far
Right and the influence of racial prejudice on public
policy. He has squared off against white supremacists,
religious fundamentalists and noted conservatives.
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