Dan Wilkins ’16
The message in Tim Wise’s lecture on “White Denial in the Age of Obama” was clear—racism is still a pertinent issue rooted in American society. Wise captivated the audience by using a mix of analogies, personal anecdotes and statistics to demonstrate the prevalence of racism in our culture.
Wise opened the lecture by acknowledging the inherent problem that someone like him, who is white, is leading a discussion on racism. He claimed that, despite his own experiences and involvement in human rights, he had little to add to the conversation in comparison to the experiences that people of color face on a daily basis. However, Wise acknowledged that Americans don’t seem ready—or comfortable—to discuss racism with people of color. Until that can happen, Wise feels that it is important for people like him to continue to lead discussions to raise awareness of the still present issue of racism in America.The biggest problem Wise addressed was the way racism has become subconsciously engrained into the minds of many Americans. In one instance, he cited a specific study, which demonstrates the subconscious nature of modern racism. In the study, a group of white participants were asked a serious of questions that were found not to be overtly racist.
This same group of people were then shown a series of images while the researchers observed the participants’ brain signals. When an image of a black person was flashed across the screen, almost all of the participants showed increased activity in sections of the brain related to fear. While the people in this study were not overtly racist they showed that they subconsciously held biases against people of color. Wise affirmed that this level of deep-rooted racism exists for a variety of reasons. One of the main causes he highlighted was the way the media portrays various races in America. In one specific study, individuals were asked to picture a criminal. According to Wise, 75% of white people and 45% of black people pictured a black person. Wise claimed that the media treats black criminals significantly differently from white criminals and, as a result, causes significant racial biases.
Wise supported this claim by sharing a few statistics. Although there are no studies that prove a disparity between the amount of white drug users and black drug users, people of color are five times more likely to be incarcerated for drug possession. In addition, 88% of stop and frisks conducted in New York City are done on its black residents.
Wise later used a personal story to show how racism exists in America’s school systems. As a child Wise had a particularly racist teacher who had warned his mother that many of his friends were children of color. His mother promptly had this teacher fired. However, years later, Wise recognizes that removing that teacher did not change the school system at all. Racism was still rampant within the curriculum.
To follow this story, Wise presented the audience with a question. What if we were to test teachers and not allow those that are racist to teach? Wise claims that the majority of the teachers he has asked this question to reply that this sort of limitation would cause a significant shortage in teachers. One of the greatest causes of racism in America is that school children are subjected to racist influences and thinking.
One of the most controversial (and significant) claims that Wise made was the influence of right wing politicians on American racism. Wise referenced the deathbed confessions from the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Lee Atwater, to support this point. In Atwater’s confession, he reportedly admitted the GOP used certain code words to gain white votes by playing off of the fears of people of color. Wise asserted that right winged fears of “big government” and “taxation” are truly just ploys to gain votes using racist undertones. According to Wise, Atwater’s confession confirms that the Republican Party continues to engrain racism into its members’ minds.
The final message Wise left with the audience is the importance that people continue to discuss and identify racism within America. White people in society have the luxury to ignore racism because they don’t need to understand it. Racism is not directed at them and, therefore, they do not face it on a daily basis. Wise made an analogy to his own life to get this point across. While he was in school, Wise never took calculus. He says that today he is completely ignorant to calculus, because he was never forced to take it. Wise claims that white people are largely ignorant to racism in the same manner. They have the luxury of going through their days without having to acknowledge racism, because it does not directly affect them. People of color, however, do not have this luxury. People of color are forced to face the realities of racism because they encounter it every day. However, Wise admitted that the answer is unclear as to how Americans can work to eliminate racism. On the other hand, he says the first step is to keep talking about racism and to spread awareness about how significant the issue still is.