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We Live in a White Supremacist Apartheid System: Tim Wise addresses racism at Grand Rapids forum

February 25, 2012

Yesterday, the Partners for a Racism-free Community (PRFC) held their annual conference on racism in Grand Rapids.

PRFC, formerly known as the Racial Justice Institute, is a faith-based entity that seeks to educate the community on racism and diversity and seek solutions to make Grand Rapids a racism free community.

The keynote speaker for this year’s forum was nationally known anti-racist author and activist Tim Wise. Wise became an anti-racism organizer while in college in the 1980s and working on the campaign to end racial apartheid in South Africa. Wise has written numerous books on the topic of racism and White privilege, the most recent being Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority.

Wise began his talk by addressing the importance of having a collective conversation about race and racism. He stated that it is a difficult discussion, particularly for racial minorities, who often, after talking about their experiences of being discriminated against, are easily dismissed or marginalized by White people.

Wise then goes on to say that for White people, the difficulty of having these conversations in the presence of people of color is that they will worry that their comments will be misunderstood. Thus, many White people will become silent for fear of saying the wrong thing. This silence, Wise says, will only affirm to people of color that White people have something to hide about racism.

Wise then made it clear that in the next 25 – 30 years White people will no longer people the majority. This means that as a future minority White people might want to start changing their attitudes about racism, particularly institutional racism.

The next point that Wise wanted to make was that just because we have a person of color in the White House, it does not mean that the condition of the vast majority of people of color has improved in any meaningful way.

Wise then made some cracks about the Tea Party, which got a loud applause from the audience. However, Wise went on to say that Liberal and Progressive sectors of this country are equally unwilling to seriously confront the problem of racism in the US.

In fact, Wise went on to say that Barack Obama is even unwilling to address the problem of racism in the US. He even cited a comment from Obama in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech where he said, “there are no Black Americans or White Americans, nor Latino Americans, only Americans.”

Wise called this a blatant lie by Obama and a lie that the then Senator from Illinois was well aware of. Wise says that just a few months before that 2004 speech there was a report from MIT that demonstrated serious job discrimination across the country. A few months after the speech the Justice Department came out with a report on the disparity of racial profiling by law enforcement, where people of color are pulled over 3 to 4 times more often than White people.

He went on to point out that the War on Drugs is not about drugs, it is about race. This is another issue that Obama will not address, even as the President of the United States.

Wise then went on to address the current economic crisis and said that we have all been led to believe that the Wall Street financial collapse was not about race. Wise said that every major financial institution implicated in the Wall Street crash was White, but we are supposed to believe that race had nothing to do with it? He said, “imagine if those people were Black. Do you think that their ethnicity would have been a topic of conversation?” Wise said it wasn’t a topic of conversation for White people because we live in denial about racism and have so much privilege that it prevents us from having that kind of lens in which to view the world.

White Denial, however, is not a new thing, according to Wise. In 1962 a Gallop Poll, it showed that 2 out of 3 White people said that Blacks had just as many opportunities as White people did. White folks thought so because they do not have to know anything about the lived experience of Black and Brown people. In fact, Wise said the same thing is true in 2012.

Then Wise went on to name the kind of system that we live in today. He said, “we live in a White Supremacist Apartheid system and that this is the kind of phrase that we need to use when talking about this country if we are serious about the problem.”

During the Q & A Wise further articulated this point about a White Supremacist Apartheid System when addressing the issue of White being a racial minority in the US within the next generation. He did not mean that just because Whites will not make up a majority of the population they will stop holding power. Wise pointed out that during the height of South African Apartheid, Whites comprised of only 6% of the population. The White power structure will remain even if Whites are a minority in terms of numbers.

Wise also addressed the issues of meritocracy and objective inequality in the US. For example, the unemployment numbers in the US are astronomical, in part because of the economic crisis. Wise made it clear that we cannot overcome the economic crisis without coming to terms with the racial disparity within this crisis. For instance, we have double-digit unemployment for Whites, so now it is a topic. But people of color have had double-digit unemployment for decades. Again, privilege doesn’t let us see what we don’t want to see.

By way of wrapping up his talk Wise talked about the need for White people to give up privilege. However, he said that giving up privilege will be costly, but if we are serious about justice and solidarity it is absolutely necessary for White people to give up their privilege.

Racism in Grand Rapids

Besides the lecture by Wise, there were opportunities in the afternoon to go to breakout sessions. The session that this writer attended dealt with what Wise had to say and what it means for Grand Rapids.

About 60 people attended this session and on many levels it was quite instructive. First, virtually every person of color spoke about the harm they and their family members have experienced in Grand Rapids from racism. People talked about how their kids are treated in school, how the police engage in racial profiling, how the lack of opportunities and discriminatory practices from landlords, employers and teachers makes them not want to stay in town. In fact, one Black women said that when she finished a grant funded job she has right now she will leave Grand Rapids.

Another thread that was addressed had to do with what one woman called “Grand Rapids nice.” This notion of people be nice is really just another form of patrimony and it is a shallow way of dealing with the deeply rooted and institutional forms of racism. One woman summed it up well when she said, “Grand Rapids does charity real well, but not justice.”

I stated during this conversation that we did have a White Supremacist Apartheid system in Grand Rapids and that until we are willing to acknowledge this we cannot seriously address racism. Another person made the comment that there is a power structure that perpetuates racial and economic injustice and what we really need is a redistribution of wealth.

This breakout session clearly demonstrated that racism is deeply entrenched in this community. However, the facilitators did not lead people to a point of discussing concrete actions aside from the existing opportunities with PRFC, none of which really address institutional racism.

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