“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 1

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

One of the perks of my particular role as Sexual Correspondent is getting to talk to some of the sexiest-to-me anti-racist thinkers.  So, you can guess my response to Racialicious’ owner/publisher Latoya’s question: “Do you want to interview Tim Wise?” (Precise answer: “SSSSSQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”  Of course, Wise is happily married with children; thus, my lurve for the man stays at “SSSSSQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”)

Tim Wise 3If someone asked me what is it about Wise that makes me so swoony, I’d say—besides his sleepy, brooks-no-bullshit blue eyes, his Southern-gentleman smile, his Baptist-preacher rumbly voice, and his precise facial hair—that he does quite a bit of the heavy lifting on handling whiteness, especially white privilege and racism, so I don’t have to.  To have someone like him on my side in this nastily trippy Mobius strip called Race in America is, frankly, quite endearing to me.

His latest book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, is full of win because he succinctly takes apart the Obama Age meme of “post-racial” as well as its progenitor, the ableist term “colorblind(ness),” as the fallback retorts when race—and particularly racism—is discussed and/or called out.

In fact, as I will argue, colorblindness not only fails to remedy discrimination and racial inequity, it can actually make both prob­lems worse. To begin, if the rhetoric of racial transcendence gives the impression—as it does, almost by definition—that the racial injustices of the past are no longer instrumental in determining life chances and outcomes, it will become increasingly likely that per­sons seeing significant racial stratification in society will rational­ize those disparities as owing to some cultural or biological flaw on the part of those at the bottom of the hierarchy. In other words, ra­cial bias would become almost rational once observers of inequity were deprived of the critical social context needed to understand the conditions they observe. Whereas a color-conscious approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of racial inequities and how they’ve been generated, colorblindness encourages placing blame for the conditions of inequity on those who have been the targets of systemic injustice. Ironically, this means that colorblind­ness, often encouraged as the ultimate non-racist mentality, might have the consequence of giving new life to racist thinking.

–From Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity

Andrea Plaid: In your book, Colorblind, you explain what it is.  What is the difference between that and “race neutrality” (if there is a difference) and why doesn’t either work, specifically in the POTUS Obama’s case?

Tim Wise: I use them pretty interchangeably here. Basically, my argument is that post-racial colorblindness  fails on two levels: 1) it fails to solve problems that are race-specific and caused by racism and discrimination, and 2) it fails to help build support for broader progressive social policy (contrary to the claim made by its proponents), because even when you put forth “colorblind” policy (like universal health care, more money for schools, a jobs bill, etc), it is perceived by whites as a racial transfer, because of the way social policy has been racialized for 40 years. So whites hear “black people” when you talk about any policy to help the have-nots or have-lessers. Which means that the right is going to use race as a weapon anyway, to push those buttons with whites, and when the president refuses to punch back, even against the most blatant and absurd examples of that racism and race baiting, it emboldens the bullies and makes him appear weak. Obviously, he has to be careful how he engages race, but the evidence I present in the book (which is based mostly on research from the field of social psychology) has found that allowing race to remain sublimated and below the surface actually makes it easier for people to act on subtle biases, because they can do so without ever having to confront the contradictions between who they claim to be (open-minded, non-racist, etc) and who they really are.

AP: If “colorblindness” doesn’t work, then why use it?

TW: Well, I think post racial liberals really believe in it. Post racial liberals acknowledge racial disparities, unlike lots of conservatives, and unlike most white folks, period. And they want to eliminate those disparities. But they really believe that the best way to solve them is with race-neutral, universal programs of economic uplift for all, which they say will disproportionately help folks of color, since folks of color are disproportionately on the bottom of the class ladder. But this misses the fact that folks of color who aren’t poor still face substantial race-based barriers too. It also ignores that one of the reasons we can’t seem to pass big universal programs (like real universal health care or massive investment in the areas that need it most) is precisely because of the racial resentment that leads whites in the public to believe any such effort is just thinly veiled racial redistribution. That’s what Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and others have said, for instance, about health care reform or the stimulus: that it was just reparations. And they said this as a way to discredit those things in the eyes of people who would have benefitted from those efforts, but who won’t support them if they can be convinced that it’s some racial redistribution scheme. So unless we tackle the white racial resentment issue, we won’t be able to get the big programs that the post racial liberals believe we need (and which I too think are important, albeit not in a vacuum). But I think they really believe in these efforts: Obama believes the colorblind model works. William Julius Wilson believes it. Jim Sleeper and Richard Kahlenberg believe it. Daniel Patrick Moynihan believed in it. They can’t provide any evidence to demonstrate that it works, but they believe in it.

AP: It seems to me that some on the Left attempt to code “colorblindness” as “class” and are quick to say that “race is a construct.”  Yes, class has a definite place in some conversations about race and racism, but why does the Left employ this so quickly in many of the discussions?

TTim Wise 2W: Well, the left tradition is a class based tradition, historically. So Marxists, for reasons of their own, or those whose understanding is informed by Marxism, obviously prioritize class (especially white Marxists). And liberalism, though it is different from Marxism, in huge ways, still has grown out of a tradition that has always looked at society as being divided between haves and have nots, and liberals are on the side of the have nots, in theory. But that tradition developed, remember, in the U.S., in a society of white supremacy. So even as FDR was pushing liberal social and economic policy, we were an apartheid state. Which means American liberalism, early on, was forged around class analysis, while still being subservient to white domination. I think that tradition lives on. We remember the New Deal as this great moment of progressivism, and in some ways it was. But it also excluded blacks from many of the key programs, from Social Security at first, to the FHA loan program, to certain of the jobs programs, and the labor law protections for workers that were part of the New Deal, allowed unions to remain segregated if they wanted to be. All of this was how FDR got it passed: by capitulating to racism and white supremacy. So to try and tackle class injustice without directly addressing race too is to almost always marginalize people of color.

Just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean it won’t cause harm.  It impacts.  Class is also a construct, but it plays out in real ways.  Class politics is seen as ‘more pure’ but we’re always dealing with constructs.  It has to be both class and race, in order to build successful coalitions.

AP: Another way some liberal/Left people scuttle conversations about race and racism is by calling it a form of irrationality, if not downright a form of mental illness, as Alternet did in a post a while back. It’s dismissiveness through ableism.  Why is that?

TW: Racism is irrational from a scientific perspective, but makes perfect sense from a narrow, short-term self-interest perspective. Marxists and Libertarians don’t’ understand that because they think of it in material terms only. So even though I insist white supremacy and privilege are detrimental for all, including whites, in the long run, in the short run, it elevates us over POC considerably. Which means, adhering to racist thinking or cleaving to racist structures that allow for the maintenance of a system that elevates us, makes sense. It pays. In order to trump that short term thinking, we have to redirect the notion of self interest, first to a broader more collective understanding of the concept, but secondly, to an understanding that privilege itself can be detrimental: it can set the privileged up with a mentality of entitlement and expectation, and when that mentality goes unfulfilled, or privileged folks bump up against obstacles, we often lack the coping skills to deal with them. Privilege can keep us from seeing the interconnectedness of the society, economically. So, for instance, when the sub-prime mortgage mess was starting off, 15 years ago in communities of color — and lenders were taking advantage of black and brown poor folks — most Americans and politicians paid no attention. It wasn’t affecting “Main Street” (meaning where white people live), and so it was ignored. So the lenders realized, what the hell, if they’re not going to to regulate our actions (in fact they were being deregulated at that time), we’ll just spread out to the ‘burbs too, and small towns, and rural areas, and make even more money. So now we see the cost: the problem spread and has engulfed the whole economy. Privilege and lack of racial empathy contributed to that mess. So in the long run it is irrational to stick with that system, but in the short run (which is how we’ve been trained to think in this culture) it is frighteningly logical.