Monday, September 13, 2010

I got email from Tim Wise

Tim Wise may be the USA's hardest working white promoter of neoliberal anti-racism theory. Two nights ago, after I posted "black" names and class; the first problem with Tim Wise's latest book, I got this email from him:
If you had any intellectual integrity, you would post the dismissive comments about my book (which you refuse to read because you are too Goddamned scared to challenge your simplistic white Marxist viewpoint), on my site, so I could respond to them, and so others could (who had actually read the book), rather than on your own site, where you can limit comments to those who have the appropriate accounts that make it possible to comment. Your response to the "names" study -- which is only one of about 5 dozen examples of racism I cite, and which are not at all simply "class" rather than race, but which you wouldn't know, because you refuse to read anything that challenges your white ass perspective -- is pathetic, in part because the names in the study were not, in fact, "lower class" signified names. They were not as class dependent as your critique suggests. And of course, there were several other examples of blatant racial bias against people of color who were not working class, etc...but you wouldn't care about that, because if a black person is middle class or above, I guess you think they deserve whatever comes to them. Your white working class perspective is bullshit. White working class folks are just as racist as other white folks, and not just because of manipulation. DuBois -- ya know, a black Marxist -- discussed this at length, but you would know nothing of this of course, because why bother with such trivial challenges to your white leftist world view...Feel free to post this on your blog, read by all of, what, 35 people...I couldn't care less. And please know, I will bounce your ass from my site from here on out...I thought we had some common ground, but you just played nice on my site and then talked smack behind my back. Cool: now you can play with yourself and those who read your work, and I'll happily ignore your class reductionist nonsense...

I felt sorry for him, partly because I didn't mean for my comments to be taken personally, partly because he doesn't know Rule #1 for authors: Never respond to your critics.

I replied:
Tim, I don't "limit comments". Anyone can post on my blogs. Open ID works fine, so you don't even have to get a free Blogger ID. The only people who can't comment on my blog are those who want to post anonymously. That's Blogger's default setting.

But if you really want to post anonymously, I'll change the settings.

When I made my comments at your blog, I hadn't read the review citing information that was debunked years ago.

And, yes, white working class folks can be racist. But historically, they're less racist than the upper and middle classes because they're more likely to live and work with people of color. Have you read about Bacon's Revolution? That's when the ruling classes began working hard to divide workers in North America by race.

Out of curiosity, have you lived with white working class people? All I know about you is that you graduated from an exclusive school, and you began your career by opposing David Duke. If I'd been in Louisiana, we probably would've met at a rally against him.

I am sorry you took this personally, 'cause you seem like an extremely well-intentioned fellow. I'd meant my review as friendly joshing, but I see how it didn't come off.

Anyway, I won't address this in public for 24 hours, because if you'd rather I didn't make your note public, say so, and I won't. I've also written in haste.

Out of curiosity, does Adolph Reed Jr. also have a simplistic white Marxist viewpoint?

best wishes (honestly!)

It's been 36 hours and he hasn't responded, so let the fun begin!

Adolph Reed mentions Wise in The limits of anti-racism:
This anti-Marxism has some curious effects. Leading professional antiracist Tim Wise came to the defense of Obama’s purged green jobs czar Van Jones by dismissing Jones’s “brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group,” and pointing instead to “his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism.” In fact, Jones was a core member of a revolutionary organization, STORM, that took itself very seriously, almost comically so. [Will's warning: the second link is to a PDF.]

And are we to applaud his break with radical politics in favor of a style of capitalism that few actual capitalists embrace? This is the substance of Wise’s defense.

This sort of thing only deepens my suspicions about antiracism’s status within the comfort zone of neoliberalism’s discourses of “reform.” More to the point, I suspect as well that this vitriol toward radicalism is rooted partly in the conviction that a left politics based on class analysis and one focused on racial injustice are Manichean alternatives.
So far as I know, Wise hasn't responded to Reed or to Why Anti-Racism Will Fail by Thandeka. His "race maximalist" theory doesn't seem to leave room for people of color who point to the primacy of class.

Wondering if Tim knew about Bacon's Rebellion, I went googling. He's actually sound on race history, but he invariably takes the antiracist turn when he gets to the last thirty years or so. For example, in Tim Wise: On White Privilege, he's solid until he gets to the post-Katrina vote by St. Bernard Parish Council to prevent owners of single-family residences from entering into rental arrangements with anyone except "blood relatives." Tim talks as if everyone in St. Bernard Parish is a white racist, but the vote was five to two. Does that mean all the whites of St. Bernard Parish are racist, or that five racists, almost certainly wealthier members of the parish, got onto its council?

Far more importantly, he doesn't mention what should matter to anyone looking for "institutional racism" in Katrina. Adolph Reed saw it in New Orleans - Undone by Neoliberalism: "St. Bernard Parish, nearly 90 percent white, working class and reliably Republican, was virtually wiped off the face of the earth. Most of the parish's housing was destroyed. No hospitals or public libraries have reopened, and only 20 percent of its schools are operating." Whiteness has not helped New Orleans' poor whites.

I'll add this: in the case of the council vote, the institutional power of the law prevented a racist decision from being enacted.

I kind of feel sorry for Tim. I don't doubt that in person he's a nice guy. Sure, he's a capitalist, but he's sincere in wanting a better world for people of color. Yet anti-racists of color have begun critiquing him:
For POC with Tim Wise Issues....

Tirade Tuesday: Tim Wise and the Problem with Allies

Dear Tim (and other White anti-racist activists) . . .
My man Malcolm would say it's a case of the chickens coming home to root. Tim preaches anti-racism theory, so people who think it's all about race have no choice but to tell the white man to shut up and sit down.

Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz saw the flaw in capitalist anti-racism theory long ago: “It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.”

I keep asking anti-racists: "If you don't redistribute wealth, the distribution of wealth will be racially disproportionate. If you do redistribute wealth, capitalism ends. It's a Catch-22 that anti-racists ignore. Do you have an answer?"

That question either shuts them up or makes me point out that there's very little class mobility in the US. Then they shut up.

Tim asks if I care about middle and upper-class people of color. The quick answer is that I do, because racism is evil, but the conservatives and neoliberals of color are doing a good job of looking out for themselves. Just as it was better to be a black slaveowning woman in the antebellum South than a poor white man, black people like Condi Rice grew up with far more advantages than most white people.

The price of middle and upper class privilege for black folks is high. Because poorer blacks feel abandoned by richer ones, 40% of black people today believe blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.

My focus stays on the race of have-nots, the race of poor folks of all hues. After all, as Martin Luther King noted:
In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States.
That's still true. King had a solution:
...the programs of the past all have another common failing -- they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective -- the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
I like that, but being a socialist, I favor a more extreme solution: everyone should share equally in the world's wealth. If you're a christian, that's the literal meaning of the poor inheriting the earth.

When I look for solutions from anti-racism theorists, I only find recursive analysis of what's racist. I'm with Karl Marx: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it"

Well. I'm not afraid of debate, so I don't ban people from my blogs. Tim's very welcome to comment here.

P.S. For more smart critique of neoliberal antiracism by folks of color, see Saladin Ahmed's comment here and Darryl's comments here.

ETA: Since Du Bois came up, here's a quote from his preface to The Souls of Black Folk: "I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege, men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race."

ETA 2: I changed the comment setting so even anonymous folks can comment now.


  1. This is perhaps something of an aside, but what do you have to say to the idea (the fact? the received wisdom?) that poverty will exist in any society, simply as those people in the bottom 10 percent economically (or thereabouts)?

    There's evidence that many of the problems surrounding "being poor" come from having relatively less, not from actually having very little. We see this a lot in the USA, the poorest 10 percent of the nation are actually pretty well off compared to the poorest 10 percent 70 or 80 years ago, say, and yet many of their issues remain the same.

  2. OK, call me biased.

    But the contrast between your straightforward and mannerly criticism and the vituperation of his insult- and vulgarity-ridden rebuttal tells me all I need to know. Add to that his bullshit and unfounded assertion that by posting on your site he would be blocked and I just have to shake my head.

    I still like his essay about "What if the Tea Party were Black" because I think that does point to some realities about racial politics and cultural attitudes in this country.

    And I'll also say I've run across a lot of white working class racism in my time -- but I do believe a lot of it gets fomented by the egregious impact of capitalism.

    As far as I'm concerned you definitely won this round.

  3. littlebob, I don't think we'll ever have a society in which everyone has exactly the same things, and I don't think anyone wants that, but I don't see any reason why there should be a significant gap between the richest and the poorest folks. You've given me an excuse to repeat one of my fave quotes:

    "Once I was in Victoria, and I saw a very large house. They told me it was a bank and that the white men place their money there to be taken care of, and that by and by they got it back with interest. We are Indians and we have no such bank; but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by and by they return them with interest, and our hearts feel good. Our way of giving is our bank." —Chief Maquinna

  4. DSD, Tim's done some good work, and I hope he'll do more, but ultimately, I think anti-racism theory does more harm than good. Alas, it's behind a firewall now, but I think "An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education" is the article which has a conclusion anti-racists should know: In at least one major study of anti-racism policies, they found more racism after the policies were instituted. The maximizing of race creates more racial prejudice in people, not less.

  5. Will, tell me you managed to get a copy of that last one (the one now behind the firewall)? It was an excellent article and I don't think I copied it at the time.

    Also, yeah, you win this round, Shetterly! *shakes fist* Oh, wait. I'm not mad about that. Heh. That e-mail from him was, sadly, pretty standard fare for an anti-racist whose foundational views are being challenged.

    You don't agree with him, therefore you go into a specific box (or bingo square!) in order to be ignored, summarily dismissed, and mocked. Seriously, his main comeback is various rephrasings of "racist!" and "ignorant!" based, apparently, on his ability to read other people's minds.

    Actually, I've found the more virulent and personal the response of the person, the less stable their position probably is. LONG experience of this with libertarians who can't be bothered to defend their views from criticism except to scream "socialist freedom-hating idiot!" and so on.

  6. Raven, I may have to pay to get it now. Hulk hate firewalls!

    Tim did behave an awful lot like his followers that I've met. Folks who know at some level they've got nothing tend to get abusive fastest.

  7. It is interesting that the criticism of Tim Wise seems to be centered around two points:

    1. He's an asshole

    2. It's frustrating that a white guy is turning anti-racism into profit and making a living at it.

    Neither of these points have much to do with his ideas themselves. Personally, I'm not a fan, but if that's not silken criticism wrapped in ermine, I don't know what is.

  8. Folks like Adolph Reed, Thandeka, Darryl, and Saladin Ahmed (okay, and me) are offering:

    3. His take on race and power in the USA is wrong.

    But the dynamics of 2 are fascinating. I think those folks are right. By the rules he plays under, he should be helping a person of color do the job he's taken. Because right now, he's just benefitting from his "white privilege."

    Now, I think argument 2 is bogus. It implies that many blacks who have gone on the speaking circuit only were able to do it because they had white privilege. Jessie Jackson? Angela Davis? The idea is silly. Liberal private colleges adore black speakers.

    Incidentally, in theory, he's making a very good living. One of his conservative critics said, "...he claims that he has not earned more than $1 million in speaking fees during his career...We’ll wait for some documentation on the fees he was paid for the 350 odd speeches he claims to have given on college campuses. If he got $3,000 per speech – not a stretch by any means for a featured leftwing speaker – then we’ll keep the profile as is. (Incidentally, apart from his campus lectures, Wise has also spoken to hundreds of community groups; he has trained labor, government, corporate, and law-enforcement officials on “methods for dismantling racism in their institutions”; and he has been a consultant for plaintiffs’ attorneys in federal discrimination cases in New York and Washington State. Such work, of course can be very lucrative.)"

  9. Well, yeah, I don't agree with a lot of his ideas either. I just thought that it was interesting that the anti-racists you linked to, I believe the only criticism of the ideas was somebody saying they were "too obvious."

    I don't think the argument is that Angela Davis benefited from white privilege. I think the argument is that if a speaker is trying not to benefit from it himself, the way to not benefit is to promote the work of speakers of color more than Wise does rather than trying to arrange the absolute maximum number of opportunities for himself. Being out for yourself is all well and good, but if you want to claim to be an anti-racist, you should probably be out to help people of color as well.

  10. CC, very true. I think they're right to point to the hypocrisy in his claim that he's bad at every part of the job except making a lot of money. If organizing is what it's ultimately about, he should be be doing some organizing.

    But I sympathize with him on fundraising. I totally suck at that.

  11. Wise says "White working class folks are just as racist as other white folks." In my experience this often isn't true. All the close relationships with POC in my family take place among my poor and working class relatives. The more well to do ones exist in a totally white sphere. My kin that SWPL types would dismiss as rednecks and probable racists are the ones having relationships and children with POC, and they don't make a big show about how enlightened they are, either.

    Although Wise claims to have grown up relatively poor, things I've read by him convey a greater contempt for working class whites than other whites. He sounds like the white yuppies Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Fear of Falling, who project all their own racism onto working class whites.

    I'm reading White Like Me right now. Though I haven't finished it yet, it reinforces some suspicions I've had about Wise. Wise claims to have grown up in a small apartment in a rundown building that happened to be in a posh, yuppie Nashville neighborhood called Green Hills. Wise says they sometimes received financial help from relatives. Tim's grandfather owned a chain of liquor stores and it isn't clear what happened to his business or money after his death. I get the feeling Wise is leaving some things out. He doesn't seem to know a thing about working class white people, or how their lives or culture differ from that of affluent whites.

    As of 2006, Wise was getting at least $4000 plus expenses per speech. Considering how his star has risen since then, he probably makes more now. He lives in a large house in an affluent Nashville neighborhood. My guess is that his hostility (and that of folks like Robert Jensen and Peggy McIntosh) toward discussion of class and capitalism is in part an attempt to keep his immense class privilege off-limits. Wise likes to be the one doing the interrogating. He'd deny working class people the right to interrogate his privilege.

    Also, the way Wise always lashes out at Marxists and leftists seems like a betrayal of the pioneers of Wise's movement. WEB DuBois, Angela Davis, CLR James, Theodore White and many other predecessors of modern anti-racist work were Marxists. Their discussion of race was grounded in solid Marxist class analysis. Why do many modern anti-racists have such contempt for the socialism of their proclaimed influences?

    Wise's main goal seems to be a more racially proportionate version of our current economic pyramid. If only black people could make up 13% of the tiny elite who own everything, Wise could be free of white guilt and enjoy his wealth in peace. It's a ridiculous goal, because since the top 20% have 84% of the wealth, there isn't much for those of us in the bottom 80% to fight over. If the top 20% were 13% black, most black people would still be SOL.

    I've read Wise say that class-based struggle is pointless until white people have dealt with their racism. How do they do this detached from class struggle? An endless series of Tim Wise workshops? Wise seems to think that working class white people have no right to discuss their class interests until they are completely free of the reptile brain stuff Wise's ilk describe as aversive racism! As the economic collapse immiserates the working class, this is galling coming from a rich man like Wise.

    The backlash from some anti-racist bloggers doesn't surprise me, considering how defensive Wise is with POC in the comments on his website. I was really surprised at how snippy he was with some of them. He is hotheaded and doesn't deal well with criticism.

  12. Quite all right! I like your observations.