Merlene Davis: Conference plans to lynch last remnants of Jim Crow

Tim Wise
emerged from white privilege to become an anti-racism activist.
Tim Wise emerged from white privilege to become an anti-racism activist.

Tim Wise makes you wonder if he has black ancestry.

Wise, one of the more thought-provoking white anti-racism activists in America, has traveled to 50 states challenging racism and white privilege. His mission is to awaken white people to what black people have seen and lived through for a very long time.

That mission just might not work as well if he were black.

"Nothing that I am going to say tonight, or at least very little of it, originated in my head," Wise said during a speech on white privilege in 2007. "Nothing or at least very little of what I say tonight is in fact new.

"Almost every single thing I am going to say this evening is wisdom that has been shared with me either patiently or sometimes not so patiently by people of color who have in almost every incident forgotten more about the subjects of racism and white privilege since breakfast yesterday than I will likely ever know. And yet, they will not be asked to give 85 engagements around the country this year or next on this subject."

I can't imagine any black person in that audience not wondering how he got into their heads.

When he visited Lexington in 2003, I wrote how unnerving it was to hear spoken and unspoken black sentiment flow from white lips. In fact, I scrutinized his words, looking for that one slip-up that would indicate it was all for show.

I never heard it.

In his books that I have read, I've never seen it. From the musings on his Facebook page, I've never sensed it.

So it makes sense to have Wise, who has always been about inclusion and shedding light on hidden truths, return to Lexington on Dec. 5, as the keynote speaker for the Central Kentucky Diversity Consortium's 2014 Multicultural Opportunities, Strategies and Institutional Inclusiveness Conference or MOSAIIC.

That conference, originally created by the Bluegrass Community and Technical College Office of Multiculturalism and Inclusion eight years ago, is sponsored for the first time by a consortium of several area colleges and universities. That partnership consists of faculty and staff from Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC), Transylvania University, Berea College, Georgetown College, Eastern Kentucky University, Centre College, Kentucky State University and the University of Kentucky.

A consortium is appropriate because if society is going to confront racism head-on, everyone has to be at the table.

This year's theme is "The Lynching of Resurrected Jim Crow: the Problems and the Solutions."

Jim Crow laws were enacted after the Reconstruction Era in the South to sanction racial segregation and ensure blacks were less than equal to whites, trumping federal laws giving freed slaves more liberty.

Those oppressive conditions continued, bolstered by unfair state and federal legislation, until the Civil Rights Act seemingly banished them into history books.

But the relics of Jim Crow continue, under new names and new tactics.

"I am convinced that we are moving in the right direction in regards to being concerned about the backward movement of equality and justice," Charlene Walker, vice-president for the office of multiculturalism and inclusion at BCTC, said. "Themes around poverty, mis-education of people of color, concentrated killings and imprisonment of young men of color, all point back to the 'New Jim Crow.' We recognize it but how do we expose it and deal with it?"

Her way is to treat Jim Crow the way black people were often treated when it was the law of the land: hang it.

"A lynching of Jim Crow is in order and long past due," Walker said, "but this execution will require all of us working simultaneously in a grass-roots strategy, first exposing these continued injustices, then challenging, and ultimately hanging, Jim Crow by its neck until dead."

That means not only the victims of that oppression need to be involved, but also the perpetrators and onlookers.

The two-day conference begins on Dec. 4 with an explanation and history of the law and a panel discussion featuring young people who are still feeling its impact.

Later, a panel of professionals will discuss how black and brown people face similar obstacles to equity now as their grandparents did in the early 20th Century.

On Dec. 5, community members, educators and activists will discuss solutions that are in place to confront the cause of the persistent school-to-prison pipeline, low self-esteem and lack of educational preparation.

At lunch, MOSAIIC awards will be presented to individuals and institutions that have shown a proven commitment to diversity.

That ceremony will be followed by Wise's address.

Wise is the author of six books, including White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son; Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama; and Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.

His newest book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future, scheduled for release in 2015, is about the ways society downplays the problems faced by the unemployed and the poor simply because their conditions aren't as crushing as those of people in foreign countries.

When asked on his website why people should listen to him on matters of racism rather than people of color, Wise wrote: "The dangers of not speaking out as a white person are myriad: it allows whites to think racism is only a black and brown issue (rather than something that endangers us all in the long run); it allows whites to dismiss the critiques of racism offered by people of color, precisely because they can be perceived as narrowly self-interested; and it allows whites to never have to examine their own conditioning or privileges, since few members of any privileged group tend to respond constructively to criticisms of their privileges coming from marginalized group members (at least at first)."

Speaking out in a unified voice changes things. That's what MOSAIIC is all about.

If not, Walker said, the adage comes into play: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

The repressive limitations of Jim Crow laws are a good example of that.

"This conference is going to blow a lot of stuff open that people haven't really thought about," Walker said. "The main reason people need to come is to realize things are not better."