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The class war in the US and angry white men

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.

Comments

  1. raven says

    An incredibly timely post.

    I’ve been seeing this pattern a lot lately.

    Police make a traffic stop. Guy, yes it is always a male, gets out of car with a gun in his hand and starts shooting. Police shoot back, usually the civilian shooter is killed. Sometimes, but not often, the police are wounded or killed.

    This seems to be happening every few days here on the west coast.

    It really makes no sense. It is turning a traffic ticket into a life ending event.

  2. Wylann says

    I don’t disagree with this, although I might slightly reword

    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 say percieved personal situation. As a member of pretty much every privileged class in the US (white, male, hetero), I think that progress towards more equality is a good thing to me as well as …welll..everyone, in the long run.

    I think it’s those who really intentionally took advantage of (let’s be honest, abused in any way they could) their position of privilege that are the ones we are seeing the most blowback from now.

    IMO, a lot of the reactionary behavior we are seeing from different ‘sides’ of privilege, for lack of a better term, are indicative of the privilege that group most enjoyed/abused. Those whining about feminism the loudest were likely the ones most abusing the position of male dominance (see: Stubenville, et. al.). Those whining about religious persecution are those who most enjoy and abuse the privileges associated with it, etc.

    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.

    This is pretty obvious, I would hope, to most people actually interested in equality. ;) It’s also so obvious that it is exactly the strategy employed by those most privileged to maintain that position.

  3. raven says

    Officer-involved shooting on I-5 south of Albany prompts investigation
    By Lynne Terry | lterry @oregonian. com
    December 06, 2013, 7:45AM

    A Salem police detective and Department of Justice investigator were headed to an assignment when a pickup flashed by. The detective shot a man who ended up getting out of the vehicle after it stopped. No details were released and no one was identified. The man is expected to survive.

    This is a recent example of what seems to be a common, pointless, and often life ending act.

    They don’t all drive pickups and aren’t all white, but often enough they are both.

  4. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Professor Singham, remember what you and I learned in the 70s?

    Follow the money.

    Kimmel heads the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook, whose advisory board consists almost ENTIRELY of feminist activists.

    Gloria Steinem,
    Jane Fonda,
    Eve Ensler,
    Carol Gilligan, James Gilligan,
    Gov. Madeleine Kunin (Vermont),
    Catharine Stimpson

    Think about that advisory board and tell me you can expect anything other than feminist theory attacking men and propping up the Sky Demon Patriarchy Conspiracy Theory.

    Professor Singham, what do you think of Freshwater versus Saltwater Economics?

    Kimmel’s center is little better than the Discovery Institute in terms of funding and direction, and his research is little more than stale and reheated feminist theory.

    and it leads you astray

    “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. ”

    Yes, this is true. And if you listened to and respected the large numbers of men of color and women of all races who disagree with feminist theory you might be able to open your mind a bit to see how feminist theory takes this class war and masks it for you as a gender war and a race war.

    But it’s a class war.

    Everything from increased surveillance, to loss of jobs, to increase time expected at work, to permanent unemployment, removal of the safety nets, the SWATification of American Police forces, the loss of civil liberties (and the TSA express pass) this is class war.

    Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men.

    Is Kimmel telling me, are you telling me, that the left doesn’t have downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men? Or downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class PEOPLE of all races and colors?

    Is Kimmel telling me there aren’t huge numbers of women on the right, or perhaps the women on the right are upwardly mobile?

    Is Kimmel saying there aren’t significant numbers of minorities, including blacks on the right, and in leadership positions?

    Or are you and Kimmel telling me these right women and people of color aren’t genuine?

    Many feminists will tell you that women that are anti-feminists have been brainwashed. Is that what you believe too? That these outwardly rational agents have somehow been brainwashed and aren’t smart enough to embrace feminism?

    Let’s summarize Kimmel:

    If you’re on the left and downwardly mobile then you’re a victim of a class war.
    If yo’re on the right and downwardly mobile and a woman or a person of color then you’re brainwashed.
    If you’re on the right and downwardly mobile and a white male, then you are angry.

    Your post is hogwash.

  5. Scr... Archivist says

    Y’know, as an aside, that Center’s start-up funds are from a grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Maybe FrontPageMag has a conspiracy theory about them, too.

    Meanwhile, four people from that Center’s Board of Directors were not named by our apathetic guest. It is an outrage that FOUR MEN should be made INVISIBLE. The reason can only be MISANDRY! Or, maybe, the names Martin Duberman, Chris Howard, Frank Ochberg, and Don McPherson don’t push anyone’s buttons.

  6. smrnda says

    It’s a mistake to assume that the political leanings of a group of people are necessarily the result of some sort of reasoning process and not just a gut reaction which gets rationalized later. Rural white men see the US as being in a culture war, and they see it as a war against their true, authentic America. I doubt most people who think this way are equipped to understand economic issues well enough to see the class war, and with repeated large doses of Rapture rhetoric from the Christian right, they probably view economic issues as largely irrelevant.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Kimmel’s entire article (and my post) is about understanding angry white men. It is right up in the title “America’s angriest white men”. When Kimmel writes that “Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men”, he is not talking about the conditions of women, minorities, or anyone else on the right or anywhere else. Those groups are outside the scope of his article. To make all your implications about groups other than the angry white men makes no logical sense.

    It would be like someone writing a paper on swans where she says “All these birds are white” and you demanding whether she is implying that there are no black crows.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Yglesias is talking about the plight of the long term unemployed. He is not disaggregating by gender. I don’t understand the point you are making. That there are also long term unemployed women? Of course there are.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Actually, I think class is easy for anyone to understand. It is talking about class that is seen as taboo. And that is the taboo that has to be broken.

  10. Wylann says

    I believe the point our encephalic-challenged friend is trying to make is:

    But what about the menz!!!

    aka: poisoning the well, deflection, and red herrings.

  11. wtfwhateverd00d says

    It would be like someone writing a paper on swans where she says “All these birds are white” and you demanding whether she is implying that there are no black crows.

    It’s more like someone writing a paper on swans and discovering swans have wings and can fly proclaiming them special and privileged and using that to justify why we can dismiss the swans complaint that the quality of water in their pond has been decreasing among the animal universe when I come along and point many birds have wings and can fly and the quality of water in the pond for all those other birds has also been decreasing and it’s not some Sky Demon Swan Conspiracy against the ducks.

    The Salon article you link to discusses one particular group of white supremacists, but the title is “angriest white men” and is used to sell his book titled “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the end of an Era”.

    It is dishonest to focus on this one group of white supremacists and then project that analysis onto all white men labeling them angry. Especially when the same feelings and thinking can be seen among men and women of all types.

    Worse, it’s inaccurate for you professor, to take that article that closely examines white supremacists and describe that as ” at what is going on in the world of angry white men” as if ‘white men’ who disagree with Kimmel and your opinions here are best represented by white supremacists.

    FWIW, look at the TOC to “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the end of an Era”

    Introduction: America the Angry
    Manufacturing Rage: The Cultural Construction of Aggrieved Entitlement
    Angry White Boys
    White Men as Victims: The Men’s Rights Movement
    Angry White Dads
    Targeting Women
    Man Men: The Rage(s) of American Working Man
    The White Wing

    You can go to Amazon and read a great deal of this book there.

    You might ask yourself as you read it, does Kimmel as sociologist offer up any statistics to back up his positions? Any measurements, tables, charts, surveys? Is his position scientific and falsifiable?

    But also, read the chapter:

    Manufacturing Rage: The Cultural Construction of Aggrieved Entitlement

    It’s amusing that in this chapter he rails against Rush Limbaugh and the men who listen to him as if all ‘angry white men’ listen to Rush. And amusing that in this chapter he rails against ‘Angry White Women’ who he describes as Tea Partiers.

    Who is missing from his chapter ‘Manufacturing Rage: The Cultural Construction of Aggrieved Entitlement’?

    Why there is no mention at all of feminists. And no mention at all of Angry White Feminist Women, even thought the very split between Second and Third Generation Feminism is all about

    The Cultural Construction of Aggrieved Entitlement of ANGRY WHITE FEMINIST WOMEN.

    There seems to be very little going on in his essay or book apart from Angry Feminist Polemic.

  12. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Yglesias describes a class struggle of a group of people, of all kinds, who are suffering.

    Kimmel would focus on the anger (your swans) of white men that come from that and use it to dismiss the valid complaints of those men. Presumably Kimmel would prefer we focus on the anger of the women who share his points of view, and Kimmel would have us focus on their specific needs.

    Instead of understanding this as class issues (birds and other living creatures) and working to help all of these people, Kimmel tells us we need to address it as sex issues, and race issues (back to your swans.)

    It’s an inaccurate, divisive, unhelpful, regressive approach.

  13. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I would just like to point out your ableist language “encephalic-challenged”.

    You appear to be a typical #FTBbully, as you police other people whom you dislike due to their viewpoints, it’s okay for you to use disgusting, dehumanizing, bigoted insults.

  14. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Is Kimmel’s essay or his book aligned with the goal of breaking the taboo of talking about class? Or is it more aligned with a goal of raising barriers between groups of people and demonizing certain groups of people on the basis of their viewpoints and their race and sex?

  15. juice says

    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.

    You’re committing the Fallacy of Division here. You’re implying here that the people who held positions of power were white men therefore the group called “white men” are the dominant group and everyone in that group is/was dominant.

  16. maudell says

    Clearly, Kimmel should have written a book about angry living organisms in general to avoid being so divisive and unhelpful.

  17. BrainyOne says

    Mano, you contradict yourself. First you say:

    From their [investment bankers'] 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 comparison, of course, is preposterous: investment bankers are still well in the top few percent of income earners, even among white men, and many white men are middle class or poor, and only a few white men possess actual power. But then you say:

    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…

    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…. We have to talk more about class war and the role that it plays in eroding people lives and communities.

    Absolutely. I would add that the oligarchy has a vested stake in keeping class off the table but trying to stir up, as much as possible, conflicts around other axes of oppression such as race and sex. However they are not the friends of the oppressed; their goal is to keep the conflict alive, not end the oppression. The situation can be likened to dogs fighting for crumbs that fall from the table, with the master continuing to try tell one or more of them how unfair it is that another dog got more, to try to keep their attention away from his own feasting.

  18. smrnda says

    I think class is easy to understand, but it’s a mode of thinking that many people don’t use much. The idea of a falsifiable hypothesis isn’t too hard to understand, and that’s more or less one of the basics of the scientific method, but I clearly run across many people who don’t seem to understand this , which negatively impacts how they assess evidence. I don’t think many segment of the population have much class consciousness; it isn’t a mode of thinking they’ve been trained or encouraged to use, it isn’t like they’re not talking about it because of a stigma.

    Think how badly US schools do in teaching labor history. Without understanding, historically, class struggle, people don’t see themselves as part of it. There have been distinctive movements in film, and I’m sure a huge chunk of the population wouldn’t recognize those terms either. People who want class to be taboo have just sabotaged the educations of people who would benefit from such knowledge.

  19. smrnda says

    Mano may not be totally contradicting himself. At different points in history, even poor white men would have had privileges that others did not, which, at that time, might have been enough for the rich white men to keep them in line. Being white and male allowed one to vote (women couldn’t at one point in time) and non-white people were subject to discrimination. There have always been poor white men, but there were things like slaves for contrast.

    White men may have made some gains economically, and are now falling, and feel angry and resentful. It’s useful to elites to get this demographic riled up about “welfare queens” because it will focus their energies away from class-based solidarity, and distracting people with ‘culture war’ nonsense keeps them away from other issues.

  20. wtfwhateverd00d says

    At different points in history, even poor white men would have had privileges that others did not, which, at that time, might have been enough for the rich white men to keep them in line. Being white and male allowed one to vote (women couldn’t at one point in time) and non-white people were subject to discrimination. There have always been poor white men, but there were things like slaves for contrast.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Voting_rights_in_the_United_States&section=1

    “Poor people” couldn’t freely vote until 1964 with the 24th Amendment.
    Men without land couldn’t vote across the nation until 1860.
    Men, black and white, could be drafted but couldn’t vote until 1971.

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