White Privilege, White Anger
by Jeff Rohrick
Recently, a woman in a Facebook group I belong to indicated she had left two other groups because they were dominated by angry white men. It’s an easy statement to dismiss because no matter the intensity, cause, or focus of the anger, it’s laughable alongside the reality of white male privilege. And an anger that’s only reached its boiling point after 35 years of economic despair is laughable compared to the centuries of anger felt by those lacking privilege – women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.
It seems absurd that in the ongoing, post-election debate about identity politics within the Democratic Party, the notion that angry white males are somehow their own political constituency who should be included in discussions of identity politics is anathema to an American history rooted in the hegemony of white patriarchy. (I know words. They’re good words. The best words.) Yet, in very different ways, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were able and willing to target angry white males (and females) who decided this election. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton never spoke to this constituency directly, and when she did, it was to dismiss them as a ‘basket of deplorables’ or to proclaim a reality that did not exist for them – that ‘America is already great.’ These statements may well have cost her the election. In order to understand why this happened, the country must accept one simple fact – white male privilege does not negate white male anger. How can I say this?
Because I am a privileged, angry white male.
I have three post-secondary degrees (privilege) and I am unemployed (anger). After being laid off during the 2008 recession, I went back to school at the age of 39 to obtain my secondary teaching license for Speech Communication & Theatre Arts. Within two months, two-thirds of the potential jobs that would have been available disappeared when the Des Moines Public Schools and other districts eliminated Speech as a requirement, weaving the curriculum into 10th grade English – the result of state cuts to education, the DOE’s fixation on the Common Core, and a shift toward STEM curriculum at the expense of the humanities. I did find a job teaching theatre in Indianapolis after I graduated, but now that you all know Mike Pence, you can pretty much understand the state of education in Indiana. Since I’ve returned to Iowa, I’ve applied for dozens of teaching jobs around the country. How many of those jobs were in Iowa? Three. Just three. I’ve been able to survive three years combining part-time work with a dwindling savings account (privilege). Yet, with three college degrees and 80 job applications completed in the last 12 months, I still haven’t found full-time employment (anger). While unemployment seems to have settled at an acceptable 4.6%, that doesn’t take into account people like me who are unemployed and looking for work, but not receiving government benefits, or the 2.3 million ‘missing workers’ who’ve simply stopped looking.
That’s the origin story of an angry white male. It’s easy to ignore because of America’s white, male, patriarchal history. But this history shouldn’t (excuse the pun) whitewash the fact that all American males, white included, have an identity tied directly to the American Dream – a fiction created by white males that benefited the few at the expense of the many. Men are expected to be breadwinners. Our worth is equated with our career performance. We’re expected to reach greater heights than our parents and grandparents. But with more debt, lower wages, and the decline in unions, pensions, savings accounts, and employer-provided benefits, we simply can’t succeed at the same level as our (white) Boomer parents and (white) Greatest Generation grandparents, who survived the Great Depression and ventured forth into a capitalist utopia ushered in by FDR, riding the wave of American prosperity as the country’s wealth grew by rebuilding the world after WWII. Sarah Sloat at Inverse.com describes this reality.
Life as a financially independent adult isn’t just harder for Millennials when compared to their Baby Boomer parents — it’s even worse for Generation X. The generation born between 1965 and 1982 . . . was seemingly hit hardest by the recession — on average they lost about half of their wealth, compared to the 25 percent loss felt by Baby Boomers. They are considered the generation the most ill-equipped to retire — while Millennials are encountering an unfriendly job market, the Gen X’ers were hit by the recession just as they were in the thick of building their adult lives.
Let me reiterate. This identity is not exclusive to white males. Men of every race feel these expectations. But for the first time since the Great Depression, white men are starting to experience feelings of despair and anger brought on by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that make the American Dream an unattainable goal; feelings that women, people of color, the disabled, and members of the LGBTQ community have always experienced. This loss of identity and the feelings of inadequacy felt by the angry white men who determined this election have had serious consequences. A Princeton University study found that “medical debts, impoverishment, and the prospect of a bleak retirement” are-
-contributing to growing numbers of suicides in the US and helping drive a sharp and unusual increase in the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans [that] represents about half a million lives cut short. The uptick in the mortality rate is unique to that age and racial group. Death rates for African Americans of a similar age remain notably higher but continue to fall. Deaths from poisonings by drugs or alcohol have risen dramatically to push lung cancer into second place as the major killer with a sharp increase in suicides now a close third.
Centuries of privilege have left white males ill-equipped to deal with this profound shift. In those nine years I spent in college, I learned about unpacking the knapsack of white male privilege. Intellectually, I know I can walk down the street at night without fear of being attacked. I know when a cop drives by, I don’t have to worry about being pulled over because of my skin color. I know the store clerk isn’t going to ask me for a second form of I.D. However, the agonizing search for employment, the loss of identity, and the failure to meet expectations have turned something that was merely intellectual into an emotional, internalized state of being that’s given me a glimpse into the oppression caused by an economic system that has always prevented women, minorities, the disabled, and the LGBTQ from achieving the American Dream.
I feel enlightened in a way, but learning is painful. The privilege is not gone, but there is anguish nonetheless. It feels awful. It feels desperate. I’m experiencing what amounts to a progressive existential crisis as I question affirmative action during this period of unemployment. Believing that all people should have equal consideration for employment, why do I cringe when I get to the demographics section of a lengthy online application? If I leave it blank, they’ll know I’m a white guy. If I fill it in, they’ll know I’m a white guy. Have I lost out on an interview or a job because a quota needed to be met? Are these the same feelings a person of color has because their name doesn’t sound ‘white’? I don’t know, but for the first time, I’m thinking about it from my reality, not just my brain.
Then there are the other angry white males – Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables.’ These voters are largely uneducated (i.e. no college), white, and rural. Rather than call these voters deplorable, Trump celebrated them, stating, “I love the poorly educated.” Most of these voters have no understanding of white privilege, knapsacks, hegemonies, and identity politics. You can’t attack them for being uneducated because not everyone has a passion for education. You can’t attack them for being white or rural because that’s their reality. And honestly, you can’t attack them for being racist because racism is learned, and as any educator will tell you, learning is actually an uncomfortable process of unlearning what you already know or believe. If these voters live in racially homogeneous regions of the country where racism is passed down like a family heirloom, who is there to teach them any different, and why would they want to learn differently when they’ve already shown a disinterest in the discomforts of education?
So when an unemployed, 50-year-old coal miner in West Virginia is told that his livelihood must give way to clean energy, the last thing he wants to hear is that he must unlearn his way of life and instead learn how to operate a robot as part of the new era of advanced engineering. To that, add marriage equality, immigration, feminism, ‘Happy Holidays,’ sanctuary cities, and a two-term black president, and you’ve created a powder keg of rapid social change creating an extreme level of discomfort for those without a desire or willingness to learn. Trump’s angry white males know they’ve lost something (access to the ‘American Dream’ afforded by white privilege) and they want it back even though they don’t know what it is, and they believe Trump’s rhetoric – that a return to the halcyon days of white superiority will assuage their pain.
Sanders’ angry white males don’t buy into Sec. Clinton’s assertion that ‘America is already great,’ but rather than look back, they want to look forward to a country of shared privilege and prosperity. Not having had the glimpse into the lack of economic privilege that I’ve had is what, I believe, keeps Clinton Democrats from understanding Sanders and Trump supporters. These liberals have an intellectual understanding of white privilege but have never experienced a state of existence that lacks privilege because of their own economic security. One need to look no further than Iowa for confirmation. One of the key demographic differences during the Iowa caucus was income, with Clinton winning voters averaging $100,000+ per year, while Sanders won voters averaging less than $50,000 per year. These are liberals at two ends of the spectrum – progressive Democrats who were desperate but hopeful, and establishment Democrats who were comfortable and had no desire to rock the boat. This chasm within the Democratic Party mirrors the chasm in white male America – the desperate and fearful (Trump), the desperate and hopeful (Sanders), and those who can afford a vacation (Clinton). Chris Hedges speaks eloquently about the problem of liberal elites who saw little difference between the angry white men emboldened by Trump and Sanders.
The suffering of the white underclass is real. Its members struggle with humiliation and a crippling loss of self-worth and dignity . . . Those cast aside by the neoliberal order have an economic identity that both the liberal class and the right wing are unwilling to acknowledge. This economic identity is one the white underclass shares with other discarded people, including the undocumented workers and the people of color demonized by the carnival barkers on cable news shows. This is an economic reality the power elites invest great energy in masking. The self-righteousness of the liberal class, which revels in imagined tolerance and enlightenment while condemning the white underclass as irredeemable, widens the divide between white low-wage workers and urban elites. Liberals have no right to pass judgment on these so-called deplorables without acknowledging their pain.
A similar sentiment is espoused by Tikkun associate editor Peter Gabel.
Thus the liberal world in effect flaunts their own success as elites, blames the working class for their own failures, and then holds them responsible as “whites” for the oppression of other oppressed groups, requiring them to deny their own sense of marginalization and spiritual pain, their own invisibility, and to defer to the orthodoxy that it is the other oppressed groups who are deserving of concern and recognition. And even more, the white working-class communities are not allowed to comment upon this whole process because that would be racist, or sexist, or otherwise not politically correct for them to do. Understandably this makes these white working class communities feel they are simultaneously in pain and silenced from commenting on their pain.
Just as this election has exposed a new constituency of angry white males with a unique story and identity, Sen. Sanders said, “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.” However, there will be backlash. As entertainment attorney Lisa E. Davis states, “What all these calls for a moratorium on ‘identity politics’ share is a desire to re-center white, straight men as the default for humanity.” That interpretation may speak to Trump voters who need to default because of an uneducated fear of social change. But that interpretation is the antithesis of what Sen. Sanders calls for because when economic, social, environmental, and racial justice are championed for all identities, we can build a society where affirmative action isn’t needed because there are jobs for everyone and privileges aren’t privileges, but standards of life and human decency for the whole of society. It’s my hope we see that change with a new president elect in 2020.
And that makes me a little less angry.
For further perspectives on this phenomenon, please read ‘Shaming Whites and Men Has Backfired’ by Rabbi Michael Lerner.http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/shaming-whites-and-men-has-backfired