On the path to practical hope


Combative and funny, Tim Wise aims to makes his audiences think. In many ways, he was a fine choice to be the first speaker in the Community Coalition and The Blade’s first public forum on racism Thursday night.

And the auditorium at Woodward High School was full to the brim with an enthusiastic crowd.

Anyone who thinks that racism in America is over needs to be confronted with Tim Wise. Certainly anyone who subscribes to certain stereotypical ideas — affirmative action is an undeserved or outdated entitlement; most urban black teens are more trouble-prone or violent than white teens; most young black women are busy having illegitimate children by multiple fathers — needs to hear Mr. Wise.

And for blacks, who have been told that America is beyond racism, Mr. Wise offers a refreshing balm of truth.

But Mr. Wise is a polemicist, something of a stand-up polemicist. And the trouble with his entertaining polemic is that it sometimes creates more emotion than insight.

Mr. Wise equates white power, white privilege, and institutional racism. These things can converge but they are not the same.

What we desperately need is rigorous analysis and the suggestion of modest actions that might follow from it.

Now I know that white privilege exists. I am its product. My first home was my grandfather’s house. My grandfather employed a driver and and a lady called Mrs. Philips, a black woman who ran the house because my grandmother had died a decade before. I learned to swim, play tennis, and golf at a country club. No blacks, or Jews, belonged. My parents went to college and worked for Uncle Sam in Washington, D.C., and my children all went to college — in New Haven, Amherst, and New York City. I am part of the luckiest 5 percent in America and the luckiest 1 percent in the world. I know this. I know too that one fourth of my fellow citizens in this city live in poverty and 1,500 school kids in this city are homeless.

The question is, not whether my background makes me privileged. It does. The question is what I can do to make my community better.

I think Mr. Wise wakes people up and gets them talking. Credit to him for this. I’m not sure he helps with that second question: What do we, I, do about our problems?

I am sure of this: People need hope. Action is predicated on hope. And clarity.

I know another thing: Good intentions eventually teach and brave initiatives pay off. With the first of the Toledo Community Coalition forums, a start has been made. A dialogue has begun. Friendships will be forged; bridges will be built. In time, this process must lead to practical, if proximate, solutions to poverty, poor housing, homelessness, and lack of opportunity for young black males in Toledo.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.