Most people don't like to talk about racism.
Fortunately, for those gathered in the Forum for Student Activity period this week (Wednesday, Feb. 22), Tim Wise does. In fact, the prolific author and activist has made talking about racism his life's work, which he does with a missionary's zeal.
"I think this is the moment in history when we need to be talking about race and racism more than ever," he said. "The reality is that in 25 to 30 years, half the country will be folks of color and half will be white, and that's a fact. Yet, we're being told we shouldn't have this conversation."
Racism is a topic that upsets people of all races, said Wise, who is himself white. People of color fear their concerns will be dismissed and they will be marginalized. White people don't want to talk about racism because they are afraid they are going to say something wrong and be accused of being racist.
"There's a third body of research that says, when folks shut down, the more we refuse to talk, the more we reinforce whatever divisions and suspicions that already exist," Wise said.
With a rapid-fire and entertaining delivery, Wise, the author of books including Dear White America, White Like Me, Color-Blind and Between Barack and a Hard Place, talked seamlessly for an hour and a half to an enthusiastic crowd, delving into the racial implications of subjects such as the Wall Street financial crisis, housing crisis and the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
"What's frightening," he said, "is that Americans have never wanted to talk about this. You go back to the 1960s, when the country was a nation of white supremacy, before civil rights laws, white folks didn't think we had a problem."
He noted that research at the time shows that 85 percent of white Americans in 1962 believed people of color had equal opportunities for employment and education in their neighborhoods. He called his perception "borderline mass racial delusion."
He said America is so white biased we expect people of color to be "competent" in white culture but the reverse is not true. Teachers, physicians ands police officers who work in minority, inner-city neighborhoods don't need to know anything about the culture of the people they are expected to serve. We have black studies, black literature, black art, black history, he said. "For white America, we just call it literature, theater, art . . . it's the norm. This is why we don't have White History Month. We have several. We call them May, June, July . . . "
Wise said he gets angry email from people who criticize him for dwelling in the past. They say that the election of President Barack Obama signaled the end of racism in America, as if "just because a man of color was elected to the highest office somehow signifies that all other people of color have equal opportunities."
He noted Obama's breakthrough moment at the 2004 Democratic National Committee when he gave a speech with the famous line: "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America-there's the United States of America."
"Everyone went all noodley and the applause went on and on," Wise said, but the statement was not true. "So how could this obviously intelligent man say something he must have known was a lie?"
Wise said even Obama, the president of the United States, can't talk openly about racism, because the issue is too politically incendiary, and he depends on white votes.
The Wall Street financial crisis, he notes, was caused by rich, white men moving money around using vehicles most people don't understand called derivatives and hedge funds. These rich, white men wiped out $12 trillion of wealth. "People say, isn't that a racist thing to say? Can you imagine black people losing $12 trillion of white people's money? That would have been a racial discussion. We're still more afraid of a black man wearing a hoodie crossing the street than a white man driving a Lexus."
Wise said predatory lending practices were common practices in minority communities long before the current housing crisis. But it was only when it started affecting white communities that America began to pay attention.
The economic pain the country is facing is only relevant now because white people are experiencing it, he said. Double-digit unemployment has been common among blacks and Latinos for years. "It's been 75 years, since the Great Depression, since white people were facing so much economic insecurity," Wise said.
The lesson America should be learning is that indifference to inequality ultimately winds up affecting everyone.
"Twenty-five, 30 years from now," he said, "when half the country will be people of color, if we haven't figure it out by then, then we're going to be having the same conversation. The risk of utter catastrophe is real, so we have to start taking this issue seriously."
Photos: (Left) Tim Wise talks about racism at HCC. (Right) Wise signs books after his talk.
Editor's Note: This is an edited version of the story that was originally posted. Due to a reporting and writing error, the original version of this story contained an alternate term for "people of color" that should not have been used and was misattributed to the speaker, Tim Wise. We apologize to anyone who was offended and to Mr. Wise. Below is a short commentary from Tim Wise on the term "colored people."
"I would never use "colored people" no ... first because it was the term used by whites during segregation to refer to blacks, so it is connected to a time of overt racial terror and denigration, and secondly because people of color as a term was created and popularized by such persons, rather than placed upon them by the outside, whereas colored people was a white created phrase."
"Also, "people of color" to me seems better because it begins with the fact of personhood, which is the fundamental element of fighting racism -- recognizing a person's humanity -- rather than the fact of color. To say colored people is almost to suggest that the color is prior to the personhood when indeed it is the opposite."