Wise, author of books such as “Dear White America: A Letter to a New Minority,” and countless essays on issues regarding racial injustice in America, captivated the packed audience of students, staff, faculty and local citizens for over an hour.
Speaking passionately and with rhythmic precision, Wise started his speech by saying continued silence about racial issues is no longer acceptable.
“Whether or not your motive for shutting down this conversation is fear of your own political culture being in peril,” explained Wise, “or whether you just don’t care about racism, the outcome of the silence is the same.”
Through rational arguments and a powerful style, Wise then explained how although both whites and people of color are afraid to have the conversation about race, now is the time to do it.
“In the next 25 to 30 years this country is going to be half people of color and half white,” exclaimed Wise. “Unless we are prepared to greet that coming of a new society and to do something constructive with it, many of these problems will continue to haunt us.”
Wise, a Caucasian man only beginning to show signs of grey hair, explained how teaching the next generation is fundamental if the cycle is to be stopped.
“Unless you really talk [to kids] about the phenomena of class inequality, race inequality, gender inequality,” explained Wise. “They’re going to default to the dominant culture’s narrative that explains why and how things happen.”
Wise cited statistics showing minorities are “two to three times more likely to be stopped and searched,” while white men are “four times more likely to be guilty” to get a resounding laugh out of the audience.
“I did not personally need a study to tell you this is true,” said Wise with impeccable timing any stand-up comedian would appreciate. “I could have told you that it was true from personal experience and I can tell you now because the statute of limitations has expired.”
Wise grew even more passionate as he explained how “a handful of the richest, smartest, highest SAT-having, MBA-graduating white dudes on Wall Street” lost more money than “street thugs ever could.”
“Do you even know what a derivative is?” Wise asked, alluding to the mortgage-backed securities markets that made the housing bubble possible. “Yeah, neither did they. That’s the problem.”
This resulted in resounding laughter, followed by a round of applause.
The passionate speaker then talked about the silence and indifference whites have had towards chronically high unemployment rates in Latino and African-American communities.
“It has been 75 years approximately since white America has had to deal with double digit unemployment,” Wise exclaimed rapidly, “and when it was localized in black and brown space, [...] no one did anything!”
Wise nailed Newt Gingrich for claiming that inner-city kids have not been taught strong work ethic.
“To be even counted in the unemployment number you have to be looking for work,” said Wise, “which means they have the right attitude, they have the right work ethic, but that the opportunity structure is not there to meet their efforts.”
Wise then connected the chronic indifference of whites with the recession, by pointing out how these abusive tactics used by banks then spread to white communities, who have now been hit hard by the collapse of the housing bubble.
“Racial inequity and the indifference it has manifested is at the heart of why we are in the position we are in,” said Wise somberly. “When we are indifferent to the suffering of some, it spreads.”
A strong round of applause and a standing ovation followed Wise’s final words.
“If we don’t figure out a way to understand how this racial inequity and indifference brought us to this point,” explained Wise, “we’ll be dealing with this farther down the road, only the odds of success will be less then.”
After a standing ovation, there was an extended question and answer period, followed by a book signing.
Joanna Brownson, a young teacher at Fremont High School, said the speech made her feel heavy but hopeful.
“I loved it,” said Brownson. “I thought he was incredibly helpful, humble and insightful about being white and navigating the terrain of white privilege in America.”
Criminal justice student Rene Lozano said the speech had given voice to his experience growing up as a Mexican-American.
“It put a smile on my face to hear someone actually speaking up about it,” said Lozano.
This entry was published in The Pioneer Online on Thursday, February 9th, 2012 at 2:10 pm.