Combating Racism in America

Madeline Hawke '11
March 16, 2009
Tim Wise speaks to a Berklee audience about the racial barriers that still exist today.
Photo by Kevin Johnson

"Racism is over," Tim Wise proclaimed.

He was alluding to the theory that the election of our first African American president signifies the end of racism in America, giving cause for us to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Though Wise—an anti-racism activist and author of Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama—began his lecture with this pointed sarcasm, he went on to list the social disparities that still exist between white and black people in America. It's amazing, he noted with irony, that these inequalities must have automatically disappeared on November 4, 2008. 

In his thought-provoking lecture, Wise held no punches, speaking seriously and honestly of the racial barriers and problems that many people of color are forced to overcome every day in what some have called a "post-racial" era. Talking predominantly about the recent presidential election, he addressed questions such as how America can still be racist with a black president. He also alluded to common media references about how Barack Obama "transcends blackness," as though being a person of African American descent was something to transcend rather than to embody and of which to be proud.

Wise warned that Obama's election should not be viewed as a cure for racism. Obama, for whom Wise showed great respect and sees as a positive role model for young Americans, is still an exception rather than a rule, he said. "We cannot place a larger social truth based on individual accomplishment," Wise said.

As further evidence that racism is not, in fact, over, Wise pointed out that he has experienced a better platform as a white man—with "white privilege," as he put it—talking about racism's continuing impact than people of color, who speak about this issue frequently, "probably 50 times this week on this block alone."

To debunk the myth that "if one man can do it, anyone can," Wise noted that Obama had 18 months to two years to vie for the job of president and demonstrate his competence. The bad news, he said, is that most Americans have about 20 minutes in a job interview—much less opportunity to demonstrate your skills if you're a person of color facing bias and prejudgment.

Wise further presented his case by paralleling sexism in Pakistan with racism in America. Even though Pakistan, Great Britain, Israel, and India all had female heads of state, most would say that sexism still exists in these countries, he said. So why, he asked, do we say that racism has been overcome with the election of a black president?

Kevin Johnson, multicultural educator and program manager for Berklee's Office for Cultural Diversity, introduced the lecture, calling Wise "a tremendous voice for truth and justice in America." Wise spoke with students in Karen Wacks's Introduction to Music Therapy class earlier in the day and met with faculty at an informal luncheon.

Wise's hard-hitting presentation was tempered by his passionate delivery and well-researched conclusions, leaving the audience with much to think about. In particular, it raised questions and heightened awareness of our role and responsibility in changing the environment in which we live. "I found the presentation enlightening and also very motivating, as I do not want to keep perpetuating the system of white privilege that exists in this country," Scott Morgenthauer, guitar principal and music synthesis major from Texas, said after the first lecture.

At the end of his lecture, Wise referenced the title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope, claiming that hope is audacious but truth is even more so. It is difficult to have hope without truth, because relying solely on hope can end in disappointment and unmet goals, he said.

Wise encouraged people to challenge convention. Each individual has the power to enact change by talking about and acting against societal norms, he said. Toward that premise, Wise left the audience with a call to action: Be audacious enough to seek hope and truth.