Tim Wise on What White Americans Do Not Know…and Do Not Want to Know

Tim Wise

Tim Wise

By Elaine Magliaro

In January of 2014, I posted a video of Tim White talking about the “concept of whiteness.” (The title on his YouTube video clip reads “Tim White: On White Privilege.”) Yesterday, I came across an article that Wise wrote recently for AlterNet titled White America’s Greatest Delusion: “They Do Not Know It and They Do Not Want to Know It.” Wise opens his article with the following James Baldwin quote—which Wise acknowledged may be “overused.” Nonetheless, Wise said that “there are few statements that so thoroughly burrow to the heart of the nation’s racial condition” as the words which Baldwin wrote more than fifty years ago:

James Baldwin:

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime

Wise said that in the wake of the Baltimore uprising, which followed the death of Freddie Gray, Baldwin’s words are “worth remembering.”


It is bad enough that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the proper response to police brutality, economic devastation and perpetual marginality, having ourselves rarely been the targets of any of these. It is bad enough that we deign to instruct black people whose lives we have not lived, whose terrors we have not faced, and whose gauntlets we have not run, about violence; this, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we currently claim possession solely as a result of violence. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.

We are here because of blood, and mostly that of others; here because of our insatiable and rapacious desire to take by force the land and labor of those others. We are the last people on Earth with a right to ruminate upon the superior morality of peaceful protest. We have never believed in it and rarely practiced it. Rather, we have always taken what we desire, and when denied it we have turned to means utterly genocidal to make it so.

Here’s the next paragraph—which, I think is worth emboldening:

Which is why it always strikes me as precious the way so many white Americans insist (as if preening for a morality contest of some sorts) that “we don’t burn down our own neighborhoods when we get angry.” This, in supposed contrast to black and brown folks who engage in such presumptively self-destructive irrationality as this. On the one hand, it simply isn’t true. We do burn our own communities, we do riot, and for far less valid reasons than any for which persons of color have ever hoisted a brick, a rock, or a bottle. We do so when our teams lose the big game or win the big game; or because of something called Pumpkin Festival; or because veggie burritos cost $10 at Woodstock ’99 and there weren’t enough Porta-Potties by the time of the Limp Bizkit set; or because folks couldn’t get enough beer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake; or because surfers (natch); or St. Patty’s Day in Albany; or because Penn State fired Joe Paterno; or because it’s a Sunday afternoon in Ames, Iowa; and we do it over and over and over again. Far from mere amateur hooliganism, our riots are indeed violent affairs that have been known to endanger the safety and lives of police, as with the infamous 1998 riot at Washington State University.


2014 Riot at Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire

I wrote about that Pumpkin Festival riot in Keene, New Hampshire, last fall in my post titled Smashing Pumpkins: Miles from Ferguson (MO) in a Thug-less Land Far, Far Away Drunken White Revelers Whoop It Up While Trashing a College Town in New Hampshire.

Excerpt from my post:

I was saddened and shocked to hear about the recent riot in Keene during its famous Pumpkin Festival. From the multiple reports that I’ve read about what happened last weekend, crowds of drunken—and predominately white—college kids went wild. Inebriated partiers smashed windows, slashed tires, tore down street signs, and overturned cars and Dumpsters. They also threw bottles, beer cans, skateboards, buckets, and pumpkins. At least thirty people sustained injuries—including lacerations and broken bones—and had to be transported to a nearby hospital. Injuries were incurred during fistfights, jumps from rooftops—and from other blunt traumas.

Melanie Plenda (The Daily Beast) noted that one “police report indicated that residents of a student housing unit in a neighborhood near Keene State College attacked firefighters called to the building.” The unruly crowd was also reported to have lobbed bottles at EMT’s as they were attempting to treat injured people.


2004 Riot at Iowa State University

In 2004, a riot erupted at Iowa State University in our heartland.

The Iowa State Daily reported that what had begun as the breakup of a party escalated into a Campustown riot lasting about five hours.

According to an Ames Police news release, the incident began just before midnight when officers came to a crowded party at the 2600 block of Hunt Street about midnight Sunday. After the party was broken up, several hundred people marched down Welch Avenue and began chanting and throwing bottles toward police officers. A trash can was set on fire in front of the Campanile replica, and altercations rose to riot size with hundreds crowding Welch Avenue and taunting police by mooning them and shouting phrases such as “Fuck the police” and “No dry Veishea” as they charged officers in riot gear. The officers held out some form of riot control gas in front of them. Street light poles, parking meters and many storefront windows were damaged or destroyed. Businesses closed as the rioting escalated, and some customers were locked in. More than 25 people were arrested, according to an Ames Police news release.

1998 Riot at Washington State University

Regarding that 1998 riot at Washington State University from HistoryLink.org:

On Sunday, May 3, 1998, some 200 people — most of them Washington State University (WSU) students — riot during the early morning hours in an area known as College Hill, just west of the WSU campus. The riot is allegedly provoked by a WSU ban on on-campus drinking. Twenty-three police officers and between four and a dozen others are injured in the melee…

Students pelted police with rocks and beer cans. The police then “retreated and called for backup.”


Party-goers then threw garbage, construction materials, and portable toilets into the street and lit bonfires with this material. The size of the crowd grew. Although no more than 200 people were believed to have actively participated in the riot, the crowd of onlookers was considerably larger.

Wise said that seventeen years after that riot at WSU, “one still waits for the avalanche of conservative ruminations regarding the pathologies of whites in Pullman, whose disrespect for authority suggests a larger culture of dysfunction, symbolized by the easily recognizable gang attire of Carhartt work coats and backward baseball caps.”


Wise added that it was “undeniably true that when it comes to our political anger and frustration (as contrasted with that brought on by alcohol and athletics) we white folks are pretty good at not torching our own communities.” He said that was because we are usually “too busy eviscerating the communities of others—those against whom our anger is aimed. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Panama, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Manila, and on down the line.”

Wise noted that when one has the power, one can take out his “hatreds and frustrations directly upon the bodies of others.” He added, “This is what we have done, not only in the above mentioned examples but right here at home. The so-called ghetto was created and not accidentally. It was designed as a virtual holding pen—a concentration camp were we to insist upon honest language—within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. It was created by generations of housing discrimination, which limited where its residents could live. It was created by decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. It was created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.”

Wise continued:

… it is bad enough that we think it appropriate to admonish persons of color about violence or to say that it “never works”—especially when in fact it does. We are, after all, here, are we not? Living proof that violence works and quite well at that, thank you very much. What is worse, as per Baldwin, is our insistence that we bear no responsibility for the conditions that have brought about the current crisis, and that indeed we need not even know about those conditions. That innocence, as Baldwin expressed it, was the crime, because it betrays a non-chalance that ensures the perpetuation of all the injustices against which those presumed to be uncivilized are rebelling.

Wise touches on a number of things that have led to the problems that we see manifested today in Baltimore and in many other poor Black communities: the displacement of poor people as a consequence of the highway program; race-based housing discrimination; “the systematic violence experienced by thousands of Baltimore families subjected to lead poisoning in their run-down apartments, all with the approval of government-funded medical researchers.”


Click here to read the full text of Tim Wise’s article White America’s Greatest Delusion: “They Do Not Know It and They Do Not Want to Know It” at AlterNet.



White America’s Greatest Delusion: “They Do Not Know It and They Do Not Want to Know It” (AlterNet)

About 200 WSU students and others riot in Pullman on May 3, 1998. (HistoryLink.org)

Riot Erupts at Iowa State University (High Times)

Smashing Pumpkins: Miles from Ferguson (MO) in a Thug-less Land Far, Far Away Drunken White Revelers Whoop It Up While Trashing a College Town in New Hampshire. (Flowers for Socrates)

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17 Responses to Tim Wise on What White Americans Do Not Know…and Do Not Want to Know

  1. bettykath says:

    Wise is very wise, so is Elaine. Great post.

  2. bron98 says:

    funny how the left controls Baltimore and other big cities and also college campuses. Riots and the left seem to just go hand in hand.

  3. Elaine M. says:


    Did you read Wise’s article?

  4. blouise says:

    … do not know it and do not want to know it … – James Baldwin

    I have always disagreed with that statement in that it has been my experience over the years from hanging out with thousands of white people that they damn well do know it. The bad ones freely choose not to admit to the knowing and in so doing join hands with the genocidaires.

  5. Anonymous says:

    An interesting fellow, Mr. Wise is. It made me think of the following article a family member shared recently (whose mother is Caucasian and father is African-american). I thought it might be appreciated here.

    “These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities others may not have. For example:

    Citizenship – Simply being born in this country affords you certain privileges non-citizens will never access.
    Class – Being born into a financially stable family can help guarantee your health, happiness, safety, education, intelligence, and future opportunities.
    Sexual Orientation – By being born straight, every state in this country affords you privileges that non-straight folks have to fight the Supreme Court for.
    Sex – By being born male, you can assume that you can walk through a parking garage without worrying you’ll be raped and that a defense attorney will then blame it on what you were wearing.
    Ability – By being born able bodied, you probably don’t have to plan your life around handicap access, braille, or other special needs.
    Gender – By being born cisgendered, you aren’t worried that the restroom or locker room you use will invoke public outrage.

    As you can see, belonging to one or more category of Privilege, especially being a Straight White Middle Class Able-Bodied Male, can be like winning a lottery you didn’t even know you were playing. But this is not to imply that any form of privilege is exactly the same as another or that people lacking in one area of privilege understand what it’s like to be lacking in other areas. Race discrimination is not equal to Sex Discrimination and so forth.”


  6. blouise says:


    That’s just Bron trying to hijack the thread again. He’s the perennial squeaky wheel.

  7. Bob Kauten says:

    bron doesn’t……READ. C’mon.
    He’s just found that accusing the left of causing every social ill, gets him attention.

    bron comes up with the stupidest possible assertions, and tries them on us.
    If there’s a lot of consternation, he keeps repeating them.
    He has no idea what he’s saying.

  8. I’d like to know where B’s idea that “the left” is synonymous with Democrats. I know very few self identifying leftists who think the DNC speaks for them in the slightest and of those who do many readily admit that the DNC version of “left” is what used to be called a centrist Republican. You can count the actual leftists in government without running out of fingers. The only person on the left you could argue “controls” anything is Bernie Sanders and given he’s the Senator for Vermont? Unless the dairy cows are rioting, Vermont seems to be a pretty nice place.

  9. blouise17 says:

    I suspect the subject of this post cut a little too close to the bone for Bron so deflection was needed.

  10. Oh, and Bob? Bron does read. Very often the wrong thing and he often comes to contextually zany conclusions, but he does read. He has a definition and context problem, not a reading problem per se.

    I’ve noticed a lot of people – even people who should know better – do this with Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. They treat it like an instruction manual when in the context of the rest of Machiavelli’s writings espousing the virtue of free republics, it’s practically satire and certainly cautionary tale. But because someone famous wrote it and it confirms that their proclivity to be a backstabbing shitheel is okay because someone famous wrote it was okay then it must be okay. They lack the context to understand the work properly or they ignore the context or rationalize that because they are “good politicians according to Machiavelli” then its alright. B makes that kind of mistake quite often. It’s a form of selective understanding, a homunculus-like manifestation of the mind projection fallacy (when someone thinks that the way they see the world reflects the way the world really is, going as far as assuming the real existence of imagined objects) on steroids. You see the same error in the way he uses the scientific method backwards as well, letting hypothesis inform how he looks at data instead of letting data inform his hypothesis. People often want the world to be as they want it instead of taking it how it is and basing their understanding and conjecture from the evidentiary standpoint. It is more than just the mind project fallacy, but the historical fallacy, the psychologist’s fallacy (when an observer assumes that his/her subjective experience reflects the true nature of an event) and a host of attendant and subsequent fallacies combined with the psychological self-protection mechanisms of denial and sometimes delusion in the face of a world that by the evidence does not conform to their desires or expectations.

    That being said, he is not incapable of learning.
    He’s just change resistant and often ridiculously certain.
    Some people don’t handle uncertainty well nor do they handle change as well as others.
    He tries to both understand and lead an examined life.
    Not consistently, not always successfully, sometimes he backslides, but he tries.

    So maybe you should cut him a little slack.

  11. Another way to think of it is this:

    He a mechanistic Newtonian trapped in a world ruled by Quantum Mechanics.

  12. blouise17 says:

    So maybe you should cut him a little slack. – Gene to Bob K about Bron

    Not me. He’s a mean little shit and every time he sticks his head out of that pit he calls a mind, I’ll do a wheelie on it with my Harley. (And yes, I am now, having done the title switch, the proud owner of a Harley Touring) Come to think of it, wheelies probably aren’t possible … guess I’ll just do a front wheel whack-a-mole … metaphorically speaking of course.

  13. pete says:

    Cool, ya coming down to Daytona for Biketoberfest? I know a couple of good tattoo artists if you need some new ink.

  14. swarthmoremom says:

    gene: “I’d like to know where B’s idea that “the left” is synonymous with Democrats”. Because Bron’s group of “independents” is so far to the right they think a centrist democrat is a socialist. They are still calling Obama a “socialist”. The democratic progressive caucus is not even on their map.

  15. blouise says:


    Me and my gang will look you up.

  16. Bob Kauten says:

    I gave bron a few years of slack.
    He’s used it up.
    Dumb was somewhat tolerable. He’s become particularly mean, lately.
    Just gave him his ration back. That’s what he craves. Posting on RIL wouldn’t bring satisfaction. They’d just agree with him.
    My definition of ‘reading’ includes some sort of comprehension.
    My scanner could be said to ‘read,’ and the character recognition software might even translate it to text, but the scanner’s no more educated after the scan.
    Sound familiar?

  17. Bob Kauten says:

    Let me know. I wanna see you do that wheelie.

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