Elvis or Racism?

Originally I planned to attend a community event that was not centered on racism. I wanted to do the New Orleans Film Festival or German Fest or anything light and fun. But then professor Chaisson offered extra credit points to attend the 10th annual Diversity Convocation where Tim Wise was speaking, and I reluctantly agreed, rolling my eyes. The thing is, she said there would be food. It gets me every time.

Apparently, this is how I felt about racism: reluctant and eye-rolly. It’s not that I didn’t think it existed or wasn’t a current issue; it’s not that I didn’t think diversity was important or necessary. I just didn’t understand what it had to do with me. After all, it wasn’t my idea. I’m in social work! I’m here to fight injustice and help people—other people, like, international kids or people affected by trauma and things. Racism just wasn’t really my platform.

(Stay with me, here.)

Then I heard Mr. Wise speak.

As it always does for me about a thousand years after every one else, a light bulb came on during that hour-and-a-half, and I realized I had never really gotten it. While I listened when people told me about white priviledge and institutional racism, and I agreed that somewhere someone was probably being treated unjustly, I could not wrap my mind around the concept that I was where I was because the system was set up for me to achieve. I’ll admit I thought that sounded a little bit conspiracy theory-ish. I’ll also admit that subconsciously for that theory to be true, I had to accept that my successes were not necessarily achieved in my own right, but through a series of opened doors I was able to walk through that, in some cases, my peers of color were not.

Mr. Wise explained it in this way, which helped in my understanding: Mr. Wise is an educator who travels around and speaks to groups about racism. He got this job because immediately after college, two guys offered it to him. He was 22, and the two guys who offered him the job were people he knew from Tulane: a professor and a classmate. He was able to go to Tulane (even though his family was at poverty level) because his mother was able to go to the bank and secure a $10,000 loan. His mother would not have been able to get the loan had his grandma not been able to co-sign the loan on her home’s collateral. His grandma’s home was appraised at a higher value—enough to cover the loan’s cost—because it had a higher property value and sat in a neighborhood that had been established as white in the 50s and 60s and retains higher property values even to this day.

So, to recap, Mr. Wise got the job from two guys he knew (1st degree) from Tulane (2nd degree), which he was able to attend thanks to his mother’s loan (3rd degree), which was awarded to her through his grandmother’s cosigning (4th degree) based on a higher-valued house in a traditionally established white neighborhood from the 60’s (5th degree). That’s 5 degrees and 50 years removed from the original racial act—and this man is still benefiting.

This is just one example of hundreds Mr. Wise listed, but when the light came on, I felt immediately burdened by my newfound understanding and heartbroken over my idiotic lack of others-awareness (as opposed to self-awareness, which I then realized I might have in excess) in how I relate to everyone else.

For this reason, for the impact it had on my racial worldview and the fact that even driving around this morning on the I-10 felt less sunny knowing that the I-10 high rise project had plowed through oak-lined park areas in the Treme neighborhood where black folks used to gather and live in the 60’s— to transport white people in and out of the city from suburbs—I decided to reflect on this community event instead.

Taken from the convocation program, Mr. Tim Wise is one of the nation’s leading anti-racism educators working toward dismantling racism. He has spoken in 48 states, on over 500 college campuses, and was chosen as the 2008 Oliver L. Brown Distinguished Scholar for Diversity Issues at Washburn University, originally named for the lead plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Obviously, the man has credentials.

As he spoke, I raced to jot down notes but at some point just put the pen down and listened, which worked out much better. I’ll first share a few points that were of interest, and then I’ll explain the importance of the event from a social work perspective.

One of the points Mr. Wise gave that made a lasting impression on my understanding of institutional racism was that prior to 1964, every white person was elevated BY LAW. This fact is so alarming it makes me wonder how there could not be institutional racism today if the supremacy of Whites was actually mandated 50 years ago. How would you ever get rid of such a mindset, especially considering those lawmakers and abiding citizens, plus children born to those same lawmakers and abiding citizens are still part of the current generation and population.

Another point I took as both interesting and funny was when Mr. Wise said a poll had been taken asking people if they thought racism was still a problem. Only eleven percent of those who took the poll reported that yes, racism was still a problem. Randomly, a different poll was taken asking people if they thought Elvis was still alive. Twelve percent reported that yes, Elvis was still alive. Mr. Wise (in humor) compared the two and noted how funny it was that more people believe Elvis is still alive than believe that racism exists in the United States.

Mr. Wise continued to make the point that in 1962, a time most people would now identify as an outright racially discriminatory decade, a similar poll was taken which asked if people believed both Blacks and Whites had equal rights, and if black school children had the same opportunities as white school children. In 1962, seventy percent of people said yes, Blacks and Whites had full equal opportunities, and 87% said yes, black school children had the same opportunities as white school children.

Mr. Wise’s point was that white people didn’t see it in 1962, a time that was clearly discriminatory, and most of us don’t see it now for this reason: white people are asking white people if racism exists. He pointed out that it’s pointless to ask the group NOT being oppressed if oppression exists because they are not the one experiencing it. You wouldn’t ask a man if sexism is operating. You wouldn’t ask the able-bodied if they were able to get into the building tonight. Of course they were. In order to find out the extent of oppression and marginalization, we need to ask the oppressed and marginalized. And then, when they tell us it’s happening, we need to believe them.

How does this relate to competent social work practice? Obviously this could relate in every possible area given that our primary mission, according to the NASW, is to enhance human well-being and help meet the needs of all people, with particular attention to people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty; but for right now I’ll focus on one specific relation to this event and social work: education. To quote my friend Kayla: If we don’t know, we absolutely cannot understand. If we don’t understand, then we’ll have no motivation to change anything.

We carry the responsibility and the duty to educate ourselves on every social issue—even when we don’t think it relates, because it always does. It’s the social part of social work. We do not exist to help and treat ourselves.

I’ll admit that after 7 hours of school and 3 hours of work, it was only natural to feel reluctant about sitting though another lecture in spite of the food and extra credit benefit. But it was my duty as a social worker to educate myself on the ways in which institutional racism is impacting all of us. If I hadn’t, I’d be right back to where I was on Wednesday at 6:29 pm: yeah, but what does this have to do with me?