FARAI CHIDEYA, host: I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News and Notes. Illinois Senator Barack Obama declared he was running for president back in February of 2007. Back then, he was the dark horse, long-shot candidate. Some people looked at him, and talked only about race. Other voters and pundits seem to try to avoid the topic.
Now, the economy is in meltdown, and much of the political debate has turned to mortgages and finance. But race is still there say the polls, and author and commentator Tim Wise says so as well. Wise is an anti-racism activist whose latest book is called "Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male." Welcome to News and Notes.
Mr. TIM WISE (Author, "Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male"): Thanks.
CHIDEYA: So, your latest essay is called, "This Is Your Nation on White Privilege."
Mr. WISE: Right.
CHIDEYA: What does that really mean?
Mr. WISE: Well, you know, what I was trying to do was to flip the discussion on race a little bit. A lot of times, we only look for race in a situation when it's obvious and blatant and bigoted, and what I was trying to point out was that the flip-side of racism and discrimination, which is white privilege, the advantage that those of us who are white often have, has played out dramatically in this race where you have candidates like John McCain and Sarah Palin, whose personal narrative stories, things that they've done and said - they are cut far more slack on than would be the case were their narratives Obama's narrative.
And so I pointed out a few examples. You know, I think that if one of Obama's daughters was 17 and was pregnant, and the individual who'd gotten her pregnant was someone who described himself in the kind of terms that Levi Johnston did on his MySpace page for example, where he used all kinds of pretty foul language to describe himself, said that if you mess with him, he'd, you know, kick your you-know-what.
That that person if they were black, would be seen as a thug. But in the case of someone like Levi Johnston, they can just be seen as a good stand-up guy, all American boy, bring him to the Republican convention. John McCain shakes his hand. I mean, I think the standard would be quite a bit different, I think we know that.
CHIDEYA: On one of the blogs that has, you know, really gone crazy with your article, and by gone crazy, I mean, with huge amounts of responses...
Mr. WISE: Right.
CHIDEYA: One of the people, Frederick Christy, writes a lot of this is partisanship, Tim. And he goes on from there to really basically say, you know, this is on Red Room. He goes from there to basically say, you know, this is not about white privilege, this is about, you know, basically what Republicans do and Democrats do, and what happens in political races. Why do you think that's not the case, if you don't?
Mr. WISE: Well, actually, I know Frederick, and if you read through this whole - I mean there're 200-some-odd responses. He ends up actually coming to my defense, and defending the argument. So he actually sort of somewhat takes back his position. I think he's right in some ways.
Look, some of the stuff is just pure partisanship. The point I'm simply trying to make is yes, obviously, each party is going to play its own partisan games, and one is going to say Obama's not qualified, because he doesn't have executive experience, and Obama's side is going to say Palin isn't qualified, because she has no foreign policy experience, and of course, that's partisan, but my point is, you know, let's take the executive experience situation.
If Obama - let's say that Barack Obama had been the mayor of a small town in the Mississippi Delta, or let's say that he had been the mayor of a small town in rural Illinois, similar in size to Wasilla, and then maybe instead of going to the U.S. Senate, he'd been elected governor of Illinois, and he'd served in that position for 18 months, I doubt very seriously that the individuals who now claim that Sarah Palin is qualified, would be so quick to say that he was; they would switch the goalpost from talking about executive experience, to oh, well, he doesn't have foreign policy experience.
Part of that's partisanship, but part of it is that white privilege allows white folks - and I'm white, so I mean, I know a little bit about the way we as white folks are viewed in this country. White folks have the luxury and the privilege of being mediocre. We can be mediocre, it's the same thing I hear everywhere I go when I speak at colleges, and I'm constantly told that the departments who were hiring in a school always say, we're looking for a black person, but we want to get the best black person, and we want to get the best Latino.
I've never heard anyone say, now we want to make sure we get the best white applicant. It's as if they're saying, if it's a person of color, they've got to absolutely be the cream of the crop and even then, we may not view them as that good. If they're a white person, they can be pretty mediocre, like a C student, George W. Bush, and that's OK.
But if you're, you know, the editor in the Harvard Law Review, and at the top of your class, oh, we don't know about you. You know, to me that's about white privilege.
CHIDEYA: Well - so, what's changed in how people perceive your message?
Mr. WISE: Well, you know, I think there are a lot of white folks - and unfortunately, this doesn't get talked about a whole lot - but I think that there are a lot of white folks, particularly young white folks who are starting to come into a recognition of just how important race is in this country, in spite of all the rhetoric, in spite of all that we hear about how we've transcended race.
I know, I've been hearing from folks who work in the Obama campaign. There are volunteers in the campaign, some of them even paid staff, who were shocked at the vitriol that they have encountered on the campaign trail - who really, I think, bought into the "transcending race in the post-racial America" type sense that was sort of the underlying rhetoric of the campaign they joined, and who were stunned to see the level of racism that is still quite prevalent. I think it's been a huge wake-up call. And on the one hand, I think that's an extremely good thing for the country. If we can get white folks to begin to see what people of color have known for a very long time, then that means that no matter what happens in November, whether Obama wins or loses, that those individuals who've been involved in the campaign, who have been inspired by his message will realize that they have got work to do and that work is not going to end on November 5th.
CHIDEYA: What do you see unfolding as a result of this election, whether or not Senator Obama wins or Senator McCain wins? Do you think it's going to advance how people think about race and how people deal with it in their own lives?
Mr. WISE: I think it's very much an open question. I think the risk is of course that if Obama wins, a lot of white folks will want to declare that racism is obviously dead. And that I think would be ridiculously premature. The evidence of institutional and systemic discrimination against millions of people of color is still very obvious in spite of the success of this one man of color. Just as we know that Benazir Bhutto becoming prime minister of Pakistan, not one but twice, didn't mean sexism wasn't a problem in Pakistan. Same thing here, with racism and Obama, we in the culture have got to understand if we want his success up to now to mean anything beyond him, if we want it to mean something in terms of turning the corner and addressing the issues of racism and white privilege and inequality in this country, that's going to be up to us. That's going to require us to get out there and challenge systemic and institutional discrimination in housing, in the job market, in the criminal justice system. And not put all of our eggs in the basket of electoral politics.
CHIDEYA: Well Tim, great to talk to you. Thanks.
Mr. WISE: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was anti-racism activist Tim Wise. He's the author of several books, including a new collection of essays entitled "Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male." You can read his latest essay on white privilege by going to nprnewsandviews.org.