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With Friends Like These, Who Needs Glenn Beck? Racism and White Privilege on the Liberal-Left

Tim Wise: How even liberals, progressives and leftists, despite our advocacy for equity and stated commitment to racial justice, still manage to manifest and further racism — whether deliberately or not — in our activism, messages and policy prescriptions.
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His words rang out with an unmistakable certitude.

arm in arm

“This is the most racist place I’ve ever lived,” said the man sitting across from me, a black writer and poet whose acquaintance I had only made earlier that day.

His expression made it clear that this was no mere hyperbole spat out so as to get a reaction. He meant every word and proceeded in about twenty minutes to lay out the case for why indeed this place where we were talking — San Francisco — was far more racist, in his estimation than any of several places he had lived in the South.

Worse than Birmingham.

Worse than Jackson, Mississippi.

Worse than Dallas.

San Francisco. Yes, that San Francisco.

From police harassment to profiling to housing discrimination to a persistent invisibility he’d felt since first arriving, there was no doubt that the ostensibly liberal enclave was head and shoulders above the rest.

And it wasn’t his opinion alone. I have heard similar feelings expressed about the Bay Area by peoples of color many times since, as well as about Seattle, Portland, and any number of other supposedly progressive paradises where various “alternative” types (of white folks at least) seem to feel at home. Even those who wouldn’t rank a place like San Francisco as the most racist city in which they’d lived, are often quick to insist that its racism is comparable to what they’ve experienced elsewhere, which is to say, no less a problem.

When I’ve recounted these discussions with folks of color living in “progressive” cities to my white liberal friends, they have usually recoiled in shock, followed by a kind of white leftie defensiveness that was, sadly, unsurprising. Their responses to the news that black and brown folks don’t find the history of the Haight-Ashbury district, or the Summer of Love all that inspiring — after all, when Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were entertaining white hippies in the Fillmore, black folks were fighting for their lives across the way in Oakland — often suggest a desire on their part to believe that the people to whom I’d spoken were seeing things.

Unfortunately the pattern is all too common. If people of color complain about racism and discrimination in rural Georgia, no one is surprised. In fact, to many the image is comforting as it fulfills every stereotype, regional and political, that so many folks continue to carry around regarding who the bad guys are, that seeks to separate “real racism” (the right-wing kind) from not-so-real racism (the kind we on the left sometimes foster). And know that before long, someone will admonish you to focus on the “real enemy,” rather than fighting amongst ourselves. “What we need is unity,” these voices say, “and all that talk about racism on the left just divides us further.”

But such arguments, in addition to being terribly convenient for the white folks who typically spout them — since it relieves us of having to examine our own practices and rhetoric — are also horribly shortsighted. Only by addressing our own racism (however inadvertent it may be at times) can we grow movements for social justice. By giving short shrift to the subject, internally or in the larger society, we virtually guarantee the defeat of whatever movements for social transformation we claim to support.

It’s worth recalling that at the height of the civil rights movement it was not merely conservatives and reactionaries who were the targets of the freedom struggle. Indeed, some of the harshest criticism was reserved for moderates and even liberals, whether the white clergy whom Dr. King was chastising in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In the case of the latter two, neither their relative liberalism (when compared to their political opponents) or party affiliation insulated them from the legitimate ire of peoples of color and their white antiracist allies.

Going back further we should recall that it was perhaps the nation’s most progressive president, Franklin Roosevelt, who not only OKd the internment of Japanese Americans, but who was also willing to cut out virtually all African Americans from the key programs of the New Deal so as to placate southern segregationists in his own party (1). Capitulating to racism, and even practicing it, has a sad pedigree on the left of the spectrum as with the right. And it is time we faced this fact honestly.

Distinguishing Racism on the Left from Racism on the Right
That said, and before detailing what liberal and progressive racism often looks like, let me be clear: racism on the left is not exactly the same as its counterpart on the right. Whereas conservative theory lends itself almost intrinsically to racist conclusions, for reasons I explained in the first essay, liberal theory is generally egalitarian and intuitively antiracist. Liberal and left-leaning folks typically endorse notions of equality in both the political and economic realms. Likewise, most all on the left outwardly reject the attribution of biological or cultural superiority to racial groups. And those on the left are quick to acknowledge and decry the systemic injustices that have been central to the creation of racial disparities in the United States.

So too, virtually all the activists in the civil rights struggle, contrary to the revisionism of folks like Glenn Beck, were decidedly to the left. Liberals and left-radicals populated the movement and provided its energy, while leading conservatives like William F. Buckley and his colleagues at The National Review published paeans to white supremacy in which they advised that integration should wait until blacks had progressed enough, in civilizational terms, to be mingled with their betters. Dr. King — even as conservatives like Beck have tried to co-opt his message and his legacy — put forth a consistently progressive and even leftist politics, in terms of his views on race, as well as economics and militarism.

But despite the overwhelming role of liberals and leftists in the struggle for racial equity, and despite the antiracist narrative that dovetails with left philosophy, liberal and left individuals and groups in practice have manifested racism in a number of ways.

Racism 2.0: White Liberals and the Problem of “Enlightened Exceptionalism”
For years, the insistence by whites that “some of (their) best friends” were black was perhaps the most obvious if unintentional way for these whites to expose their broader racial views as anything but enlightened. Whenever we as white folks have felt the need to mention our close personal relationships with African Americans, it has usually been after having just inserted our feet into our mouths by saying something racially intemperate or even racist in the presence of someone of color.

Nowadays, the assurance that “some of my best friends are black” as a way to demonstrate one’s open-minded bona fides has been supplanted by a more tangible and ostensibly political statement: namely, that “I voted for Barack Obama.” Thus, imply the persons stating it (often quite liberal in terms of their overall political sensibilities), don’t accuse me of racism.

But as I explained in my 2009 book, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, the ability of whites to support and vote for Obama says little about our larger views regarding people of color generally, or black folks in particular. Indeed, many white liberal Obama supporters openly admitted that what they liked about the candidate was his ability to “transcend race” (which implicitly meant to transcend his own blackness), to “make white people feel good about ourselves,” and the fact that he “didn’t come with the baggage of the civil rights movement.” In other words, many whites liked Obama precisely because they were able to view him as fundamentally different than other black folks. He was an exception. His blackness wasn’t problematic. It didn’t make white people uncomfortable.

But to view Barack Obama as different from the black norm — and to view this difference as a positive thing — is to suggest that “normal” blackness is tainted, negative, to be avoided, and certainly not supported politically. It is to re-stigmatize blackness and the black community writ large, even as one praises and identifies with one black individual writ small. It is to turn Barack Obama into the political equivalent of Cliff Huxtable, from The Cosby Show: a black man with whom, despite his blackness, white America is able to identify.

Indeed, polling data suggests that plenty of whites who voted for Obama — including many who are no doubt liberal on issues like abortion or the environment — nonetheless harbor deep-seated racial biases. For instance, one AP survey in September of 2008 found that about a third of white Democrats were willing to admit to holding negative and racist stereotypes about blacks, and that about 60 percent of these nonetheless supported Barack Obama for president and intended to vote for him. Considering the research on racial bias among whites, which finds that nearly all of us continue to harbor certain anti-black stereotypes and biases, it is safe to say that millions of otherwise liberal white folks are practitioners of racism, albeit a 2.0 variety, as opposed to the old school, 1.0 type, to which we have cast most of our attention.

Beyond Individual Bias: How Liberals and the Left Practice Racism
Beyond the personal biases that exist to some extent within all of us (including those who are progressive), liberals and those on the left operate within institutional spaces and even in our political activism in ways that contribute to systemic racial inequity. This we do through four primary mechanisms. The first is a well-intended but destructive form of colorblindness. The second is an equally destructive colormuteness. These mean, quite literally, a tendency among many on the white liberal-left to neither see nor give voice to race and racism as central issues in our communities and the institutions where we operate, or their connection to and interrelationship with other issues. Both liberal/left colorblindness and colormuteness perpetuate the marginalization of people of color and their concerns, in the larger society and within progressive formations for social change.

The third mechanism by which liberal and left activists and advocates perpetuate racism is by the blatant manifestation of white privilege in our activities, issue framing, outreach and analysis: specifically, the favoring of white perspectives over those of people of color, the co-optation of black and brown suffering to score political points, and the unwillingness to engage race and racism even when they are central to the issue being addressed.

And fourth, left activists often marginalize people of color by operating from a framework of extreme class reductionism, which holds that the “real” issue is class, not race, that “the only color that matters is green,” and that issues like racism are mere “identity politics,” which should take a back seat to promoting class-based universalism and programs to help working people. This reductionism, by ignoring the way that even middle class and affluent people of color face racism and color-based discrimination (and by presuming that low income folks of color and low income whites are equally oppressed, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary) reinforces white denial, privileges white perspectivism and dismisses the lived reality of people of color. Even more, as we’ll see, it ignores perhaps the most important political lesson regarding the interplay of race and class: namely, that the biggest reason why there is so little working class consciousness and unity in the Untied States (and thus, why class-based programs to uplift all in need are so much weaker here than in the rest of the industrialized world), is precisely because of racism and the way that white racism has been deliberately inculcated among white working folks. Only by confronting that directly (rather than sidestepping it as class reductionists seek to do) can we ever hope to build cross-racial, class based coalitions. In other words, for the policies favored by the class reductionist to work — be they social democrats or Marxists — or even to come into being, racism and white supremacy must be challenged directly.

By way of all four of the above mechanisms — which we will now explore in-depth — liberals and progressives reinforce the notion that persons of color are less important, their concerns less central to the larger justice cause, and that ultimately they are to be viewed as inferior junior partners in the movement for social change.

Liberal Colorblindness and the Perpetuation of Racism
By “liberal colorblindness” I am referring to a belief that although racial disparities are certainly real and troubling — and although they are indeed the result of discrimination and unequal opportunity — paying less attention to color or race is a progressive and open-minded way to combat those disparities. So, for instance, this is the type of colorblind stance often evinced by teachers, or social workers, or folks who work in non-profit service agencies, or other “helping” professions. Its embodiment is the elementary school teacher who I seem to meet in every town to which I travel who insists “they never even notice color” and make sure to treat everyone exactly the same, as if this were the height of moral behavior and the ultimate in progressive educational pedagogy.

But in fact, colorblindness is exactly the opposite of what is needed to ensure justice and equity for persons of color. To be blind to color, as Julian Bond has noted, is to be blind to the consequences of color, “and especially the consequences of being the wrong color in America.” What’s more, when teachers and others resolve to ignore color, they not only make it harder to meet the needs of the persons of color with whom they personally interact, they actually help further racism and racial inequity by deepening denial that the problem exists, which in turn makes the problem harder to solve. To treat everyone the same — even assuming this were possible — is not progressive, especially when some are contending with barriers and obstacles not faced by others. If some are dealing with structural racism, to treat them the same as white folks who aren’t is to fail to meet their needs. The same is true with women and sexism, LGBT folks and heterosexism, working-class folks and the class system, persons with disabilities and ableism, right on down the line. Identity matters. It shapes our experiences. And to not recognize that is to increase the likelihood that even the well-intended will perpetuate the initial injury.

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Indeed, to be colorblind in the face of profound racial disparities can encourage the mindset that whatever disparities exist must be the fault of those on the bottom. As parents, for example, if we do not discuss racism and discrimination with our children — and white parents, including liberal ones, show a serious hesitance to do this — they will grow up without the critical context needed to process the glaring racial inequities they can see with their own eyes quite clearly. So, white children may well come to conclude that the reason blacks, Latinos, and American Indian folks are so much more likely to be poor, and live in “less desirable” neighborhoods or communities is because there is something wrong with them. They must not try hard enough to succeed. If colorblindness encourages us to ignore color and its consequences, as it must almost by definition, then we are left with explanations for inequity that are not only conservative in nature, but racist too. For children of color, colorblindness, no matter the liberality behind it, can lead them to be ill-prepared for discrimination when and if it occurs in their lives. It can also lead them to internalize the blame for the inequities they too can see, and to conclude that black and brown folks have less than whites, on average, because they deserve less. Although many liberal and progressive parents think colorblind child-rearing is the way to raise antiracist children, the best and most recent research on the matter completely debunks this popular notion.

Beyond the personal and familial settings, colorblindness also proves problematic in the realm of political activism. Within both liberal and further-left political advocacy and organizing, colorblindness leads persons in these formations to ignore the racial makeup of our own group efforts, and to pay no attention to how white-dominated they can often be. This colorblindness, by blinding us to the way in which liberal and left groups come to be so white (even when data says people of color tend to be more progressive than whites, and so, if anything, should be over-represented in these groups), makes it unlikely that individuals will interrogate what it is about their own practices that brings about such a skewed demographic. In short, while progressive formations should almost instinctively recoil from overwhelming whiteness — since it likely signals serious failings in coalition-building, strategy and tactics, as well as utter obliviousness to the way in which we’re going about our business and base-building — liberal-left colorblindness trades this critical introspection for a bland and dispassionate nonchalance. “Oh well,” some will say, “We put up signs and sent out e-mails, and we can’t control who comes to the meetings/rallies/protests and who doesn’t.” End of story, end of problem.

So in the case of progressive organizing, colorblindness means we’ll ignore the obvious questions we should be asking when trying to ensure a more representative and diverse movement for change. Namely, questions like: When are the organizing meetings being held and where? Are people of color in on the planning at the beginning, or merely added to the agenda after the fact, as speakers at the rally or some such thing? Are we organizing mostly online (which means we’ll miss a lot of folks of color who don’t have regular internet access), or really building relationships across physical lines of community? Are we speaking to the immediate concerns in communities of color, and linking these to whatever issue we’re organizing around (more on this below)?

Even cultural issues come into play. After all, if you’re trying to build a multiracial formation for social justice, or multiracial antiwar coalition, or movement for ecological sanity, you can’t evince a cultural style at every event that reflects what white folks may be comfortable with but which might seem distant to folks of color. So, for instance, to sing the same folk songs at a rally that you were singing forty years ago, or to come to an antiwar rally decked out in tie-dye, but not to include the music and styles of youth of color influenced by hip-hop, is to ensure the permanent marginality of your movement in the eyes of black and brown folks (and truthfully, young people of all colors). Put simply, freedom songs today are and must be different than in the sixties. But too often white-dominated liberal-left events and organizations resemble holdovers from an earlier time, rather than a movement that has grown to include multiple voices, styles and cultural norms. This is what happens when we don’t pay attention to, or care enough about, who is included and who isn’t at the table. It is the result, at least in part, of liberal-left colorblindness.

Liberal Colormuteness and the Perpetuation of Racism
But as troubling as colorblindness can be when evinced by liberals, colormuteness may be even worse. Colormuteness comes into play in the way many on the white liberal-left fail to give voice to the connections between a given issue about which they are passionate, and the issue of racism and racial inequity. So, for instance, when environmental activists focus on the harms of pollution to the planet in the abstract, or to non-human species, but largely ignore the day-to-day environmental issues facing people of color, like disproportionate exposure to lead paint, or municipal, medical and toxic waste, they marginalize black and brown folks within the movement, and in so doing, reinforce racial division and inequity. Likewise, when climate change activists focus on the ecological costs of global warming, but fail to discuss the way in which climate change disproportionately affects people of color around the globe, they undermine the ability of the green movement to gain strength, and they reinforce white privilege.

How many climate change activists, for instance, really connect the dots between global warming and racism? Even as people of color are twice as likely as whites to live in the congested communities that experience the most smog and toxic concentration thanks to fossil fuel use? Even as heat waves connected to climate change kill people of color at twice the rate of their white counterparts? Even as agricultural disruptions due to warming — caused disproportionately by the white west — cost African nations $600 billion annually? Even as the contribution to fossil fuel emissions by people of color is 20 percent below that of whites, on average? Sadly, these facts are typically subordinated within climate activism to simple “the world is ending” rhetoric, or predictions (accurate though they may be) that unless emissions are brought under control global warming will eventually kill millions. Fact is, warming is killing a lot of people now, and most of them are black and brown. To build a global movement to roll back the ecological catastrophe facing us, environmentalists and clean energy advocates must connect the dots between planetary destruction and the real lives being destroyed currently, which are disproportionately of color. To do anything less is not only to engage in a form of racist marginalizing of people of color and their concerns, but is to weaken the fight for survival.

The same is true for other issues, such as health care, where to ignore the specific racial aspects of the subject, as so many liberals and progressives do, is to further a form of colorblind racism. So, for instance, in the American health care debate, reform proponents typically focus on universal coverage alone, without addressing the way that even people of color with coverage receive inferior and often racist care, and the way that their experiences with racism (even if they have insurance) have health consequences that universal coverage cannot solve. To believe that universal coverage or even “single payer” could close racial health gaps between whites and people of color is to ignore the research on the primary causes of those gaps: research that says money and access are not the principal problems. In fact, to be blind to the importance of racism within the health care debate is to commit a huge strategic blunder as well. After all, research suggests that one of the principal reasons that the United States has such a paltry social safety net (including less comprehensive health care guarantees than those in other western industrialized nations) is because of a common belief that “those people” (meaning people of color) will take unfair advantage of such programs. So to not connect the dots between the nation’s broken health care system and racism is to miss one of the main reasons we’re in such a position in the first place!

Blatant White Privilege and Perspectivism on the Left
But more disturbing than either liberal-left colorblindness or colormuteness is the manifestation of blatant white privilege by those who claim to be progressive. Whereas colorblindness and colormuteness on the left stem largely from ignorance on the part of otherwise well-intended persons, this final aspect of liberal-left racism is far more pernicious, because it is so often assaultive and the result of seemingly deliberate indifference to people of color.

Perhaps the classic example of how liberal-left activists can manifest white privilege is that of the white-dominated women’s movement. Although women of color have long engaged in feminist theorizing, activism and advocacy, the predominant strain of American feminism — and that which has been largely responsible for setting the political agenda for women’s issues for the past five decades — has been disproportionately white. As such, the way in which that part of the movement framed issues, and made their case to an oftentimes hostile public, reflected first and foremost the concerns of white (and, it should be noted, middle-class) women. Thus, to frame the fight for women’s liberation as a fight for the right to a career and to break free from the chains of domesticity (as was so central to the early feminist writings of women like Betty Friedan), presupposed that women were not currently working outside the home. But of course, most women of color in the United States had always worked outside the home (as well as in it) and so the struggle as articulated in books like The Feminine Mystique was implicitly white, and of little value to women of color whose lived realities were different. Even the notion of “sisterhood” so central to Second-Wave white feminism was largely exclusionary to women of color, who readily pointed out (and still do) how racism and white privilege limit the extent to which they have been treated as true sisters, or heard as members of the larger community of women.

Likewise, in the struggle over reproductive freedom and choice, liberal white feminists have often been quicker to support women who seek to terminate pregnancies than to support women who are having their ability to choose motherhood restricted: women who are disproportionately of color. So when thousands of black and Native American women were being involuntarily sterilized throughout the 20th century (right up until the 1970s) — as discussed by Thomas Shapiro in his 1985 book, Population Control Politics, and Harriet Washington in her 2006 award-winning volume, Medical Apartheid — few in the white feminist community made the restriction of their reproductive freedom a central issue. Likewise, in 1991 when neo-Nazi (and state legislator) David Duke proposed bribing women on welfare to use NORPLANT contraceptive inserts as a way to control their fertility — and this he did, of course, for blatantly racist reasons, as his anti-welfare rhetoric made clear — Louisiana’s largest and most mainstream liberal pro-choice coalition (an affiliate of NARAL) refused to take a public stand against the proposed legislation (2).

By disregarding the lived realities of people of color in this way, liberal-left activists elevate a destructive white perspectivism to the level of unquestioned and unassailable universal truth, and reinscribe the concerns of whites as those of paramount importance. The same phenomenon can be observed in a range of liberal-left movements and issue causes. Among these one would have to again consider the environmental movement, in which large numbers of otherwise liberal types in the Sierra Club have for years been pushing blatantly xenophobic and racist resolutions against immigration from south of the United States border. Or, in the case of the New Orleans area Sierra Club, extending a “legislative leadership” award to the St. Bernard Parish President — so as to honor him for his work on wetlands restoration — even as he was also one of the main proponents of a “blood relative renter law” passed after Katrina, which would have made it almost impossible for blacks to return to the Parish and rent there. In fact, the Parish President even went to court to defend the law — which would have barred renting property to anyone who wasn’t a blood relative in this 95% white Parish — despite its obvious racist intent. But to the white Sierra Club leadership, his racism was unimportant. What mattered was his record on wetlands alone.

Or consider animal rights activists, especially the folks at PETA, who seem to go out of their way to appropriate the suffering of racialized minorities (as with their infamous “Holocaust on Your Plate,” and “Are Animals the New Slaves?” campaigns, the latter of which compared factory farming to the lynching of blacks). While trying to make a perfectly legitimate point about the way that cruelty to non-human animals contributes to an ethic of exploitation that is connected to cruelty to humans, such efforts disregard or minimize the suffering of racialized minorities, exploit that suffering to score cheap emotional points, and do all of this with little or no regard for the strategic wisdom of alienating millions of people deliberately. After all, to say (as PETA chief Ingrid Newkirk has) that “At least the Nazis didn’t eat the objects of their derision” as a way to convince people of the wisdom of vegetarianism, suggests not only a level of indecency and a lack of perspective that is disturbing, but more to the point, a strategic incompetence so mind-boggling as to defy rational description.

Or consider the struggle for LGBT rights and equality. Historically, the role of people of color in the movement and LGBT community has been largely ignored, and the struggle for queer liberation has been considerably whitewashed. From the whitening of the Stonewall Riots — considered the first salvo in the gay lib movement, in which Puerto Rican drag queens like Sylvia Rivera played a central role, although mainstream white liberal remembrances of the event often obscure this fact — to the current focus on marriage equality, activists within the LGBT community have presented a largely white face for the movement. The celebrities who front the movement are white, the publications and media that are used to define the community to the larger society are white and affluent in orientation, and the desire of much of the LGBT activist community to present an image of normalcy (as in, “we’re just like straight folks”) is based on a white middle class understanding of what constitutes normal.

While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folks of color have long spoken out against their marginalization within the larger movement for queer liberation, the conflict between whites and people of color in the movement has been elevated even more so during the fight for marriage equality. After the passage of Proposition 8 in California — which banned gay marriage — many within the white LGBT community blamed blacks for the outcome. Although black support for the measure was higher than that for whites, early reports of 70 percent approval in the African American community were dramatically inflated and based on a small number of precincts. And since blacks only comprise a small share of the electorate in California, to blame the black community for the outcome is to ignore the much larger overall role played by whites in the election.

But despite these facts, liberal LGBT activists and writers like Dan Savage, and the leading gay publication, The Advocate, played upon blatant racial imagery in their post-Prop 8 discussions. The Advocate actually ran a cover story announcing that “Gay Is the New Black,” and Savage, for his part, launched into a thinly veiled racist tirade, in which he insisted that black homophobia was a far greater threat to gays and lesbians (presumably white ones, since he showed no recognition of the double-bind identity of queer folks of color), than white LGBT racism was to the black and brown. That the Advocate would float such an idea signaled the inherent whiteness of the publication’s perspective. To suggest that gay might be the “new black” ignored the fact that for millions of LGBT black folks, black had never stopped being an oppressed identity, and there was nothing at all “new” about their marginalization. As Maurice Tracy explained in his comprehensive takedown of the “Gay is the New Black” meme, “Gay can never be the new black because first and foremost this phrase does not acknowledge the fact that there are those of us who are already gay AND black. We live within the margins, not because we choose to but because society places us there.” And as for blaming the black community for the result on Prop 8, Tracy noted, “people who attended church regularly, regardless of race, were the ones who overwhelmingly supported Prop. 8. Therefore, what we have here is not a case of ‘black homophobia’ but religious homophobia. ‘Black culture’ therefore became an easy target for the lazy individual. The fact is that black culture is homophobic because America is homophobic.”

Given the almost non-existent outreach to the black community by the “No H8″ campaign — and the way in which the campaign relied on white celebrities and entertainers to make the public case for them — it is hardly surprising that African Americans may have come to see the LGBT struggle in California as a white one, divorced from their day-to-day concerns. But that is not the fault of people of color. Rather, the responsibility for this unhappy outcome rests almost entirely with the white-dominated LGBT movement, whose principal organizations (like the Human Rights Campaign) have only nominal people of color involvement at the top levels of policy and decision making. As L.Z. Granderson noted in his rebuttal to the “Gay is the New Black” notion, at the 2008 HRC national fundraiser in D.C., the only black people who appeared on the stage in the entire three hour program were there as entertainers. Even the way in which mainstream male “gayness” has been constructed in the mass media (with the open collaboration of persons within the gay community), as a compendium of “fabulousness,” materialism, fashion, and a unique ability to design one’s home interior (or get favorable coverage and shout-outs on the Bravo Network), alienates those who for reasons of race (and class status) have been left out of the reigning imagery of what constitutes ‘gay chic.’

Other examples of liberal-left marginalizing of folks of colors’ concerns — and thus, people of color themselves — include the way many progressives seek to consciously downplay the role of race and racism in particular political struggles, even when such matters are central to the issue at hand.

For instance, during the mid-1990s debate over welfare reform, mainstream liberals and progressive policy advocates often engaged the assault on poor folks without discussing the blatantly racist component of the anti-welfare hysteria that had, by that point, gripped the nation for several decades. At a national conference organized by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — in which progressive messaging around budget, tax and welfare issues was being plotted and planned — white liberals at the upper echelons of the organization resisted any discussion of racism as a central motivator for the conservative attack, or using anti-racist organizing strategies as a mechanism of resistance. When the subject was raised, by myself and several others (all of us, interestingly, southerners), the response was dismissive. We were assured that bringing up racism was a sure-fire way to lose the fight. We had to stick to debunking common anti-welfare myths and appealing to white people. Bringing up racism would only distract from that goal, we were told, and provoke more backlash. The needs and interests of whites were what mattered.

Not only did the strategy of course fail, but in refusing to openly engage racism, progressive activists forfeited the opportunity to build coalitions across lines of race and class: coalitions that may have proven empowering in years to come. And by allowing welfare critics to avoid being confronted by the racism that was so inherent to their position, liberal organizations allowed those critics to remain behind a veil of innocence and denial that, if anything, strengthened their resolve. As I discuss in my newest book, Colorblind, evidence from the field of psychology suggests it is better to openly confront racism and call it out — even at the risk of causing short-term backlash and anger — as doing so forces those being called out to contemplate their real motivations, and occasionally to rethink their positions, once confronted with the possibility that those motivations are less pure than they had imagined. When racism is allowed to remain sublimated and subtle, and isn’t called out directly, it is actually more capable of controlling individual and collective behavior.

The same problem emerged in the mid-to-late 90s in California and Washington State, when white-dominated liberal activists and campaigners were trying to save affirmative action from ballot initiatives that sought to eliminate it. In both cases, despite the obvious centrality of white racial resentment to the issue, organizers avoided discussing racism, either as a motivator for the anti-affirmative action movement, or even as a reason for why affirmative action was still needed and should be defended. Rather, they chose to focus on the impact to women as women (and especially white women) if affirmative action were ended. Believing — against all evidence to the contrary — that this self-interest focus and colorblind approach would be the best way to convince whites to oppose the initiatives, these activists marginalized the concerns of people of color, privileged white interests and narratives, and weakened what could otherwise have been long-term cross-racial coalitions. The strategy not only failed but furthered white privilege and racism within the liberal community and drove wedges between forces that should have and could have been working together.

Class-Based Reductionism on the Left
Perhaps the most common way in which folks on the left sometimes perpetuate racism is by a vulgar form of class reductionism, in which they advance the notion that racism is a secondary issue to the class system, and that what leftists and radicals should be doing is spending more time focusing on the fight for dramatic and transformative economic change (whether reformist or revolutionary), rather than engaging in what they derisively term “identity politics.” The problem, say these voices, are corporations, the rich, the elite, etc., and to get sidetracked into a discussion of white supremacy is to ignore this fact and weaken the movement for radical change.

But in fact, racism affects the lives of people of color quite apart from the class system. Black and brown folks who are not poor or working class — indeed those who are upper middle class and affluent — are still subjected to discrimination regularly, whether in the housing market, on the part of police, in schools, in the health care delivery system and on the job. True enough, these better-off folks of color may be more economically stable that their poor white counterparts, but in the class system they compete for stuff against whites in the same economic strata: a competition in which they operate at a decided and unfair disadvantage. So too, poor and working class whites, though they suffer the indignities of the class system, still have decided advantages over poor and working class people of color: their spells of unemployment are typically far shorter, their ability to find affordable and decent housing is far greater, and they are less likely to find themselves in resource-poor schools than even blacks and Latinos in middle class families. In fact, lower income whites are more likely to own their own home than middle class blacks, and most poor whites in the U.S. do not live in poor neighborhoods — rather they are mostly to be found in middle class communities where opportunities are far greater — whereas most poor people of color are surrounded by concentrated poverty. And black folks with college degrees, professional occupational status and health insurance coverage actually have worse health outcomes than white dropouts, with low income and low-level if any medical care, thanks to racism in health care delivery and black experiences with racism, which have uniquely debilitating health affects at all income levels.

To ignore the unique deprivations of racism (as with sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc) so as to forward a white-friendly class analysis is inherently marginalizing to the lived experience of black and brown folks in the United States. And what’s more, to ignore racism is to actually weaken the struggle for class unity and economic transformation. Research on this matter is crystal clear: it is in large measure due to racism — and the desire of working class whites to maintain a sense of superiority over workers of color, as a “psychological wage” when real wages and benefits have proven inadequate — that has divided the working class. It is this holding onto the status conferred by whiteness, as a form of “alternate property” (to paraphrase UCLA Law Professor, Cheryl Harris), which has undermined the ability of white and of-color working people to engage in solidarity across racial lines. Unless we discuss the way in which racism and racial inequity weakens our bonds of attachment, we will never be able to forward a truly progressive, let alone radical politics.

In other words, unless all of our organizing becomes antiracist in terms of outreach, messaging, strategizing, and implementation, whatever work we’re doing, around whatever important issue, will be for naught. Only by building coalitions that look inward at the way racism and white privilege may be operating within those formations, and that also look outward, at the way racism and privilege affect the issue around which we’re organizing (be that schools, health care, jobs, tax equity, the environment, LGBT rights, reproductive freedom, militarism or anything else), can we hope to beat back the forces of reaction against which we find ourselves arrayed. The other side has proven itself ready and willing to use racism to divide us. In response, we must commit to using antiracism as a force to unite.

  • (1) The New Deal, far from being a comprehensive justice initiative (the mainstream white liberal interpretation) was a highly racially-restricted set of policies and programs. President Roosevelt agreed to restrict most all African Americans from Social Security, by capitulating to southern segregationist demands that domestic workers and agricultural laborers be exempted from the program. Likewise, underwriting criteria in the FHA loan program guaranteed that almost none of the housing being underwritten by preferential government loans would go to black homeowners.
  • (2) I witnessed this refusal to engage on Duke’s NORPLANT bill personally. At the time, one of my activist jobs was as a campus co-coordinator in New Orleans, for a New York-based reproductive freedom coalition. More radical in orientation than the mainstream groups in the city and state (especially the NARAL-affiliated group), my colleague at the time, Anneliese Singh, and I tried to convince the older, whiter groups to join us in publicly condemning the sterilization initiative. Our entreaties were completely ignored, and indeed, Louisiana Choice took no stand on the matter, even though Duke sought to limit the “choice” of poor women (especially of color) to have children.

This is the second part of a two-part series on racism on the right and left of the United States’ political/ideological spectrum. Part one, which can be found here, provided the reader with a working definition of racism, and then explored how racism at both the ideological and institutional levels is connected to and enhanced by American conservatism. In this essay, I will explore the other side of the equation: namely, how even liberals, progressives and leftists, despite our advocacy for equity and stated commitment to racial justice, still manage to manifest and further racism — whether deliberately or not — in our activism, messages and policy prescriptions.


Tim Wise

Tim Wise is one of the most respected anti-racist writers and educators in the U.S., having spoken in 48 states and on over 400 college campuses. He has trained teachers, as well as corporate, government, media, and law enforcement officials on methods for dismantling institutional racism, and has contributed essays to 20 books. He is the author of Tim White on : White Privilige, White Like Me, Reflections on Race from a Priviledged Son, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Tim's books, essays, special reports, DVDs and bio can be found
Article republished with permission.