Unusual numbers of photos of elite white men are still in the news lately, since the our popular-vote-losing President Donald Trump has filled his cabinet and coteries of advisors with them. Most are from the right wing of the ruling white male elite, and that elite clearly remains in full power, as it has for att least four centuries in this country.
Indeed, in a recently published book Kimberley Ducey and I lay out the many ways in which the elite-white-male dominance system is central to the United States. It is, in effect, a triple societal helix linking together three major systems of social oppression: systemic white racism, systemic sexism (heterosexism), and systemic classism (capitalism). It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these capitalistic malefactors of wealth as a central feature of the often life-devastating economic, social, and political problems we still face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of mass social 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 mainstream media. (To my knowledge there is only one serious academic research study that has ever interviewed a large sample of elite white men on their racial or gender views, one I did with two sociology colleagues. It appeared a few years back in a major Beacon Press book, White Men on Race.)
Come to think of it, elite white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now much of the 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 and desire for European male dominance seem to be major motivations (and emotions!) behind the labor and land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, powerful 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, to the present day.
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 atomic bombing [Its anniversary was yesterday]and Nagasaki atomic bombing, two massive world wars). While elite white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have usually been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general (for example, ongoing and soon massively destructive climate change) 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 dominant white racial frame to explain and rationalize these often savage operations. That white racial frame is a dominant worldview that most white men, especially elite white male leaders, are still operating out of as they today exploit and oppress the world’s majority, the more than 80 percent of the planet that is not white.
And it was these elite white men, together with their white male acolytes, who reinvigorated a strong white-patriarchal frame, with its “great chain of being” notions (God at top, then angels, then European men, then European women, then “other races,” then animals, etc.). In the North American case, they easily extended this great-chain conceptual system to the racial oppression they had devised for Native Americans and African Americans.
These elite white men, centuries ago and now, generally 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 centered on “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but generally accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s major weaknesses, major errors, and frequent unvirtuousness. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, elite and other white men now often blame the victims of their actions, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who 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 seem to be moving today to what may well be a second “Great Depression” in this country’s history, yet this time one that is more than just economic, but is social, political, and political-economic in its downward anti-egalitarian spiral. We see omens of this in the array of reactionary elite white men tapped by our vote-minority president Donald Trump (he did not come close to winning a majority of voters) for his cabinet. The arrogant racial, class, and gender framing and related actions, current and future, of these and a few thousand other elite white men have yet to be problematized and examined thoroughly as the major “social problem” of our era. Indeed, to my knowledge, no such thorough racial, class, and gender examination has ever occurred in our mainstream media and other mainstream public discussions in this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the white male ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.
The still dominant white racial frame is more than a negative framing of the racial “others” in order to legitimate white racial oppression. At its very center, it positively and strongly accents white virtuousness, especially white male virtuousness. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtuous and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there virtue is exhibited. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism means white men should be at the head of society–that is, should be masters of the social universe.
Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many elite white men that has gotten much of planet Earth into this downward anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian spiral. This lack of virtuousness can be observed in their egocentric racial, class, gender framing — and in their greed, their lack of social intelligence, their lack of foresight, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. For example, a careful 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 last global financial crisis called the “Great Recession.”
Why blame elite white men? Well, the men who have given us global economic crisis after global economic crisis have been overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from leading universities, but not very good at egalitarian and justice thinking or in regard to the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have engaged in—which is for most rarely discussed in mainstream media. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is usually pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men, especially elite white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as normal, in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “abnormal” and “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Thus, in recent economic “recessions,” millions of people have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white male capitalists called-out, targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals whose greed or corruption has stolen or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the mainstream media weekly.
Why blame elite white men? A reason, again, is that elite white men mostly control the major mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force media portrayals of economic, political, and other social crises as situations 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 many horrific inegalitarian realities that much of the world now faces.
In one of the most brilliant commentaries in the literature on racial matters, Chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which African Americans had come to be defined as a societal “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? … I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience. . . .
So let us now instead define elite white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of contemporary societal oppression, societal inequality, human rights, and human survival.
Then, obviously but quite daunting, the next difficult step is figuring out how to organize and change all this, and thereby create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, one where people of all backgrounds do have major input into and control of their economic and political institutions, and thereby of their lives.