According to recent news stories and opinion pieces, America has a growing racial problem. It is a problem that can no longer be ignored and must be addressed. Shamefully, our nation has forgotten an entire segment of our population, disregarding their plight and their legitimate resentment. In the land of liberty and justice, these citizens have been neglected and marginalized. They are righteously angry and demanding our attention. According to these pundits, Donald Trump won election because he spoke to them, giving voice to their pain. And who are these long forgotten and mistreated citizens? Angry white men.
Indeed, a recent national poll found 55% of white Americans believe discrimination against white people exists in the United States today. This same survey found 19% of white Americans have actually experienced a situation where they believe they were discriminated against for being white. Many of these respondents were white men who referenced being discriminated against in employment opportunities and promotions. According to their reports, affirmative action has allowed less qualified and incompetent people of color and women to displace white men. These men, enraged by this injustice, have responded by voting for Trump, voicing their disdain for their inferiors and marching in protests and rallies. They’ve filled the internet, including the comment section of my blog, with their indignation.
Sigh. Deep breath. Take this seriously.
However laughable we may find the argument for white oppression, when white men – who have had nearly all the power in our culture – begin to present themselves as enraged victims, we need to take them seriously. This narrative usually presages danger for people of color and for women. Angry white men are prone to violence. In 1863, one of the worst race riots during the Civil War involved disgruntled New York City white men, who in their rage over the newly instituted draft, spent three days hunting down hundreds of black men, women and children and murdering them. In 1913, in Washington, DC, thousands of enraged white men descended on a peaceful women’s suffrage parade and attacked the women. Though no one was killed, hundreds of women were injured. In 2015, we witnessed what one angry white man can do in a black church in Charleston.
This is the dilemma. Though claims of discrimination against white men may seem ridiculous, ridiculing these men has often ended badly. Though voiced in similar fashion, such claims are not complaints against injustice. They are justifications for future violence, for the right of white men to reassert their dominance and power, by any means necessary, against those whom they consider inferior – people of color and women. And, when and if this violence comes, we should not expect a government, court or police department dominated by white men to intervene. Repeatedly, those institutions have failed to protect people of color and women. Ignoring, diminishing or ridiculing the 55% of white men who think white men are being discriminated against is a little like yanking the rusted chain of a vicious dog and expecting its smirking owner to protect you.
For this reason, some on the far left have begun to arm and advocate for responding to violence with violence. This was evident in Charlottesville where armed and angry white men were met by equally aggressive opponents. This is evident in public discussions on the ethical dimensions of punching a Nazi. This is why some of the protests in Ferguson became violent when the police appeared in riot gear and military equipment. People of color and women know – though they will be heavily criticized for the mildest acts of violence – that white men have never hesitated to use violence and murder to defend and assert their dominance. It is tempting to meet oppressive violence with righteous violence.
Yet, strategically and ethically, violence is seldom the answer. Indeed, any movement for justice must be committed to dismantling the systemic violence used to perpetuate injustice. In response to the growing anxiety and resentment of white men, we need to be smarter as well as stronger. Rather than ridicule the narrative of white male victimization, we need to use their perception or experience of being discriminated against as an opportunity to teach white men a skill that most have never had to nurture – empathy. We need to hear their pain, but unlike Mr. Trump, help them to move beyond blaming people of color and women and begin appreciating – that what they are experiencing as unjust and enraging – is the historic and common experience of many others.
And the “we” who needs to respond is not people of color and women. Asking people of color and women to take on the task of responding therapeutically to angry white men is simply another injustice. Moving white men from rage to empathy is primarily the responsibility of other white men. We, rather than people of color and women, need to be on the front lines of this historic struggle. This was the reason I began to write my blog. Not because I am the most articulate on issues of racism and sexism, but because I am the most responsible for speaking out.
White men, who empathize with the historic plight of people of color and women, need to use the lessons we’ve been taught about appropriate responses to marginalized populations and apply these strategies to angry white men.
- We need to listen to them and acknowledge the pain of their experience. We need to agree that discrimination against someone for race or gender is horrible and should not exist in our society.
- We need to help them explore their anger and resentment. Why are they so enraged? How does it feel to have their pain ignored or diminished? What do they believe should be done about their injury? What would a more just society look like?
- We need to help them connect their experience to the experience of others. The same poll that found 55% of white Americans believe they have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin found 92% of all African-Americans believe discrimination against black people exists in the United States today and, in a separate study, 71% of all blacks report experiencing racial discrimination. We need to point out that 43% of women say they have been discriminated against in the workplace compared to only 18% of men.
- We need to ask them, now that they understand the pain and anger of discrimination, to think about the pain and anger that people of color and women have experienced for centuries. Rather than simply focusing on the injustice of their experience, can they find common cause with others who’ve previously experienced such injustice?
- We need to ask them to commit to a just and equitable world for all people. Not merely for themselves, but for everyone. As long as the incidence of discrimination for white men is lower than that of other groups, white men must act as advocates and not as victims.
In honesty, I have not approached angry white men in this manner. I have generally responded to their anger with ridicule and derision. As a white male, this is a comfortable response. Treating others as inferior and diminishing their experience is culturally condoned white male behavior. However, it is not a productive one. I do not want my response to goad already angry white men toward the violence to which we are so prone. Especially when I know that it will probably be people of color and women – and not me – who will be the targets of that violence. While I will not coddle angry white men or suggest their pain and fear is more legitimate or important than the pain and fear of people of color and of women, I must also take responsibility for addressing their deficiency in empathy.
I have never experienced discrimination in my life because of my race or gender. Not once. This does not mean I cannot empathize with those who have. I can empathize and join them in addressing systemic racism and sexism. If I can do this, those white men who believe they have been discriminated against should be even more capable of empathy. The problem with white male rage is not its existence, but its focus. We must focus that energy – not on other victims of discrimination – but on systems that have caused such injustice for centuries.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, in talking about white men, once said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” For far too long, powerful white men have manipulated other white men to perpetuate power and injustice. If white men are responsible for encouraging and enflaming the anger of other white men, white men are also responsible for redirecting that anger toward real solutions.
Gentlemen, it’s time we got to work.