Anti-racism activist Tim Wise joked that he was on his third visit to the University of Akron campus in the past 15 years and was pleased to see the audience increase each time.
Wise, 45, opened the evening by taking note of his privilege as a middle-class, college-educated, heterosexual white man. “I’m here because I fit the aesthetic for what’s necessary for white people to talk about racism in America,” he boomed. “People of color get up and say it all the time, but they get ignored. The real measure of post-racial America is when a black person can stand here and receive the same reception I do.”
Acknowledging his privilege is the cornerstone of Wise’s career. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, he received his B.A. from Tulane University, where he led an anti-apartheid student group. In the early 1990s, he moved south to become a coordinator for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, whose mission was to extinguish the political future of white supremacist, David Duke. Wise moved on to community organizing in New Orleans’ public housing, and to work as a policy analyst for a children’s advocacy group.
His 2005 memoir, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, still sells briskly. It also still fuels debate on the soundness of a white man’s prominence in the anti-racism movement, endorsements by Angela Davis and Cornel West notwithstanding. And White’s public speaking habit of shifting into “white” voice to contrast with his “black” voice can be cringe-inducing.
Still, if there were critics tucked into the Akron crowd of 500 at E.J. Thomas Hall, they stayed quiet. Several African-Americans nodded vigorously as Wise laid out his points. “You can’t solve social problems with silence,” he argued. “I invite white folks to have the difficult conversations.”
Structural inequity should bother everyone, Wise said, and as the country’s demographics shift toward majority-minority, equality is more important than ever. “What binds us as Americans?” Wise asked the crowd. “It’s the myth of meritocracy — that anyone can make it if you try hard enough.”
Wise argued that this simplistic dogma ignores reality. “Here’s one fact for you: 500 white people in this country have the same accumulated wealth as 41 million black people,” Wise said. The crowd fell silent. “If you think that’s because those 500 people just somehow worked harder…no amount of education will help you.”
Wise swiveled his focus to a 1963 Gallup poll, when two-thirds of white Americans believed that blacks had equal opportunity for fair housing, education and employment, even as the civil rights movement was bubbling to a fever pitch.
Wise didn’t hesitate in calling such respondents out. “They were delusional,” he said, voice rising. “But there wasn’t any penalty for being ignorant of black and brown issues. It’s not on the test. Whatever white folks think is important, black people have to learn that. That will damn sure be on the test. White folks write the test. That’s the luxury of being the norm.”