When situations change, people tend to react to it based on whether their personal situation changed for the better or worse than what it was before, rather than where they stand with respect to other people. So for example, during the time of the financial downturn that began in 2007, we had the spectacle of people working in investment banks lashing out angrily because their usual hefty bonuses had been reduced, and we heard complaints from them about how hard it was to live on incomes of $250,000 or more (private schools and live-in help and summer homes cost so much) and thus how unfair it was to increase taxes on them. From their point of view, a lowering of income was an intolerable hardship even if they still were in the top 2% of income earners in the country and extremely well off according to any objective measures.
It is in this context that one should view the situation of white men in the US. Throughout its history, they have been the dominant group, pretty much controlling every thing and things tended to go their way. But times are changing and as entrenched privileges get eaten away, their degree of dominance has been eroded though not eliminated. This has caught them unprepared to deal with the changes. So while women and minorities see the situation as still stacked against them, some white men see themselves as the victims of a concerted attack to deny them what has long been rightfully theirs.
Michael Kimmel, author of the book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, takes a thoughtful look at what is going on in the world of angry white men in which they see the rising of other groups not as a welcome sign of equality but as a direct attack on them, and how racism, rage and Southern supremacy plays into the mix.
He says that they live predominantly in “small towns, rural cities, swelling suburban sprawl outside larger Sunbelt cities”.
They tap into a long history of racial and ethnic paranoia in rural America, as well as an equally long tradition of collective local action and vigilante justice. There remains a widespread notion that “Jews, African-Americans, and other minority-group members ‘do not entirely belong,’”
They’re certainly Christian, but not just any Christian—they’re evangelical Protestant, Pentacostalist, and members of radical sects that preach racial purity as the Word of Jesus. (Catholicism is certainly stocked with conservatives on social issues, but white supremacists tap into such a long and ignoble tradition of anti-Catholicism that they tend to have their own right-wing organizations, mostly fighting against women’s rights and gay rights.)
A large proportion of the extreme right wing are military veterans. Several leaders served in Vietnam and were shocked at the national disgust that greeted them as they returned home after that debacle… Many of the younger guys are veterans of the first Gulf War, a war that they came to believe was fought for no moral principles at all, but simply to make America’s oil supply safer and to protect Israel from possible Arab attack.
Part of the problem is that because America’s elites willfully refuses to discuss things through the lens of class, people do not have the right tools to analyze their own plight, and instead look for proxy terms that only serve to confuse the situation because they are used inconsistently.
Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.
In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.
On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.
The sense of resentment is also driven by the perennial question that bedevils so many nations: Who are the rightful ‘owners’ of the country and who are the ‘guests’ who are allowed to enter and stay because of the graciousness of the owners? These angry white men see themselves as the rightful owners of America, the ones who built it, and they are as aggrieved as any homeowner would be if a weekend guest started moving the furniture around. This is of course not peculiar to the US, but is happening all over the globe as long-suppressed minorities start asserting their rights and increased mobility results in immigrant groups forming ever-larger components of populations.
Finally, they believe themselves to be the true heirs of the real America. They are the ones who are entitled to inherit the bounty of the American system. It’s their birthright—as native-born, white American men. As sociologist Lillian Rubin puts it, “It’s this confluence of forces—the racial and cultural diversity of our new immigrant population; the claims on the resources of the nation now being made by those minorities who, for generations, have called America their home; the failure of some of our basic institutions to serve the needs of our people; the contracting economy, which threatens the mobility aspirations of working class families—all these have come together to leave white workers feeling as if everyone else is getting a piece of the action while they get nothing.”
So what is to be done to address this? As Noam Chomsky pointed out, there is a massive class war in the US being directed at the working class and the poor. Ignoring the real concerns of working class white men who are at the receiving end of this assault leads to problems because their misdirected anger holds back the wider solidarity that we need to combat the oligarchy.
But when you have a working class that’s under real pressure, you know, people are going to say that rights are being undermined, that jobs are being undermined. Maybe the one thing that the white working man can hang onto is that he runs his home? Now that that’s being taken away and nothing is being offered, he’s not part of the program of advancing women’s rights. That’s fine for college professors, but it has a different effect in working-class areas. It doesn’t have to be that way. It depends on how it’s done, and it was done in a way that simply undermined natural solidarity. There are a lot of factors that play into it, but by this point it’s going to be pretty hard to organize the working class on the grounds that should really concern them: common solidarity, common welfare.
The solution does not lie in pandering to racist or sexist or xenophobic or homophobic views in an effort to appeal to this group of angry white men, the way that some elements of the right wing is doing. It does mean looking hard at the well from which such views spring and diverting that stream into more productive channels.
We have to talk more about class war and the role that it plays in eroding people lives and communities.