It was a peaceful Wednesday night on Queens University campus. A diverse mix of people had turned up to hear the activist speak. Inside the auditorium, the crowd had subconsciously segregated itself. On one side of the room, an African-American woman held her hand in the air, nodding her head as if swept up in a sermon. On the other side, white supremacist protesters huddled with frowns.
Last night, the college hosted Tim Wise, a prominent antiracist essayist and educator, for its Diversity Lecture & Cultural Series. As a white male born in Tennessee, Wise is an uncommon voice in the black civil rights movement. He's worked to eliminate apartheid in South Africa and campaigned against white supremacist politicians with the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. He's also combated poverty and economic inequality in New Orleans.
Standing in front of the crowd like an irreverent preacher, Wise weaved jokes between hard truths like a skilled wordsmith. “Thank god people don’t get beaten by cops in the streets anymore, the way they did on the Edmond Pettus Bridge like they did in Selma,” he said. “Thank god that doesn’t happen anymore! Oh wait. Shit. It does.”
He emphasized the importance of commemorating the past, but pointed out the danger in that is getting distracted by accomplishments rather than considering what still needs to be done. Although great strides have been made in the last 50 years, he warned of people becoming too comfortable and content with past victories.
Not all of the audience was receptive to Wise’s commentary. During an open floor period after his talk, a few of his opponents stood up for questions. One of the protesters, a bearded white man who looked to be in his twenties, politely accused Wise of being a Marxist and reminded him of murder committed in the name of social change. He also reprimanded Wise for swearing in a room full of women.
To which the ladies in the crowd responded, “We love it when he swears!”
“I’ll let the ladies speak for themselves,” Wise responded politely with a slight smirk. “There is no limit to the amount of atrocities done in the name of various ideologies. As an American citizen, my first and foremost concern is to deal with those atrocities specific to my country: the atrocities that have been done against indigenous peoples, against those of African descent, against Latino folk or against all working class people of all ethnicities.”
Wise also spoke about the recent cases of police brutality and officers' improper use of power when interacting with black members of their community. Historical evidence of racism has caused many predominantly black communities to believe prejudice is commonplace in the judicial system, he said.
"The best way to to reach racial equality is to bridge the perception and experience gaps found between the lives of those with privilege and those without," he said. Major issues are often rooted in the self-contained perception of a situation based on personal experiences divided by cultural and economic status.
“The job for those of us who are called white in this society is to challenge other white folks,” Wise said.
Nay-sayers had little ground to stand upon against the speaker, mostly sticking to his Jewish ancestry to base their arguments. “Crazy how he points out white racism and does not point out Jewish racism, such as in Israel,” Robert Jones told me after the program. “Israel requires DNA evidence to be a citizen.” He is a member of a local chapter of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Jews hold most of the positions of power in the U.S.,” said Dexter Reid, National Youth Front member. “He wants them to sound like a small sect and doesn’t make a peep about them.”
Wise isn't fazed by the criticism — one guy followed him from Indiana. During the program, Wise pledged to donate $20 for each protester to "a local people of color run organization working for social justice in the Charlotte area," and encouraged others to follow his lead. He said he wants to take their protests and turn it into a victory for local programs working for racial equality.
“White supremacy doesn’t care about the way you sound, speak, the music you listen to. They care about the power they have,” Wise said of his adversaries. “We believe the country could do better. Having deep faith in spite of all the evidence we ought not. We must not let them sacrifice the future of this country on the altar of their own privilege.”
To be a part of the conversation, you can attend a discussion on the program at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library on Saturday (March 28) at 2 p.m. or contact Tim Wise via Twitter. For future lectures at Queens University, visit www.queens.edu/Arts-and-Culture/Lectures.html.