Speaker Explores Systemic Roots of Racism

Author, educator Tim Wise speaks to large gathering in McGaw Chapel

5 November, 2013 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Efforts to eradicate racism in America through catchy slogans or swank diversity programs, while often well-intended, fall far short of their intended goal — and may be counterproductive.

That argument formed the crux of anti-racism advocate Tim Wise’s thesis in his address to a captive crowd of students, faculty, staff, and visitors Tuesday night in McGaw Chapel. The lecture, sponsored by The College of Wooster’s Center for Diversity and Global Engagement, Human Resources, the Department of Africana Studies, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the Office of the President, was the final event associated with the Wooster Forum’s semester-long examination of the topic of race.

“Within 30 years, this country will be half white and half people of color, said Wise. “If we don’t find a way to create better equity, we will not survive as a people. We have to be prepared to engage this fact. It’s fine to disagree and debate, but we can’t act like it doesn’t matter.”

Wise’s engaging delivery and sobering message mixed wit and sarcasm with facts and figures and left members of the audience with plenty to contemplate.

“Diversity is not sufficient for equity and justice,” he said. “It puts the pressure on ‘them’ (people of color) to be part of ‘our’ thing. It’s like saying, ‘you can be a part of it, but don’t think about changing it.’”

Wise argued that the problem is systemic and structured, largely because of ignorance. “Most people want to do the right thing, but even good people can miss the essence of systemic injustice,” he said, citing a poll from 1963 that at the height of the Civil Rights movement, a majority of Americans still believed that people of color were treated fairly and equitably. “If you are a member of a dominant group in this or any society, you can be oblivious to the structure in place.”

He poked fun at cultural norms and mission statements, including those of colleges and universities, suggesting that in some ways they mask historical patterns of racism and exclusion, thereby perpetuating them. He also criticized the diversity paradigm, saying that it places too much emphasis on the numbers and not enough on the culture. “You can have diversity and not have equity,” he said. “Students of color are still far less likely to be placed in honors classes and much more likely to be disciplined more harshly in response to their misbehavior.”

Wise went on to cite inequities in the area of employment. “African Americans with a college degree are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as whites,” he said. “Not only that, but white men between the ages of 25-29 have median annual incomes higher than black men between the ages of 50-59. That’s 25 years of inequality.”

Clearly, ongoing structural/systemic racism continues to be pervasive, both in the United States and around the world, and the “Good ole Boy Network” still appears to be alive and well. “A recent study indicated that half of all new jobs are being filled by people who received recommendations from people who work in that company or organization,” said Wise. “The opportunity structure is skewed on the basis of an individual’s connections, most of whom are white.”

Wise broadened his message and took aim at all forms of bias, including that which is based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even disability. “The point is that we have structures of inequality in our society that remain in place,” he said. “We’ve been conditioned to have sub-conscious racial, ethnic, religious, and gender bias.”

In an effort to bring the problem closer to home, Wise echoed the introductory remarks of Wooster President Grant Cornwell when he challenged and encouraged the students. “This college does not exist to help you get a job, or get you into grad school,” he said. “This school exists to make you citizens of this world – lifelong learners in a global environment. This institution is trying to create a community that works in solidarity, but you all are the ones who need to work this out.”

Wise concluded his talk with a story from his early post-college days when he lived in a large house with nine other people. One day he came home to a simmering pot of seafood gumbo on the stove in the kitchen that smelled delicious. Unfortunately, he had already eaten, so he did not partake. The gumbo sat on the stove for several days, sending stench throughout the house that literally woke him up one morning. Angry and intent of finding someone to blame he stomped down to the kitchen, only to discover that no one else was there to take care of it. That led Wise to the realization that whether it’s as trivial as a mess in the kitchen or as serious as bigotry in society, “it won’t get cleaned up until we first decide to take action.”