From his earliest experiences in a classroom, Tim Wise was primed to be a different kind of white guy. He attended a preschool in the South where almost everyone was black. The very idea of integrated schools was still being contested in courts when his mother made that unconventional choice, an unmistakable expression of her commitment to the ideals of the civil rights movement.
Four decades have passed since Wise received his early childhood education on the campus of Tennessee State University, a historically black school in his hometown of Nashville. From there, he moved through the city’s desegregated public schools and then to New Orleans, where he attended Tulane University and joined other young activists trying to weaken the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Wise graduated to political campaigns to defeat David Duke in the former Ku Klux Klansman’s polarizing bids to represent Louisiana as a senator and governor.
Those experiences have led Wise, 41, to pursue an unusual calling for the last 15 years. The author of five books on race in five years, a prolific producer of elaborately argued essays and a frequent campus speaker on the subject, he is among a small number of white “anti-racism” writers. The half-dozen others are professors whose audiences, for the most part, are confined to college campuses.
“Tim Wise is currently about the only white writer on anti-racism I know who regularly reaches the popular media and audiences,” says Joe Feagin, one of those other writers and a senior sociologist at Texas A&M University. He dubs Wise, in part because of his wider reach, as “the very best” of the lot.
Within that general audience, Wise knows whom he is trying to reach with his dissection of white privilege and structural racism.
“My first and foremost obligation is to talk with and attempt to work with and challenge white people,” he says. “We’ve got to have these conversations in white space.”
His mission, Wise says, is “to express to those of us who are white the damage that racism does to not just people of color but the rest of us.”
Try as he has, Wise’s books, all issued in paperback by small publishing houses, have not achieved mass circulation among whites or other readers, even by his own count.
“White Like Me: Reflections from a Privileged Son,” a 2005 memoir, has sold best, about 55,000 copies. His first book, on affirmative action, from academic publisher Routledge, has sold the fewest copies, not even one-tenth of the memoir. His latest, “Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity,” was released in June by City Lights, the San Francisco publisher established by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Wise’s writings have earned him prominent black admirers in academia: Derrick Bell, the former Harvard law professor now at New York University; Molefi Asante of Temple University, the nation’s leading Afrocentric scholar; and Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist who is also a radio talk show host.
On the lecture circuit, Wise tends to draw white students. He gives about 100 speeches a year, primarily at colleges and schools, and estimates that his audiences of late are 70 percent white.
Of course, Wise has critics, white and black—and not only those of the literary variety.
Some conservative whites regard him as a “race traitor.” A representative comment appeared last year on the blog of a black woman who calls herself Siddity: “Mr. Man” called Wise “a self-hater” whose “goal is an excuse to bash whites and promote minority racism and leftist notions of social justice.”
Wise describes his politics as progressive and counts among his concerns how race and class harm whites and the nation’s poor, most of whom, he notes, are white.
As the economy has weakened, Wise has emphasized that racism hurts whites in three ways. For one, systemic abuses, such as subprime lending, start in minority communities and spread to white ones. The social safety net, secondly, has wide gaps because the news media overstate how much welfare and similar federal programs benefit blacks and Hispanics. As a result, whites who lose jobs or homes to foreclosure find less government help available.
The other harm done, he says, is psychological. Because whites have a false sense of comfort that bad things won’t happen to them, experiencing a reversal is often more shattering personally.
As for criticism from blacks, Wise encapsulates a common thrust as: “What the hell is this white boy going to tell me that I don’t already know?” He says “it’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask: Is he serious?” but rebuffs and mocks any suggestion that he’s on his anti-racism crusade for the money.
“It’s so utterly absurd to think any white person would grow up and say, ‘How I’m going to get rich is I’m going to be an anti-racism activist,’ ” Wise says.
Wise maintains he is doing what Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown urged when, in a watershed moment of the civil rights movement, they expelled whites from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in late 1966. “They said, ‘We need you to work with your people,’ ” Wise says. “It was their idea.”
Quoting African-Americans is a recurrent pattern—unusual for a white author—in Wise’s speech and writing. He begins each chapter of his memoir, for example, with a James Baldwin quotation. None are the fiery writer’s well-known, shopworn statements. Wise’s references are all the more remarkable because, born in 1968, he is too young to have watched the civil rights movement unfold, even on television. “My mom was three months pregnant with me when Dr. (Martin Luther) King died,” he says.
Lucinda Wise, her son says, chose a black preschool for him to make sure he wasn’t educated in segregated schools as she had been. There he made his first black friends.
“I was being socialized in a nondominant setting,” he says. “But I was also, and this is very important, being socialized in a setting where the authority figures were mostly African-American women, It meant that I didn’t take white authority for granted, assuming that was what authority had to look like.”
In submitting to black authority, a reversal of the historic roles of the races, Wise had as a preschooler an experience that most white Americans didn’t know until Barack Obama became president.