When people talk about white males having all the power, for many white males it just doesn't ring true. They don't feel powerful. Their wives frustrate them constantly and their children don't listen to them. And at work there are all sorts of people and organizations that confound their efforts to get things done.
But, if we look at the heads of the powerful organizations in this country - from the presidency of the US, governors, legislators - federal and state - and CEO's of large corporations (and small ones), they are predominantly white males. Obama is the first president who is only half-white. So from this perspective it would appear that white males have all the power.
But as I said, white males don't feel like they have all the power.
Most, for starters, aren't in those powerful positions. And even some in those positions know that while they have the title, there are a lot of counter forces that make it hard to do what they want to do.
How did it happen that white males are in so many of the powerful positions?
It would seem there are two main possible explanations.
1. White males are inherently superior to everyone else. They got into those positions because they are just better than everyone else. Before the 1960's most people - at least the white males - believed this.
2. The road to the top has more obstacles for non-whites and females than it has for white males.
Understanding the second explanation is, I think, the key to understanding how racism, sexism, and other isms continue to impact the people in the less powerful groups. Let me give some examples.
When my daughter was about 8 years old, she announced she was going to ride her bike to Heidi's house. That meant about a 3 mile bike ride, much of it on the wooded bike trail. I immediately was aware that what I was about to say to my daughter, I wouldn't have said to my son. And that this was unfair. Ummm, no, I think you are not going to ride alone on the bike trail to Heidi's.
There are few places in Anchorage that I would be fearful of walking - any time of day or night - by myself. But that is not the case for my wife or for other women I know. At the University I had absolutely no concern for my personal safety. I'm not reckless, there just wasn't a threat. I could work in my office late at night and walk on campus at any time.
But a female faculty member was raped in her office at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon.
When it comes to clothing, women are expected to dress more carefully than men. And even when men have to dress up, there's a standard uniform - a suit and a tie. Traveling on business I can just stick one suit and several ties and shirts into a suitcase and I'm done. A woman doesn't have a standard uniform. She has to pick something that is 'appropriate' but doesn't call too much attention to her body. She probably should have a different outfit for each day, maybe more. She may have to take heels. Her hair has to be 'done.'
These are all little things, but they take time and energy. They are
hurdles on the race to the top that men don't have to go over, or if they do, they are lower. But cumulatively they add up.
Of course, there are much bigger hurdles.
When it comes to household and child-rearing responsibilities, women tend to be more burdened than men. Woman in dual worker households continue to do more domestic work than their husbands. And far more single mothers have the kids than the fathers.
Yesterday's post had examples of organizations during World War II that had explicit policies that Negroes could only do janitorial work if they could get a job at all. There are still stories today of hotels that have no vacancy when blacks ask for a room. Restaurant reservations that evaporate when a darker couple arrives. And I know African-American men who wear suits and ties when they drive as an extra protection if they get stopped by the police.
For them racial profile is not an abstract concept. There was a recent report about one of India's top movie stars - Shah Rukh Khan - who was detained by the TSA for the second time and this time long enough that it forced him to postpone a speech he was to give at Yale University. These are real obstacles.
Kahn's is the example of non-whites (I use that phrase to describe the universe of people who fit in this group recognizing that it makes white the norm, which is part of the problem I'm trying to illustrate) who may actually have power, but when they walk down the street, they go back to being second class citizens (I'm being polite here) to many people. A good friend who was Commissioner of Labor for the State of Alaska, was standing in the Chicago airport, in a coat and tie, when someone came up to him and gave him their luggage to carry out to the car. Just because he was black!
So much of this is invisible to passersby. There are few signs today that say, "No Indians Allowed." It may even be invisible to the victims themselves. I worked with minority students who would ask, "Did I get a D because my paper is really that bad or because I'm black?" Below is a 1991 Frontline piece that shows the different reception that a black and white male get when going into a store, looking for a job, and looking for an apartment. It shows the obstacles that non-whites often have to overcome that simply aren't there for whites males.
Does this mean white males have it easy?
No way. Our whole industrial capitalist system has offered us many products and labor saving devices that make our lives easier, richer, healthier, and just more fun. But this all comes with a level of complication that challenges everyone, whether it's figuring out your cell phone or call waiting or your taxes. Or getting health care. The rules and paperwork and bills never seem to let up.
Life is both better and more stressful for everyone. Dividing us by race or gender, whether it is some conspiracy or genetically programmed into human beings, pits groups against each other instead of seeking ways to make the whole system more user friendly to humans as a whole. White males don't have it easy. But for the most part, they've had it easier than everyone else.
That doesn't mean that every black female's life is harder than every white male's life. The daughter of a black physician and school teacher probably has advantages over the second son of a single white mom on welfare. But if we look at similarly situated people - say an obese white male and an obese black male, with similar economic and educational backgrounds, the two share a lot of obstacles. But the black man has the additional burdens of being black in America.
If you are a suffering white male, there are plenty of things you can point to and complain about. I've heard it said that we tend to blame others for our problems and take credit for out successes. Unemployed white males can point to things like Affirmative Action to show that they are discriminated against. That could be a whole other post, but basically AA has leveled the playing field, to some extent, mostly for white women and to a lesser extent has helped other minorities. It basically requires that "all things being equal, an underrepresented class should get the position." While I'm sure it has been abused now and then, it still doesn't come near to making up the abuses against everyone but white males in the past. But collective fairness is much harder to grasp than individual situations. Plus there are lots of examples of using Affirmative Action as an excuse why a white male didn't get the job, when it wasn't the issue.
And if you look at college classrooms, the percentage of women has been steadily increasing and in many fields - not traditional women's fields - they dominate. And they go into the labor market more qualified. And birth control and abortion rights and access to better jobs means they don't have to get married to make it in our society. For many white males, things are getting scary. Their white privilege doesn't give them as many free passes. Things are more equal and they have to work harder to keep up. Plus the whole economic system is less benevolent as the right has torn down private sector pensions and is working now to do the same with public sector pensions.
And the proof for many that discrimination no longer exists, is our black President. My sense is that his election, for many, was the last straw. It indicated to the many who still harbor white superiority in their hearts, the end of life as they know it. Just google White Supremacy or White Nationalism to see that skin color still is the most important characteristic for many.
The Gender Gap and the Elections
When I hear things like, Obama is 20 points ahead of Romney in the female vote, it suggests several things to me:
1. The Republicans represent the white male who feels under siege, but who doesn't get the points I'm trying to make in this post - that whatever their problems, their paths to success have traditionally been easier than everyone else's. But that looking at race and gender simply distracts from the real problem - the political and economic system that distributes the benefits less widely today than it has in years and years.
2. The various actions of Republicans that cause women to prefer Obama - the so called 'war on women' - which includes obstacles to contraception and abortion (while Viagra is covered in health insurance) reflect an attempt to reconstruct some of the obstacles to women that have been taken down.
3. If the Republicans don't 'get' women, I suspect it's also true that Democrats don't 'get' white males. They are hurting. What was once the domain of white males is increasingly populated by others. Where once only white males competed, or competed with special passes (Veterans preferences used to be mostly for white males) there is now competition. Individual white males never understood that part of their success was due to being white males and not their inherent ability. Their stories of black and female inferiority justified their positions on top. Now the playing field is getting more level, it looks to many white males, that the tables have turned, that they are being discriminated against. Usually this just means the deck is no longer as stacked in their favor.
With the news touting the gender gap for Obama, I suspect that Obama needs to pay attention to the disaffected white male. Not to pander, but to show some understanding that they aren't all feeling powerful. That their lives aren't all easy. That his policies aren't abandoning them. Or many in the undecided middle will see the women going for Obama as a sign that they need to go right.