White Men as The Problem

Bank of AmericaUnusual numbers of photos of elite white men are in the news lately, since the financial crisis hit. Almost all perpetrators of our “second great depression,” as with the first, have been white men (Creative Commons License photo credit: Shannon Clark). White male business “geniuses,” often with top-college educations. It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these malefactors of great wealth as a central feature of the life-devastating economic “problem” we face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of destruction were women or men of color that the reality of their gender and racial characteristics would be a constant topic of conversation by pundits and politicians, especially in the media. (Remember that Hillary Clinton is still blamed for failures in health care reform quite a while back.)

Come to think of it, white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now world) economic system. They created the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Or should we say, the Predatory Ethic and the Spirit of Exploitation. Arrogant greed seems to be a major motivation behind the labor/land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, white men created, expanded, and maintained the often genocidal taking of millions of indigenous peoples’ lands in the Americas and the Holocaust-like Atlantic slave trade. Mostly white men created the oppressive realities of modern capitalism and North American slavery, and have made huge profits and wealth off of it, now passed along to their descendants.

In recent centuries, elite white men have caused much death and destruction, probably more than any other elite group on the planet. White men are certainly not the only major sources of “democide” and related despotism, but they do seem to lead the list. (Consider not only the many indigenous genocides and Atlantic slave trade, but the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two world wars). While white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general than have those of despotic not-white actors.

White men set up the Western legal systems reinforcing modern capitalism and North American genocide targeting millions of indigenous Americans and enslavement of millions of African Americans. They created the white racial frame to explain and rationalize these savage operations. The white frame is a dominant worldview that a great many white men, including elite political-economic leaders, still seem to be operating out of as they today exploit the world’s majority, the 80 percent of the planet that is not white.

And it was these self-named white men who reinvigorated a very strong white-patriarchal frame, with its “great chain of being” notions (God at top, then angels, then European men, then European women, then European children, then “other races,” then animals). In the North American case, they easily extended this to the system of racial oppression they had devised for Native Americans and African Americans.

These men, centuries ago and now, see themselves as heroic and virtuous, even as they have created great destruction and misery for many people. Ronald Takaki speaks of this view of white men as “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but have almost always accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s lack of virtues, their major weaknesses, and their major errors. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, white men now often blame the victims, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who recently blamed homeowners and moaned about “losers” with troubled mortgages, and not the banks now being bailed out with billions for playing the central role in creating the housing crisis.

So we are rapidly moving today to the second of their “great depressions” in this country’s history, yet the arrogant framing and actions of a few hundred, or perhaps thousand, of elite white men have yet to be problematized. Indeed, one cannot do so in the public media and discussions of this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.

The white racial frame, which I have written about here before, is more than a framing of racial matters to legitimate oppressions. It is accents white virtues, especially white male virtues. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtue and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there is virtue. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism that means white men should be at the head of society, should be masters of the social universe.

Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many white men that has gotten the world’s economy into this second depression. It is their stupidity, their lack of “IQ,” their lack of foresight, their lack of political regulation and planning, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. A recent report on the “financial crisis and the systemic failure of academic economics” (by mostly European economists) makes quite clear the failure of the (substantially white male) economics profession to research and interpret the global financial crisis.

Why blame white men? Well, the men who gave us this global crisis are overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from top universities, but not very good in regard to critical thinking or the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have apparently engaged in–so far rarely discussed. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as “normal,” in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Millions have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white men targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals who stole or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the media weekly.

Why blame white men? A reason, again, is that white men control the mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force portrayals of this second depression as an economic reality for which “we are all responsible,” a crisis “no particular group” created. Yet, there are real people, real white male actors, who did in fact create this horrific reality the world now faces.

In one of the most brilliant in the literature on racial matters, chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which black Americans had come to be defined as a “problem”:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience. . . .

So let us now define white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of human rights and human survival, including the world’s current political-economic situation.

In a famous book, Michael Moore did target Bush administration actors as “stupid white men” some time back. We should extend this now to yet more actions of white men, who are indeed a much broader societal problem today.

Then, the next step is figuring out how to change all this, and create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, where people do have control of their economic and political situations. What is your solution?

(Note: I am indebted to helpful comments from other bloggers in writing this post.)