December 14, 2009
Tim Wise knows how to captivate a crowd. For years, he’s traveled the country giving audiences scathingly critical talks on white privilege. Catch clips of them on YouTube, and you can see what’s so captivating about him: he’s a white man with a no-holds-barred approach to talking about race, one who speaks with the command of a Southern preacher and the conviction of a man who’s frustrated that the rest of the world isn’t up on his game yet.
So it wasn’t surprising when Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (City Lights Publishers) was published soon after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. If there was anyone who could make a public argument against the idea of a post racial society, Wise could.
And he does. In a slim, 150-page volume, Wise outlines—exhaustingly, in places—how racism and white privilege have morphed to fit the modern social landscape. In prose that reads like his lightening rod speeches, he draws from a long list of high-profile campaign examples to define what he calls “Racism 2.0,” a more insidious form of racism that actually allows for and celebrates the achievements of individual people of color because they’re seen as the exceptions, not the rules.
Gone are the days of lynch mobs of the 20s and political assassinations of the 60s. There may be a few remaining examples of blatant racial hatred, namely Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck. But these hate-mongers are antiquated and largely frowned upon by seemingly well-intentioned white folks who vote Democrat, listen to Mos Def, and love folks of color, at least those who fit into the comfortable confines of white achievement.
And it’s those sorts of white people Wise is trying to reach the most, which is why Wise’s book doesn’t work for everyone. For some people—especially folks of color—who don’t need to be reminded that racism is alive and well, parts of the book get downright cumbersome. In fact, the first half is spent explaining in every way imaginable that racism is alive and well, only that it’s been morphed into a version that works handy with a Black man at the helm.
This point belies the purpose of the book. It’s a call-to-action for white folks to do more than show up at the polls for a Black candidate. The book’s second portion, aptly titled “The Audacity of Truth: A Call for White Responsibility” is undeniably its strongest. The chapter is devoted exclusively to telling white folks not just that they need to recognize their privilege, and even demonstrates exactly how they can do it: listen to the stories of people of color, and take the responsibility of talking to one another about race.
So as the country gets ready to mark the end of Obama’s first year in office, Wise’s book is a good historical marker for the anxieties of the period.
Jamilah King is the associate editor of Wiretap magazine.