White Folks Have Always Denied Systemic Racism

And we’ve always been wrong — now is no different

Tim Wise
8 min readFeb 1, 2018


Image: Timothy Fenn, Flickr, CC License 2.0

No matter the poll, no matter the year, and no matter the conditions of life in America for people of color, white folks have rarely ever believed racism to be much of a problem.

Nothing shocking there, I suppose.

Whenever a system works to your benefit, taking that system for granted becomes second nature. We don’t see what others who are harmed by that system see, because we don’t have to.

Most slaveowners never questioned the legitimacy of their system, and most whites — including those who didn’t own slaves — neither joined the abolitionist movement nor supported it.

Indeed, most whites have been implacably aligned with white supremacy for the entirety of our nation’s history, only condemning even its most blatant iterations (like slavery and indigenous genocide) many generations after the formal manifestations of those had ended, and when doing so took no more courage than crossing the street.

That may sound harsh. But just because truth isn’t pleasing to one’s ears doesn’t mean it’s any less accurate.

And the fact is, most white Americans have never believed that it was necessary for blacks to agitate for their rights and liberties (or their lives) — at least, not at the time that particular agitation was happening.

Oh sure, fifty years later, we can look back and view Dr. King as a secular saint and talk about how great the civil rights movement was.

But when Dr. King and the movement were actually doing the things for which we remember them, most white folks stood in firm opposition, saw no need for their actions, and believed they were more “divisive” than unifying.

Sounds a lot like what so many of us say now, with regard to Black Lives Matter or NFL players taking a knee to protest racial inequity.

Just to make clear how deluded or disinterested in racial justice most white folks have been, even during times when, in retrospect, racial oppression was obvious, consider the following:

In 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act was passed, two years before the Voting Rights…



Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)


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