Opinion

In defense of old white men

Yes, white men are a historically privileged group. That doesn't make us all demons.

Let me be clear from the outset: White males — particularly those who come from affluence and are able to attend college — are at a tremendous advantage over every other demographic group in America.

The entire American system is and for a very long time has been biased in favor of white men. White men — as a millions-strong group — have had it easier than every other group in America.

That said: A lot of liberals are increasingly using white men as a punching bag these days. And that's not right either.

In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lengthy and much-lauded article in which he makes the case that today's white Americans should pay today's black Americans reparations. Over at Salon, in a post titled "White guy killer syndrome: Elliot Rodger's deadly, privileged rage" Brittney Cooper asks, "How many times must troubled young white men engage in these terroristic acts that make public space unsafe for everyone before we admit that white male privilege kills?"

Shaming of white men reached comic proportions when film critic Ann Hornaday took to the pages of The Washington Post to seemingly blame Judd Apatow for creating the sort of toxic environment that inspired the Santa Barbara shooter:

For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny). Rodger's rampage may be a function of his own profound distress, but it also shows how a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.

How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like Neighbors and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of "sex and fun and pleasure"? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, "It's not fair"? [Washington Post]

(Hornaday later walked back this criticism.)

Look, I think we can all agree that it's wrong to generalize and stereotype people based on race and gender. We can surely also agree that when this has happened throughout America's history, it's women and minorities who have born the brunt of the negative consequences. But in America today, it seems that the one group who it's socially acceptable to stereotype and criticize en masse is white men. Swapping out "white men" in any of the above passages and replacing it with the name of pretty much any minority group would render those passages politically incorrect, at best. But it's okay to talk about white men this way.

Just think of the way that many young Americans and liberal elites dismiss the GOP as "the party of old, white men" — as if there was something intrinsically wrong or shameful about being an old white man. Millions and millions of Americans are old white men. A lot of old white men have done really great things! Ben Franklin was an old white man. Bill Clinton is an old white man. A lot of my friends are old white men. It is nothing to be ashamed of.

The unspoken reason that it's acceptable to ding white men as a group, even in polite company, is the sense that white men have had it easy for... well, ever.

And yes, a greater proportion of white men have had it easier than members of other demographic groups for all of America's history. But just as we wouldn't make sweeping statements about members of other groups based on race or gender, we shouldn't paint with too broad a brush when it comes to white men, either. We are not all the same.

For example, many white men are poor. As a 2013 AP story noted, "More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation's destitute."

Yet because of the advantages that white men as a larger group have historically enjoyed, today's poor white men don't engender all that much sympathy. As Ross Douthat noted a few years ago, "The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren't racial minorities; they're working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions." He also cited a study which found that "while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances."

White men are not all rich and powerful, nor are we all villainous sexists. (Indeed, I would like to think that most of us are not!)

In a vacuum, being a white male shouldn't be anything to be ashamed of. And yet I cannot help but feel that when I talk with liberal friends, and read the work of liberal writers whom I otherwise admire, that "white male" has become something of a badge of shame, something I should feel bad about, remorseful for.

No one should have to feel this way about who they are. Not even historically privileged white males.

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