If there was one message that author and anti-racism activist Tim Wise wanted to leave with his near-capacity audience in Packard Auditorium, it was that it doesn’t matter who made the mess—it’s still everyone’s problem.
Wise, who was on campus in late January to deliver the keynote address at Lehigh’s Martin Luther King celebration, illustrated his point by recalling his time as a student at Tulane University, where he shared a residence with nine other people. As the stench of uneaten food wafted through the communal residence day after day, it quickly became apparent that it ultimately didn’t matter who was “the author of this unpleasantness” if it affected the quality of life the students shared.
“The same is true of our society,” he said. “The same is true of racism, whether we contributed to it or not. We still all have to live with the mess it creates.”
Wise, the author of five books—including White Like Me and Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama—said he was amused by those who didn’t want to acknowledge entrenched, systemic racism, or the role it plays in continued inequality and divisiveness. “They say, ‘We don’t want to wallow in the past. We want to concentrate on today.’ Well, those who don’t want to live in the past might not want to call themselves the ‘Tea Party,’” Wise said.
The past, he said, cannot be ignored. The allocation of resources, monetary policies, civil rights policies and legislation, and governmental programs are all factors that contribute to continued inequality, whether it is acknowledged by most of society or not, he said.
'We are far from post-racial in this country'
Consider the recent economic scandals, Wise said. “A handful of the smartest, more accomplished men on Wall Street took 20 percent of the wealth of this country—nearly $12 trillion. We were wiped out because of the machinations of a handful of rich white dudes. And yet we’re still more afraid of a black man wearing a hoodie crossing the street, like he’s the greatest threat to us. Can you imagine how long it would take street thugs to rob you of $12 trillion?”
The wealthy, he said, are not in positions of privilege because they are intellectually superior or possessed of a stronger work ethic or higher moral principles.
“There is only one reason: A system of racism that people want to ignore,” he said. “And that’s something to think about when people rage about wanting to ‘take their country back.’ You know what that really means. That means they want to take it back from an African-American man who is president.”
But even President Barack Obama, for all the vitriol he attracts, continues to deliver sunny and inspiring rhetoric about equality that bears no resemblance to the truth, Wise said.
“What does it tell you about our society,” he asked, “that a man as intelligent and erudite and well-versed as Barack Obama has to lie like this to have a political career? That’s all the evidence we need to know we are far from post-racial in this country.”
He implored this audience to live the legacy King left. “Speak truth. Fight inequality. Care about injustice. If you ignore it because it doesn’t affect you, just give it awhile.”