While individual acts of racism still make the nightly news, institutionalized prejudice designed to promote white privilege is ignored in America, an author and activist told 300 Charlotte clergy and other community leaders this week.
Speaking at a Mecklenburg Ministries luncheon on Thursday, “White Like Me” author Tim Wise said it’s appropriate to get irate at what happened to, say, Trayvon Martin, the hoodie-wearing 17-year-old black youth killed last year in Florida by a neighborhood watch captain.
“But what do we do, what do we say about the larger problem of racial profiling that happens to millions of young black and brown men across this country?” Wise asked.
In 1998, Wise said, Americans were revolted by news that James Byrd Jr., a black man in Jasper, Texas, had been chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white men.
But the same year, he said, little attention was paid to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 85,000 black people would die that year because of institutional inequalities – including less access to health care than most whites.
Wise told the crowd. “85,000 dead black people does not make the news; One dead black man dragged behind a truck makes the news…Not because it shouldn’t have, but because it’s so much easier, isn’t it? Because we can all cluck our tongues and say … ‘I’m not a racist. I don’t think about race like those horrible, evil Klansmen who killed James Byrd.’ ”
But when it comes to those 85,000 black people and other victims of societal racism, it’s not so simple to claim innocence, he said. “We’re all implicated in that because we’re part of a society that allows it to happen,” Wise said.
On Thursday, the Nashville-born Wise urged his interfaith audience to talk more about racism, even though both whites and blacks find it “incredibly difficult” to do so – for different reasons.
People of color, he said, worry that whites will accuse them of playing the race card or exaggerating. And whites like him, he said, fear they’ll say the wrong thing and be considered racist.
But not talking makes things worse, he said. “The silence doesn’t get us anywhere. … It confirms all the suspicions that we have about one another.”
Wise, also the author of “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama,” was asked from the audience what the re-election of President Barack Obama said about the state of U.S. race relations.
He acknowledged that Obama’s ascent to the White House testified to the “shifting culture. It couldn’t have happened 10, 20 or 30 years ago.”
Still, he added, “when a really quite erudite and brilliant black man has … a year and a half to interview for the job – which is what a campaign is – you just might get the gig,” Wise said. “(But) the vast majority of us, when we apply for jobs, we don’t have a year and a half. And we also don’t have tens of millions of decision makers. It’s one dude sitting across a desk. … So the weird and ironic reality is it might be easier for a man of color like Barack Obama to get that job than it is for a lot of other people of color to get a job just managing a department store.”